Kevin Mathers and Post-Competitive Baseball

marc w · February 23, 2021 at 5:08 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

There is one rule of operating a Major League Baseball team – one piece of wisdom passed down from owner to owner, executive to executive. Don’t do anything stupid. The definition of stupid can change, of course, due to changes in the CBA, long-standing practices being declared “illegal” by nosy judges, shifts in fan preferences/tolerance. But the central idea makes a heck of a lot of sense for a business with an anti-trust exemption from Congress: there’s no real way to lose unless you go out of your way to find one.

In the 1980s, teams colluded to limit player salaries. There wasn’t as much TV money sloshing around front offices, but teams still wanted a way to ensure that salaries stayed low, and that a fellow owner going rogue wouldn’t upset anything. Even within this system that illegally prevented competition, the Commissioner needed to crack the whip occasionally, berating owners for trying to win even if that meant :gasp: losing money for a year.

The owners got caught in 1987, the same year the perpetually down-on-their-luck Mariners drafted Ken Griffey, Jr. A year after the Kid debuted, MLB signed a multi-year deal with ESPN, and the TV gold rush began. By the end of the 1990s, MLB – a baseball organization – had developed the best media streaming system in the world, and soon would have TV companies and other sports leagues as *customers* for its services. For years, teams had to be somewhat competitive to attract fans to games. The M’s often failed at this, and that failure led to tight budgets, which led to failure.

The league accounted for this with things like the draft, giving awful teams the first shot at the best amateur talent at artificially low prices. That was great, but some teams didn’t seem to care too much, and the draft seemed kind of like a crap shoot. The M’s getting Al Chambers and Mike Moore #1 overall didn’t make them any less a laughingstock, after all. But you can see where this is leading: the TV gold rush began to weaken the nexus between on-field success and annual profit/loss.

Despite the big national deal with ESPN, baseball remains a very regional game, and so regional sports networks jumped in, paying huge rights fees for baseball and televising every game (a novelty at the time). This enabled them to compete with ESPN and other cable channels, and to charge cable companies more to carry their channel. This revenue stream was massive and varied tremendously from market to market. A team coming to the end of its agreement with its RSN was in for a windfall, and often tried to spend before the deal was up to give them extra leverage in negotiations with the RSN. There was still a vestigial connection to on-field success, or at least the perception of one.

In this environment, what does “stupid” look like? At the same time RSNs changed the economics of the game, the nascent sabermetric movement was making serious inroads in the game. Bill James wasn’t just a bizarre, nerdy secret anymore, and the internet brought attention to outsiders from Voros McCracken and Keith Woolner and Clay Davenport (and, yes, Dave Cameron and Derek Zumsteg!). They saw right away that teams were often making baffling decisions in player acquisition, overvaluing things a player didn’t control, and ignoring others that were more important to run-scoring/run-preventing. By the 2010s, the Players Union saw how much teams had incorporated the lessons from analytics, and wanted to try get more of the TV money flowing to veterans and not draft picks and international free agents.

It’s hard to overstate the owners’ luck here. Not only had the value of owning a club skyrocketed, but now you had really smart people telling you that the *worst* thing you could do is to give a big contract to a guy like Carlos Lee. You didn’t want to tie up payroll in an aging slugger when you could get 90% of the production for 1% of the cost from some unfairly-maligned AAAA slugger. And THEN the Players thought it would help if teams were *forbidden* to sign draft picks to over-slot bonuses. And THEN put hard caps in place on international signings. Competition was already kind of unnecessary and unseemly, but you got labor peace by limiting it further! You couldn’t even BE stupid anymore. This beat the old system in which some teams would break ranks and sign the best player to a big contract. We can’t have that.

This isn’t to say that there wasn’t an adjustment period. Clubs had to learn a new argot, and teach it to fans. Again, the analytic movement and, uh, blogs like this one was already doing that for them. WE taught that a club shouldn’t necessarily splash out for a big free agent. WE taught that an extra year of club control was super valuable, probably MORE valuable than a month or two of a very young rookie’s big league production. WE were always talking about undervalued commodities when we meant baseball players. We cared a lot about salaries.

The great Joe Sheehan has argued* that there may have been a time in which it was right or partially right to do so: in the 1990s-2000s, one really big move might have precluded others. Scarcity still existed at some level, and clubs watched their budget pretty carefully. But at this point, it is harder and harder to justify that kind of zero-sum thinking. The Padres just spent a ton on Manny Machado, but that didn’t in any way prevent them from extending Fernando Tatis Jr., nor should it. With this much money in the game, there’s no way you can really lose by committing a ton of money to Tatis, Trout, Betts, etc.

This is a depressing prologue to the central paradox of this age: if nothing matters, if doing just about anything, leads to well-nigh guaranteed money, why are teams so *similar*? Why are they all copying each other? Why do the ivy-league GMs and the Jerry Dipotos all talk the same way about “years of club control” and flexibility and competitive windows? I think it’s because all of us – myself, sabermetric people, casual fans, the players – overestimated the desire of baseball teams to actually win. The players assumed that all of the money “saved” on the draft would flow to them, just as they expected the luxury tax to create a ton of parity with multiple teams in contention each year, and thus bidding up free agents that’d put them over the top. At the same time, you had sites like this or Fangraphs or BaseballProspectus talking about the value of high draft picks, about trading veterans for prospects, and how fans shouldn’t necessarily hate it when a team is simply not competitive. Ooops.

Teams deemed exceeding the luxury tax “being stupid,” for the purpose of defining the one guiding principal. Teams have diverted more space and resources to luxury boxes, not only increasing revenue per seat but creating a revenue floor even when a team’s awful. Teams have taken some early sabermetric ideas and turned them into rigid dogma. It’s not just that you can get an extra year of club control by keeping a player in the minors for a month, it’s that you HAVE TO, in all cases, even if that player is better than the incumbent, and even if you might be in a playoff hunt. Not only that, fans will applaud you for it. Nothing is gained by reckless competition. All of the money, all of the insights that analytics gave – there’s still only one World Series winner, and there’s still 30 teams getting wealthy no matter what.**

This all gets to WHY a Kevin Mather can rise to the level of President of the Seattle Mariners, a point made more forcefully by David Skiba here. David’s point is dead-on: Kevin Mather is in no sense a businessman, because this is not a business. Mather’s job seemed to have been to count the money and to remind people that a little competition is a dangerous thing. I’m not sure even the baseball ops folks would argue for, say, Jarred Kelenic to start the year in Seattle, but if they did, Mather would be there to say, “No, let’s be smart about this.”

It’s only someone so insulated from real-world consequences that can nitpick minuscule expenses like a translator for a beloved ex-player and current coach. It’s only someone so steeped in the dogma of club control that can forget that you can’t talk about how it’s manipulated with the general public. Mather’s job was to enforce the one rule, and he ironically lost his job because he exposed it so clearly. Every M’s prospect knew, at some level, that the team would monkey with their service time to save a buck, but there he was, telling the Bellevue Rotary Club about it.

But he wasn’t content to merely say the quiet parts loud. He had to double down and take pot shots at things like Julio Rodriguez’s English, even as the M’s marketing department highlights Julio’s own English-language interview show on YouTube. He mentioned not allowing employees to park in the parking garage, because said garage didn’t have space for them, but also that the neighborhood made this lack of parking dangerous. The stuff about manipulating service time? Every single team does that. Every potential replacement for Mather will do that. What compelled Mather to take a completely unnecessary jab at the club’s hyper-charismatic future star? Why brag about banning employees from the garage? My initial thought was that he was trying out some new excuses for manipulating service time; that Julio’s English wasn’t quuuuuite where it needed to be in April of 2022, but would get a ton better by May. It’s dumb, but the Cubs holding down Kris Bryant for “defense” in 2015 was at least as dumb, and we all laughed, but let it go.

No, I think Mather was trying to communicate to an audience of business folks that he was one of the gang. He ran a business, just like they did, and he had the same kind of concerns – employees want too much, I don’t understand all of the accents I hear, and man, the city center’s kind of dangerous now, y’know? None of it is true, of course. He was the President of a big league club that’s valued at $1.6 billion dollars and which now owns the majority of its own RSN. The club is incredibly valuable because it is an MLB team, not because of anything they do on the field. It got to this point because the Mathers of the game recognized that competing was a fool’s errand. He wanted to fit in with the Rotarians, but nothing about MLB is analogous to the real world.

Patrick Dubuque (my favorite baseball writer) notes that the entire league is made of Mathery characters, and that much of what Mather said is standard operating procedure. That’s both true and depressing. I’m not sure what the club can do to rebuild trust with pretty much every level of the organization. I think of the language teachers in the M’s Dominican camp, the people that gave Julio Rodriguez such a great foundation that he could give interviews in English in the US at 18-19 years old. I think of the ushers who were told that the neighborhood they work in is dangerous, but that the costs for police to protect them is kinda annoying. I think of veterans called overpaid, and the real harm this can do to a club trying to make the playoffs for the first time in a generation.

Do the M’s *have* to break camp with Kelenic on the roster now just to show that Mather doesn’t represent their culture? I don’t know. I’m sure some are now rooting pretty hard for him to go 2 for his first 20. But even that – even forgoing their precious 7th year of control – would be a fig leaf. If the M’s want to show that Mather doesn’t represent “who we are” then they have to ditch the one rule. They have to stop talking about competing and actually compete. This team that hasn’t won a playoff game since 2001 spent the offseason picking through the waiver wire and nabbing a closer who might pitch in 2022. They did this in the most wide-open AL West we’ve seen in several years, and they’re pretty proud of it. Don’t like free agent deals? The Colorado Rockies are paying the St. Louis Cardinals to play Nolan Arenado, all-world 3B, in exchange for some low-level prospects and a swingman or two. Stop being driven by an artificial timeline to compete and actually compete. The bar has never been lower, just like the risk. I think Patrick’s right, and that every team in baseball has a Kevin Mather. Fine, then doing the right thing should be even easier, Mariners. Literally no one will stop you. Show us who you are.

* I subscribed to Joe’s newsletter this year, and it’s been a worthwhile purchase.

** I can see an argument here that I haven’t shown this, I’ve merely asserted it. This is true! But as teams won’t open their books, they can’t disprove it.


9 Responses to “Kevin Mathers and Post-Competitive Baseball”

  1. Stevemotivateir on February 23rd, 2021 7:15 pm

    Marc, this is among your best work. If there were a single blog post that *might* actually change organizational thinking (again), this would be it. And I really hope using Mather as an adjective, sticks (negatively).

    I need to sleep on this and read it again. Then, maybe a third time. Hopefully members of the board not named Lincoln catch this and consider a more empathetic approach to their business, regardless of intent.

  2. eponymous coward on February 23rd, 2021 10:15 pm

    Co-signed. Every word. But to emphasize:

    It got to this point because the Mathers of the game recognized that competing was a fool’s errand.

    It is definitely writ large all across the league- you can be Tampa or Oakland and make money. You can be Miami and make money. So the “step back” is pretty obvious- who cares if you end up like Pittsburgh and bad five years after your first winning record with the kids and maybe zero playoff series wins? You’re still making money.

    Oh, and, well, we’re back to the 1950’s, when the KC A’s were the farm system for the Yankees so they could get their mortgage paid- the difference being it’s a lot more subtle because nobody’s fingerprints are on anything and everyone nods about conventional wisdom (until Mather gives up the game on Youtube).

  3. IllinoisMsFan on February 24th, 2021 7:11 am

    Simply outstanding piece, Marc.

    You make great point after great point but two stand out to me from the rest:

    “It’s not just that you can get an extra year of club control by keeping a player in the minors for a month, it’s that you HAVE TO, in all cases, even if that player is better than the incumbent, and even if you might be in a playoff hunt. Not only that, fans will applaud you for it.”

    Yep, so true. We fans are a part of the problem… not the biggest part, mind you… but definitely a part… because we enable it.

    “Stop being driven by an artificial timeline to compete and actually compete.”

    Yep, yep, yep…

    Bravo, Marc.

  4. Stevemotivateir on February 24th, 2021 8:32 am

    I can’t help but wonder how all of this might impact the next CBA negotiations. There simply has to be more incentive for teams to actually win.

    That was true before, but now it’s the elephant in the room.

  5. eponymous coward on February 24th, 2021 11:44 am

    The solution is probably reducing the amount of time for club control, since that is basically the mechanism by which salaries are held down early in player careers. I suspect there’s a lead balloon element there for the owners though.

    This would force competition to get better players on the roster and make free agency less of “old players on their downside” or you have very terrible AAA-quality teams in MLB.

  6. GLS on February 24th, 2021 6:07 pm

    Owners will fight like hell to maintain the current years of club control. I could see losing a season over it.

  7. 11records on February 24th, 2021 6:56 pm

    Brilliant writing. Thanks so much.

  8. turin07 on February 26th, 2021 1:13 pm

    I don’t understand much of this. My experience is that the roster IS competitive before, during, and after camp. And that the Mariners and MLB are businesses with all the widgets and budgets and advertising choices of any company. And lastly, I don’t see the connection, between both of these bizarre statements and the appearance of a racist in one of many institutions in a racist country.

  9. don52656 on February 28th, 2021 12:52 pm

    I agree with all of the above comments which compliment the excellent writing and tone of this post. Having been a baseball fan for about 60 years now, I have come to believe that sports in general and baseball in particular have become less and less competitive because of the huge amounts of money being made by everyone involved. Teams make money whether they win or not, so why try to win? Players are making so much now that free agents are tending to gravitate to those teams that are most likely to win, following the NBA template of basically using free-agency to create their own all-star teams.

    The result is that any fairly educated baseball fan can probably categorize teams into three categories: those which will almost certainly make the playoffs (i.e, LAD, NYY, SD, NYM), those who certainly won’t (PIT, BAL, COL, DET, TEX), and the rest. Heck, according to Fangraphs, 16 of the 30 teams have a less than 1% chance of winning the WS, and there is a 62% chance that the winner will be either the Dodgers, Padres, Mets, or Yankees.

    Several years ago in early November, I offered a bet with a friend whereby I would take the Golden State Warriors to win the NBA and give him the rest of the league. He wouldn’t take the bet. I am afraid that we have begun entering the same situation in MLB. And if true, it would truly be a shame.

    It’s hard enough to have been a season-ticket holder during the past 20 years, but if teams have no incentive to try to win and 20 years becomes 30 or 40 years, what’s the point of even spending money for a season ticket?

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