Friday, November 14, 2014

Michael Cuddyer and the Case for American League Superiority

Two facts:

  • Outfielder Michael Cuddyer was one of twelve major league free agents to receive a qualifying offer from his club. He rejected the opportunity to earn $15.3 million playing for the Rockies in 2015 and instead accepted a two-year contract with the Mets that will pay him $21 million: $8.5 million in 2015 and $12.5 million in 2016.
  • In 2014 the American League went 163-137 in interleague games, a .543 winning percentage. The AL won the interleague series in 2013 as well, going 154-146 (.513). It was better in 2012. And 2011. And 2010. And every year beginning in 2004. (The last time the National League won the interleague series, The Curse of the Bambino was a thing and Alex Rodriguez was a shortstop for the Rangers.) And other than that first year, when the AL squeaked to a 127-125 edge, it hasn't been particularly close. Through the league's 11-year winning streak, it's won 55.4% of interleague games. Over a 162-game season, that's equivalent to going 90-72, a better record than either of the teams in this year's World Series.
I view these as interreleated.

Let's start with Cuddyer. In order to understand what he did, let's divide everything by 200 to get the dollars to regular-person levels. Say you're weighing two job opportunities. Your compensation is salary plus commission or bonus, so as is customary in such setups, you get an offer that guarantees you a fixed amount for the first year or two. One employer offers you $76,500 for one year. The other offers you two years: One at $42,500 and one at $62,500. Which do you take?

I would imagine that unless the benefits are insanely good, you don't even consider the second offer. Of course you take the first one. Your guaranteed contract should represent your employer's best guess of what you can make at the company, and the first employer figures you can generate enough business to pull in at least $76,500. The second employer thinks you're worth $14,000 less. No contest.

So why would Michael Cuddyer turn down a contract that would pay him $15.3 million for one year in favor of one that would pay him just $5.7 more than that for two years? Because his expectations aren't the same as yours. You figure that if you make $76,500 with your new employer next year, you'll make at least that much, and very possibly more, the year after, and at least that much the year after that, for years and years into the future. 

Michael Cuddyer, by contrast, has no such expectations. He'll turn 36 next March. He played only 49 games last year due to injuries. There's a small, but non-negligible chance, that next season will be his last in the majors. There's another chance, larger than the first, that something will happen next year--another serious injury, a lousy season--that will make his salary prospects for 2016 tenuous. Look, the Phillies just signed Jeff Francoeur to a minor-league contract with a chance to make the club out of spring training. Francouer is five years younger than Cuddyer and was the Royals' starting right fielder, pulling down $6 million, in 2012. He earned $7.5 million in 2013. Now he's a long shot to get a job. That's the difference between athletes and us. We have a pretty reasonable expectation that whatever we're doing for work this year, whether we're a lawyer or an accountant or a plumber or whatever, we'll be doing it for years to come. An athlete's career is short to start out with, and it can end suddenly. That's why, year after year, we see athletes sign contracts that emphasize length and total dollars rather than average annual value. Cuddyer preferred the Mets' offer of two years and $21 million ($10.5 million per year, on average) over the Rockies' one and $15.3 million because it guarantees him another year of employment and $5.7 million more. Players will reject an x-year contract for an average y million dollars per year in favor of one with a higher x and a lower y. Last year, for example, Robinson Cano reportedly rejected a seven-year contract from the Yankees that would reportedly pay him an average of $25 million per year in favor of a ten-year deal with Seattle that pays him an average of $24 million per year. 

That player preference helps the American League. If players like longer contracts because it insulates them from the risk of a loss of effectiveness, that risk gets absorbed by the team signing a player for multiple years. The Mets are on the hook to Cuddyer in 2016 if he turns into a pumpkin in 2015. The longer the contract, the greater the risk. 

That's where the difference between the leagues comes into play. The American League has a designated hitter; the National League doesn't. A position player, as he ages, is going to become a poorer fielder. His reflexes and range will diminish. In some cases, that means he'll move from a tough position like second base to an easier one like first base, as Hall of Famer Rod Carew did. But in a lot of cases, especially those of sluggers, he'll leave his glove in his locker and just become a designated hitter. In David Ortiz's rookie season with the Twins in 1998, he was the team's primary first baseman, playing 70 games there. He's played a total of 57 games at first for the Red Sox over the past ten years as Boston's  DH. Tigers DH Victor Martinez was primarily a position player from 2002 to 2010. He didn't became a DH until he was 32. 

This creates an advantage for the American League when hitters become free agents. Players want long contracts, teams don't. But the American League can realistically get production out of a player longer than a National League team can, because the American League team can move the player to DH. David Ortiz would probably not have a job with a National League team; he's pretty useless in the field. But he was ninth in the American League in on base plus slugging this year, earning $15 million. He'll turn 39 next week. The option of becoming a DH means that American League teams can offer players like Ortiz longer contracts than can their National League counterparts. Seattle's second baseman Cano will be 40 in the last year of the contract he signed last winter with the Mariners; he'll almost certainly be playing at least part-time at DH before then. American League sluggers tend to stay in the league, and National League sluggers are drawn to the American League for the same reason: American League teams can offer them longer contracts, because they can shift them to DH late in their career. The two best National League hitters in this year's free agent class are the Dodgers' Hanley Ramirez and the Giants' Pablo Sandoval. Ramirez is viewed as a so-so shortstop, and Sandoval, while a good third baseman, has a body type (i.e., he's fat) that might not lend itself to a long career in the field. How much do you want to bet that one or both winds up in the AL? On the other side , the two best AL hitters are the Tigers' Martinez and the Orioles' Nelson Cruz. They're both primarily DHs. Martinez has already re-signed with Detroit, and Cruz is virtually certain to stay in the league. Albert Pujols (went from the Cardinals to the Angels), Prince Fielder (went from the Brewers to the Tigers), Vladimir Guerrero (went from the Expos to the Angels)...the American League steadily draws free agent power hitters from the National League, and there is almost no movement the other way.

Because of the DH, the American League draws power-hitting talent from the National League while retaining its own. That'll help keep it ahead in the interleague standings. The example of Cuddyer isn't perfect--he's a National League hitter staying in the National League--but it's instructive.

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