The First Six Years

Yesterday, I suggested that the Nationals were making the right decision for Bryce Harper’s career by putting him in the outfield. The most popular response to that assertion was that the Nationals shouldn’t care about Bryce Harper’s career, only the first six years of club control that they are guaranteed under the CBA. I find this sentiment confusing, honestly, especially considering the crowd that it comes from.

10 or 15 years ago, one of the big arguments from the sabermetric community was that managers were abusing young pitchers, making them throw so many pitches at a young age that their arms would almost certainly fall off. People like Dusty Baker and Dallas Green were vilified for their handling of their pitching staffs, and baseball reacted to the criticism of short term thinking.

From 1990 to 1999, a pitcher was allowed to throw 151+ pitches in a game on 35 different occasions. From 2000 on, it has not happened once – Livan Herandez’s 150 pitch outing is the most any pitcher has thrown in the last decade. The sabermetric community saw what it perceived to be short-sighted thinking, publicized the issue, and the game reacted.

Now, however, it seems like the statistically inclined are on the other side of the fence. Rather than asking baseball teams to be good stewards of a player’s career, the popular refrain is to extract as much value from the first six years of a player’s career as possible with no regard for his long term future.

I find that strange. Putting aside the fact that most elite players re-sign with their original teams for years beyond their first six, making it an act of self-interest to preserve a player’s value beyond his initial term, I believe that teams have a responsibility to look out for the long term well being of players on their team, regardless of whether they’ll be lifetime members of the organization or not. If not just for ethical reasons, then for the good of the game.

I see very little difference from the argument about the first six years of service time compared to how college coaches have traditionally treated pitchers in their care. It is no secret that many universities have put extraordinary pressures on young arms in pursuit of league championships – most notably, the deicision to let Texas RHP Austin Wood throw 169 pitches last year out of the bullpen, after he threw 30 pitches in relief the day before.

There was outrage about that misuse of a young player, and rightfully so, but Augie Garrido’s reasoning is the same as those who argue that a team should only focus on a player’s first six years – why care about the value that he may produce for some other team at the expense of my own benefit?

It’s this kind of short-sighted thinking that has led many players to avoid college baseball, unfortunately. College baseball itself has been hurt by these short term decisions, and I’d argue that the same would be true if Major League teams adopted this “get mine and get out” philosophy. It’s good for baseball that Bryce Harper becomes a superstar who enjoys a long career, and anything that is good for baseball is also good for the Washington Nationals.

Mike Rizzo should be commended for taking a big picture view of the situation, and I am left to wonder why a community that used to fight for the proper treatment of players has now seemingly switched sides.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.