The Paid Man’s Burden

Because Craig Calcaterra is a smart guy, he’s written a lot of smart things over time. Yesterday he wrote something glaringly smart about Barry Zito at Hardball Talk:

But there’s every reason to think that he can be a useful part of the Giants rotation for the next several years. He’s durable, reliable and if last year is any indication, he’s showing that he can learn to pitch without his young man stuff. Indeed, he even flashed some genuine brilliance in a couple of starts against the Rockies late in the season. Plus, seeing he’s lefthanded, there’s every reason to think that Zito could chug along for many, many more years and wind up with well north of 200 wins.

That doesn’t make him an ace or anything, but the mere fact that Brian Sabean decided to grossly over pay him doesn’t render him a punchline.

Calcaterra is right. Zito will never be worth the contract or the hype. He did actually pitch decently last season too, posting a xFIP of 4.46 which is an improvement over his previous seasons of 5.34 and 4.98 pitching. Calcaterra is also right about the unfair criticisms Zito has received due to his personality. The very same surfer dude persona that was treated like the antidote to pressure is now the poison.

This isn’t really about Zito, though, even if he does play the role of Mister Misunderstood convincingly. The truth is that any time a player signs a big deal he’s opening himself up to unfair criticism. As if Zito should have known better than the people paid to make the baseball personnel decisions and told Brian Sabean, “No sir, I’m not worth this contract. Halve it, then I’ll sign.” Beyond the money, players really can find burdens placed upon their shoulders by outside influences at a startling rate.

The media turned David Eckstein from a short dude who can ball into a 152 centimeter messiah with a heart made of titanium baseballs that pumps pine tar and Gatorade. Carlos Silva might be fat, but nobody found his spare tire damning until he began receiving paychecks that grossly overestimated his worth. Yuniesky Betancourt is really bad at baseball, but any player who asks for his removal from the lineup is begging to be taken out of the game in an entirely different manner.

And on it goes. Being a player has its own set of perks. Achieving what so many dream about and so few accomplish must be exhilarating. Sometimes clouds do creep into sunny spring days, though, and this seems to happen for players more than anyone else in the game. Managers, umpires, and front office personnel get theirs too, but the players are the main attraction and praise, like criticism, finds them as easy receptacles. That’s life and it won’t change.

One thought in conclusion: Should we really mock players for making prudent financial decisions when we praise management for doing the same?




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29 Responses to “The Paid Man’s Burden”

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  1. Joe R says:

    Hence I always place the burden of terrible contracts on the GMs that offered it.
    And as overpaid as Zito is, well, he’s an OK player at least.

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  2. NBarnes says:

    Oh, heavens, no. It’s nobody’s job to save Sabean from himself. Certainly not Zito’s. If Brian Sabean came to me tomorrow and offered me a two year, ten million contract to pitch, I’d sign it before he came down. Odds of me living up to that contract? Nil, since, you know, I’m not a pitcher, I’m a programmer. Odds of me taking every last dollar of that ten million? One in one, baby. If I’m lucky, they’ll let me throw Manny Ramirez a few eephuses before they notice that Sabean was secretly hired by the Rockies.

    Mocking Zito’s contract is just sensible. Mocking Zito? Guy’s done nothing except take advantage of Brian Sabean, and who hasn’t wanted to do that?

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  3. B says:

    Eh, I’ll get on a player for being overpaid, because an overpaid player hurts the team as opposed to a prudent GM helping the team with good financial moves. Though I may mock the player and express frustration/hatred their way, I do understand that I would have done the same thing in their shoes. Also, we expect a player who gets a huge contract for expected future performances to work hard to try to achieve that performance, and in some cases….well, they just don’t work as hard as we’d expect, and so there’s a legitimate feeling of being let down by the player.

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  4. NBarnes says:

    Eh. Even Silva I don’t get on for not working hard. I get on Silva for not working hard while also bitching about Ichiro’s standoffishness. I don’t mind a little slacking, especially if your established level of includes that slacking. But it’s bad form to throw your teammates under the bus while slacking.

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    • Bradley says:

      Geez, Silva is a case study in himself. A case of crazy. Still, it is interesting how a big gut can make one player “big” or “intimidating,” but make another look out of shape.

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      • Greg "The Hammer" Valentine says:

        A big gut didn’t make me any less intimidating. NO ONE had a better figure four leglock…

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      • Adrian Adonis says:

        My gut didn’t keep me from intimidating, either. Two things did, however: (1) Brutus Beefcake putting me to sleep and shaving my head, and (2) my untimely death.

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  5. Bradley says:

    “The media turned David Eckstein from a short dude who can ball into a 152 centimeter messiah with a heart made of titanium baseballs that pumps pine tar and Gatorade.”

    Poetry, sir. Pure poetry.

    This is an excellent line of query. For some reason, as fans (or the media), we tend to vilify players for their contracts, but rarely see the issue from their perspective. For many players, that huge signing bonus may mean a new house for a grandmother, or a chance to pay of a sibling’s college debt — I’d like to think it’s not always solid-gold houses and rocket cars.

    This vilification intensifies if we feel they under-produce or simply “are mean.” :(

    I imagine many fans would have changed their perception of Barry Bonds if singed for league minimum and gave his paychecks to a Chinese orphanage. But, on the other hand, GMs would be swimming in gold coins and no one would care.

    Surely the spotlight forms the perspective.

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  6. NEPP says:

    Yes, we should always mock players for doing exactly what all of us would do in the same situation.

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  7. Eddie says:

    Don’t vilify the players for their contracts. Vilify the general managers for signing/acquiring those terrible contracts.

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  8. Steve says:

    NOTE: NONE OF THE ABOVE STATEMENTS APPLY IF THE SUBJECT IN QUESTION IS NAMED ALEX RODRIGUEZ

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  9. MikeS says:

    This seems to be a difficult concept for many. Even those who don’t understand WAR and the like will hate on a player who they feel is not producing up to his salary. In reality, players should be judged on their performance alone as they ahve no control over the teams budget. As has been pointed out, the contract affects the other parts of the team, not the player himself so it’s the GM’s fault if he overpays. Unless you are talking about a very few teams, paying $20M to one guy affects what you do elsewhere no matter what the one guy does. If Zito had a FIP of 3.5 and was as good as Lincecum, the Giants still would not be in the market for the Matt Holliday’s of the world.

    In short, Zito still makes the same if he is a 6 win player or a 1 win player. Either way, the contract limits the Giants ability to bring in other people but has no affect on Zito’s actual contributions to the club.

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  10. TheJoeFrom1993 says:

    On the topic of the much maligned Carlos Silva, here are some interesting quotes from an article that dates back to March 15, 2008:

    “It’s like a blessing,” Silva said of his deal. “A lot of people will say lots of things about the money, but that’s what we work for. I am a hard worker.”

    He gets it from his dad.

    Alberto Silva spent three decades working days and nights in a steel factory near the family home in Bolivar, Venezuela. Mother Zulay stayed busy raising Silva, his three sisters and one brother.

    “My father was a hard worker. I mean, a HARD worker,” Silva said. “He worked 33 years with that steel company and I told him, ‘As soon as I make enough money, you are retiring.’

    “Two years ago, he retired,” Silva said, beaming proudly.

    Source: http://www.cbssports.com/mlb/story/10712092/2?tag=pageRow;pageContainer

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  11. Jon says:

    Exactly.

    And there’s an interesting converse to this (interesting, at least, to me). What about players who are chronically *underpaid*. Do we call Longoria stupid for accepting his contract? Some do, but generally people liked that he accepted less money than he could’ve gotten going for arbitration. Why? Dunno.

    For some reason, we seem happy when players make unwise decisions, but unhappy when they make a good decision to get paid like a rock star.

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  12. Eastsider says:

    In the attitude of this article, even the statement that “Yuniesky Betancourt is really bad at baseball” is too strong. He is a great baseball player compared to 99.9% of the population. I would have loved to have been as good as him. He’s just bad compared to the 800 or so who play at the major league level (and probably many minor leaguers and some college players, and ok, maybe that neighbor kid, but he’s freakishly good for an 11 year old)…

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    • MikeS says:

      The flip side of that is when a fan gets mad because somebody criticized a player. The usual line of attack is to point out that the athlete is a much better player than the critic. Of course, that’s irrelevant. Maybe I can’t pitch as well as Carlos Silva, but I don’t have to in order to know that Tim Lincecum can. Maybe I can’t direct a movie as well as Uwe Boll, but that doesn’t make him Martin Scorsese’s equal. The whole “cut him some slack, he’s better than you” argument is just pointless.

      So yes, Yuniesky Betancourt is better at baseball than most of humanity. That doesn’t mean I want to see him in the lineup for my team.

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      • B N says:

        True dat. Moreover, there is a flip side that the critic is generally much better than the athlete at what he does. Would you really want Betancourt putting up articles on fangraphs? The man clearly doesn’t know nor care to know what a walk is, which could seriously impact his analysis.

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    • gnomez says:

      “That neighbor kid” – death rofl
      He’s also at approximately 1/37th Matt Stairs’ talent level, but that might be a size issue too.

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  13. B N says:

    I think it’s an issue of baseball being a team sport, with the knowledge that every team (except maybe the Yankees) have revenue limitations. I would say there are a few things most fans think:
    1. A team is only going to earn a certain amount of total revenue, based on its market.
    2. A team needs to break a profit (of an unspecified margin)
    3. Ownership has a functional limit on the amount of money, in total, they can spend on players annually.
    4. Signing a player for a lot of money ties up money that could be used to sign other players.
    5. A player who asks for market value or “setting the market” value for his services is increasing his salary but may be hindering a team’s ability to win a championship.

    On the one hand, you can’t “blame the player” for their contract. They didn’t offer it. On the other hand, who a player signs with and for what value relative to the market indicates a lot about their motivations. This piece seems to assume the premise of “of course you take the money.” But on the other hand, either way you are getting a huge amount of money. This isn’t 10 million or zero. This is 100 million vs 120 million.

    So let’s put it this way:
    Would you rather be paid 100 million and play on a team that wins a WS or would you rather just have an extra 20 million to spend on extra houses?

    Personally, if I am a competitor, I want to win the World Series. I would gladly give up 20% of my salary to ensure I’d win it. I’d probably give up 10% just to give myself a better shot. When a player gets their max-return, it means that they either don’t care all that much about the WS versus the money, they figure winning a WS is something totally out of their control anyways, or they’re signing for the Yankees.

    The issue is, the “big contract” indicates something about the goals of a player. Unless you’re signing for the Yankees and can get “big contract” + “assured postseason” then you’ve got to balance those. Firstly, it affects where you sign. Many competitive (see: smart) clubs don’t give out a lot of ridiculous contracts. Secondly, it affects how hard you push for the last dollar.

    By signing with the Giants, Zito was definitely saying “Money is a wonderful thing” rather than “Certainly, this team is bound to be a winner and I will be a piece that will help them get there.” When you display that kind of mentality, you’re a pretty easy target for being called selfish. If you don’t contribute as much as you’re paid, then it’s even more obvious.

    The only strange thing about it is that it happens after the player flounders. I mean, he’s the same guy you signed. He was signed, knowing that he was mainly interested in the dough and that his signing was going to impede your moves for the future. Unless you feel he’s really dogging it, he can’t control his performance so what does that have anything to do with it? The question is not why people dislike these players, it’s what the point of disliking them is when the player hasn’t changed at all.

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    • Steve says:

      When a player gets their max-return, it means that they either don’t care all that much about the WS versus the money, they figure winning a WS is something totally out of their control anyways, or they’re signing for the Yankees.

      OR….it means the player worked really hard for the first 6-10 years of his career, during which he had no choice where he could play while being paid WELL below his market rate, and now would like to be paid a rate that is commensurate to the value his hard work and talent are adding to the franchise.

      I don’t really understand your point. The Yankees only have 25 roster spots. Surely there are dozens of other players who both care about winning and earning as much as they can while they are able.

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      • B N says:

        Yes, that is exactly the point. There are dozens of players who care about both. I would be very surprised to think that any player in the league cares only about money or winning. But their relative proportions of caring about both are generally exposed by their choice of agents and how they approach being a FA. I’m not saying that it makes a player bad to be paid in proportion to his ability. I’m just saying that it indirectly has an impact on his ability to reach the postseason. I am not a Yankees fan by any means, but given their near-unlimited bankroll they happen to just be a notable exception. As a result, you learn nothing about them signing with the Yankees. They have not had to reveal their preferences on the matter.

        On the other hand, look at a guy like Longoria. His value surplus allows the team to add pieces that keep them in competition. Could Longoria have demanded higher pay? Certainly. Would he be worth it? Almost certainly. Would it kill his postseason chances as long as he’s on the Rays? Quite probably. It’s not like the Rays have a lot of payroll flexibility and they’re already fighting for their lives in the division. If Longoria was getting full value, they would have had to backload his contract and trade him before the big money kicked in.

        I have yet to see a team other than the Yankees succeed without having a core built around players who provide surplus value. Home team discount, taking less to play for a contender, getting locked up pre-arb, etc all give the signing team roster flexibility to put somebody else next to a player who gives them a better chance to win it all.

        So the point is, every player values money and winning. The issue is the relative value. If a player only valued winning, he would be a legend. He’d sign on to contenders for league minimum every year and say “Get an extra starter” and that would be it. You could call him a fool for not getting paid what he’s worth, but that man would increase his odds of getting a championship. He’d be an instant fan favorite, even if he never stayed on a team more than a year.

        If he shows that he primarily values money, that’s fine too. These guys work hard, they’re scarce, and it’s a big business. I’d want my money too. I don’t fault them for that. I’d love to win the world series, but I wouldn’t take it over 20 million dollars. The issue is not about the validity of criticizing someone for taking the money. I can see both sides of it.

        The point that I was making is that these players show their preferences when they SIGN rather than when they perform. If you want to call Zito a greedy, overpaid bastard then you should say it when he signs, not when he gets blown out two years later. I mean, if you think someone is greedy- why only call them greedy when they’re unsuccessful?

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    • Nick says:

      It’s not Zito’s job to make sure the Giants stay competitive. And lets face it: with Sabean at the helm, he could’ve taken an unpaid pitching internship for 5 years and still be extremely unlikely to see the World Series.

      If a player really wants to go somewhere in his career and doesn’t care about money, what he should really do is only sign for a GM that doesn’t suck, like Epstein, Zduriencik, or Friedman, and take the pay cut which would likely follow. Which, I assume, is what you’re really advocating anyway.

      At the same time, it’s unrealistic to expect the kind of player who is signing a Zito-type deal to think on those terms, because he’s going to be operating under the mindset that HE will be taking the team to the top because HE is an amazing player who is capable of doing that. Can you really expect Zito to be offered that deal and say to himself: “Well, I won a Cy Young already, and I’m being offered one of the biggest contracts ever, but I better not take it, because Sabean probably isn’t responsible enough to figure out his own finances, and I’m not really good enough to take this team anywhere, anyways.”

      If a player gets offered a deal, he’s probably going to assume that the GM can figure out the finances on how to build a contending club.

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      • Nick says:

        “The point that I was making is that these players show their preferences when they SIGN rather than when they perform. If you want to call Zito a greedy, overpaid bastard then you should say it when he signs, not when he gets blown out two years later. I mean, if you think someone is greedy- why only call them greedy when they’re unsuccessful?”

        Now this is a fantastic point.

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