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December 29, 2015

Players Prefer Presentation

On Aroldis Chapman, Opportunity and Cost

by Meg Rowley

This piece isn’t really about domestic violence. Nor is it ultimately about Aroldis Chapman, although the erstwhile Red is one of its central characters. When the Reds traded Chapman to the Yankees for prospects and the privilege of not having to deal with his domestic violence investigation any further, it became clear that the edges of baseball’s free market were brushing up against baseball’s humanity in a way as interesting as it was alarming. So this piece is about the opportunities baseball seeks, and the prices we pay for them.

Franchises strive for success. It’s an amorphous concept whose constitutive parts are measured against yardsticks of different lengths, sometimes transpiring over the course of an afternoon, sometimes requiring years before progress is ticked off and tallied. We break the pieces down into building blocks, trade and parse and analyze them so that we might better understand how they fit together once they’ve been reassembled. What kind of people they field is a consideration, but has rarely been a decisive one. We are trained to praise teams for finding the undervalued or under-theorized, and unleashing those maneuvers on unsuspecting opposition. Budget constrained and in need of offense? Get on base. Limited free agent dollars to spend? Conquer the defensive frontier with aggressive shifts, ground ball pitchers, and framing. We applaud the moments when the workings of the human body come together with the “Huh, I wonder if?” of the mind, and advance baseball.

There’s something deeply satisfying about untangling the frenetic mess we see on the field, pulling apart the Rube Goldberg machine and reengineering something sleek and efficient and winning instead. Of course, the only reason front offices get to continue these baseball experiments is that they translate to wins. Machinations that prove ineffective are eventually abandoned. Successful teams are able to capitalize on the gap between what we have known and what we think we might be able to know. They monetize these strategies, turning wins into revenue with ticket sales and merchandise and lucrative TV deals that let us all watch and marvel at their brand of baseball. Analytics are refined in service to winning, with winning in service to profit. But we’re generally able to maintain an uneasy truce with those facts, because in between there is baseball. We applaud the savvy move, and covet our own alchemy, convinced baseball’s next big thing will make our team baseball’s next great thing. And as we press our noses against the glass or crane our necks for a better view of the field, we wonder what else they’ll cook up.

But then the incentive structure tilts in an uncomfortable direction. MLB’s domestic violence investigation of Chapman shattered a Dodgers deal beyond repair. Not yet suspended, but publicly implicated and investigated, the closer’s place with the Reds was in limbo. His team was desperate to move him; the rest of baseball seemed reticent to take him. Enter the New York Yankees, willing speculators in a turbulent market.

Chapman became a distressed asset, and the prospects that the Reds got carry far less pedigree than those they would have demanded six months ago. The Yankees side of the deal is tantalizing for those who worship at the altar of market inefficiency. Despite the unholy triumvirate formed by Chapman, Dellin Betances, and Andrew Miller, a full year of Chapman pitching might only be the team’s second best option. With a possible suspension looming, he might not accrue enough service time in 2016 to reach free agency before 2017. The Yankees get an incredible closer, or an extra year before that closer reaches free agency, or both, all for a price far less than Chapman’s natural talent would dictate under less disturbing circumstances. It all makes a certain kind of sense: business sense. The Reds want to rebuild; a fire sale for prospects and the future is their preferred outcome. The Yankees want to contend; acquiring bullpen siege weapons to rival Boston’s seems only natural, especially when offered at such a deep discount. It’s a success, perhaps more so for New York than Cincinnati, but a success nonetheless, replete with words like “opportunity” and “due diligence.” It’s a brilliant bit of arbitrage, a lucky chance forcefully seized. And it comes at a great cost.

There have been questionable men in baseball before, just as there have been teams willing to employ them. I dare say they’ve always been there in equal measure. Their sins exist on a continuum of severity, and the victims of those sins have been known and anonymous, believed or suspected in their turn. But never before have we known so much about baseball and those who play it. And so just as we know the pitch-by-pitch velocity of Chapman’s fastball, we know how many shots he fired in his garage, even through the fog of conflicting witness statements. Just as we measure the flight of his baseball from the mound, eager to ascribe its pitch, yaw and roll a value in prospects, we know the age of the child that was in the house as the incident unfolded. We know more than we ever have, and teams know significantly more than we do. They deploy all that data and science in search of an advantage, an angle. To be unhittable. To score. As they accumulate and amalgamate and model data, they quest, trying to win it all. And they’ve identified this awful thing as another data point in Aroldis Chapman’s valuation.

Like opt-outs, and no trade clauses, and guaranteed money, this awful moment in two people's lives had a market value. It was monetized. It became part of the cold calculation of worth that is always present in this kind of accounting. But instead of Chapman’s trade value being depressed by injury or poor play or any of a hundred baseball facts that might have resulted in this exact same outcome, we’re faced with the reality that in addition to a fact of his biography, this night, is now a facet of his value, a consideration of his contract.

Like all speculators, teams will run right up to the line the law provides, even if it is well past where we might see decency make its stand. The Yankees grander motive is no doubt to win, a motive that is not in itself bad. Indeed, it is analytics raison d'être, the force that animates the “Huh, I wonder if?” and moves it beyond idle fascination. They didn’t break the rules, nor was this a symptom of some Yankees-specific disease. Other teams are not inoculated by an overabundance of virtue somehow lacking in those who wear pinstripes. It was legal and comprehensible, the logical extension of the search for exploitable value. And it might have been unconscionable anyway. Not because it wasn’t predictable, or calculable, but because it shifts the limits of good taste outward. Purposely or not, it assigns value not to the failing of a baseball player, but to the devastating failures of a man, and allows the first team immune to the muck’s smell to profit. The outcry is worth four prospects. It is worth a potential year of free agency. It fails to access the humanity at the core of the game, cleaving apart the discussion of the baseball from that of the person, until we’re accustomed to treating them separately. We know too well the mayhem and pain wrought by domestic violence. And sadly, we know there are likely more of these cases coming. There are so many things we know. But conditioned to praise the savvy and successful manipulator of market inefficiencies, we’ve rarely paused to wonder if maybe this thing should be off limits. If perhaps, in the face of understandable motivation and sound accounting, we ought not to exploit this thing. If perhaps, we end up paying a much graver price for baseball than a couple of prospects and an extra year of free agency. If perhaps, burdened with so much knowledge, we know too much to care about it being valuable, rather than decent.

Meg Rowley is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Meg's other articles. You can contact Meg by clicking here

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