An appreciation of Frank Robinson

Everything about baseball’s return to DC seemed a little bit thrown together. The Nationals script on the uniform looked like it was taken from the bottom of the Microsoft font menu. The block letters didn’t even match the hats. The team had no owner–or even a plan to get one. A few of the players had legitimate MLB credentials, but the bulk of the roster were retreads and non-prospects. RFK Stadium was a mess. The network televising the team wasn’t even on tv in the majority of DC area homes. I traveled to Chicago that season to watch the Nats play and–I swear to God–several Cubs fans I met weren’t even aware the Nationals existed.

But we had Frank Robinson. The Hall of Famer with 586 Home Runs. The first guy to win MVPs in both leagues. The first first black manager in MLB history. A legitimate baseball and Civil Rights legend.

In April 2005, as fans wandered into a broken-down stadium to watch a team of awkwardly-dressed castoffs take the field, Frank Robinson gave Washington D.C. baseball in immediate dose of credibility.

The first half of the 2005 season is frozen in time for Washington baseball fans. On talent alone, the team had no business competing for anything, but an incredible run of close wins put them in first place at the all-star break. I wouldn’t have cared if they lost 162 games, but that squad led by Frank Robinson gave us so much more.

Frank lived an incredible life. It was really cool that we got to be a small part of it.

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Is there room for nuance in the Bryce Harper discussion?

Nu•ance (noun) — a subtle difference or distinction in expression or meaning

It’s 2019 and our debates have been distilled to 280-character counterpunches and paste-able Facebook memes. In our declining modern day discourse, you’re either all in or all out. Pro or con. With me or against me.

As we discuss Bryce Harper’s lingering contract situation, we’ve fallen into the same trap.

Bryce Harper is a good baseball player. Occasionally, he’s a great one. His 2015 season might have been the best overall season of any player this decade not named Mike Trout. And he’s a star. He has enough charisma to convince you to turn on the TV or stay in your seat when he’s due up next inning. He’s worth the price of admission. He’s my favorite player.

He’s also unemployed. There are 30 teams in Major League Baseball, and none of have them have presented Harper with a contract he’s willing to sign. He’s (reportedly) asking for something greater than 10 years and $300 million, which would be the largest free agent contract in North American sports history. He had significant injuries in 2013, 2014, 2016, and 2017. He had a brutal first half in 2018. Baseball players age quickly. Ten years is a long time. Injury-prone players usually remain that way. Bryce Harper’s defense has been declining. There’s a good chance he’ll finish his next contract as a 1B.

Those are your sides. Pick one. The Nationals are either insane not to accede to the price picked by Scott Boras or Harper isn’t worth the headache and he should go to another city. You’re either pro-Nats or pro-Harper. There is no middle ground.

Well, I’m choosing a third path. I’m picking a little from column A and a little from column B.

I want Bryce Harper in the 2019 lineup. Not only will it make the team more competitive, it will improve the fan experience. There’s a value to 30+ home runs, but there’s also an undefinable quality to seeing a Hall of Fame player staying in the same city for his entire career.

I’m also living in reality. Listen, I’d love it if the Lerner family mortgaged Tyson’s Corner and ran a $500 million payroll. But that’s not happening. There’s a finite number of dollars to be spent on player salaries here, and as long as I’m rooting for the Nationals, I want the owners to spend it well.

The asking price here is simply too high. The above facts about Harper are true. His injuries happened. His 2018 first half happened. His declining defense is something that’s happening right now.

There’s an overall price point for Bryce Harper. I’d love for the Nationals to hit it, but Scott Boras needs to hit it too.

I understand this position requires nuance. I understand I’m not playing by the rules of modern discourse.

If that makes me the crazy one, so be it.

Would Bryce Harper agree to a bridge contract?

We can’t get inside Bryce Harper’s mind, but we can assume he wanted a record-breaking contract this offseason–something bigger than Giancarlo Stanton’s 13 year, $325 million contract. That still may happen, of course, but as his free agency goes on and on, it’s getting safer to assume it won’t.

Assuming it doesn’t, Harper has two options. First, he could “settle” for a long term contract that pays him less, maybe 8 years and $250 million (that’s a wild guess). Second, he could accept a “bridge contract” that would allow him to hit free agency again when the market is more favorable.

The second option seems crazy. Who would leave $200 million+ on the table? But here’s the logic.

Harper is not the only player unhappy with baseball’s current labor market. Free agent prices are not growing as quickly as the players would like them to. There’s a long explanation for why that is, but one of the biggest culprits is baseball’s luxury tax.

The luxury tax is a de facto salary cap. In 2019, every payroll dollar over $206 million can be “taxed” as high as 50%. Beginning this year, teams can even be penalized in the amateur draft for exceeding the threshold. Put simply, there’s a huge incentive for teams not to add a salary like Bryce Harper or Manny Machado.

There’s a very good chance the players union goes to the mattresses to change the luxury tax system in the next collective bargaining agreement. Players are fed up, and they want payrolls to start growing as quickly as league revenues.

The next CBA expires after the 2021 season. 3 years. We might not have any baseball in 2022, but if the players fight and win, the top end of the free agent market might look very different.

Years ago, I suggested it’s better to hit free agency at age 29 than 26. A long term deal at age 29 can secure a high salary well into your 30’s, whereas a long term deal at 26 might spit you back out on the free agent market in your mid-30s, where you don’t want to be. Maybe a guy like Harper, if he’s still hitting, could get an 8 year deal at age 29.

In the meantime, would Bryce Harper settle for a 3-year bridge contract? It would take a huge average annual value–something like $40 million a year maybe–but if the free agent landscape is likely to change in 2021, perhaps waiting it out isn’t the craziest idea after all.

Bryce Harper and Scott Boras have already failed

Before Bryce Harper was a “once in a generation” prospect in 2010, Stephen Strasburg was called the same thing in 2009. He was the most hyped pitcher since Mark Prior and maybe even more so. When people started to speculate on Strasburg’s rookie contract, they looked to Prior as a comp.

Scott Boras looked somewhere else. He compared Strasburg to recently-acquired Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka who had just received $52 from the Boston Red Sox.

Boras had a point. Both Strasburg and Dice-K were “once in a generation” highly-projectable pitching prospects and neither had thrown an MLB pitch. Why would one get $11 million and the other $52 million because one was American and one was Japanese? That’s Boras. He didn’t want Mark Prior money plus inflation; he wanted to blow up the system. That’s his style. He doesn’t want to get his clients one dollar more than the second highest bidder. He wants every extra dollar in the owners pocket.

In the end, Strasburg got close to $15 million. More than Mark Prior plus inflation but nowhere in the neighborhood of $50 million. Boras was full of it. His bold declaration was bluster.

Some fans hate Scott Boras. I don’t. Some fans project their hatreds of modern baseball onto him. I think he’s doing his job. Players choose Scott Boras because they want every dollar they can get. And Boras usually gets it, even if he has to throw out wild comparisons about college pitchers getting $50 million contracts.

In many ways, Bryce Harper was the perfect Boras client. If Boras wants to blow up paradigms, he needs a client who operates under a different paradigm. Bryce is it. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated at 16 (calling him “Baseball’s Lebron James”). He graduated high school two years early so he could enter the MLB draft as a 17 year old. And he got to the majors at 19, ensuring he would hit the free agent market earlier than anyone else (with multiple MVP awards, or so they planned).

Harper wasn’t just an opportunity to score another big contract. He was a chance to change how baseball players were paid. There are many nonsensical things about the modern baseball financial system. Younger players are generally underpaid compared to their value on the field. And the really young players before their free agent years are very underpaid because they have zero leverage.

Consider the possibilities that were in the table for Boras. Striking a deal before before free agency could have broke Harper free of baseball’s wage-suppressing arbitration system. Bryce could have opted for a much higher annual average salary in exchange for fewer guaranteed years. Bryce and Boras could have done something different.

Now here we are and Bryce is just another free agent waiting for a phone call. He’s arguably not even the biggest target in his free agent class. It’s entirely possible he’s waiting for Manny Machado to pick a team so he can sign for a few million less.

Harper’s free agency will end and he’ll be a very rich man. Boras, too, will get a few million to throw on the pile he already has.

But this process, which could have been something so original, so unique, already feels like a failure–no matter how many zeros are on the contract Harper eventually signs.

Baseball lacks ‘star power’…abolish the draft to fix it

Major League Baseball is lacking star power. Mike Trout, the undisputed best player in the game since at least 2013, has the name recognition of maybe the 50th best NBA player. Since Derek Jeter retired, there arguably isn’t a single baseball player capable of crossing over into popular culture.

There are structural reasons for this. Baseball players don’t have the same ability as their football and basketball counterparts to dominate a game. Tom Brady touches the ball almost every offensive play–same with LeBron James. Meanwhile, baseball pitchers don’t even play in 80 percent of their own games, and hitters only bat one out of every nine times.

Baseball players also play almost every day, limiting their time for promotional and marketing appearances. Also, don’t underestimate the marketing strength of basketball’s shoe culture and fantasy football.

Still, I reject these structural issues as a full explanation for the lack of marketable baseball players. Less than a generation ago, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were the most well-known American athletes. Others like Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr, and Cal Ripken were nationally known. The world has changed since then, but it hasn’t changed that much.

In 1992, a high school baseball player named Derek Jeter wanted to play for the New York Yankees, who picked sixth in that year’s draft. To achieve this, he lied to the first five teams picking in the draft, telling them that he planned to attend the University of Michigan on a baseball scholarship. The ruse worked and the rest is history. The Yankees and Jeter were a perfect marketing match–the most storied baseball franchise in America’s biggest city drafted a mature, biracial team leader with an uncanny ability to make memorable, clutch plays.

What if every player were able to choose his team?

Take Trout, an electric player on the field but a complete bore off of it. Angels fans love him, but he’s miscast in Southern California, which has its own unique definition of what it takes to be a star. Trout is a blue collar guy–he belongs in a blue collar city where a willingness to shine only on the field is an asset. Put him in Philadelphia (which is his hometown, btw). His persona would be immediately transformed. He would define the city and be more easily marketed playing on the East Coast.

The perfect star for LA isn’t Trout, it’s…and I hate to say it…Bryce Harper. Harper was raised in Las Vegas with a flare for the dramatic, and he’s a natural in front of the camera.

Baseball doesn’t have the wrong players. It has the right players in the wrong places.

I realize proposal this is highly unlikely. Teams will be remiss to give up the only democratic means they have to distribute talent. Any proposal to abolish draft will have to come with spending caps to prevent baseball from reverting to the 1950’s–a clone of college football where Alabama signs whoever they want.

But there are benefits. The incentive to tank for draft picks is entirely gone. And teams will be penalized for engaging in perpetual rebuilding projects–top prospects will only want to sign with teams actually trying to contend, or teams that are close to contending. Also, teams will be forced to treat their minor leaguers better since they’ll be recruiting them.

Abolishing the draft would be a bold move. But if baseball truly believes they’re facing a crisis of irrelevancy, perhaps a bold move is necessary.

Do Nationals fans still love Bryce Harper?

Early in his career, either 2013 or 2014, Bryce Harper did a short stint on the disabled list. In his first game back, he played left field and fielded a ground ball single in the top of the first inning. Instead of lazily throwing the ball back in to the infield, he charged it and fired the ball into first base, hoping to catch the runner not paying attention. It was a one in ten thousand type baseball play–the type of thing fielders rarely ever do.

Harper didn’t get the runner. In fact, the throw was a little off target and the Nats’ first baseman was caught off guard–he had to dive to stop the ball from flying into the stands. The whole sequence was unexpected, bizarre, and–above all else–exciting. Some tweeter on my timeline simply wrote “yup. Bryce is back.”

That was the bargain with an early Bryce Harper. He’d do crazy things you didn’t expect. Take second base on an otherwise routine single when the outfielder casually fielded the ball. Try to throw out runners where no other sane fielder would try. And they weren’t all good things. Bryce would routinely get himself ejected. He’d run into outfield walls. Most of all, he didn’t care what anybody thought. He didn’t mind that opposing fans thought he was a preening pretty boy when he’d flip his hair after a home run, and he’d keep arguing with umpires when it was completely counter-productive. In spite of, and often because of, all these flaws, Nationals fans loved him and defended him when it seemed all 29 other fan bases and the national media didn’t like him. For better it worse, he made a repetitive game like baseball a little more thrilling. The game was different when he was involved–you could immediately tell when “Bryce was back.”

Now Bryce Harper is on what seems to be a death march through his last three months as a National. He is struggling at the plate–he’s currently hitting .213–but something else seems different as well. His ubiquitous presence has receded, and fan loyalties have been distributed to other more “accessible” players like Max Scherzer or younger players like Juan Soto. There is no way to measure this, but fans seemed resigned to him signing elsewhere and it’ll no longer be a cataclysmic event when it happens.

There are many reasons why this might be case, but perhaps one of them is the fact that Bryce himself is different. Those “youthful indiscretions” on the baseball field that were charming in 2013 are both less frequent and less forgivable considering Bryce is supposed to “all grown up” now and a team leader. In any event, the experience of watching Bryce Harper is noticeably different and, for what it’s worth, Bryce doesn’t appear to be enjoying himself as much either. Eventually, Bryce won’t “be back” and it’ll be less painful than we ever imagined it would be.

Was last night’s comeback against the Marlins a “turning point”?

Let’s get this out of way: last night’s game was fun. It was the biggest comeback in Nationals history and it came at the perfect time. It was a cathartic moment for a fan base that badly needed one. More importantly, it put the team back at .500 and a little bit closer to the top.

Ok, now that we’ve established that, can we be real for a millisecond? The Nationals didn’t score 14 straight runs because they had a “players-only” team meeting the day before. They didn’t give up 9 straight runs because of the team meeting either. To paraphrase a President from an Aaron Sorkin liberal fantasy, post hoc ergo proctor hoc does not apply.

The Nats won because they finally put hits in close enough proximity to each other to push runs across the plate. They scored runs because the Marlins’ starting pitcher stumbled the third time through the Nats order and generally ran out of gas. And the Nats finished erasing the 9-run deficit because the Marlins bullpen started throwing batting practice in the 6th inning.

It’s an old trick to hold a “players-only” meeting right before your star pitcher takes the mound or you face a bad team. It just so happens the Nationals finished a tough 3-game series against the best team in baseball–the Red Sox. And before that, it was the Phillies, who would be in the playoffs if the season ended today.

Here’s another thing to consider. The Nationals had a brutal 7-16 stretch in April that started their season on a sour note. The poor record in that stretch was a bit of a mirage–the Nats lost 8 straight one run and extra inning games. Results in close games tend to regress towards the mean, and they did. After April 28, the Nats went 8-2 in one-run and extra inning games, a stretch that briefly put the Nats in first place and 10 games over .500. The luck reversed. In their 4-13 stretch before last night, the Nats lost 6 straight one run and extra inning games.

The trend will again regress to the mean. Maybe it’ll happen this weekend against Miami. Maybe not. That’s the thing with luck–we don’t know.

But we do know a bad team came to town, and the Nats recent losing skid isn’t exactly what it appears to be. A turning point was likely–“players-only meeting” or not.

By all means, enjoy the comeback. It was a memorable night of baseball. If it inspires this club, that can only be a good thing. You were bothered by the losing–I promise you it bothered them more.

I’m rooting for a big winning streak. But unless the “players-only” meeting involved steroids, we’ll have to find a more logical explanation.