Baseball is incentivizing an activity that is tearing its young pitchers’ arms apart. Believe it or not, this is almost by design.
About 15 years ago, NFL general managers started to realize that running backs, long one of the celebrity skill positions in the sport, were both injury-prone and replaceable; rather than building an offense around a franchise back, they ran their players into the ground and then discarded them. We haven’t yet seen a cultural shift in the status of starting pitchers in baseball, but one might be just around the corner. Because here’s another factoid to keep in mind about those 12 pitchers who throw harder than anyone else in the documented history of the sport: Most of them haven’t made it to a payday in free agency.
Oh, sure, they made a few years’ salary, often at the Major League Baseball minimum, now $535,000 — obviously not too shabby. But in the context of baseball economics it is mere pennies. The best-paid player in baseball, the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, earns $35.6 million a year, and some believe Bryce Harper, when he becomes a free agent in 2018, could sign a multi-year contract worth $400 million.
In the world of baseball, as in most sports, young talent is always more valuable to the team than old. This is not just because young players’ skills and athleticism haven’t atrophied yet; it’s because they’re cheap. A player doesn’t reach true free agency until he has spent six years in the majors, and earns only the league minimum until his third season, when he reaches “arbitration,” a process of generating small, graduated raises that is infamously management-friendly. A team — and this is key — also has total control over a player for the first six seasons of his career; if you draft a guy or sign him from another country, you own the rights to his services for his first six full seasons. After that, he can, for the first time, at last test the free market for his skills. Which means that any team — but especially those that can’t afford to compete for big-ticket free agents — has an incentive to get whatever value out of its young players it can in those first six years. No matter the long-term consequences.
The result is a system where ball clubs are encouraged — are essentially commanded — to squeeze every last bit of life out of their young pitchers, until their arms are ruined … conveniently, right around the time they’re due to hit the open market. … Read More
(via New York)