MLB Hates Baseball: Logan Morrison, Gary Sanchez, and the MLB Popularity Contest

Logan Morrison of the Tampa Bay Rays is dissatisfied with MLB’s decision to send New York Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez to the Home Run Derby. Well, “dissatisfied” may be putting it lightly; Morrison is quoted as saying “Gary shouldn’t be there. Gary’s a great player, but he shouldn’t be in the Home Run Derby.”

In terms of sheer numbers, Morrison has a point: Sanchez’s 13 homers this season place him nowhere near his teammate (and second of four American League Derby representatives) Aaron Judge’s 27 home runs, or even Morrison’s 24. This is tempered a little by a few circumstances: Sanchez sat out injured for a while this season, and he hit 20 home runs in 53 games in 2016. Of course, there are plenty of players with more home runs than Sanchez that were, effectively, snubbed, just as a few with more than Morrison would have been were he extended an invitation.

This, however, isn’t Morrison’s point. Says Morrison:

“I’m not disappointed. It’s par for the course. I play for the Rays. I get it. They can’t even get my picture right. When they put my name up there they put Corey (Dickerson’s) picture up there … on MLB Network. When they put up the home run leaders they put Corey’s swing on there not mine.’’

The Tampa Bay Rays played their first season in 1998 as half of the most recent MLB expansion. They have been a small-market team throughout their existence, making waves when, in their tenth season of play, they went to the World Series with one of the lowest total payrolls in the major leagues. (They lost the Series to the huge-market, very old Philadelphia Phillies, whose middling payroll was still good to place in the top half of the 30 teams on opening day at the time.) You’ll note on that website that Tampa Bay has consistently placed in the bottom three in total payrolls, occasionally getting into the high twenties in rank. The Yankees, by contrast, have only failed to be first in payroll total for three of the years tracked, being outspent by only the Los Angeles Dodgers for the last three years.

MLB works by giving clubs generous amounts of money to spend on its rosters, avoiding the kind of player paycheck-hurting salary caps, for the most part, that characterize hockey and the NBA. This is necessary largely because a superstar player or two can’t carry an entire baseball team the way they can in hockey and basketball; the NHL and NBA, in order to keep teams on a relatively even playing field, need to make it harder for teams to amass a roster filled top-to-bottom with star players. How effective a means that is of ensuring parity is up for debate, but as far as baseball goes, it is difficult for superstars, and even a team of them, to guarantee success.

Note, for example, the Washington Nationals of the last few years. With players like Bryce Harper, Max Scherzer, Ryan Zimmerman, Anthony Rendon, Jayson Werth, Trea Turner, and Steven Strasburg, they’re about as close to a top-to-bottom All-Star team as you can get (and some of those names are multiple-time All-Stars; a few are headed to Miami for the All-Star Game this year as it is), and they’ve been that way for the last few seasons. Despite being aided by playing in a particularly terrible division, the NL East, they’ve gone to the playoffs only three times since 2012 and have yet to actually win a postseason series since they were the 1981 Montreal Expos.

That said, the Nationals started the season ranked 9th in the MLB in terms of total payroll spending. Money may not be able to buy postseason success, but MLB statisticians are savvy enough to be able to calculate about how many wins a particular player can add to a team’s record, and the ones that can secure more wins typically cost more money. Though Billy Beane’s “moneyball” made famous the notion of using sabermetrics to identify the key stats that can secure a particular team wins and acquiring capable players (typically old ones, or those without much talent except in specific areas) cheap, baseball is still dominated by the truism that you get what you pay for, and if you want great players on a solid team, you need to pay for them.

What this all means is that small-market teams are always competing at a huge disadvantage to huge, popular ones. Because popular teams like the Red Sox, Cubs, Dodgers, and Yankees pull in much more money through merchandising, ads, ticket sales, and other methods, they have more money to spend on player contracts. The Marlins, Indians, Royals, and Athletics, some of the least financially-successful MLB teams need to be great through other means: by saving money during “rebuild” periods (that is, when a very successful team is just too expensive to maintain, the large contracts get sold so, a few years later, the team can hopefully acquire new stars), by attracting players willing to take less money, or by fostering prospects in their farm systems and coming up with a method for developing young players into rising stars. All of these options function just as one might expect in the chance-and-probability game of baseball: they’re high-risk, high-reward moves that only succeed occasionally but tend to at least be cheaper in the long run than trying to maintain a bloated payroll.

So why all of this talk about pay, popularity, and a handful of teams? Simply put, the MLB has a vested financial interest in focusing on the most successful and popular of its teams. And according to Forbes in the link above, in 2016 the most financially successful team was the New York Yankees; the least financially successful team was the Tampa Bay Rays.

Major League Baseball is both a sport and an entertainment company. The company needs to put a product in stadiums and on television that sells and sells well. Each individual team wants to do the same because they want to make money, but the players, as sportsmen, also want their skill to be recognized. However, the Home Run Derby and the All-Star Game, as national stages for the sport’s best players to show off the skills they developed to justify their positions on their teams and as competitors in the league, run MLB’s dual roles against one another. While it seeks to be a sport, to showcase that sport, and to showcase that sport’s best players for the whole country to see, it is very aware that these events are not the World Series. The World Series commands national attention regardless of the teams competing in it; the Home Run Derby and the All-Star Game depend upon, well, star power. MLB’s treatment of these events in particular, then, demonstrates which role takes priority: the sport, or entertainment.

Logan Morrison contests, rightly, that MLB has decided that the Home Run Derby exists purely for entertainment. His remarks, then, come from a position that understands the Home Run Derby in sportsmen’s terms: it should be a contest between the game’s best home-run hitters. The eight players in competition need to have earned their spots there through play, so the Derby has meaning as a competition. As it stands, a Derby populated not by longballers but by those likeliest to increase viewership is not a genuine competition regardless of its outcome, though the winner, of course, will get some attention and an eternal “Won 2017 Home Run Derby” in his “Achievements” column — so even still, it isn’t “meaningless.” In other words, Morrison’s disappointment with MLB comes from a place of hurt pride, a feeling that just because he is with a small-market team his accomplishments mean less.

Jon Taylor of Sports Illustrated, however, takes the side of MLB as an entertainment company in his article reporting on Morrison’s rant:

It is a little odd that two Yankees got the call for the Derby, but it’s not as if Sanchez is a terrible choice.[…]
So while Morrison is right in theory, it’s hard to argue against letting someone like Sanchez take his hacks, considering that he hits them far and hard and that he’s clearly a key building block for MLB in terms of marketing the game. It’s also as sour a look as exists for Morrison, given his snide comments about one of the game’s great young players. And no offense to Logan, but I doubt fans are crying out to watch him take his batting practice whacks over the likes of Sanchez. Sorry, dude.

Emphasis added.

Let’s let at the three claims I emphasized in order.

  1. [Sanchez is] clearly a key building block for MLB in terms of marketing the game.

To begin with, I am unsure how many people outside of New York are familiar with Gary Sanchez. Taylor notes that Sanchez has barely played the game: he played 53 gamesin 2016, his rookie year, and he’s missed “nearly a month” this season. Personally, I haven’t heard of him, though I have heard of his teammate Aaron Judge. So, at least on that personal level, I’m not sure how “clear” it is that Sanchez is a “key building block” for MLB. On the contrary, Judge is clearly another such building block.

But while I suppose I may simply be in an information shadow produced by my location in the Eastern Megalopolis outside of NYC, I have to wonder why a player who’s only been in 108 major league games is already such a building block considering he hasn’t yet put up the kind of astounding numbers that Judge and Cody Bellinger (another rookie competing in the derby, from the very rich Dodgers) have in far fewer games. While he may be on pace to be spectacular, I’m sure there are plenty of active players in the American League that are on pace to be spectacular despite this or that, just as there are plenty of active players who are, simply, hitting more home runs than Sanchez. Choosing Sanchez, then, does not seem particularly obvious, or even good: anything can happen to a player, and the law of large numbers sparks regression to the mean with impunity. Why MLB is putting so many eggs in this basket seems suspect at best.

2. …Given Morrison’s snide remarks about one of the game’s great young players.

I’m not sure that saying “Gary shouldn’t be there. [He’s] a great player, but he shouldn’t be in the Home Run Derby” is “snide” so much as direct, but that’s not the point. The point is that, at least to everyone outside of New York, Sanchez does not come to mind as an up-and-coming, face-of-the-sport young player. Neither does Morrison. Nor, for that matter, do Giancarlo Stanton, Charlie Blackmon, or Mike Moustakas, who are already established stars. But is the Home Run Derby a showcase for “great young players?” No, it’s about the best home-run hitters, ostensibly. If Morrison’s pride has been wounded by the decision to pass over him in favor of someone who has hit 7 fewer home runs than he has this season to be in the competition to decide on the best home run hitter, I can’t say I blame him, nor his decision to speak about his disappointment. Morrison’s problem is not with Sanchez, but this line reframes it into being just that. And that’s a good way to get people interested in this “storyline:” try to cook up some non-existent beef. The entertainment angle seems to be the only one populating this article.

3. I doubt fans are crying out to watch him take his batting practice whacks over the likes of Sanchez.

Indeed they aren’t, because the Rays have few fans and the Yankees are a global franchise powerhouse. But this line again reveals that Taylor is not interested in responding to Morrison’s point that because he is from a small-market team that he has been passed over. In fact, that point is precisely what Taylor uses against him here. It is a simple “Who are you? Sit down, come back when you have a fan” dismissal that casts baseball not as a sport, a game in which people compete and have fun, but rather as a popularity contest, where the players who have the most fans are the ones who get the most recognition. Indeed, the Yankees as a franchise more resemble a “circus” than a legitimate competitive endeavor:

It would be cynical to declare that Jeter represents the triumph of flash over substance. He was, in fact, a great baseball player and an admirable person. But the truth is that Jeter was the perfect Yankee captain for his era because the Yankees of his era were not the never-quit Yankees of George Steinbrenner. They cared less about winning championships than building a commercial entertainment enterprise inside a giant luxury-packed family fun dome. The fans, for whatever reason, were largely cool with that. They were content to drink Belgian beer and root for their celebrity shortstop.

But with that financial success came the attention of the MLB, constantly needing to find ways to keep the old sport relevant and lucrative.

As such, there are two ways to take Morrison’s rant: defend the decision because baseball is entertainment, not an entertaining sport, or view it as yet another choice on MLB’s part to emphasize money, endorsements, and starpower over the game itself.

Those who disagree with me will argue that the Marlins, a small-market team, have two representatives this year. However, Stanton is a national superstar and the previous Derby winner. Bour is a somewhat strange presence on the roster given his 18 home runs put him well behind teammate Marcell Ozuna’s 22, but consider also that the Derby will take place in Miami and so having two Marlins make the cut could draw in a bigger crowd — and therefore look better on TV. (I think it’s also meaningful that Bour is a white American while Ozuna is a dark-skinned Dominican, but let’s leave MLB’s racism aside for now.)

Further, look at some other players who are not going to the Derby: Joey Votto (24 home runs), a genuine star who plays for the incredibly addled Reds, and Jay Bruce (21), who is, unfortunately, on the Mets.

It is incredibly easy to come up with any number of reasons why one should pass over a better player in favor of another for a game that is being set up entirely for entertainment purposes. MLB’s roster makes infinite sense from the perspective that the Derby exists as sheer entertainment designed to bring in money through tickets, ads, and sponsorships.

From that perspective, of course there would be two Yankees, and Taylor is incredibly disingenuous in calling that fact “a little odd” considering spectacular TV is all he expects the Derby to be. But even within that stance, which is a perfectly acceptable one, though one with which I obviously disagree, plenty of questions remain. Why does MLB consistently favor the Yankees? Why is George Springer, tied with Morrison for second on the American League’s home run rankings and key player for the team with the best record in baseball, the Houston Astros, not on the list? Why doesn’t the MLB use this built-in national television programming as an opportunity to give great players from small teams, like Morrison, some national exposure? Why doesn’t the MLB use its vast network pull to give more exposure to all of its 30 teams so that they all make more money?

The Rays are 3rd in their division behind the first-place Red Sox and second-place Yankees. The Rays are 3 games above .500 in probably the most competitive division in the entire league. They are a very fun team to watch, made up largely of young players — not unlike the Yankees. Not only that, but the Yankees have been on a slide recently, making the Rays a legitimate threat in a division that, while competitive, had heretofore been shaping up as a contest between the Yankees and Red Sox, with the Rays and Orioles working to play spoiler. As such, the Rays, Yankees, and Red Sox are all teams to watch if you love good baseball.

Or maybe you’re on the west coast, a Mariners fan, and you just watched your team drop two home games against the worst team in baseball, and you don’t even care anymore, you’re just sick of having to hear about the Astros. Why not put on a Rockies game? They’re one of the best teams playing right now, turning around from a mediocre 2016 season to become true contenders, looking to head to the playoffs for the first time since 2007, when they swept every team they faced in the postseason until they were swept themselves by the Red Sox in the World Series. They’re facing a surprisingly dominant Diamondbacks team that despite their uniforms have used a good mix of pitching and offense to gel into something way beyond their pitiful fourth place finish in 2016. Both those teams started off stronger than the current leaders, the Dodgers, did, but the Dodgers, despite facing some injuries and the untimely demise of Kenta Maeda’s ability as a starting pitcher, have strung together impressive offense thanks to no less than Cody Bellinger, Yasiel Puig, Justin Turner, and Corey Seager to back up the inhuman pitching of Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill, each reason enough in their own right to watch a Dodgers game. They seized first place not long ago as they cruised through a 10-game winning streak and they look poised to return to the NLCS in 2017 and maybe take another shot at a Series title. All of these teams are great to watch if you love good baseball.

But that’s the problem. MLB doesn’t think that anybody loves baseball. Baseball is boring and needs to be sped up; people only watch their home teams and don’t watch just to watch like they do football games, or so the thinking goes. That may be why MLB is suspected of tampering with the baseballs so that they fly farther and result in more home runs. Much like football, MLB is convinced that the game isn’t enough to stand on its own; instead it needs props, it needs a true reality TV feel to keep it afloat. It needs spectacle, all the spectacle a Debordian nightmare can command, in order to make money. At least, that’s what it’s convinced itself.

I think, however, this stance is more of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because MLB believes itself to be much more of an entertainment industry than a sport, a competition, it has structured itself so that it fosters a sense that baseball is too slow and that only one’s home team is worth watching. Why would a Yankees fan or a Cardinals fan ever watch another team when theirs is already so successful? What would a Phillies fan get out of watching tonight’s Dodgers game? The fanbases become more partitioned and as such they become overall more apathetic to the idea of the games as a sport, that is, they don’t watch baseball, they watch their teams.

However, because I enjoy baseball as a sport, I’ll happily watch any game. I’m a fan of eight teams, only one of them currently in first place, and one of them without a doubt the worst team in baseball, with the record to show it. But since I became a fan of the sport instead of just my home team, the Phillies, I’ve bought myself more baseball-related merchandise in the past year than I probably did through the rest of my life. Interesting how that works: when you like multiple teams, you buy merchandise related to multiple teams, more merchandise overall.

But MLB doesn’t trust itself, or its sport, to be popular on its own merits. Its decisions regarding the Home Run Derby are simply more evidence of that. Worse, these decisions also clearly demonstrate that MLB will always favor rich teams, or decent players on rich teams, over poor teams or great players on poor teams.

I don’t begrudge Sanchez the chance to compete in the Home Run Derby, and, I think, neither does Logan Morrison. Morrison, however, seems to be disappointed in the fact that MLB has decided that the Derby, the sport itself, is more about star power than it is about proven talent. Morrison is tied for second overall in the American League in home runs; Sanchez is tied for 38th. Morrison wasn’t even contacted; Sanchez is going to Miami. Morrison is angry not at Sanchez nor at his own performance; he is angry at MLB.

MLB’s decision, of course, sends a message loud and clear to all active MLB players: If you want us to recognize you, you better be on a large-market team. Khris Davis (23 home runs, tied with Moustakas) is, obviously, wasted in Oakland; he should move across the Bay if he wants his own shot at the Derby.

And so it goes. The best players are encouraged to move to the teams with tons of money so that they can make those teams even more money, while the teams who simply can’t offer as much end up bleeding any stars they produce just because those stars’ talents won’t be recognized as legitimate unless they’re being paid astounding sums of money.

And all this despite the fact that a sport should be an entertaining way of proving one’s talent and being rewarded commensurately with that talent regardless of whether or not one can win an online popularity vote, regardless of whether lines like “I doubt fans are crying out to watch him take his batting practice whacks over the likes of Sanchez” can be written about a player to justify — and talk down to — a player upset that his success has been written off in favor of someone the league office, in its godlike wisdom, has decided is more “marketable” than he.

All because MLB hates baseball.

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