Efficiency

Last night, or this morning, depending on what kind of person you are, Geoff Baker put up a new blogpost. The title is "How the myth that cost-effectiveness means something in baseball helps all teams get richer on other people's cash", and it is far from the first thing that Baker has written on the subject. Baker also recently gave a talk on the subject, which he links within his post. There are three parts.

A very quick and probably incomplete summary of Baker's position: fans worry way too much about their teams being efficient with their money, when they should be demanding that their teams spend more money. Teams don't get anything for being efficient. Teams get things for being good, and money buys good. Fans should stop letting certain owners get away with spending less money than they're able to.

Now, I see two things here. On one, Baker's probably right - I'm guessing a lot of teams could run higher payrolls than they do and survive, if not flourish. Owners are loaded. They pretty much have to be, to be owners. That's obviously a very simplistic view, and I can't sit here and prove anything either way, but taking the specific example of the Mariners, the Mariners could probably increase payroll a fair amount without ruining the people in charge. That is most likely an option.

But the other thing - there's a reason why fans care about efficiency. There's a reason why it's important. All teams operate with certain budgetary constraints. Baker feels like more teams should loosen the constraints. But as long as they aren't doing that - and they usually aren't doing that - it's important to maximize within the constraints as they're set.

Let's look again at the Mariners. It's one thing to talk about whether or not Prince Fielder makes good sense if the Mariners raise payroll somewhat substantially. It's another thing to talk about whether or not Prince Fielder makes good sense if the Mariners keep payroll around where it's been. We can sit here and clamor for the Mariners to spend more, because spending more would probably make them better, but as long as it's more likely that the Mariners don't spend much more, we have to address that situation. We have to talk about the Mariners as if they'll spend what they've spent.

And that doesn't only apply to the M's. The less money a team spends, the more efficient it has to be with that money in order to contend. That's very simple math. Let's say the target is 90 wins. Team A has a payroll of $50 million, and Team B has a payroll of $100 million. Team A has to be more efficient than Team B. That's where WAR/$ comes in. It is a consideration. It has to be.

The goal is not to maximize WAR per dollar. The goal is to win a bunch of games. But efficiency improves flexibility, or inefficiency reduces flexibility, however you want to look at it. It's good that the Mariners got John Jaso for pretty cheap, because that leaves them more resources to continue to add. It's good that the Mariners got Hisashi Iwakuma for pretty cheap, because that leaves them more resources to continue to add. If a team has a certain amount of budget room to work with, why shouldn't the focus be on being as efficient with that budget room as is possible?

The Mariners, so far, have had an efficient offseason. They got Iwakuma for cheap. They got Jaso for cheap. They got Sherrill for kind of cheap. They signed a bunch of guys to minor league contracts, including Munenori Kawasaki, who could fill a need. If the Mariners stopped now, no one would be happy. No one wants the Mariners to trim payroll. But the efficiency to date has left the Mariners room to add more. The Mariners might still have room to sign Prince Fielder. If not Fielder, then, I don't know, Carlos Pena and Jeff Francis, or Hiroki Kuroda. Or they could trade for dudes. The Mariners have options to improve - options they would not have had they been less efficient.

Efficiency is not the goal. Efficiency is a means towards a goal. To argue against efficiency is to argue in favor of inefficiency, which doesn't make any sense. The Angels will survive the Vernon Wells trade, but that doesn't mean things wouldn't be a little easier for them had they not made the Vernon Wells trade. They'd tell you as much, albeit maybe not on the record.

If we wanted, the underlying message for everything here could be "the Mariners should just spend more money." I do think the Mariners should spend more money, because it wouldn't make things worse. But that would get old, and we have to deal with the likely reality that the Mariners aren't going to spend much more money, at least soon. Given those constraints, then, we talk about how the Mariners can make the most of what they have available. By doing that, they'd end up in the best position.

Efficiency is important. It's critical. It's critical even for the big-spending teams. It's just a little less critical for them than it is for the others. Nobody wants their team to run a tiny payroll and generate a high WAR/$. But it's funny what happens when you generate a high WAR/$ at the established payroll you have. Most of the time, you win a lot of games.

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