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Monday, March 03, 2014

Bill James Mailbag - 2/27/14 - 3/2/14

Don Coffin was originally intended to manage Kane the Undertaker.

Hey, Bill, would you agree with me that HOF voters have spent a lot of time debating Jack Morris’ candidacy to the Hall and because of that they have overlooked more qualified candidates?  I am talking about Tim Raines, Fred McGriff, Alan Trammell or Edgar Martinez. Look, I don’t believe that Morris belongs to the HOF, but who am I? Fact is, I have read every argument on behalf of Morris while I haven’t heard the bandwagon for more legitamate candidates. And when Jim Kaat or Tommy John were in the ballot, I didn’t felt the same passion in the arguments of their supporters…

The arguments about Morris are fueled by the other side, and we can’t do anything about it if they keep pouring gasoline on the fire. They have the right to do so. Traditionalists have come to see Jack Morris as “their” guy, who is being kept out of the Hall of Fame by us people over here. We’d like the discussion to move on, yes, but what are you going to do?

In 1956, every National League team had an outfielder of historic greatness on the team, ranging from among the best ever to the merely stellar. Let me lay it out: Giants - Mays, Dodgers - Snider, Braves - Aaron, Reds - Robinson, Pirates - Clemente, Cardinals - Musial, Phillies - Ashburn, Cubs - Monte Irvin. Was this a unique occurrence (the AL that year, for example, had only 3 outfielders who had top flight careers)? Is it something that has become more difficult to sustain as the number of teams have grown?

Are you saying that Bob Cerv is not a player of historic stature? Pretty interesting. I would think it was historically unique, but. . who knows?

Hey, bill. For something I’m working on, I noticed that the rate of hit batters per game (per team) in MLB is now about 0.35—one hit batter per team every three games, roughly. As recently as 1980, it was 0.14, or one every 7 games. The last time the rate of hit batters was this high was in 1910. (Data from Baseball Reference.) Is this something we should be more worried about than we apparently are? (I’ll admit it worries me.)

I hadn’t looked at it in a few years. It’s related to the increase in strikeouts. If you’re trying to hit homers—and EVERYBODY now is trying to hit homers—one of the things you do is crowd the plate to increase your pull zone. One of the things that could (and probably should) be done to reduce homers is to move the hitters off the plate an inch or two.

Hey, Bill- Am I right to recall that you once questioned whether athletes who are represented by agents should also be able to form a union? If not, I apologize for the misattribution. But if so, I was hoping you could elaborate some on that. I applaud the work unions have done to by and large improve the work conditions for athletes, notably the MLBPA under Marvin Miller. But is this form of dual representation still a good idea? It seems like they can work at cross-purposes, in that what individual agents seek for their players can be hampered by membership in a union that includes both, e.g., Mike Trout and 12-year journeymen—and vice versa. Anyhow, I don’t have any strong views on the issue, but just note that it seems like an odd arrangement, and one that is only prevalent in sports and entertainment (SAG vs. the William Morris Agency, e.g.). Thanks.

Yes, it is my opinion that dual representation by an agent and a union is. . ..an odd situation presenting some issues about what is appropriate. I don’t know that I want to elaborate on it. MAYBE it’s appropriate; I just have some questions about it.

The District Attorney Posted: March 03, 2014 at 09:17 PM | 28 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: bill james, business, hall of fame, jack morris, labor, sabermetrics, statistics

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   1. Walt Davis Posted: March 03, 2014 at 11:04 PM (#4665815)
Q#1: I suspect not. McGriff it seems to me is the only guy with a potential narrative and that's a "this is what power hitters looked like before all the roids" argument which is not warm, fuzzy or even attractive from a "get off my lawn" perspective. Trammell et al don't have a Game 7 or most wins in the 80s or toughest pitcher of his era sort of gimmick to hitch a narrative to.

It probably makes as much sense to speculate that "we" were so focused on keeping Morris out that we didn't form a Blyleven-like campaign for Raines (a bit of one) or Trammell (not at all near as I can tell) or Edgar (ditto). Of course I consider Raines and Edgar kinda borderline and, with the ballot packed, there's not much hope for any grassroots campaign. (A campaign to push Bagwell over the line would be good but he's at too healthy a percentage to really be "grassroots")

#2: the NL of the 50s had a near monopoly on black players. It turns out a lot of them were very good. Also by 56, Irvin was not particularly good -- still a decent player; in 56, Clemente wasn't good yet, even Robinson was a very good rookie so in part this factoid derives from having full careers to look at. Between expansion and the relative dearth of HoF-level careers of the late 70s/80s, finding an entire league full is unlikely.

#4: It's a craft union not a labor union. Actors, directors, screenwriters have their guilds and agents. Doctors and lawyers have their guilds and while they may not have 'agents' per se, they may employ somebody to negotiate their contract and/or a placement agency to find them a job. So it's hardly unique.
   2. McCoy Posted: March 03, 2014 at 11:33 PM (#4665821)
All those great OFers and the Cubs get the guy that is playing his last season and it is his only season with them. Typical Cubs.
   3. theboyqueen Posted: March 04, 2014 at 12:41 AM (#4665844)
Speaking only about what I know, doctors are not required to be part of any guild in order to practice medicine, at least not in the United States (unless the state medical boards count as guilds somehow, but even if they do they certainly are not comparable to any sort of union). And those who employ agents of any kind are a tiny minority.

I am not really sure what conflict James is getting at though. Agents and their union are both good for players, and they would suffer without either.
   4. cardsfanboy Posted: March 04, 2014 at 01:04 AM (#4665856)
He didn't say it was a conflict, just that it's an odd situation. I can understand what he is talking about, if this was a normal union. Having two people bargaining against the employer just seems weird if not somewhat unfair. But this isn't a normal union as Walt pointed out, it's a craft guild. The union negotiates minimum rights for all employees, while the agents are there helping to get the best possible deal for their individual client.
   5. JE (Jason) Posted: March 04, 2014 at 01:17 AM (#4665864)
I am not really sure what conflict James is getting at though. Agents and their union are both good for players, and they would suffer without either.

What I find uncomfortable is when one agent represents multiple free agent position players or pitchers in the same offseason. How is that not, at minimum, a potential conflict of interest when there are only 30 employers in the bigs?
   6. theboyqueen Posted: March 04, 2014 at 01:21 AM (#4665866)
He didn't say it was a conflict, just that it's an odd situation. I can understand what he is talking about, if this was a normal union. Having two people bargaining against the employer just seems weird if not somewhat unfair. But this isn't a normal union as Walt pointed out, it's a craft guild. The union negotiates minimum rights for all employees, while the agents are there helping to get the best possible deal for their individual client.


I don't see anything weird, and certainly not unfair, about any of that no matter what sort of union we are talking about. Unless one thinks unions are somehow inherently communist or something.
   7. cardsfanboy Posted: March 04, 2014 at 01:31 AM (#4665868)
I don't see anything weird, and certainly not unfair, about any of that no matter what sort of union we are talking about. Unless one thinks unions are somehow inherently communist or something.


Each person has their feelings of what feels weird differently. I don't see any problem with what is going on in the major leagues, but I can at least perceive why some people might feel this is a little weird.
   8. Tulo's Fishy Mullet (mrams) Posted: March 04, 2014 at 01:36 AM (#4665871)
Some State Bar Associations are not mandatory (can't recall which ones). My state bar does, and the dues are carved up to a number of buckets which depending on your persuasion, may or may not irritate you as a lawyer. ABA membership isn't required. I suspect most attys aren't members. I'm more likely to join a local Astronomy club than the ABA. Same with American Medical Assoc, although that doesn't stop them from sending my wife about 100 different looking pieces of mail, some 'urgent', others less conspicuous in an effort to send somebody $658 for the year and some magazine she won't read. It's really hospitals, surgery centers and other facilities that as a condition of employment, will require membership with the State equivalent. Becoming 'Board Certified' is really the only thing an MD should really want to do following residency, that and pay off your loans.
   9. asinwreck Posted: March 04, 2014 at 09:40 AM (#4665912)
Rare is the SAG or AFTRA member who does not have an agent.
   10. Rants Mulliniks Posted: March 04, 2014 at 09:48 AM (#4665916)
#2 - and Ashburn is the worst player in the group at that.
   11. villageidiom Posted: March 04, 2014 at 10:44 AM (#4665961)
Yes, it is my opinion that dual representation by an agent and a union is. . ..an odd situation presenting some issues about what is appropriate.
I don't think it's that different from having a House of Representatives (representing a proportion of the population) and a Senate (representing a state). Or having a public transit pass and a car. There are individual interests and collective interests, both of which affect the individual. We shouldn't expect one group advocating for both to be a better arrangement than separate groups advocating for each.

Conflict arises when agents represent two players whose interests are best served in the same job. Say, Xander Bogaerts and Stephen Drew, regarding shortstop in Boston. Because of the QO it's financially better for Drew to sign with Boston than with other teams; but it's in Bogaerts' (future) financial interests that Drew not do that. The conflict exists independent* of the union.

* Not entirely independent, as the QO system was collectively bargained. Still, irrespective of a QO system one could still have a situation where two players represented by the same agent are vying for one job.

EDITed slightly for clarity.
   12. bjhanke Posted: March 04, 2014 at 03:01 PM (#4666214)
I don't know an enormous amount about baseball contract negotiations, but people have mentioned AFTRA and SAG. And I do know several special effects artists in Hollywood (they all moved from STL to Hollywood at the same time, and I stayed in touch). One of the things that the unions do that agents cannot do is work out minimum safety standards for the entire industry. For example, there was a movie a couple of decades ago (forgotten the title) that was about Vietnam, and one scene called for a helicopter to come down and rescue a couple of small Vietnamese children. Well, the director kept wanting the helicopter to come down lower and lower. The special effects guy on set told him that this was WAY too dangerous, but the director had gotten caught up in his mystic crystal vision and wanted that helicopter to come down as far as it could. It ended horribly. The helicopter's updraft caught one of the kids, who didn't weigh nearly as much as an adult, and dragged him up into the path of the blades, which promptly sliced the kid to death. The special effects union went to work. Directors can't do that any more, because special effects guys can now shut down the entire shoot if they think it's too dangerous. Before the helicopter thing, they could not do this.

One of the guys I know actually had to do that to a director. When you see an actor flying through a window, it looks convincing, although the actor does not look like glass has been slicing his face any. The way they do this is that they set a small charge to blow up a glass pane in front of the actor and another behind him (from the point of view of the camera). So the actor is safe, but it looks like he's surrounded by the glass "he" broke through. Well, one day a director decided to just do it for real - actually have the actor break through the window. If you are a director, a lot of your job is to manipulate actors' short-term emotions, so the director had the actor all gung-ho to do this fresh, new, groundbreaking technique. The special effects guy, seeing the probable loss of one or two eyes and the certainty of lots of slashes on the actor's face, said no. The director told the special effects guy to shut up. The special effects guy shut down the shoot, until the director caved. Saved the actor's career, very possibly, because he saved the actor's face. In the film industry, that's a lot of what the unions do. They negotiate for their highly-trained guys to have control over the things they are trained at, rather than having to submit to a director who may be caught up in his own ego and emotions, and who is likely not a trained special effects guy anyway. But, like I say, I don't know if that's a part of what the baseball union does. It certainly could be, though. - Brock Hanke
   13. RoyalsRetro (AG#1F) Posted: March 04, 2014 at 03:16 PM (#4666229)
. For example, there was a movie a couple of decades ago (forgotten the title) that was about Vietnam, and one scene called for a helicopter to come down and rescue a couple of small Vietnamese children.


"The Twilight Zone". The director was John Landis. Veteran actor Vic Morrow and two children - Ca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi Chen died.
   14. Walt Davis Posted: March 04, 2014 at 04:56 PM (#4666337)
Well, craft unions, probably even moreso than labor ones, have been declining in power for ages. But the AMA and the ABA were significant forces behind state bar associations, licensing requirements, etc.

This is one of the fundamental differences between craft and labor unions. Labor unions are always looking to expand membership, craft unions are looking to limit membership (via legally-required licensing when possible, certification if not) to maintain exclusivity and high wages. Craft unions of course go belly-up when technology largely wipes out the profession (e.g. typesetters). Anyway, that's basically why the MLBPA doesn't cover minor-leaguers -- and it may be the most exclusive union in the world. (OK, I guess that might be the NBA with the smaller rosters.)

Other posts hit it on the head -- the Union can bargain the collective stuff (uniform contract, minimum wage, publicity rights, rules about per diems, etc.) It's theoretically possible for them to negotiate a universal pay structure (e.g. we take 50% of league revenue and distribute it "fairly") but that's only likely to hurt both the guys who could have made more and the ones who could have signed for $5.

It's also a reaction to the "weirdness" of pro sports leagues. MLB is both a single corporate entity and 30 different corporations. Most employers are not organized in that way so a standard union approach won't work. MLBPA negotiates with MLB, the agent negotiates with the team. If the teams were truly independent, you might see no MLBPA at all or you might see it negotiating separate collective agreements with each team.
   15. Johnny Sycophant-Laden Fora Posted: March 04, 2014 at 06:32 PM (#4666416)
The director told the special effects guy to shut up. The special effects guy shut down the shoot, until the director caved. Saved the actor's career, very possibly, because he saved the actor's face. In the film industry, that's a lot of what the unions do. They negotiate for their highly-trained guys to have control over the things they are trained at, rather than having to submit to a director who may be caught up in his own ego and emotions, and who is likely not a trained special effects guy anyway.


Not an example of a Union, but early in WWI just about every military realized that airplane pilots HAD to be given officer rank, since otherwise trained pilots were being ordered around by other soldiers who had no idea of what flying actually entailed.
   16. Don Malcolm Posted: March 05, 2014 at 03:13 AM (#4666586)
Having agents and unions involved (but rarely, if ever overlapping in their functions) for ballplayers is no more "odd" than having baseball itself purporting to be a "free enterprise" system when it is in fact a monopoly. That masquerade was far more egregious in the days of the unfettered reserve clause, which operated in an even more Draconian way than the old movie studio contracts for actors. All this evolved because of the unique nature of the "star quality" involved, and is pretty self-explanatory. Seems like the odd situation is something residing inside Bill's head on this one.

The interesting question is why ballplayers don't negotiate their own contracts anymore. It seems that free agency added a layer of "complexity" that allowed a class of individuals to operate as something analogous to usurers--or, worse yet, like real estate agents. Then again, "star quality" (i.e. charisma) seems to induce the ancillary phenomenon known as an "entourage" (a uniquely frenzied variant of paternalism).
   17. vivaelpujols Posted: March 05, 2014 at 03:18 AM (#4666588)
It probably makes as much sense to speculate that "we" were so focused on keeping Morris out that we didn't form a Blyleven-like campaign for Raines (a bit of one) or Trammell (not at all near as I can tell) or Edgar (ditto). Of course I consider Raines and Edgar kinda borderline and, with the ballot packed, there's not much hope for any grassroots campaign. (A campaign to push Bagwell over the line would be good but he's at too healthy a percentage to really be "grassroots")


It seems likely that there is some backlash involved in Morris' hall of fame campaign. I think you're trying too hard to be democratic.
   18. bjhanke Posted: March 06, 2014 at 03:25 AM (#4667081)
RoyalsRetro - Thanks for the info. I have gotten in the habit of deliberately forgetting the names involved when I hear a special effects story. The reason is that in Hollywood, reputation is almost everything. If a special effects guy were to out a director for having done something like that, or if I were to out one by naming names that I got from the special effects guy, the special effects guy might well find it hard to get work afterwards. So I don't put names on these stories, unless the guy in question posted it on Facebook or something. The Twilight Zone fiasco was a well-reported national story for a while, so I don't think naming names is going to cause any harm on that one.

Walt and Don are getting at something that I think is important to the whole development of free agency: Why don't players just negotiate their own contracts, instead of paying percentages to agents? I have always thought, without really ever knowing the answer, that the reason is that the GM is, in effect, the agent for the owner. GMs are trained in how to negotiate. Baseball players are not. Player agents are. I think it may be as simple as that. If the players negotiate their own contracts, they are doing so as untrained agents, while the GM they are negotiating with is a trained agent. I think there is little doubt that, in contract negotiations, you can view the GM as the owner's agent and pretty much get everything right. But I would be VERY willing to be educated on this subject, because I don't really know anything.

I do know that Walt is absolutely right about craft unions limiting membership, at least in Hollywood special effects. There are special effects licenses that require all the people who already hold them to unanimously vote to license any new guy. One no vote, no license. Absolute blackball. You don't have to give a reason. There appears to be a LOT of personal politics involved in getting some of the most-coveted licenses. - Brock Hanke
   19. bookbook Posted: March 06, 2014 at 07:43 AM (#4667090)
Why would a player have the expertise in negotiating to maximize his earnings? To decry the evils of having an agent to negotiate a nine-figure contract is a bit like complaining that Walmart hires computer programmers to maintain their websites. (They have stuff to sell, the internet's right there, what's the problem?)

There is an interesting case to be made that, once initially signed, a player gains virtually nothing from an agent until he makes the majors and accumulates three years of service time. I assume virtually all players maintain representation over that period, and accrue relatively little benefit thereby.
   20. AROM Posted: March 06, 2014 at 10:19 AM (#4667120)
Walt and Don are getting at something that I think is important to the whole development of free agency: Why don't players just negotiate their own contracts, instead of paying percentages to agents? I have always thought, without really ever knowing the answer, that the reason is that the GM is, in effect, the agent for the owner. GMs are trained in how to negotiate. Baseball players are not. Player agents are. I think it may be as simple as that. If the players negotiate their own contracts, they are doing so as untrained agents, while the GM they are negotiating with is a trained agent. I think there is little doubt that, in contract negotiations, you can view the GM as the owner's agent and pretty much get everything right. But I would be VERY willing to be educated on this subject, because I don't really know anything.


It seems pretty obvious why players don't negotiate their contracts. They get better contracts when they have a highly skilled expert do it for them. Pretty much the same reason Carlos Beltran takes his own ABs instead of having a former minor league who hit only 5 homers in 371 games do it for him.

The only athletes who don't have much use for agents are the NBA superstars who are going to get max money. But even these guys benefit from having an agent handle their endorsement deals, so if they are on the payroll anyway might as well let them handle the details.
   21. Jeltzandini Posted: March 06, 2014 at 10:26 AM (#4667123)
There are some athletes in the last few years who have hired flat fee lawyers instead of commissioned agents to help in contract negotiation. That seems pretty smart, especially for the vast majority of guys who aren't going to be involved in the whole endorsement game.

   22. McCoy Posted: March 06, 2014 at 12:16 PM (#4667164)
I assume virtually all players maintain representation over that period, and accrue relatively little benefit thereby.

Which is why agents use that time to create deep relationships with those they represent. For instance Boras has baseball facilities and experienced trainers and instructors that his players can take advantage of. Agents can and do provide other services besides negotiating contracts for them. They can and do bring with them financial and legal advisers.

It's a poor agent who simply pops up for a negotiation of a contract and then disappears until the next one.
   23. Lassus Posted: March 06, 2014 at 02:22 PM (#4667219)
Rare is the SAG or AFTRA member who does not have an agent.

Absolutely. In fact, rare seems a massive oversell.


That hit batter question was interesting.
   24. Mark Donelson Posted: March 06, 2014 at 02:38 PM (#4667229)
Rare is the SAG or AFTRA member who does not have an agent.

I always knew my wife was rare....
   25. Lassus Posted: March 06, 2014 at 02:48 PM (#4667237)
I always knew my wife was rare....

Really? That surprises me. Not the rare part, the no agent part.
   26. Sweet Posted: March 06, 2014 at 05:48 PM (#4667400)
My wife is a professional writer. I'm an attorney who negotiates complicated commercial contracts. Between the two of us we could probably handle her contract negotiations, and yet she has an agent. It's worth the haircut for us not to have to think about those details, but more importantly, interposing an agent allows her to always be the good guy (or gal, I guess) in her dealings with publishers. For a player to get the same deal for himself that an agent could, he would have to risk antagonizing people whom he'll at least see on a regular basis and may have to deal with again in the future.
   27. Don Malcolm Posted: March 06, 2014 at 08:40 PM (#4667495)
The latter comments here all swirl around the idea really underlying what I wrote, which is that there was a massive transformation in sports that made the labor/remuneration issues much more like what had evolved for entertainers during the waning days of the Hollywood studio system. Olivia de Havilland was the Messersmith-McNally of her labor class, and with effects that remain more far-reaching, because the entertainment industry became a different power game wherein actors and agents became producers and actually took on functions analogous to ownership (studio moguls ~= baseball owners). That hasn't happened in sports--yet.

This is also a societal transformation, and is one reason why we've moved away from a more egalitarian view of humanity, with so many forces chipping away at it from so many different directions. That "layer of complexity" is now more than ever part of the way people self-represent (AROM gave us a superb example of that in #20, even though his closing analogy is a**-backwards; Sweet's point in #26 shows the pride of accomplishment in reaching a certain level of status in a "complex" transactional jungle). It's why it is increasingly difficult to have a handshake deal on much of anything, to the point of being considered naive if one even suggests that such is a) possible and/or b) desirable.

I think all of the above comments prove that Bill had a brain cramp at the keyboard during that particular moment. It happens to all of us. If he makes too many of them, though, he might have to...switch agents.
   28. Jarrod HypnerotomachiaPoliphili(Teddy F. Ballgame) Posted: March 06, 2014 at 10:02 PM (#4667527)
Sweet, is your wife a noted advocate of what I'll call (for lack of a better term) accessible fiction? I seem to recall someone here mentioning that he was married to the author I'm thinking of, although that was quite some time ago.

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