The first few months of 2013 were an embarrassing time for the Los Angeles Dodgers. It was the first full year under their new ownership, the first year they were spending more than any other team in the National League. And at the end of June they were in last place.
"Smart beats rich, period," the club's president and CEO, Stan Kasten, told me at the time. "We're going to be a rich team. Now it's up to us to do smart things. If you're smart and rich, you're going to have an advantage."
The Dodgers have been extraordinarily rich. They have had the league's highest attendance each season since then, and they have spent a lot of money. Since the 2013 season, they've spent $1.4 billion on payroll. Other teams that have spent $1.4 billion on payroll: the Brewers, the A's and the Rays, put together.
They have similarly spent on everything beneficial that isn't payroll. They poached Andrew Friedman, their president of baseball operations, for what was reportedly the sport's highest executive salary -- and then let Friedman surround himself with high-profile executives. They've invested on big items and small, on traditional expenses and unique ones: more scouts, more statistical analysts, more injury-prevention data, deluxe Dominican facilities, a sustainable garden (for player meals), an academy just for pinch runners and a startup-incubation program. They aren't just rich and smart; they use their richness to get even smarter, which is pretty wise.
Baseball is a game, and all games are designed to be competitive. The Dodgers should be terrifying to the game designers: a team starts out with far more resources than everybody else and is also at least as smart, if not smarter, than everybody else. If you tried this in Monopoly -- gave the better player a lot more money at the start of the game -- it would be a catastrophe. If baseball worked like other games, the Dodgers would have ruined it by now.
But they haven't turned baseball into a farce. They might still miss the playoffs this year. They have won fewer games than the Brewers and the A's and have the same number of wins as the Rays. Indeed, if you want to identify the main reason the National League pennant race has been so wildly up in the air this month, it's mostly the Dodgers. If the Dodgers were on pace to win 100-plus games, as logic tells you they should be -- smartest team and richest team! -- the NL West would have been shut down months ago. Instead, the division race is going down to the wire.
Kasten and the executives he hired have been brilliant and successful. It's an incredible thing about baseball, though, how that success hasn't necessarily created a dominant team.
The game you learned from your parents when you were a kid -- throw the ball, hit the ball, catch the ball -- is a typical game. This is the game played between the players. They start each game at 0-0, each plate appearance at 0-for-0. The players begin on even footing, and the game is determined by who plays the best and who gets lucky.
But the game you learned from sports talk radio when you were a bit older is not a typical game. This is the game played between the executives who put the teams together. In some ways, this game has more in common with deck-building games, like "Magic: The Gathering." The front office tries to build a "deck" -- a collection of players whom they can deploy -- using a variety of acquisition tactics. Skill matters a great deal. Luck matters a great deal. But so, too, do the assets the front office starts with as it tries to build its deck. In this game, each season -- or each offseason -- doesn't start with everybody on even footing, because some teams get to spend a lot more on players than other teams.
Put this way, it seems incredibly unfair. And it is! While the relationship between dollars and wins fluctuates from era to era, it's persistently in favor of the money. Craig Edwards measured this most recently, for FanGraphs. Looking at sustained success over the past four years, he found:
Of the eight teams with an average payroll of $150 million, five of them were incredibly successful, with a minimum of an 89-win pace per season. Of the 11 teams with average payrolls under $110 million, none of them had sustained success and only two were around .500.
And yet, every rich team -- even every rich-plus-smart team -- has bumped up against a sort of ceiling that keeps them from dominating the league. Rich-Smart teams can sustain success, but they can't expand the limits of success. Consider what route a team like the Dodgers might want to use to build a 130-win team:
1. Sign all the best players. It's hard for a team to differentiate itself too much on strategy or style, so "good baseball players" tend to be the one reliable way to produce good baseball. A good plan would be to go out and sign the best player at every position, easy-peasy, 145 wins guaranteed.
Alas, the good players aren't all actually available. We know this intuitively, but we might not appreciate just how true it is: Of the 70 best players in baseball this year by WAR, eight -- eight! -- have ever been free agents. (And those eight weren't all good when they were free agents! Max Muncy, a Dodger who was released by the A's just before his age-26 season, counts as one of those eight. So is Justin Turner, another Dodger, who was non-tendered -- basically released -- by the Mets.) If your strategy is to use your wealth to sign the best players, you literally can't do it. Nine of the 10 best players in baseball this year have never been free agents. Two were signed to early extensions by the teams that drafted them; seven don't have enough service time to qualify for free agency. There is no level of rich or smart you can be to get these players. They are not yours. You don't get them!
2. So trade for the good players. Except virtually every trade for good players will make a team worse in the more distant future. That's the trade-off: A whole lot of future for a fair amount of today. Because of the incentives involved, it's almost always more (or, at least, collectively more) future than today.
Again, we know this intuitively, but consider the 2010 trade deadline, to pick a random time frame: There were 23 trades that could be described as one team trying to get better now, acquiring a player from a team trying to get better later. The now acquisitions produced 33 WAR with their new teams. Meanwhile, Corey Kluber -- one of the many minor leaguers moved that week -- has all by himself been worth that much in his career since, all under the control of the team that got him. The future acquisitions included some flops, some busts, but collectively they produced about 125 WAR for their teams before hitting free agency. (And some still haven't hit free agency.) Patrick Corbin, Mark Melancon, Tanner Roark, Tyler Skaggs, Wilson Ramos and J.A. Happ were all traded, and were all five or six seasons away from free agency at the time. Teams that try to get better by trading for major leaguers get smoked. It's usually a rational decision to do so, and those teams that get smoked often have no regrets about getting smoked. But since we're looking at the Dodgers across multiple seasons, it looks like a smoking.
3. So, uh, collect all the good players. Get 'em and never let 'em go, until eventually they're all yours.
I don't really need to explain the flaw here. Players get old, they get worse. But even before they get old, they get worse. The vast majority of good players this year will be worse next year.
How much of a majority? OK, there were 417 major leaguers last year -- pitchers and hitters -- who were worth at least 1.0 win above replacement. An average player who plays full time is worth about 2.0 WAR, so that's not that high a bar to clear, but we're talking about the best 15 or so players on each team. How many of them would you guess are better this year than they were last year?
The answer is 110. Almost three-quarters are worse this year than they were last year. Only about half will end the season with more than 1.0 WAR, which, again, is not a very high bar. Of course, partly this is a sample bias -- players who were good last year are more likely to have been playing above their true talent -- but identifying good players is a constant battle with the question of who is and isn't playing above their true talent.
Of course, some players get better. Every year rosters are loaded with players who are better than they were. Often, these players are not just marginally better but miraculously better, players who went from waivers to the All-Star team, or from the 30th round of the draft to Cy Young ballots. But picking which players those will be, out of thousands of candidates, is so hard that not even smart-plus-rich can reliably do it -- at least, not with the limited roster spots that major league teams have to play with. And it's the smart-plus-rich teams that usually have the fewest major league roster spots to take fliers with.
Almost every move a team can make that makes them better today will make them a little bit worse tomorrow. (Or, if not tomorrow, then one, two ... six years from now.) They will cost a team in talent, in salary commitment and in roster flexibility. This is probably one reason why, even though richness (and presumably smartness) is relatively consistent from year to year, record isn't; why this decade there has been no statistical correlation between the standings in one season and the standings three years later. Success doesn't beget success. In key ways, it cannibalizes it.
If the Dodgers miss the playoffs this year, there will be plenty of fingers to point -- from the offseason decision to cut payroll to get under the luxury tax, to any of a hundred managerial decisions to bring in a particular reliever from the bullpen.
But Kasten's promise in 2013 -- to be smart, not just rich -- has been kept. The Dodgers turned a bottom-tier farm system into a reliably top-third system. Their farm system in 2015 has produced the fourth-most wins above replacement at the major league level; their farm system in 2016 has produced the fifth most. (This despite the lower draft picks successful teams get, and the obligation to trade some future for a bit of today at each year's trade deadline.)
The Dodgers have found treasures where nobody else saw them. Only four hitters have outperformed their preseason projections more than waiver-pickup Muncy this year; only two outperformed projections more than trade-pickup Chris Taylor last year. Not every trade or signing has worked out, but one is hard-pressed to think of any that were easily criticized at the time they were made. They have won the NL West five straight times, and they might very well win this year's title. They've outperformed their run differential every year before this one, suggesting (if not nearly proving) they've been making good tactical moves in the dugout. Somewhere in the Dominican Republic they have a sustainable garden producing chard or something.
And even five-and-a-half months into this year, an unusually stumbly one, some projection systems see them as the NL's best team, and they are a club no playoff team wants to face:
Have heard from multiple officials with rival N.L. teams that they would really prefer the Dodgers not to reach the playoffs, because they so clearly have more talent than the rest of the league.— Andy McCullough (@McCulloughTimes) September 12, 2018
Indeed, and yet, alas.
That might just be the best you can do in this game: never that far away from (relative) disaster. Still good enough that every team in the league is afraid of you, even at your lowest point.