Sports fandom makes emotions run hot. That's fine. But it sometimes causes us to spin off into arguments that make no sense. And this is a website where logic should always be our guide.
With the holidays fast approaching, here's a simple guide on how talk about the Rays without seeming like a crazy person.
An "Unfair" Game
"Wealth" is a concept that depends wholly on context. All of the following are true. They are not arguments against each other:
- Relative to most of us, principal owner Stuart Sternberg is very rich. He'll be able to put food on his table for the forseeable future, and probably will even be able to afford to own his home in the depressed Florida housing market. He is not "beyond uncomfortable," and with a little more media savvy, he wouldn't have used those words.
- Relative to other baseball teams, the Rays are very poor. Compared to most teams, they make less from people attending games, and they make less on their TV deal. And baseball's league structure does a pisspoor job of evening things out.
- Despite all the problems that come with the Rays being a small-market team, they've been a good investment for Sternberg, rapidly in creasing in value over his time here.
- Don't expect salary to go up without revenue going up. Stu is a businessman, not a philanthropist.
So we know that the Rays have less money to spend on player salary than do their opponents. What does that mean?
- For the first six years of their major league career, players are "cost-controlled," and good players are payed more than their worth on the field. After that, those players become free agents, and are paid their full worth. The Rays cannot afford to pay many good players their full worth.
- Rather than let players hit free agency, the Rays trade those players a year or two ahead of time (when they are most expensive) and try to restock for the next generation of good young players.
- Prospects are risky. Some turn out, some don't. The Rays can win if enough of their prospects turn out well, and will always struggle to make the playoffs if not enough do.
- Sometimes, the Rays can convince their good young players to sign under-market deals that guarantee them money and keep them in Tampa Bay longer than six years. Not all players will take this type of deal, and it's a business decision, not a moral one.
- Until the economics of the game change, this cycle is here to stay.
A New Stadium
When we talk about Rays' finances, that often turns to a discussion of a possible new stadium. All of the following are true. They are not arguments against each other:
- A new stadium will help attendance. It will do this because new stadiums almost always drive a (usually temporary) attendance bounce, but it will also help because it will presumably be in a more optimal location.
- In most cases, the magnitude of the increased attendance from a new stadium is not enough to pay for the cost of the new stadium. This is why teams seek public financing for stadiums rather than just build them themselves.
- It is difficult to justify spending public money on a stadium in economics terms. Every independent study of the economic impact has concluded that there is no positive impact to speak of, and that there may even be a small negative impact. This includes the potential hosting of events like the All-Star Game. Anyone claiming otherwise either has an agenda themselves, or has been reading studies done by people who want to get stadiums built.
- It may be possible to justify public money for a stadium by quantifying "civic pride" and "sense of community."
- The St. Pete city council does not hate Tampa Bay. They're just trying to get the best deal for their constituents.
When we talk about a possible new stadium, that often turns to attendance. I don't like to talk about attendance, but as Rays fans, it's not something we can avoid. Again, all of the following are true. They are not arguments against each other:
- The Rays do not have a great fanbase. We attend baseball games at a lower rate than many other markets of similar size. Partly, this is because the Rays have only been around since 1997, the area is relatively old, relatively poor, and relatively made up of people from elsewhere.
- If you are a great fan, cool. The above bullet point isn't about you.
- Also, who cares? There's no moral imperative to attend baseball games.
- Tropicana Field is a lot nicer than it once was.
- Tropicana Field is not nice, relative to the best stadiums in baseball.
- The Rays attendance is hurt by the fact that the stadium is not located so as to include the greatest possible amount of people within a 30 minute commute. The Tampa Bay area will always be at a disadvantage in this regard, however, because the weighted geographic center of the population would fall somewhere in . . . Tampa Bay.
- The Rays are also at a disadvantage because in addition to bad traffic, there is no mass transit infrastructure in the area.
How does this all translate to the baseball diamond?
- Because the Rays play against teams with more resources than them, they need to do something different than their opponents. They need to find a way to be better. This can take many forms.
- "Market inefficiencies" are skills or strategies that are currently underused or undervalued. If the Rays can identify them, they can acquire good players who their richer competitors aren't focused on. But market inefficiencies are fleeting. If the Rays do find one, other teams recognize it and soon adjust their own thinking. Do not expect the Rays to beat the market consistently over the long term, but they still have to try.
- Some of the more celebrated market inefficiencies have been OBP (many years ago, now mostly valued), defense and shifts (2008-?), catcher framing (just a few years old).
- The other thing the Rays have to do is use all of their resources to be as good or better than their opponents in all the traditional areas. This includes scouting and development. The Rays have been most successful at this in the field of pitcher development, where they've been able to both find small market inefficiencies (like the underuse of changeups to same-handed hitters and of high fastballs as a strikeout pitch) and meld them with top-flight coaching from Jim Hickey on down the line.
- The Rays have further improved their pitching results by limiting their starter workload and transferring those innings to the bullpen -- now they just need the bullpen to hold up.
- The Rays have not been as successful in developing hitters, although this may be partly due to the fact that they place a premium on defense as well, so they're not selecting purely for hitting ability. This does not mean that they don't care about hitting. I'm sure Silverman would go get a player like Prince Fielder if he could.
- The Rays are attempting to be on the cutting edge of injury avoidance, as seen by them being the first team to install a biomechanics tracking system in The Trop to study their pitchers. Hopefully that pays dividends, although it will be tough to tell.
Finally we get to the players. Here are a few things to keep in mind, when you're doing something bizarre like calling a talk radio station or speaking to your Cousin Todd over the Christmas ham:
- Evan Longoria is not bad at baseball. In fact, you should assert that his is good at basebal. It's possible that you or your relations find him disappointing, because he has not turned into the perennial MVP-candidate, Hall-of-Fame-bound superstar that looked like a possibility as he began his career. But still, he's among the best players in baseball, he's a good hitter, an excellent defender, and he signed a deal to stay in Tampa Bay for much of his career, at prices that are very reasonable, twice. That's good to have around.
- Chris Archer is an ace, and he too has taken a deal to stay in Tampa Bay for the long haul. What's more, he seems like a genuinely good guy. Y'all should like him.
- Kevin Kiermaier is the best outfield defender in baseball right now, and one of the best of the past decade at least. He has a super fast first step, and has top-end speed as well. He goes hard in the outfield. This makes him a pleasure to watch. It'd be great if he'd hit a bit more, but with this type of sensational outfield talent, a big bat isn't necessary.
- Baseball is difficult to predict. After the 2014 season, no one here predicted Logan Forsythe to be the team MVP, so don't write guys off. That being said, some combination of Steven Souza Jr., Nick Franklin, Tim Beckham, and Hank Conger need to step up for this team to make waves. Brad Miller being an all-star would be nice as well.
- Don't let the lack of saves fool you, Jake McGee is the best reliever on this team. Brad Boxberger needs to get his command back. One of them will probably be traded because the cost of good relievers is sky high.
- James Loney does not hit lefties well. Stop saying that he does, Todd.
- Who's the next big promotion? Blake Snell. He was named Baseball America's minor league prospect of the year. You should get legitimately excited when he gets called up, probably at some point next season. But don't freak out if he struggles. Pitching in the majors is hard.
There you have it. Go forth and make sense when you speak.