1.09.2009

“Smoltz Deserved Better From The Braves”


Here’s a really good column in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

For those of you who don’t follow baseball too closely, John Smoltz, the face of the Atlanta Braves, is close to signing with the Boston Red Sox after Atlanta failed to offer him a competitive contract for the 2009 season.

It’s been hard to root for the Braves the last couple of seasons, but this is a new low. I’ve been a Braves fan since 1987 (which is basically when I first became aware of them), but my fan-dom has reached a crisis point.

Good luck in Boston, Smoltzie.

Thanks to Jared for sending me the link.

12 comments:

Will 1/9/09, 1:41 PM  

I feel pretty much the same way about Trevor Hoffman and the Padres. Part of the problem is that a players career lasts much longer than a GM. However, it is frustratingly for fans to trade the face of your organization even if they aren't "worth" it anymore.

Lori 1/9/09, 2:41 PM  

I so stinkin' mad about this. I've been reading news about it over the last few days. Here's another article: http://www.ajc.com/sports/content/sports/braves/stories/2009/01/08/smoltz_red_sox.html
I can't believe it. I can't believe he doesn't want to end w/ the Braves.

He's the only Braves player that I have longed to watch in person who I have never seen. Every game I've been to, he hasn't been the starting or closing pitcher. Grrr. Who knows, maybe in March he won't be able to throw well since the surgery.

John Wright 1/9/09, 3:49 PM  

I hadn't been able to bring myself to write about this yet because I'm torn.

The rational side of me can understand both parties' arguments. The Braves were probably wise not to invest a large guaranteed amount into a 42-year-old pitcher with arm issues who may or may not return to his formerly dominant form. John Smoltz might not be wise to forgo $3 million to finish his career in Atlanta, regardless of the millions he's made in his career.

The emotional fan side of me sees the other side of both arguments and can't understand why these two parties couldn't come to an agreement that is both fiscally responsible for the team and fair to the player.

So, I didn't really know what to think. I've read four or five articles like the one you linked, but I just don't agree with them at all. Those articles are geared toward the 98% of Braves fans who fall only in the "emotional" category and aren't willing to consider the aforementioned "rational" side of the issue. It's not fair to the rational perspective (and why would it be, since the newspaper needs to cater to the masses?).

The Braves offered Smoltz a deal that was at least in the ballpark of being a fair offer. The Red Sox were willing to guarantee a lot more, and it appears to have turned out great for them.

The Braves' PR machine has bungled things since then, whining in the media about it rather than leaving it at "we offered what we felt we could." They may have (understandably) felt the need to do some damage control after losing a 20-year veteran, but Wren's misleading statements are only adding fuel to the fire now. So now they're messing up what didn't have to be a disaster situation.

Still, the writer's suggestion that $5 million is chump change is ludicrous. That's $5 million that could get you talent worth an extra win or so on the playing field, and no corporation (and that's what the Braves are) would be smart to give out a $5 million gift in this economy to an already-rich man. They perceive that the money is better spent elsewhere, and I have a hard time faulting that logic.

The Braves owed Smoltz nothing more than they gave him, and he owed them nothing more than they got, so I guess I'm still stuck in the middle on this whole thing.

Jared Dockery 1/10/09, 7:29 AM  

I commend anyone who cares about, and spends time thinking about, the Atlanta Braves, so on this issue John and I are brothers in arms. However, I do respectfully disagree on a couple of points.

First, regarding the contention that the "Braves owed Smoltz nothing more than they gave him." From a strictly legal standpoint, this is, of course, true. But from a moral standpoint, I'd have to disagree. And rather strenuously.

Back in 2001, the Yankees offered Smoltz a guaranteed four-year contract worth $52 million. The Braves countered with a guaranteed three-year contract worth $30 million. Smoltzie accepted the latter. In other words, the bearded one left 22 million Yankee dollars sitting on a table, in order to give the Braves a hometown discount.

I am not aware of another professional athlete who ever walked away from that much guaranteed dough, though it is possible. But still, in 2001 Smoltzie displayed a loyalty to the Braves which is almost unprecedented in professional sports. Do they owe him no loyalty in return?

Second, John writes: "That's $5 million that could get you talent worth an extra win or so on the playing field, and no corporation (and that's what the Braves are) would be smart to give out a $5 million gift in this economy to an already-rich man."

There is some truth in this, but that is assuming that you can find someone more productive who is willing to take the $5 million you have to offer. That has not been the case thus far in the Braves' offseason (see Burnett and Furcal). We will have to see how the negotiations with Lowe go.

But even if you could find another pitcher who will be able to provide more wins per salary dollar than Smoltz, that is not the entire picture.

There is also the effect Smoltz has upon the "98% of Braves fans who fall only in the 'emotional' category and aren't willing to consider the aforementioned "rational" side of the issue." Regardless of their analytical skills, these 98 percent are the ones who buy tickets. Even if the Braves sign Lowe, will he be able to generate as much enthusiasm amongst Braves fans as Smoltz? And therefore, as much revenue? Doubtful.

Then, there is also the effect that retaining Smoltz would have had upon the other Braves players. There can be absolutely no doubt that Smoltzie's presence on the team provided much comfort to his teammates, and that they find his departure absolutely rending.

Chipper Jones's comments to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution are especially revealing. He said he felt like he had lost a brother — and this comes from the man who got into a brief media squabble with Smoltz during the 2006 season.

To a large extent, contented baseball players are good baseball players, which (I think at least) helps explains Bobby Cox's unprecedented regular season success from 1991 through 2005. How will the Braves play, if they are upset about Smoltz's departure? Should that not have some bearing on the decision, too?

Not only is there the impact that Smoltz would have had upon the emotions of his teammates, there's also the impact that he would have had upon their minds. What Braves pitcher could not have benefitted from sitting in the dugout next to Smoltz, picking his brain? Might that not have counted for an extra win or two?

The Braves's decision only makes sense from a strictly sabermetric point of view. While I don't hate the number-crunchers — I actually think they have enriched our understanding of the game, most particularly in their emphasis upon on-base percentage over batting average — I think they are often seduced by the idea that baseball can be explained by one magic formula, and that baseball players can be treated as cold, rational digits in a complicated and obscure formula.

But baseball players are, after all, human; which means they are not simply, or perhaps even mainly, rational. They too, like 98 percent of their fans, are creatures of emotions. That is why things such as loyalty, and nostalgia, and camaraderie born on the baseball diamond, should be taken into consideration, at least, if not more, than win shares.

Jared Dockery 1/10/09, 7:30 AM  

Oh, and Will: Padres and Braves. Two different things entirely. :-)

John Wright 1/10/09, 3:00 PM  

Those are some great points, Jared. I still don't think the Braves' were disloyal to Smoltz, even though their offer looks like a lowball offer compared to what Smoltz has made in the past. Smoltz has been pretty talkative in the media throughout his career and used that to his advantage against the Braves, but he did leave a lot of money on the table to remain in Atlanta. Whether or not that means the Braves should have offered him more at this point in his career, I'm not sure.

What you've said about attendance is an interesting point. If the Braves can directly trace a boost in attendance for his starts, then they should unquestionably offer him more money than his stats, age, and leadership value would suggest he's worth. That would be an interesting study, and I might tackle it at some point (as a self-described number cruncher).

It's tough to tell what kind of effect he might have on attendance just by glancing at the numbers, since there are several other factors involved, like quality of opponent and the quality of the team as a whole. The Braves' attendance remained fairly steady this decade through the departures of Maddux and Glavine, although this might be the first year that most fans don't reasonably expect to win the division.

Also, you're correct that the $5 million or so is only worth something to the team if the Braves can find someone to use it on. Looks like they've got Kenshin Kawakami as of today, and hopefully they can work on Derek Lowe and perhaps another bat.

Another point worth making is that the Braves have certainly made poorer decisions in their recent past than handing Smoltz $5 million guaranteed.

I guess I'm still somewhat torn here.

Luke 1/10/09, 5:38 PM  

Will,

While it continues to be unfathomable to me that you are a Padres fan (despite the fact that you used to live there), I can certainly see some similarities.

Show a guy some loyalty for crying out loud!

Luke 1/10/09, 5:39 PM  

Lori,

I’ve been pretty ticked as well.

As someone pointed out to me though, at least by playing for the BoSox, Smoltz should have the opportunity to beat the Yankees more often.

That’s worth something at least.

Luke 1/10/09, 5:53 PM  

John,

Sorry I haven’t been around to comment until now.

I’m glad that you chimed in.

From an economic perspective, what you say makes a lot of sense. Ultimately, the Braves are a business, and they have to make decisions that will help them make money.

At the same time, the Braves are in the entertainment business, which makes the situation not entirely different that a TV show who doesn’t bring a popular character back because he wants to much money. Maybe you save money in payroll, but lose the money through decreased ratings (or in our case, attendance, memorabilia sales, etc.).

In reading comments on articles in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a lot of people have stated that because of this they won’t be buying season tickets this year.

Whether or not they actually follow through is another story, but it’s at least interesting to consider.

And from the emotional side…

How many of us, even those who lean toward the number-crunching side (and I do as well…I’ve been obsessed with baseball statistics since I was about 7), would care about baseball (and its numbers) at all if baseball didn’t have this incredible emotional pull on us?

I like statistics, and I think the “numbers” of baseball are one of it’s great strengths, but ultimately, I just love the game. Doesn’t fan-dom inherently begin with emotion?

And since fans drive the game economically, shouldn’t those emotions be significant?

Luke 1/10/09, 5:58 PM  

Jared,

Good point bring up Smoltz’s leaving the $22 million on the table to stay a Brave.

Somewhere along the lines of another one of your points: in an offseason where it has become abundantly clear that all too many players aren’t interested in being a Brave, it’s sad that we weren’t willing (at least, not willing in the sense of doing what was necessary) to sign a guy who has showed how much he wants to be a Brave time after time.

John Wright 1/11/09, 8:10 PM  

Luke and Jared,

You're both right about the emotional pull of the game. The excitement of the 1991 worst-to-first season, the '92 NLCS, and all my other Braves memories more than outweigh whatever enjoyment I get from dissecting the numbers.

Jared brought up one of the common criticisms of the sabermetric movement, that it sometimes seems soulless and over-emphasized its magic formulas. Like any other area of study, baseball's analysts have a tendency to think that everything can be explained (and quantified), and that's not always the case. So that's a valid criticism in some respects because there's clearly more to the game than the numbers. The "98%" that we're talking about don't care about the numbers, and there's no reason why they really should, as fans.

On the other side of that criticism is the fact that sabermetric analysis often allows us to see reality from a perspective that isn't affected by our personal biases as fans. I think a large number of fans realize this on some level, and that's why sabermetrics have become somewhat more mainstream in baseball. We can always use better information, and that's ultimately what the sabermetric movement is all about.

Most of that is irrelevant to the Smoltz discussion, except for the attendance issue. Personally, when it comes to that issue, I wonder if the same fans who are saying they won't attend games now that Smoltz is gone were saying the same thing when Maddux and Glavine left the Braves.

My hunch is that some say that about every move with which they disagree - and these are the most fickle fans who still seem to come back anyway - while others genuinely see this move as the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. I'm not sure I can quantify that group, but I hope that the Braves did so (or tried to do so) before they made their final offer to Smoltz. They should have, at least.

Luke 1/13/09, 7:25 AM  

“Most of that is irrelevant to the Smoltz discussion, except for the attendance issue. Personally, when it comes to that issue, I wonder if the same fans who are saying they won't attend games now that Smoltz is gone were saying the same thing when Maddux and Glavine left the Braves.”

I tend to agree; most of the people are probably just mad, and will return their attention to the Braves before long (especially if they can find a way to win some games).

It seems to me though (I could be wrong) that Smoltz was more beloved than Maddux or Glavine (probably because he was the one who had always stayed with the team when the other two left), and it wouldn’t surprise me if this development didn’t end up driving away some fans.

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