To The Victor…

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The LA Times had an article yesterday about the limited influence of payroll size on baseball outcomes. Money differentials do matter, accounting for about 20 percent of the variance in MLB win-totals, but they don’t really matter all that much. And, well, good for A’s fans. Nevertheless, it’s hard to avoid noticing that this implies that baseball teams are, as a rule, managed extremely poorly. Absent a salary cap, the teams with the most money to spend ought to be able to perform much better than the teams that spend much less. Moneyball is all about Billy Beane’s ability to use statistics to identify some player-attributes that were undervalued in the baseball labor market and assemble quality teams at bargain-basement prices.

That strategy depends, however, on significant inefficiencies existing in the first place. And the inefficiencies need to be quite large, since the payroll differentials are enormous — the Yankees’ salary total is 2.7 times the median. On top of that, you’re looking at a kind of meta-inefficiency. The owners prepared to shell out the highest amount for players ought to be able to also outbid stingier owners for the services of the best GMs, scouts, managers, etc. In a perfect environment, in other words, differential management-ability to entrench, rather than mitigate, payroll-differentials. That all these inefficiencies exist winds up being good for the fans, but it’s still rather odd.

You see similar things in other sports. I posted the other day about the considerable evidence that NFL teams punt way too often. Now, one can easily understand why teams that are performing well would adopt a risk-averse attitude and not want to shake things up. One can even understand why a team like the Redskins, that isn’t performing especially well but that did enter the season with high hopes and high expectations that they’re loath to abandon, would behave like this. But what explains the behavior of, say, the Tennessee Titans. I can’t think of anyone who expected the team to play well this year. And the team’s management seems to have a realistic grasp of this situation. They’re hoping that Vince Young, with more seasoning and development, can eventually be the star player on a contending team, but they know perfectly well that this year the team is going to lose most of its games.

So why not try a radical approach to fourth downs? What do they have to lose? At worst, a notch or two in the standings for what’s destined to be one of the NFL’s worst teams anyway. Fan interest would, if anything, go up in response to an unorthodox strategy that just so happens to increase the number of exciting plays.

Part of the story here has to be the simple fact that team revenue is only very vaguely associated with team success on the field. Even the Nets haven’t been able to simply poach the Knicks fan base merely by fielding a vastly superior team over a period of years and most teams are even worse-positioned to do so. Still, I don’t really see what explains the overall situation . . . owners still do have a clear financial interest in fielding winning teams, but they genuinely don’t seem to be trying very hard. Perhaps the problem is that major pro sports teams essentially never go out of business no matter how bad they get.