Selig touts leveling the playing field … but for all the wrong reasons


SOUTH HILLS – Bud Selig made a trip to Pittsburgh on Tuesday, as he makes something of a farewell tour through the game.

For me, he leaves something of a mixed legacy. Yes, he oversaw tremendous revenue growth. (Though how much of that is simply tied to the advent of new media and market factors beyond any one person’s control? My guess: a lot). Yes, the sport’s attendance has grown since Selg’s tenure began in 1992. (But how much of that is tied to dozens of cities using billions of public dollars to finance new baseball palaces?). Yes, there’s been only one work stoppage under his watch. But of course that one work stoppage wiped out the first World Series in 90 years and produced marginal changes. There’s still no salary cap. There’s still a huge revenue disparity in the game. Selig also oversaw one of the sport’s most damaging and prolonged scandals: the steroid era.

As you might suspect when he spoke to media in Pittsburgh, Selig touted the Pirates’ 2013 success as “a manifestation” of economic achievements under his watch.

“The ability to provide open faith in as many places as possible is nowhere near as dramatic as it is here,” Selig said. “We have come a long way. … (The Pirate) would be the first ones to tell you changing the economics of the sport (was key). It was outmoded and outdated. It was anachronism.  … Revenue sharing has been the biggest thing.”

Selig says he is a history buff but this is an inaccurate portrayal of events in 2013. Using revenue sharing to explain the Pirates’ success is not  based in reality.

Dollars do not buy happiness in today’s game. Free agency does not buy championships in the post-steroid era. Parity has arrived because the sport is again a young man’s game. Parity has arrived because clubs have been smarter about acquiring, developing and retaining young talent. Here’s a story from November on this very subject

From 1998-2003, players 30 and older combined for 42.9 percent of wins above replacement, a statistic that takes into account a player’s total value. Their share of production fell to 33.3 percent from 2008-13, in line with production from the 1970s and 1980s, according to Tribune-Review research using the Baseball Reference Player Index tool.

The number of seasons worth five wins above replacement or more produced by players age 30 and older fell from 128 in 1998-2003 to 70 from 2008-13. Players 30 and older also combined for hundreds of fewer seasons played.

Small-market teams have drafted well, hit on early-round picks, and developed and retained these players. Teams have locked up young stars to contracts that buy out arbitration and free agent years. That is what has helped small-market clubs. That’s where parity has come from, and when large-market clubs begin to do a better job of this (and better fill holes through free agency) this period of parity might be brief.

Sure, small-market owners love revenue sharing, but there’s debate about how many of those dollars have gone into payroll. And baseball doesn’t open its books.

You can argue, Selig can argue, revenue sharing allowed the Pirates to be more aggressive in the draft. That’s true. But the only high-dollar draft picks (signing bonuses above $2 million) that impacted the 2013 season was the flawed Pedro Alvarez and the second-half contributions from Gerrit Cole. The 2008-12 drafts might lead to great future successes for the Pirates, but they were not to credit for the 2013 season. Andrew McCutchen, Francisco Liriano, Russell Martin, Jason Grilli, Starling Marte, Mark Melancon, Neil Walker, Jeff Locke, Charlie Morton and AJ Burnett were not part of those draft classes.

I’d argue revenue sharing had a very limited impact on the field for the Pirates in 2013.

For me, the Pirates’ success was tied to adopting sabermetic ideology – i.e. shifts – and the devaluation of free agency.

If Selig wants to tout parity, he should cite how cleaning up the game – which is an achievement – has taken value away from free agency, and made it a young man’s sport and brought parity.

He could cite how changes to the draft system have attempted to provide a level playing for acquiring amateur talent.

But the gap between the rich and poor has grown. The Dodgers are outspending the Astros by nearly $200 million this season. The Orioles had the game’s top payroll in 1998 and spent $60 million more on players than the lower-paying team, the Montreal Expos. The divide is growing despite a revenue-sharing system and luxury tax.

Sharing dollars hasn’t leveled the playing field. Youth has. If Selig wants to credit something, credit a fountain of youth.