The trouble with “valuing” exploited MLB players

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Arguing about what the definition of the word “valuable” contained within the Most Valuable Player award means is a time-honored tradition in baseball. Does “value” mean the best player, or does it mean the best player on a postseason team, the one that helped said team actually make it to October with their presence? It’s always a mess, and yet, The Athletic’s Molly Knight wants to throw another version of the word valuable into the discussion, and it’s one that front offices and owners salivate over, one that should have nothing to do with the MVP award or how we view players.

In short, this article is a list of the value players have created compared to their salaries, or, a way to talk about value in a way that leaves high-paid and awesome players like Mike Trout out of the discussion. It’s a list of the most exploited players in the majors, basically, the ones who are most underpaid relative to their production, but for Knight’s purposes, it’s a list of who has provided the most “bang for the buck.” No, really, that’s what the table showing a player’s $/WAR is titled.

Knight does attempt to walk back her own messaging, by making sure to say this is a list that tells you “which players are most criminally underpaid.” Knight also takes the time to explain that she always sides with the players over owners in discussions of compensation. The problem is that saying these things and then writing this article up with the general framing and takeaways it has made those statements almost meaningless, or at least reduced their impact.

They became asides, forgotten as you read about how Knight wonders if Cody Bellinger deserves the National League MVP should his season look a lot like that of Christian Yelich or Anthony Rendon at season’s end, because Bellinger tops the list as the best “bang for the buck” player going. And that’s because Knight’s article here centers the kind of thinking that has allowed front offices and ownership groups to destroy free agency and have ready-made excuses for why they aren’t signing perfectly serviceable or even highly talented veterans each winter, instead opting for the least expensive players around whether they’re actually the players that give teams the best chance of winning.

Knight took to Twitter to blame people criticizing her work for not reading the article, but the problem is that they did read it: saying you’re in favor of labor over the bosses while writing positively about how this is one way to interpret the word “value” just means what you’re giving readers to take away from the story is wrong, not that the readers are. Discussing how these players should be paid more while spending paragraphs explaining that some of these postseason-bound teams wouldn’t be heading there without severe exploitation of their young players who are contractually unable to negotiate a better salary for themselves, one they’re worth getting, makes it pretty easy to forget how you said you think they should be paid more. Especially when one of the examples is, “[Bellinger] also gave [the Dodgers] some flexibility to give free-agent veteran outfielder A.J. Pollock a five-year, $60 million contract and hope he will help solve some of the club’s woes against left-handed pitching in the playoffs,” as if the Los Angeles Dodgers couldn’t have afforded $12 million per year for a good baseball player unless they underpaid Bellinger as much as possible.

It’s a lot of one step forward, two steps back, and that kind of math means you finish the article with the author lagging behind. Maybe Knight’s intent was different than this, but regardless, this is the kind of writing that lets teams off of the hook with their treatment of players and their compensation, because it makes it seem as if there is no other choice than to exploit players in order to compete.

How did this kind of thinking become acceptable in the first place? It’s not entirely the reason, but baseball writers do shoulder some of the responsibility for helping to convince fans that things like tanking and eschewing paying players what they’re worth were the right calls should a team want to compete. The success of teams like the Astros and Cubs, who mercilessly tanked before each winning a World Series, helped solidify that this was the new normal in a league known for its copycat ways. And articles like Knight’s, intentional or not, help reinforce how necessary underpaying players is in order to compete in today’s game, even though that’s not true so much as it is the way things play out.

Plus, as has been pointed out, there already is an award out there for the team that best underpaid players. Why argue to make the MVP a second one? And in 2019, years and years after this kind of thinking first permeated the baseball landscape, when we know it to be the wrong way to look at things?

What’s most disappointing is that Knight wants the credit for pointing out how underpaid these players are, but she could have just written that article instead. (She at least claims to have written a much different headline, and blames an editor for a last-minute change, but I’m going to side with the editor here, who applied a headline that better applied to the actual words contained within the story, not the ones Knight imagines she wrote.) There is always room to write about how the teams that are competing often are the ones that do the best job of exploiting the system and its players, especially if those articles aren’t praising the exploitation.

With a different framing, there are entire paragraphs of this story that don’t even need to be rewritten! The problem is that it is framed the way it is, and therefore those paragraphs take on a different meaning, and that’s how I end up writing about it and you end up reading about it even if neither of us wants that to be happening right now.

I hope Knight has learned something from this, but I fear that the extremely closed-off nature of her responses to criticism of the article suggests she hasn’t. It’s a shame, too, because she’s right in that there aren’t enough journalists out there supporting overhauls to the system that would benefit the exploited players. I’m always happy to welcome another to this too-small circle, but the thing is, they have to actually be what they say they are in order for that to work.

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