This Wednesday, the Cubs play the Pirates in the NL wildcard game. The game is in Pittsburgh, but it’s worth noting that the Cubs finished one win away from hosting it themselves. The slimness of that margin should send Cubs fans back to April, when their front office decided to detain Kris Bryant for a few games in the minors in order to ensure an extra year of team control. It was the sort of safe, future-driven decision that clever twenty-first century franchises make all the time; holding onto a young star’s rights for an extra season is obviously worth punting a few games, at least on the actuarial tables. Still, the numbers, circumstance, and simple common sense suggest that, in the short term, it hurt the Cubs’ chances this year in a meaningful way. And that makes tomorrow night’s game a vivid example of how a team’s micromanaging cheapness can bite it in the ass.
To be fair, it’s a small bite. In baseball, home-field advantage means the host wins roughly 54 percent of the time. The thing here is how obvious the counterfactual is to work out. The most basic illustrator is WAR—Wins Above Replacement, which offers an estimate of how many wins an individual player creates. We’ll use Fangraphs’ version of the stat: Bryant didn’t get called up until April 17, and in the eight games (plus one rainout) before his arrival Cubs third basemen combined for an offensive WAR of just under negative 0.3. (Four hits in 29 at bats will do that to you.) Over the next 154 games, Bryant played in 151 and produced 6.5 WAR. If we assume he would have hit at the same level in the games he missed (not a given, since his best months came in August and September), Bryant could have added just over 0.3 extra WAR.
Swap the cruddiness of Mike Olt for the excellence of Kris Bryant and you get six tenths of a win. This kind of direct conversion isn’t really how WAR works, but the size of the swing (especially in a mere eight games) shows how much Bryant’s presence would have helped the Cubs’ in their retroactive search for that extra win.
Back in April, of course, the Cubs didn’t know that a win or two might make a difference in 2015. But their handling of Bryant had nothing to do with 2015. Thanks to baseball’s CBA, which constricts the market for young players in all sorts of creative ways, the team knew that by waiting to promote Bryant it could guarantee he wouldn’t become a free agent until 2021 instead of 2020. There are examples of less enlightened franchises calling up prospects without regard to service time—Jason Heyward in Atlanta or Jose Fernandez in Miami. For the Cubs, though, the smart (if miserly) decision was to trade a few games of Bryant in 2015 for a full season of him in 2021. All Bryant’s agent, Scott Boras, could do was fume. “You are damaging the ethics and brand of Major League Baseball,” he said in spring training.
For tomorrow night’s game, though, the debate over service time isn’t abstract and ethical but delightfully concrete—less about baseball’s “brand,” and more about the Cubbies playing an away game they might have avoided. So, what do teams owe their fans and their most talented players? Does it make philosophical sense to prioritize faraway seasons? Who cares—the Pirates are hosting a sudden-death game and gaining a small but real advantage because of it. It only adds to the richness that no team has worked harder at quantifying small but real advantages than the Theovian Cubs. Let’s also remember that, should the Cubs lose, no fan base is better prepared for this message: Wait ‘til 2021.
Craig Fehrman is finishing up a book on presidents and their books for Simon & Schuster. He lives in Indiana.
Photo via Getty