What Is The Value Of A Ballgame?

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Grantland writer Bill Barnwell posed an interesting question yesterday: What if MLB had a player-loan system similar to those used in soccer leagues around the world? This a perfectly fine idea to consider and precisely the kind of thought experiment that could make for an interesting column, which makes it weird and frustrating when this one goes off on a rail to express some remarkably off-putting ideas about player value.

Here’s Barnwell describing how the out-of-contention White Sox could benefit from a loan system by temporarily sending ace pitcher Chris Sale to another team in exchange for an asset:

The White Sox surely want to keep Sale around for the years to come, but in 2015, he’s basically useless. In fact, if they’re not going to make the playoffs or be competitive in the American League, the best thing for the White Sox is almost surely to finish with a middling record and secure both a higher draft pick and a larger financial draft pool to work with in 2016. While Sale is going to be in the Cy Young running and surely wants to continue performing at a high level, he’s also realistically wasting the next 70-80 innings in his arm over the remainder of the season, pitching incredibly well for a team that will derive virtually no benefit from that brilliance.


Consider the vantage point from which one has to view sports in order to claim without hesitation that one of the best pitchers in baseball—one who has, over the last two months, been on a historic run—provides no value to his team or city because that team is not in line to make the playoffs. It’s one that ignores the actual experience of watching baseball games!

The value that Chris Sale provides to his crappy team is that White Sox fans get to see him pitch every fifth day. To classify this as “virtually no benefit” is, well, horseshit. The White Sox are lousy, but there are still thousands of fans going to their games and watching them play on TV every day, people who might leave Sox Park on an incredible high and with an indelible memory after watching Chris Sale strike out 17 guys in a “meaningless” August baseball game. All the games count, and to ignore this is to ignore that to a fan, sports are a kind of entertainment.


Sportswriting today does a lot of casual dismissal of what actually happens on the field or court. It’s a natural extension of the interest in team-building strategies and analysis, a generally good thing. What’s exasperating, though, isn’t just the creeping assumption that sports are as much about smart portfolio management as impressive athletic feats, but the way the present is routinely waved off as prelude to a hypothetical and ever-receding future.

Take this bit from another recent Grantland column, an illuminating examination of the Sixers’ and Suns’ rebuild strategies by the very smart and talented Zach Lowe (emphasis mine):

And the main point of Philly’s unprecedented strategy is that it can absorb a blow exactly like Embiid’s foot injury. If your owners are only willing to punt on two seasons, you are at the mercy of lottery balls and injury luck. Blow one draft, or fall from no. 1 to no. 4 in the Anthony Davis lottery, and the teardown gives way to panicked spending toward mediocrity.

If Philly is really willing to do this for five, six, or seven seasons, it almost cannot fail. It will either land a superstar or draft so many good players that they will gather a solid NBA team. Brett Brown may check himself into an asylum before then, but if you keep getting lottery picks, you will eventually succeed. Even when Philly was on the clock at no. 3, it was on the phone with teams in the lower half of the lottery, working to secure another high pick, according to league sources.


Here are some other ways to phrase that bolded sentence :

  • “If Philly’s rebuild continues to fail for five, six, or seven seasons, it almost cannot fail.”
  • “If Philly continues to put a terrible product on the floor for five, six, or seven seasons, it almost cannot fail.”
  • “If Philly continues to fail for five, six, or seven seasons, it almost cannot fail.”

Lowe clearly has an eyebrow raised here, but even so, that sentence pays a casual deference to the idea that success is something that happens, eventually, and that what comes before it doesn’t much matter. This isn’t really right! Running a lousy team out for seven years in a row would be a monumental failure. More important than that, it would be terrible for fans.

The fan experience isn’t the only thing that matters in sports, but it is the central thing, and sportswriting starts to get cockeyed when fan experience is waved off—purposefully or otherwise—as subsidiary to the questions of how to best maximize projected returns on investments and how best to turn assets into still more assets. Those are means; the end is people having a good time watching sports. Thankfully, it’s a point the vast majority of actual sports franchises keep in mind.