Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Justifying Biggio

ESPN asking Rob Neyer to start a blog (Insider) has been terrific for baseball fans because it's resulted in much more Neyer than we've been getting the past few years. Today he questions the Astros' continued use of Craig Biggio as their starting second baseman and leadoff hitter. Neyer writes that the Astros want the public relations and attendance boost that comes with Biggio's quest for his 3,000th hit, but from a strict talent standpoint, Mark Loretta, Chris Burke and top prospect Hunter Pence should all be higher on the depth chart:

"I know the organization wants to see Biggio reach the magic number. I'd feel the same way, if I were running the franchise. But can you really sacrifice a shot at the World Series in the interest of one player's statistics?"

Posing the question that way might be unfair to Biggio, who's not in charge of making out each day's lineup card. The decision to pencil in the original "Killer B" is probably coming from higher up the corporate ladder than manager Phil Garner. That makes it more a business decision than a baseball one, so Neyer's question should be rephrased as follows: "Is the potential long-term windfall from a playoff appearance greater than the short-term boost the Astros will get from Biggio's milestone-chase?"

I'm reminded of a WSJ article from a couple weeks back titled "The Real Most Valuable Players." Russell Adams reported that several teams (in particular the Cleveland Indians) have been combining sabermetrics and economics to determine which players will most benefit the team's finances. Adams writes:

"It also raises the unsettling possibility that some teams might determine that it's financially in their best interest to be mediocre, not good, and definitely far from great. That's because by some calculations, the best balance of revenue and expenses isn't always compatible with greatness, nor winning with profitability."

Teams that are closer to playoff contention stand to benefit more from marginal improvements than lesser teams. But since the Astros really aren't on the playoff fence, baseball decisions made in furtherance of the Astros making the playoffs in 2007 are likely to be misguided from a financial standpoint. Though Houston is currently in second place in the NL Central with a 9-9 record, BP's adjusted standings (taking into account the components that make up all teams' hitting and pitching performance) has the team down in fifth place at 8-10. That puts Houston on pace for the 72-win season I predicted on Opening Day.

The fact that Biggio's only hitting .222 ends up being good for the Astros. His prolonged race to 3,000 hits will (hopefully) distract fans from the fact that the Astros are not very good. It might even keep attendance at high levels when it's clear the team is out of playoff contention. The extra revenue could enable the Astros to replace the retiring Biggio with a quality free-agent in the offseason - how about stealing Carlos Zambrano from the Cubs? Finishing lower in the standings would give them a higher draft pick if they don't sign a big money free agent. Better that they keep Pence in the minors for most of 2007, keeping him at a lower salary - and an extra year - when he's on the next good Astros team.

Bill Simmons wrote about NBA teams that understand the optimal strategy for a losing team is to lose some more. Too many teams were a little too blatant with their tanking that the second half of the NBA season was far from aestheically pleasing. But if the Astros lose this year with gusto while letting Biggio get to 3,000 and then get out, everyone in Houston might be better off in 2008.


Anonymous said...

The NBA analogy doesn't apply to baseball. In basketball (and even football), draft picks regularly come in and contribute starting their first year. They are also more predictable (as in how well they will perform in the future) than baseball. The Astros losing a few extra games will not get them a "sure-thing" like an NBA cellar-dwellar may get with Oden or Durant.

Biggio's chase of 3000 hits will not be of dramatic economic impact. I can't believe it will raise attendance to many more than a handful of games as he gets close. The bigger impact is having a team that wins, or at least contends. While I agree the Astros aren't a great team, they do have enough talent to compete in a watered-down NL Central. The best way to ensure that is to play their best players every day.

Quality said...

You're right that the draft pick isn't the number one consideration. My point is that the Astros' braintrust has surely thought this through and decided that playing Biggio this year is economically best for the team both in 2007 and for the future.