Why do teams get better when A-Rod leaves?

By | May 21, 2004

ESPN.com put up a poll today (link) about Alex Rodriguez. The first question on the poll is: “Why have the Mariners and Rangers thrived after A-Rod has left?” There are five options:

  1. One player matters only so much
  2. He’s not as good as people think he is
  3. So much focus on one player hurts a team
  4. Instead of spending so much on one player, they’ve spent it on several players
  5. It’s just a fluke

As of about 12:33 this afternoon Utah time, 52.9% of voters have chosen the trendy fourth option. This vote make me wonder if the people voting actually know anything about baseball (or even follow it at all), or if they saw the link on ESPN’s site (with the title, “Is A-Rod Greedy?”) and clicked on it because they hate him. I think I know the answer.

Before I go any further, it is only fair to admit up front that Alex Rodriguez is my favorite current baseball player. There are a lot of players I really like, and a lot of players I really dislike, but A-Rod is my favorite. (There are only two players in history who I like more than A-rod: Cal Ripken Jr. and Lou Gehrig.) So my opinion on this matter will probably be fueled as much by pro-Rodriguez sentiment as the ESPN voters were by anti-Alex feelings, but at least mine will be backed up by logic, common sense, and knowledge of baseball.

Speaking of logic, option 4 is certainly the logical answer. If this were a hypothetical situation, and we were unburdened with the nuisance of fact, I would have voted for number 4 as well. After all, it makes sense: a team’s best player leaves, and they get better. Of course they spent the money they saved on several players who, in sum, made them a better team than he had. It’s so obvious!

But then there are those facts. In 2000, Alex Redriguez’s last season with the Mariners, he made just under $4.5 million. The next season, the Mariners paid Japanese rookie Ichiro Suzuki about $5.7 million and All-Star second baseman Bret Boone $3.25 million. If you compare those numbers, the Mariners spent twice as much on two All-Stars as they had spent on one All-Star the year before. I don’t claim to be an expert at math, but it seems to me that if you pay $9 million for two players instead of $4.5 million for one player, your team may improve, but it won’t have nearly as much to do with the guy who left as with the guys who came in. No matter how you slice it, that move doesn’t make one an economic genius.

(And honestly, the Mariners question isn’t complete with just A-Rod. Where did they spend the $8.75 million they saved by shipping out Ken Griffey Jr. after the 1999 season? What about the $6 million they saved when they traded Randy Johnson in 1998?)

Let’s look at it from the other direction: let’s say the Mariners “saved” $25 million by letting A-Rod go, since that is what he signed for with the Rangers. In that case, the Mariners spent just over one-third of what they saved on their two new two All-Stars, and they won 116 games the next season. Now THAT is a good move — but does that really qualify as “Instead of spending so much on one player, they’ve spent it on several players”? First of all, “two players” and “several players” are different things, at least where I come from. There were 13 players not named A-Rod who played for the 2000 Mariners and not for the 2001 Mariners; those included two former All-Stars (Rickey Henderson and Jose Mesa), one future All-Star (Raul Ibanez), and a bunch of role players. There were 10 players besides Boone and Ichiro who were new to the M’s in 2001; again, there were two former All-Stars (Norm Charlton and Jeff Nelson), and the rest were nobodies. Pretty even, no?

It is clear, at least with regards to the 2001 record-setting Seattle Mariners, that option 4 is NOT the correct answer as to why they got good when A-Rod left. Option 1 is a minor possibility, and I refuse to consider option 2 because of its absurdity. The two most likely options are 3 and 5, which I will briefly discuss in reverse order.

Were the 2001 Mariners a fluke? Let’s see: a decent team becomes one of the best teams in baseball history, then goes back to being a good team the next year. Yeah, sounds like it could have been a fluke. There is no doubt that the Mariners were better in 2001 than they were in 2000; there isn’t even much doubt that they are still better today than they were with A-Rod. But the greatness of 2001 was a fluke, plain and simple.

Does so much focus on one player hurt a team? Yeah, probably. With the Mariners, though, it wasn’t just one player. In 1998, the focus was on Randy Johnson, and they traded him to the Astros mid-season. In 1999, the focus was on Ken Griffey Jr., and they traded him home to Cincinnati after the season. In 2000, the focus was on A-Rod, and they let him go to the highest bidder. Somewhere along the line, they got better because of those moves; they got some good young players in the Johnson and Griffey trades, and they got rid of distractions. I would bet my left leg that those two trades had more to do with the Mariners’ 2001 success than A-Rod’s departure did.

So let’s talk about the Rangers — this one will be a lot less complicated. After four straight seasons in last place (the last three with A-Rod at shortstop), they traded A-Rod for Alfonso Soriano. Other than that, they have essentially the same team they had last year. Somehow, though, they are actually in second place, six games above .500 and only 2.5 games behind the best team in baseball (the Angels). Other than Soriano, every single big player on this year’s Rangers team was there last year. I have no idea what the reason behind this newfound success is, but I do know one thing and suspect one other: I suspect that by the time the season ends, the Rangers will be back below .500; and I know that the Rangers have not gone out and spent the extra $17 million or so on new players.

It is just amazing that so many people would click a link and answer a poll with so little knowledge about the game of baseball. I have to think it is because so many people resent him for making as much money as he does. I also have to thing that if I offered those people $25 million a year to do a job they love, they would take it at least as quickly as A-Rod did. I know I would.

One thought on “Why do teams get better when A-Rod leaves?

  1. Steven Gardner

    There wasn’t a choice for “A-Rod is jinxed.”

    This is old, but give me the choice this year and I’ll vote 1 or 5. I don’t buy the “too much focus” argument, but I do believe that one player (statistically) can only do so much. I also think “fluke” is a way of explaining away something we just haven’t figured out yet. One player can make a bigger difference in the locker room, such as Kirk Gibson did in 1988. But I don’t think A-Rod is that kind of guy. A-Rod is an awesome player who has showed class on and off the field. I still think the Red Sox jinx has switched from them to land completely on A-Rod.

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