Friday, November 11, 2011

Running a team: MLB v. NBA (Because We Have So Much Credibility)

BockerKnocker and I are friends. Like all good friends, our commonalities are strong and our disagreements are fierce. Most of our debates revolve around sports, often hitting on the win total for any particular Knicks season, the historical place of Kobe Bryant in the NBA or why Nick Swisher is or is not a human succubus. Sometimes our debates begin and end without either of us ever truly convincing each other of who is actually right.  I thought it only right to share with our dozen blog constituents a sample of our lively e-mail arguments, rife with its fair share of smack-talking and name-calling. Today's topic:


KOBEshigawa: Why do you think it'd be harder to manage a basketball franchise than a baseball franchise?

BockerKnocker: Two biggest reasons have to do with payroll.

1. The salary cap. Think about how the Yankees can fix every problem by spending money. The Knicks, on the other hand, have similar spending power but limited ability to use it. Need a point guard, can't afford it. Need a center, can't afford it. The Yanks have had the highest payroll forever and they keep spending.

2. It's harder to find a great balance of team chemistry that fits within the NBA payroll. For example, the Redeem Team barely practiced and were able to jell quickly, but a roster of future Hall of Famers just isn't possible. The Yankees make this possible every year.

This is also combined with the fact that baseball is an individual sport masquerading as a team sport. It doesn't matter whether Jeter and A-Rod are friends because they don't need to be, as much as the media would lead you to believe. On the other hand, Lebron and Wade must be friends, otherwise it will never work.

K: Your blatant bias towards the NBA shows here more than that herpes flare-up you had last weekend.

I agree that the NBA salary cap is much more restrictive and prohibitive than MLB's, well, because they have one. Obviously the Knicks and the Yankees have similarly infinite resources, yet the Knicks can't just simply buy all the good players they want (or in the Yankees case, all the AJplayers they THINK are goSORIANOod).

I also agree on the grounds of chemistry; the Dallas Mavericks last year were the poster child for teams with good chemistry benefitting with postseason success. Without the enthusiasm and leadership of Tyson Chandler, the selflessness of Jason Kidd and the steadiness of Dirk Nowitzki, I would argue that Dallas' chances for a championship parade shade much lower.

But don't discount chemistry in baseball either - the 2004 Red Sox, 2009 Yankees and 2011 Cardinals all made trades to change the chemistry of their teams (unloading Nomar, adding Nick Swisher and unloading Colby Rasmus, respectively), and it led to titles. All in all, I agree with you that chemistry is much more a factor in a sport where coordination and synergy are absolutely pertinent (not just physically, but emotionally) in order to win.

But the question here is which job is more difficult? Which job is harder to win with? My other arguments aside, it absolutely has to be baseball for the sheer fact that the best team almost never wins. In basketball, you can assemble a great team, and odds are, they will come out on top. Over the course of an 82-game season and a two month postseason, the cream will rise to the top. In the last 30 years of NBA basketball, the team with the best record won the championship 14 times. That might not seem like great odds, but compared with baseball, having the best regular season record in the NBA practically gifts you the chip. In the last 30 seasons of baseball, only 5 teams (the 2009 and 1998 New York Yankees, 1989 Oakland A's, 1986 New York Mets and the 1984 Detroit Tigers) had the best record and won. The point is that in baseball, no matter who your team is that you put together, winning is a complete crap shoot. I've said for years, being the best team April through September doesn't mean anything; it's all about being the best team in October. In a way, it takes so little skill - as long as you are overseeing one of the best 8 teams in October, you have just a good chance as anyone.

B: First off, if I have herpes, then you must have herpes.

Secondly, you're answering a different question. The question we posed was "which job is more difficult?" Your analysis answers a more specific question, namely, "once you have succeeded in compiling the best team, how hard is it to win?" Obviously, baseball is the answer there.

The difficulty of being a GM in the NBA is different from being that in the MLB. In baseball, all you can do is compile the best roster; whatever happens afterwards is out of your hands. Jon Daniels and Nolan Ryan crafted a great 40-man roster this year, but they had nothing to do with the rainout that allowed Chris Carpenter to pitch 3 WS games, or the fact that Bud Selig allowed the Cardinals to play at home in Game 7, when they had the worst record out of all playoff teams. Meanwhile, in the NBA, while the cream does rise to the top more often, it takes an absurd amount of skill (albeit with a tiny bit of luck) to get the best roster. You need skill to be able to accurately value players and thus give them contracts that won't cripple your franchise, and you need luck that the rookies and low-cost vets, both of whom are playing on low salaries, to make an impact that far exceeds their market value (think J.J. Barea, DeShawn Stevenson, et al.)

Baseball requires less skill and more luck. The reason why Sabathia was never leaving the Yankees was because the Yankees were going to outbid everybody. If he doesn't perform to the level of the contract, we'll read about how he wasn't worth the money, as if that actually matters. Change the game and give MLB a salary cap? Well, Brian Cashman and the Steinbrenners are spending longer nights at the office trying to gauge how much he's truly worth.

K:  Point well taken. There is a difference between whose job is more difficult and which job is it more difficult to win in. However, that brings me to my next point -

Basketball has a 15-man roster, with a player being filed into one of five separate positional categories. Baseball, on the other hand, has a monstrous 25-man active roster, a massive 40-man major league roster, with 9 different positions (10 really, if you count relievers versus starting pitchers) in which each player has to be categorized. Managing that roster is an extraordinarily difficult task, especially when taken into account the fragility of baseball players along with the unpredictability in regards to attrition of skill (this is perhaps where the nature of "luck" comes into player most with MLB GMs). Simply keeping the right amount of guys on that roster with so many different needs when their performances can vary so much month to month (let alone year to year) is unfathomably difficult.

Let's expand that argument a little more - a baseball general manager is not only responsible for the 40 guys on his roster, but (and maybe equal in importance) is responsible for the hundreds of guys in the minor league system. But let's play devil's advocate here and say that you're a bad GM and you only focus on your major league 25-man roster and say, your best 15 minor-league players. That's still 40 guys you have to pay just as close attention to as the 15 on the basketball court.

This brings me to the MLB draft - a 30 team event with 50 ROUNDS. In direct contrast, the NBA draft has 2 rounds with 30 teams. Now let's say you're a cynic and you argue that only the first 10 rounds of the MLB draft matter. It is still not even an argument between which draft is more arduous to navigate. Now let's say you're a hardcore Knicks fan who lacks the exuberance and optimism of say, a blogger I know, and you're more cynical than 99% of sports fans and you argue that only the first 5 rounds matter. STILL not even an argument.

Both basketball and baseball general managers have to keep track of the guys coming down the pipeline, who they can afford in the future and prognosticate where they're going to be in 5 years - and even though the baseball GM has to be much less wary of a player’s salary and how that will affect roster decisions, the volume of players that a MLB GM has to evaluate combined with the injury-prone nature of the sport and unpredictability of skill decline or appreciation makes this argument almost a non-starter. While NBA GMs have to watch college basketball as if it were the minor leagues, baseball GMs watch college baseball and THEN watch the minor leagues.

B: I will certainly give you points for the fact that a baseball GM must follow so many players year-round. But what about a different perspective?

First, the baseball draft, while much longer, isn't the same type of draft that the NBA Draft is. In the NBA Draft, if teams aren't already established as title contenders, they have to knock the Draft out of the park. Otherwise, it's wait-til-next-year mode. As I've said before, getting an impact rookie has benefits in two areas: 1) contribution on the court; and 2) salary cap flexibility, because he's underpaid as per the rookie wage scale. This enables the NBA GM to spend more on veterans.

Conversely, the MLB draft is all about potential. Your points about the large roster illustrates that. While maybe the first round is very important to many teams, the majority of the draft is a hit-or-miss pick because of the fact that there are so many people on the roster. For instance, if a team drafts a stud pitcher, and he doesn't pan out in a couple of years, then the MLB team isn't crippled by that, because there are so many other prospects in the organization who will be viable major leaguers anyway. (There are obvious exceptions to this rule, most notably with Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, who NEED to be good for the Nats.)

Secondly, similar to my point before about how baseball's "results" are a result of the product on the field after the GM puts the roster together (individual sport masquerading as a team sport), going through the minor league system is based on the quality of the individual player himself. How does he adapt to professional competition? How does he adapt to travel? How does he adapt to really shitty pay? How does he adapt to failure?

More specifically, how does a prospect adapt to a curveball? How soon can a prospect develop a plus secondary/tertiary pitch? This is different from basketball. I'll give you the "only 15" argument, even though it may sometimes be more than that, because every team stashes players in Europe or the D-League. However, a rookie is given everything to him from the get-go. His teammates will be there to integrate him into true professional life. He will be given the chance to get major minutes if he puts in the work. He will be babied into taking his time and finding his niche. The NBA GM must find a way to get into his rookie's head and figure out the best way possible for him to contribute immediately.

The front office of the Washington Wizards goes to sleep every night praying that John Wall will be the franchise player that Gilbert Arenas never could be.  Their counterparts on the Nationals do the same for Harper.  But Harper's struggles in the Arizona Fall League don't worry the Nationals at all. "Growing pains," they'll call it, because Harper doesn't negatively affect the market value of the major league franchise (in fact, his potential positively affects it). Throw it back to the hardwood floor: if John Wall dares to shoot under 30% from distance again, then Ted Leonsis is on heart attack watch.

K: I disagree on almost every point. Respectfully. You ignoramus. Respectfully.

The first and second rounds of the MLB draft are nearly as important as the NBA draft - if you don't hit on those picks, you're the Cleveland Indians for the past 10 years. If you look at their drafts after their heyday in the 90s, most of them have to be considered epic failures. Cleveland has gone on to have what I’d consider two decent seasons, one of which was an 80-82 team this past year, and other being the 2007 96-win squad that went all the way to Game 7 in the ALCS against the eventual champion Boston Red Sox. However, that was all done with guys they didn’t draft, but had to trade for: Travis Hafner, Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore and Shin Soo Choo. They guys they did draft included CC Sabathia, Fausto Carmona and Victor Martinez, all of whom they signed in the late 90’s. From then on they completely whiffed on their picks year after year and have become yet another disappointing Cleveland squad that we’ve all come to know and some have come to desert on national television (can’t make a Cleveland reference without a LeBron jab). If you don't make good draft picks, you won't succeed. Yes, I understand that the NBA rookie, more than the MLB minor leaguer, has to contribute more immediately directly after being drafted. But I don't think that the NBA draft banks any less on potential other than the top 10 picks. Other than Blake Griffin and Tyreke Evans, which of those players did we KNOW would make an immediate impact from the 2009 draft? Only DaJuan Blair, Brandon Jennings and Steph Curry contributed immediately. Most of the other first round picks we thought would be three year projects (Hasheem Thabeet, Jordan Hill, James Harden, Ricky Rubio, Austin Daye, Jrue Holiday, Jeff Teague and Jonny Flynn) and even Jennings and Curry weren't supposed to be as impactful as they were in their rookie campaigns. My point is that every draft does feature the same element of "God I hope this guy turns out to be good" as baseball does.

Moreover, MLB GMs have to be responsible for an international signings as well. Now say what you want about who actually takes a look at these guys in the Dominican, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, etc, but it's the GM who has the final say and has to fit the signing into their international budget. Which brings me to another point - the MLB GM is managing 3 different payrolls, not just 1 (in the NBA). The main roster, amateur signings and international signings. That's a lot to deal with.

However, I will agree that an NBA GM has to be much more responsible for a player's immediate ability to emotionally deal with being in the big leagues. Unless you're Ryan Zimmerman or Stephen Strasburg, you're not dealing with that incredible amount of pressure your first year.


I think I beat KOBEsh here. What do you guys think?


  1. KOBEsh came out on top.

    Baseball does have elements that make team chemistry important as anyone who followed the Red Sox this year will argue.

    Finding the talent is almost never an issue in the NBA. MJ, Magic, Duncan, Shaq, LeBron were all number one picks that we could have made from our television sets. Not a lot of skill to that. True the Lakers found Kobe and there are other pieces that make a title (the Robert Horrys and what have you), but building an NBA team is about getting 2 to 3 stars and then the job is done. Baseball is so much more.

  2. The job is done?

    There are plenty of stars who retire without a ring.

    As for winning the argument, count how many times the Bossman acknowledges my points.