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A Bit More Than 140 Characters On Ryan Howard

27 April 2010

Yesterday, I posted three Tweets in reaction to the five-year, $125 million contract extension the Phillies gave to Ryan Howard. Apparently those Tweets ruffled some feathers, with this one being the prime offender:

5 years, $125 million for Ryan Howard!!! A financial quagmire that’ll make the Iraq War look like a slap fight.

Dan Levy, one of the good guys in the business, a prolific and successful blogger and podcaster with the rare combination of a sense of humor and a sense of self, didn’t enjoy the metaphor.

That’s just a stupid thing to write, and I’m sure Keri, who I love on most days when he’s not writing about the Phillies, would admit that.

Over at The Fightins, a Phillies blog that’s quite partisan and also often entertaining, lumps me in with a bunch of writers who are way, way smarter than I am in dishing out this whack on the nose with whatever it is we now use instead of newspapers. Meech collects a bunch of comments that object to the Howard deal to “point out how dumb and condescending they sound.”

Rather than attempt to rehash many of the same points made by much more esteemed media/blogger/whatever the hell I am colleagues, I’ll simply toss out a bunch of links you can read on the subject. Levy offers a spirited defense of the Howard deal.

Those opposed include friend of the site Rob Neyer

Pull-no-punches NBC Sports scribe Craig Calcaterra

Another person who will soon become my employer, FanGraphs bright, young mind Matthew Carruth

And Buster Olney, who offers one of my favorite takes on l’Affaire Howard. Olney’s main argument is that the Phillies were determined to lock up Howard for several years for better or for worse – but why not wait a bit given the sweet-swinging slugger has nearly two full seasons left to play before he’s eligible for free agency?

Even better than Buster’s take was the piece written by Matt Swartz of Baseball Prospectus. Here was a writer using his own original research to thoughtfully study the issue, considering all the pros and cons of the debate thrown out by both sides, as well as some angles that hadn’t been considered. In the process, Matt argues for his own valuation of marginal wins, creates multiple different scenarios based on future rates of inflation, and reminds us that the value of draft pick compensation must always remain a consideration when pondering such matters. I learned a lot reading this piece. It’s far better than both the pro-signing articles that stump for Howard’s home runs, RBI and Jim Rice-like ability to induce fear, or the quick-and-dirty arguments against the contract that stopped at defensive spectrum, opportunity cost, or career paths of similar players that others formulated.

Seriously, go read Matt’s story. I’m backing it for any number of online writing awards, sabermetric or otherwise.

I’ll add a few quick takes on the Howard deal, which hopefully aren’t woefully redundant by now, after all the virtual ink that’s been spilled.

We really, really need to stop with appeals to authority. It is a fact that Ruben Amaro spends far more time worrying about the state of the Phillies’ roster than pretty much anyone else in the world. It’s also a fact that George Bush held more meetings to discuss the viability of waging war on Iraq than most anyone else. And that Barack Obama thought long and hard about how to fight terrorism at home and abroad, both before and after he took office. And that the string-pullers at Goldman Sachs know more about capital markets than most of us could ever hope to comprehend.

But that doesn’t make any of these people infallible.

A general manager is fed a steady stream of information every day that includes not only the latest WAR figures for his players, but also attendance figures, newspaper headlines, talk radio clips, scouting reports on alternative players he could sign or trade for if his negotiations break down with his initial target, and about 50 other tidbits that could affect his decision.

If a critic calls out that GM for making a mistake, that doesn’t mean they’re painting him as stupid, or knowing any less than the writer, who couldn’t possibly have spent as much time pondering the decision as the GM did. Quite the opposite. Sometimes less information is more. Ruben Amaro Jr. almost certainly considered factors in his decision that Neyer, Calcaterra, Carruth, Olney, myself and any number of other sports pundits ignored. But it’s also possible that being swarmed with that much info, and moreover, being that close to the situation, clouded his decision. I don’t feel any fallout or hear any criticism if the Phillies fail to re-sign Ryan Howard. Amaro does. I don’t have a legacy to protect if Ryan Howard succeeds or fails. Amaro does. The path of least resistance in this case is to throw a bunch of money at a player regarded in most circles as a franchise player, to do it as soon as possible, and to move on to other affairs. That doesn’t mean it’s going to end up being the optimal decision for the team.

Similarly, Bush might not have considered worst-case scenarios in terms of lost lives, blown funds and more enemies gained with his invasion of Iraq the way detached observers would have. Obama might have worried about acquiring tough-on-terror bona fides so much that he lost site of the fact that unlawful detainment of prisoners and an unchecked surveillance state would nullify the very freedoms he was trying to protect. Goldman could have known everything there is to know about stimulating economic growth, only to tip the scales in their own favor through illegal or at least questionable means.

Outsiders are a crucial element for any functioning society. We need them to report in an unbiased way on the activities of government and the sometimes sketchy practices of companies if we’re to preserve the rights and privileges we all hold dear. Baseball is a trivial pursuit by comparison. And the matter of whether or not one man paid a few too many million dollars to another man based on imprecise matters of baseball valuation isn’t in the same stratosphere of potential offenses as illegal wars, illegal wiretapping or illegal manipulation of investment instruments.

But the idea still holds: Ruben Amaro might know a lot more about Ryan Howard and the Phillies than Rob Neyer does. But Neyer can always approach the matter with a clear head. Doesn’t mean he’s right and Amaro is wrong, necessarily. It just means arguing that a person knows far better than anyone else what to do because he’s the one making the decision is not an argument that should be taken seriously. In baseball, it’s silly. In other walks of life, it’s dangerous.

Making accurate predictions, in any sphere, is impossibly hard. It’s absolutely true that if prognosticators could accurately predict the future, they’d have wiped out Vegas years ago. And since the future is so uncertain – Will Ryan Howard still hit 50 homers a year when he’s 35? Will those 100 shares of Apple I bought go up? Will I get cancer? – we all tend to fixate on what we already know. Namely, what’s happened in the past.

There’s no question that the past can tell you a lot about how the future will play out. Ryan Howard may or may not hit 50 homers a year four, five and six years from now – but he’s much more likely to do so than David Eckstein, because Howard, unlike Eckstein, has shown he can do so in the past. Apple’s stock may or may not go up from the point at which you bought it – but it’s been one of the market’s biggest winners over the past few years, and that’s a decent predictor of future success. I may or may not get cancer later in life – but if my family history is rife with the disease and I moonlight as an asbestos taster, then I probably should get some life insurance, pronto.

Just because the past gives us part of the picture doesn’t mean it gives us the whole picture, though. It’s easy to sit back and criticize the contracts players like Kevin Brown, Mo Vaughn and Alfonso Soriano got in the past, because we know what happened afterwards. But it’s simply not the case that all GMs who give players big contracts only to see them blow up are idiots. There was optimism surrounding those and hundreds of other big-ticket deals at the time they were signed, because each of those players was very good at the time they signed them. Just as there’s lots of optimism surrounding Howard’s contract now, because as of right now, Ryan Howard is a really good baseball player.

But as a society, we underestimate the potential of change, and the frequency of change. It’s simply not reasonable to assume that Howard will continue to hit 45 to 50 home runs a year for the next seven years (the two left in his current deal, plus the five-year extension), because more than 100 years of baseball history tell us that players skillsets change over time. Howard might merely drop to 42 homers a year, allowing him to retain the bulk of his value and make the argument over his worth more interesting. But he will change, no matter how hard he’s worked the past few years to get in shape and no matter how hard the Phillies work to create optimal working conditions for him.

The iPhone 4GS could be the biggest tech disaster since the Newton. I might beat the odds of getting cancer by ending my asbestos licking and hopping on a treadmill three times a week. And Howard might, despite his immense talent, meet some adversity later in his career. Or not. We don’t know. But the correct answer to not knowing isn’t to assume life will always remain static. It’s to acknowledge that change is coming in one form or another, and make the best decisions while keeping that possibility for change in mind.

I’m going to be honest, when I heard Ryan Howard got a five-year, $125 million extension from the Phillies, making him the highest-paid player in the history of the franchise, I smiled. As a fan.

Yes, yes and yes to the opening passage in Levy’s Howard post. Do you know how viscerally happy I would have been had the Expos signed Vladimir Guerrero to an eight-year, $200 million contract back when Vlad was one of the best players in baseball, in his prime? About this happy.

Being a fan of a team, a cause or even your own country isn’t some casual pursuit. It’s a full-time gig. Good moments are blown way out of proportion. Bad moments are blown way out of proportion. It’s possible to be a fan and to be completely rational and objective about the facts at the same time. But it’s also really tough. The natural tendency when a writer criticizes your team is to assume the writer’s biased against you, band together with like-minded individuals, and write the critic off as whatever synonym for “giant f’ing moron” you prefer. And that’s great. We should all be so lucky as to care about anything in life as much as Levy or the fine commenters at The Fightins care about their team, or hell, how much I still care about a damn defunct team.

But it would be great to give our autonomic nervous systems a breather once in a while, and actually listen to what the other side has to say. We’re all wrong, all the time. Accepting that fact opens you up to new perspectives and gives you a chance to grow intellectually.

Maybe there was a better way to consummate a new contract for Ryan Howard than what the Phillies did. Maybe a person who loves sports so much that he studies, tests and creates new metrics isn’t a humorless basement-dweller out to twist the numbers to his own ends. If someone takes the opposite viewpoint, it doesn’t make that person biased, self-serving or automatically wrong.

We’d all do better to let our guard down every now and then and listen to the other side speak. That’s even tougher to do as fans, but we have to try. Chucking a crate of strawberries at Darryl Strawberry during a major league game is still perfectly reasonable behavior for a fan. But if Darryl tracks you down in the parking lot after the game and notes that boysenberries would have offered less wind resistance, you owe it to yourself to listen.

What is Twitter exactly? Why do we use it? What do we get out of it?

I’ve wrestled with this question since the first time I typed 140 characters into that little box, hit send, and waited for ridicule to come flying back at me (no one cared what I had to say, so those fears proved ill-founded). When my buddy Dave first suggested I adopt the medium, I had the same reaction many of you probably had too: Why should I care about other people’s burritos? As time went on, of course, you realized that Twitter has a lot more to offer. I now use it to stay current on the latest news, sports-related or otherwise, and to get a few laughs a day, given all the talented, witty people out there who’ve adopted it.

This brings us to the subject of social media, immediacy and accuracy. The accepted standard in news reporting on a micro scale is to do the best you can to be first, without being wrong. Check as many facts as you can, then Tweet about the latest baseball trade or SEC ruling. If you can’t be the first person to report the news, at least you can be the first person to report it and be right.

Writing coherent analysis in 140 characters is much harder. Most topics worth discussing require a level of depth that can’t properly be covered in 140 characters, 140 words, or sometimes even 1400 words. That was certainly the case with the Ryan Howard contract. I’ve read about a dozen long-form blog posts and articles on the issue — some positive, some negative — and I would guess that there are several other angles that could still be covered. Trying to sum up all that is right, wrong or yet to be determined about the deal in a couple of lines really isn’t possible.

So what does a somewhat snarky writer who fancies himself an analyst do when big news hits the wires and he wants to weigh in? He takes the extreme version of his viewpoint, leavens it with humor, and zaps it out there.

Ryan Howard’s contract isn’t literally going to be a financial quagmire along the lines of the Iraq War. My best guess is that even going by Matt Swartz’s more generous valuation of player wins, Howard will earn 80% or less of his contract — not including less tangible but still relevant factors such as marketing presence or an individual player’s impact on attendance. But because I didn’t like the timing of the deal, didn’t feel enough attention was paid to opportunity cost (most people, GMs or otherwise, miss this), and didn’t have more than 140 characters with which to operate, I Tweeted a comment that was at best an exaggeration and at worst, as Levy succinctly put it, “stupid.”

And I’m fine with that. In its current form, Twitter will remain a forum for instant reactions, and for linking to longer posts and articles with more thoughtful reactions. Because of my book deadline (I can see the finish line, woo-hoo!), I didn’t have time to formulate that kind of longer, more thoughtful reaction until it was too late, and many others had weighed in with their own engaging thoughts. Twenty-six hundred words later, here we are.

So, thanks for that Ryan Howard. Here’s to lots more homers for you, lots more wins for your team, and lots more lively, open-minded debates about the greatest game in the world.

UPDATE: Tim Marchman, on the ball as always.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. meechone permalink
    27 April 2010 3:17 pm

    For the record, Jonah, I put your comment last and hinted at the fact that you were being sarcastic. I hope people don’t take anything too seriously that has three exclamation points after it, but I sure didn’t.

    And maybe I shouldn’t have used the word dumb (I thought about taking it out), but “condescending” is the important word there.

    Some of these writers try to talk to you like they’re correcting a grade school kid. I’m not a fan of that.

    • Jonah permalink*
      27 April 2010 3:21 pm

      Good deal, had an inkling.

      Other than some occasional Twitter snark…if you ever get the sense that I’m talking down to people that way, kindly smack me in the head.

      • meechone permalink
        27 April 2010 3:47 pm

        Will do. It’s not that I even dislike the writers who I blockquoted, I just felt like defending my boy Howard. I sat through the Travis Lee’s and the Rico Brogna’s of the world for too long to talk down about Howard.

        And some would even call my entire post an elaborate ruse to make a Keith Law/ESPN Insider joke.

  2. rogerfreemason permalink
    28 April 2010 1:59 pm


    I found your post very refreshing and honest. Every article I’ve seen that with a negative reaction towards the Howard contract has almost attempted to one-up each other in terms of sarcasm.

    I am a Phillies fan who doesn’t approve of the Howard contract (we’re out there, I swear), but like Dan Levy, we’re fans first. It’s easy for objective analysts like Keith Law and Rob Neyer to tear down Ruben, or this contract, or Howard’s flaws, or fans who may approve of the contract, and I understand that it is their job to do so, but the demeanor and approach stat-friendly writers have taken this week has walked the super thin line of pompousness and intelligence.

    What I found most disheartening was watching Keith Law (A guy who I enjoy reading, especially his thoughts on fiction novels) have an argument of sorts with a Phillies fan via Twitter. This particular fan was clearly grasping at straws throughout the argument, but here was Law, a highly-recognizable name at ESPN (and a Harvard MBA graduate, no less) flexing his intelligence (condescendingly) through multiple tweets. There was just no need for it. Turn the other cheek, as they say.

    We get it, Keith. You’re the smartest guy in the room. Stat-friendly guys don’t like old school writers calling them basement-dwelling nerds (and I can understand the frustration of the tired cliché. We booed Santa Claus, dontchaknow), but responding with snark and arrogance to regular fans who may not be as baseball savvy isn’t helping either.

    Jonah, your post has been the best take I’ve read on this subject and especially loved the analogy with Darryl Strawberry. Disagreements about baseball should be the norm, and so too, common courtesy.


    • Jonah permalink*
      28 April 2010 2:35 pm

      Very fine line, I agree. I do think Keith and others are sincere in their analysis, and do their best to persuade and educate. Wielding knowledge is indeed a tricky task, and there are people in the industry who know so much, it’s mind-blowing.

      Anyway, it’s all made for a fun debate. Even if I had to bring FISA and the Newton into the mix.

      Thanks for reading!

  3. Ken Arneson permalink
    29 April 2010 8:06 pm

    Nice with the twin interaction. I’ll bet they’ll be cycling like Sedins in no time.


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