In the first week of the compressed campaign Red Sox Nation was reminded of Betts’ near-flawless fielding in a Dodgers game at Arizona, a performance all the more remarkable when considering it was just Betts’ seventh game at that venue.
Betts’ .366 wOBA, a measure of offensive productivity, in the early going is hardly staggering, but nonetheless stands 63 points better than the Major League Average and higher than all but four current Red Sox batters. With a clearly deficient pitching staff and the highest starters’ ERA in baseball, the Sox are dependent on consistent offensive production, but consistency has been missing in action thus far with time ticking away.
All this, of course, has amplified this offseason’s big Betts deal, a trade which RSNStats stood against from the very beginning. Some fans are sick of talking about it, which is understandable, but others still struggle to wrap their heads around how a marque franchise like the Red Sox could have traded away the team’s best homegrown talent—arguably one of baseball’s best overall players—in a generation.
2020 is shaping up to be the first results of a massive strategic blunder by the Red Sox front office. It’s not just that Betts is gone. Unless the MLB season—already been rocked by numerous COVID-19 outbreaks—makes it to September 1, the Sox may be under the same financial restrictions that got them to this point.
First, though, let’s dispense with some nonsense.
Betts Was Greedy
Red Sox Nation loves its heroes but we’re not afraid to trash the ones who don’t show the love back to us, ideally with a hometown discount for the privilege of playing in Boston (see Dustin Pedroia Fandom, and to a some extent the affection for Xander Bogaerts, despite the often ignored opt-out negotiated on his behalf).
Once the deal for Betts was consummated, a large contingent of fans pushed the fake narrative that Betts was greedy and overvalued. And yet the free market, the actual arbiter of value, shows that wasn’t the case. Said another way, you might think a loaf of bread shouldn’t cost more than a dollar. But in the US the market price is $2.54. You can think that’s too much, that’s your right, but you’re unlikely to be buying any bread.
Dodgers ownership is far from ignorant and while, like every long-term deal, Betts’ performance is subject to flag towards its end, Los Angeles clearly believes they can derive greater value from the contract than they will pay.
Betts Didn’t Want To Play Here
In signing with the Dodgers, Betts passed on a consistently stated desire to test free agency. That’s viewed by some as a tacit admission that free agency was just an excuse and that Betts didn’t really want to be in Boston.
But the global pandemic changed everything for most people, even high-paid athletes. Forecasts for free agency, like the forecasts for most businesses, have been torn up. No one knows what the future will be like, because our modern economy hasn’t been through this kind of longterm turmoil.
Faced with so much uncertainty, that Betts took the second-richest total deal in Major League history, 13 years for $392 million, should hardly be viewed as surprising.
Failure of Strategy
So how did the Red Sox get to a point where they traded away one of their best all-time players? Quite simply, it was a failure of strategy.
Strategy and tactics are the two means to achieving a goal. Strategy is a the high-level plan, while tactics are more granular. Tacticians handle day-to-day actions guided by a strategy. Both are equally important to achieving the goal.
If our goal is to walk from Boston to Los Angeles, for instance, the strategy might include considerations of route (“head west”), health (“we’ll need to avoid snake bites crossing the desert”) and weather conditions (“avoid crossing the Rockies in the winter!”).
The tactical considerations of our long walk might include which steps to take (“best to walk around that burning building”), lodging (“this place looks safe to stay”) and dealing with the unexpected (“better grab that first-aid kit to deal with this snake bite!”).
Life as a Big Spender
The Red Sox, like many big market teams, have been perennial over-spenders. To help keep the markets reasonably competitive, teams are subject to a substantial competitive balance tax with an escalating penalty rate for every year they spend beyond the season’s threshold (for much more detail about this, see this RSNStats explainer).
Since 2003, current Red Sox ownership have paid over $46 million in CBT (including an estimated $12 million for 2019). To reset the rate back to its lowest level, a team has to take a step back at some point and stay below the spending limit for a full season.
The competitive balance task isn’t a mysterious boogeyman hiding in some dark corner. It’s a well-publicized set of thresholds and penalties known years in advance. Indeed, the current CBT rates for both spending and the penalties were set back in 2016 for the 2017–2021 seasons.
Late in 2015 the Red Sox chose Dave Dombrowski as their new baseball chief. Like the very existence of the CBT, Dombrowski’s modus operandi was hardly a secret: he’s a win now kind of a leader.
As advertised, the battle cry from Dombrowski was clear: Damn the torpedos, go for broke to bring home another trophy, which the Sox did in 2018. For tactician Dave Dombrowski, it was Mission Accomplished!
But strategists back on Jersey Street knew the club was heading towards an iceberg. They knew the increasing, unsustainable penalty rates coincided with the impending free agency bid of Betts, their biggest star since David Ortiz. They knew it when they signed off on a plan to extend Chris Sale. They knew it when, in the hazy high of a championship, they inked 36-year-old World Series MVP Steve Pearce to a $6.3 million deal for what amounted to 29 games of work.
The right move, the strategic move, would have been to put the club in a position to reasonably compete for Betts as he neared free agency, just at the Dodgers put themselves in the position to afford Betts’ new contract. Might that have meant foregoing the 2018 championship? Perhaps, but in service of a higher, longterm strategy that would position the team for multiple championships over the next ten seasons.
For each, a role to play
In every business, each person has a role to play. They may dabble outside their chief responsibility, but they also have a primary objective.
Players are paid to perform; managers to make in-game decisions with the players available to them; the general manager, within the confines of a budget, to deal for the resources the manager can use.
The top executives of the front office are charged with strategy. Their primary role is not, and really cannot be, dealing with tactical, day-to-day issues, but rather with the future of the business. Strategists should be focused on the planning necessary to get the Red Sox where they want to be in three, five, and even 10 years from now. For these executive, strategy is be their highest calling and most important responsibility.
Retaining a generational talent like Mookie Betts ought to have been part of the Red Sox’ longterm strategic plan. What we know now is that either that wasn’t in the plan, or there wasn’t really a plan at all.