As I read various articles around yesterday about the punishment levied out against the Cardinals for Chris Correa’s hacking into the Houston Astros’ databases, a few trends seemed to emerge.
First, most every national commentator seemed to feel like the Cardinals “got off easy” in terms of punishment. Second, the comments section of every article came with an implicit invitation to shout everything you hate about the Cardinals into the void.
And boy, people still really hate that the Cardinals get a Competitive Balance Pick.
Before I get into that, allow me to indulge a quick detour into the “Cardinals got off easy” argument. Even several writers I respect, such as Ken Rosenthal, indulged the notion that the Cardinals were not penalized enough without considering the other side of the coin: Did the Astros really deserve to be compensated more?
Outside of the cash fine to the Cardinals - which was maxed out under current rules - all these other mechanisms for punishing St. Louis are closed systems. The amateur draft, international bonus pool money - we have limits on the number of players and dollars in these systems, which must then be apportioned out among 30 MLB teams.
The two draft picks being taken from the Cardinals will be given to the Astros. And that makes sense - the Astros are the team who suffered damages as a result of the hacking. If you felt like more should have been taken away from the Cardinals, that’s a defensible position... but where should it go?
Several online persons suggested the Astros should have received a first round pick, which in this case would have to come from the 2018 draft. Are any of the teams of the AL West clamoring to see Houston get two extra picks this year plus an additional first round pick next year?
Perhaps Rob Manfred should have penalized the Cardinals more severely. But these systems are all designed to maintain competitive balance, so he had to reckon with the fact that the more he pushed down on one side of the scale, the more he elevated the other side, and at a certain point the entire system would be out-of-order.
So, speaking of competitive balance...
Among the most common grievances being aired yesterday was the age-old (since 2012) gripe, “why-oh-why do the Cardinals get a competitive balance pick?”
If you’re not familiar, Competitive Balance Picks were implemented in 2012 to give an additional draft pick to teams with either a small market or small revenue. The bottom ten teams in terms of market size and the bottom ten teams in terms of revenue are eligible (many teams appear on both lists, so there are less than 20).
The Competitive Balance Picks are divided into two rounds, with Round A coming between the first and second round of the draft, and Round B coming between the second and third.
Previously, the order of those picks was assigned via lottery, however they are now assigned by a system that considers winning percentage and revenue.
So here’s the thing: For Joe Casualbaseballfan, I get where it seems odd that the most consistently excellent team of the last 20 years gets something called a “Competitive Balance Pick.” But given this current system, it is completely reasonable.
In terms of both metro area population and television market size, St. Louis is one of the smallest in baseball. What makes the Cardinals unique, as many studies such as this one at FiveThirtyEight illustrate, is that they dramatically over-perform their market size both in terms of popularity and revenue generated.
The Cardinals are in many ways the model for a successful small market team, but that doesn’t mean they are not a small market team. Under the current system, they will continue to get a Competitive Balance Pick ever year, though it will almost always be at or near the very end of those picks, given the new formula that weights revenue and winning percentage.
You could argue that the entire Competitive Balance formula should be changed... but should it? You could punt market size and only award picks based on revenue, but doesn’t that weight the whole thing more heavily toward teams that are poorly run (perhaps in addition to having a small market)?
Theo Epstein complained about the system rewarding a pick to the Cardinals back in 2014. That year, the Cardinals - who finished first in the division - were awarded a Competitive Balance pick, while the Cubs - who finished last - were not.
Now, if you frame it as “first place team gets pick, last place team does not,” that doesn’t sound like it promotes competitive balance. However, if you frame it as Heroic Small Franchise Committed to Winning receives pick, Villainous Big Market Franchise in the Midst of Tanking does not... You certainly don’t want to build a system that further rewards big teams who choose to lose for a few years.
Baseball does not have the kind of formal salary cap (or floor) that many other sports do, which more elegantly create balance - at least in terms of payroll revenue. But probably Bud Selig’s greatest legacy is engineering a sort of Rube Goldberg machine that moves in that direction, via things like the luxury tax and yes, Competitive Balance picks.
There might be a better way for baseball to achieve parity across its various markets, but under the current system, the Cardinals are absolutely deserving of a Competitive Balance pick.