There are a number of differences between a fan of a baseball team, and the baseball team's executives. The executives, for example, tend to have more money. Way more money. And they have pull. Fans always have a number of opinions and suggestions on what the team could do better, but the executives can actually act on what they think, should they so desire. The executives are the ones who truly have all the power.
More than anything else, though, the biggest difference - bigger than the difference in bank accounts, and bigger than the difference in authority - is one of standpoint. For the fans, baseball is entertainment. It's a game. It's something they'll pay to observe, or turn on when they get a few hours free. For the executives, baseball is a business, a business that, at its heart, is just like any other business. So the executives have the same goals in mind that any business executive would.
Most of the time, these interests overlap. And why wouldn't they? A fan just wants to watch his team win. That's all he really cares about. And there are few things better for a franchise's bottom line than winning. When a team is successful and makes it to the playoffs, the fans are happy to have a shot at the title, and the executives are happy to gather all the revenue. Which isn't to say that team officials are all cold and unfeeling - they like it when their teams win, too - but revenue plays a big part.
So the relationship is usually symbiotic. But every so often, a player like Stephen Strasburg comes along, and the way that he's handled just underscores the broad gap between fans of a team and the team itself. See, fans will, under any and all circumstances, just want to see the best possible team on the field at all times. The fans want the best players in the organization to populate the Major League roster. There was little doubt, for example, that Strasburg was one of the Nationals' top five starting pitchers coming into the season, so fans wanted to see him break camp in the rotation.
But baseball has these rules. Complicated rules that have to do with arbitration and team control and service time. Allow me to attempt a quick explanation.
Service time refers to the number of days that a player spends on the Major League roster or the Major League disabled list. 172 days is considered equivalent to a full year of service. Players with three full years of service become eligible for salary arbitration, and are only three years away from free agency. Players with fewer than three full years of service time - even if they're only a couple days short - are not yet eligible for arbitration, and free agency is farther away.
So that's a big deal when it comes to determining when a player's going to be a free agent. There's also another deal called ‘super two'. A super two player is a player with fewer than three full years of service, but more than two. The top 17% of all 2+ year players in terms of service time are referred to as super two players, and these players are eligible for four years of salary arbitration, rather than the usual three. A super two player is thus all but guaranteed to make more money than he would if he didn't qualify, as arbitration can be lucrative.
It was with an eye to those rules that the Nationals handled Strasburg's ascent through the organization. Had the Nationals inserted Strasburg into the big league rotation right out of camp, they would've started his service time clock, and he would've been in line to become a free agent after the 2015 season. By waiting a little while, they avoided this complication.
Additionally, had the Nationals inserted Strasburg into the big league rotation in, say, the beginning of May, they wouldn't have cost themselves that year of team control in 2016, but they would've set Strasburg up to become a super two. Strasburg would've been eligible for arbitration after 2011, a process through which he could make a whole lot of money. By waiting a little while longer, they avoided this complication, too.
The Nationals called Strasburg up on June 8th, when he made his Major League debut. They did so to much fanfare, but after watching Strasburg dominate the Pirates for seven innings, the world was left to wonder what might've happened had Strasburg been up all year long. They were left to wonder about a hypothetical, because the Nationals had made the business decision to hold off on promoting Strasburg until they were sure it would cost them as little as possible.
It's a very sensible business decision, to be sure. Keeping a young player for an extra year is important. Keeping a young player's future cost down is important. It makes perfect sense why so many teams handle young players the way that they do. It's just unfortunate from a fan perspective to see, say, Strasburg held off for a little bit, or Evan Longoria held off for a little bit, when it's abundantly clear that they can help the big league team. This is something we've all just come to expect from baseball teams - not because we want to, but because we have to.
By and large, most every team will operate with an eye to these rules. It's unusual, then, for a team to do otherwise. The Braves, for example, put Jason Heyward in the Opening Day lineup, giving away a guaranteed year of future team control for the sake of immediate dividends, and that came to many as a surprise. It would've been easy for the Braves to stash Heyward away in the minors for at least a couple weeks, but they opted against it, and were rewarded with a torrid month of April.
And another interesting case - a more interesting case - is San Francisco's Buster Posey. This is a case I'd like to explore, specifically because of the way he's been treated by the Giants. Googling ‘buster posey service time' yields 39,000 results, and it's because so many people have seen him as just another talented young player getting screwed by the rules in place. Posey's service time and contract status have, in many ways, become a more popular conversation topic than Posey himself.
Buster Posey was the fifth overall selection in the 2008 amateur draft, a catcher out of Florida State University that the Giants saw as the organization's backstop of the future. He got into a few games at the end of the year after signing in August, but then absolutely blew up out of the gate in 2009. Posey batted .329 and slugged .540 with A-ball San Jose before earning a promotion all the way up to AAA Fresno in July. And, in Fresno, he didn't miss a beat, taking a couple weeks to adjust and then flipping out in August with a 1.066 OPS. Posey, it seemed, was having absolutely no trouble at all mashing the ball against high-level competition, and as he dominated in Fresno, the calls began to come in for the Giants to bring him up and make him a regular. Buster Posey was ready, more and more people agreed. He was ready, and the Giants should give him a spot.
The Giants did call Posey up last September. They didn't play him very often, though, and when they grabbed Bengie Molina off the free agent market in January, it became apparent that Posey would be heading back to AAA to start the year. This fanned the flames of the pro-Posey internet, which felt the Giants were doing themselves and Posey a disservice by keeping him down. In part because of Posey, and in part because of Strasburg, more people began to talk about MLB rule reform, as the sentiment was that it was unfair to the fans and to the players for teams to be able to take such advantage of the service time rules in place. Posey and Strasburg, in the fans' collective estimation, were clearly ready for the big leagues. Why weren't they up? That they weren't yet up was taken as a clear sign that something was broken.
It was thence assumed that Posey was being kept in AAA because the Giants were keeping an eye on nothing more than his service time. And, in fairness, the Giants didn't do a whole lot to deny the accusations. As Posey hit the ball all over the park with Fresno, the Giants kept struggling bats in the lineup. Team officials would offer unconvincing explanations for what Posey still had to learn in the minors before coming back to the bay. When pressed on the subject, general manager Brian Sabean stated that "Triple-A baseball isn't very good."
And when Posey finally did come up on May 29th, it was impossible not to notice the timing. Posey had accumulated 33 days of Major League service during his stint with the Giants in late 2009. By coming up on May 29th, Posey was set to accumulate another 128 days of service time through the rest of 2010. By adding those 33 days to the 128 days, Posey was on track to finish the season with 161 days of service, or about two weeks shy of a full year. In other words, had the Giants called up Posey two weeks sooner, they would've risked a year of team control in 2016.
And so Posey was seen as being just another young victim of the system. When he burst out of the gate with 21 hits in his first 13 games, fans pointed to his hot streak as evidence that he'd been ready all along. Evidence that the Giants had deliberately hurt themselves in the present for the sake of an uncertain future.
Now, I'm not here to argue that the system isn't broken. The system is clearly broken, at least in that I find something troubling about the idea that a team can delay or impede a young player's ability to make money down the road by holding him down when he's clearly ready to come up. Rather, I'm just here to argue that, at least in this case, the Giants may not have been playing the role of villain. Not 100%, anyway.
The first thing to understand is that catching in the Major Leagues takes a lot of preparation, and coming into the year, Posey had racked up a total of just 103 games' worth of professional experience behind the plate. Whether catching and setting up and game-calling are truly as difficult as they're made out to be is an open question, but remember that Giants manager Bruce Bochy was a catcher in his playing days, so he's going to have a particular view. Former catchers are going to be more demanding of their current catchers, and so, if Bochy felt that Posey needed more seasoning, that made sense. You'd expect as much from Bochy.
And Posey, for the record, did show some improvement this year. While evaluating catchers in the field is hard work, it's worth noting that, after getting charged with 14 passed balls in 97 games in 2009, Posey was charged with just one passed ball in 32 games with Fresno earlier this season. And he maintained a very good rate of throwing out attempted base-stealers. Behind the plate, Posey indeed looks to have made some progress after going back to the minors out of camp.
The second thing to understand is that the Giants kept Posey on the Major League roster for 33 days in 2009 and hardly played him. Over 33 days, Posey made 17 trips to the plate. Last September, the Giants allowed their top prospect to accrue big league service time for no particular reason, and this is the sort of maneuver you don't usually see from a team that's greatly concerned about such things. By keeping Posey all but glued to the bench for most of 2009's final month, the Giants risked costing themselves either future money or future service time.
And lastly, given that they called him up on May 29th, and given his 33 days of service in 2009, the Giants recalled Buster Posey from Fresno knowing full well that he was in line to become a super two. While he wasn't going to finish the season with a full year of service, he would be close, and assuming a regular roster spot in each of the next two seasons, Posey would assuredly end 2012 in the top 17% of players with more than two and fewer than three years of service. Which would mean four years of arbitration, which would mean a higher salary.
That's nothing new to the Giants. Tim Lincecum made his big league debut in early May of 2007. He didn't get a full year of service, but he collected 148 days, meaning that he was a super two player following the 2009 season. And as a super two player, he was due to make many millions of dollars, while in Matt Cain's third full professional season, for example, he made $0.7 million. Lincecum wound up signing a two-year contract that guaranteed him $8 million for 2010 and $13 million for 2011. By allowing Lincecum to become a super two player, the Giants accelerated his salary timeline.
The Giants recalled Posey knowing full well that it would likely cost them millions of dollars down the road, and knowing full well that waiting just another month or another six weeks would minimize or even eliminate that risk. They did it anyway. For those 100 or 125 trips to the plate, the Giants sacrificed an awful lot of future money, and they did it in the name of trying to make their current team contend.
So if you were to ask me whether I think the Giants screwed around with Buster Posey's service time in order to maximize future returns, I'd tell you, sort of, but not to the degree of which they've been accused. I do think the Giants cared strongly about preserving Posey's 2016 season. I think they cared strongly about seeing him develop as a catcher, too, and I think they wanted to wait and let things play out on the big league team for a little while before re-evaluating the situation, but ultimately, I think the Giants wanted to do everything they could to make sure they didn't call up Posey soon enough that he'd accumulate a full year of service by the end of 2010.
But beyond that, considering that Posey's a clear candidate to become a super two in a couple years, the Giants were actually more aggressive than you'd expect most teams to be with a player of Posey's ability. He's going to cost a lot more over the next six years as a super two than he would have otherwise. The difference will end up being in the millions of dollars, and possibly, if not probably, eight figures. That is a ton of money for an organization whose payroll averages around $90 million a year. The Giants let Lincecum become a super two, and they're letting Posey become a super two, even though, by being a bit more conservative, they could've saved themselves enough to, say, land a premium free agent.
Buster Posey probably could have come up to the Major Leagues and succeeded earlier than he did. In that regard, his career was delayed. But the Giants still made an aggressive decision, and what's more, it's paid off like gangbusters. Posey initially played a lot of first base while the Giants continued trotting out Bengie Molina and Eli Whiteside behind the plate. The slumping Molina was then shipped to Texas, allowing Posey to assume the regular catcher role, and he's adjusted with ease. The Giants have the second-best record in the National League for a reason. They have the second-best record in the National League for a number of reasons, I guess, but Posey is most definitely one of them.
The Giants were 25-22 when Posey was promoted. Since then, they've gone 37-23, the best mark in the NL and the third-best mark in the bigs. Posey has yet to allow a passed ball behind the plate, and has thrown out 11 of 26 would-be base-stealers. His catcher ERA - the pitching staff's ERA when Posey has been behind the plate - is 3.32, between Molina's 3.50 and Whiteside's 3.24. And, of course, more importantly, Posey has been an offensive force for a team that's seldom had any of late. He batted .444 through his first dozen games. He then fell into a slump, but has hit .414 since the beginning of July, with seven home runs and 26 runs driven in. Included in there was a 21-game hit streak. Posey's moved all the way up into the cleanup slot, and he's continued to deliver for a Giants team with real hopes of making a run.
Among National League hitters with at least 200 plate appearances, Posey ranks first in average and fourth in OPS, between Scott Rolen and teammate Aubrey Huff. He may not be able to sustain his current level of performance, but as an effective defensive catcher, he doesn't have to in order to be valuable. He could lose 100 points off his current OPS and he'd still be more of the most valuable assets in baseball.
The funny thing now is that, where a few months ago fans were clamoring for Buster Posey to come up and play every day, the conversation has at least in part shifted to just how much the Giants might have cost themselves by making the call when they did. It's a worthwhile point. Keeping an eye on service time issues is a sensible business practice for a reason - it saves money. One could make a very convincing argument that calling Posey up on May 29th, rather than, say, around the All-Star break, isn't worth what the Giants will have to give up.
But at the same time, if ever there were a potentially damaging sort of decision a front office could make that wouldn't be received negatively by the fan base, this is it. Even if the timing of the Posey promotion ends up costing the Giants millions of dollars, and even if it doesn't end up making a huge difference in the outcome of the season, it will still stand as a decision that the Giants won't ever have to defend. Because by calling Posey up when they did, the Giants took a major step towards putting together the best roster possible, damn the consequences, and that's the sort of decision that captures the whole of the baseball fan's spirit.