Tag Archives: Slate

A Can’t-Miss Strategy for Making the MLB Playoffs

The baseball season is long — the regular season lasts more than half of the year. And that’s just the regular season. It doesn’t even include the preseason or postseason. As the season spans six months, one would think that it might be hard for some players to keep their focus during the middle of the summer.

In fact, this past Sunday while watching a Blue Jays game, I saw a graphic that depicted the wins/losses of the teams in the division during the last game of the series for the 2013 season. The graphic showed how the other teams were far more successful than the Blue Jays when it came to the last game in a series. As a result, it got me thinking about how to better incentivize players (maybe managers, too?)

My idea: incentivize winning series.

Before I get into the details, I want to preempt the argument that baseball players get paid too much. Grant Brisbee of SB Nation had an all-around great response:

The problem with these comparisons is that baseball isn’t the real world. There is no comparison for baseball. Try to invent one without devolving into ridiculousness. Okay, so there are 30 Walmarts in America. And there are laws that protect Walmart’s monopoly, which means there aren’t any Targets. But those 30 Walmarts can be run only by people with Ph.D.’s who graduate in the top one percent of their class from the top 10 universities. And the Walmarts are in competition only with each other, which means …

… a ridiculous scenario all around, of course. Baseball players shouldn’t be compared to the average American worker. They’re specialized, elite talents in an entertainment industry that’s sitting on a money spigot. And I feel like I should mention this at least once: If the players didn’t get the money, it would just go to the owners. You can argue that owners should get a larger share because they take the investment risk. I’m not sure I’d agree, but that’s at least a consistent argument. Saying that players should make less because it offends your sensibilities isn’t quite as compelling.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, we can focus on how to incentivize players to win series. Well, just before that, let me talk a little bit about why I chose series as a unit of measurement. As there are 162 games in a season, it seemed like incentivizing a player to win every game might superfluous, as players always want to win the game. I chose a series because there are a little more than 60 of them and it seemed like a good intermediate goal (or project milestone, if you want to put it in the language of project management) between winning every game and making it to the playoffs.

Most series are 3 games long, so we can think of winning the series as winning 2 out of the 3 games. If the team wins two out of the three games, then the players all get a bonus. To guard against them mailing it in during the last game, there could be another bonus if they sweep the series and win all 3 games. What happens when the team loses the first 2 games of the series — what do you incentivize then? Well, you’d incentivize not being swept. That is, if the team loses the first 2 games, the players get a bonus if they win the 3rd game and avoid being swept.

For those series that are 4 games long, the same incentivizes for winning/sweeping a series still apply, but we’d add another one — tying a series. That is, if a team is down 2 games to 1 in the series, the players would get a bonus if the won the last game to tie the series 2-2.

Now, my first thought would be to use money as the incentive to win these games, but with the salaries that players have, one may wonder whether there could be enough money offered to actually make the incentives work. The more I thought about it, though, the more I thought that even players with massive salaries could be motivated by money.

Let’s use last year’s MLB salary figures as a basis. Fangraphs had an article that detailed the average MLB salary last season ($3.4 million) and the median ($1.1 million). The median salary is probably a better representation, so let’s use it. The median salary equates to approximately $20,000/week, assuming that players get paid every week of the calendar year. Let’s also assume that there are 60 series in a season. That means, there will be approximately 60 times to offer players this bonus incentive. There are also 25 players that are on the active roster. As a result, we’d have to decide whether we wanted to reward all players or just the players that played in the game.

With 25 players on the active roster, the calculation for offering a bonus of $1000 makes it quite the expense, but not as much as you might think. 25 players getting a bonus of $1000 across 60 games equates to an extra 1.5 million that needs to be budgeted. Given that this is approximately the median salary of an MLB player, one would think that teams could afford this. It’s also important to note that these calculations didn’t include the possibility that teams would win the series and sweep the series. In those cases, players could get a bonus for winning the second game of a three game series and then get another bonus if they win the third game of the three game series. A quick look at the total number of sweeps last year tells us that the average number of sweeps was 7. So, we can add another $175,000, which brings the total expense to $1.675 million. While certainly not a small amount of money, in the context of how much teams spend, it seems like it might be worth it to try and win a few extra games.

Let’s look at the Baltimore Orioles last season as an example. They finished 85-77, 6.5 games out of making the playoffs. Meaning, if they were to win 7 of the games that they lost, they would have made the playoffs. Looking at their streak data from last season, they were swept 5 times. In addition, they were stopped from sweeping a team 8 times. Together, that’s 13 games. If the Orioles could have won half of those (6.5, so let’s round it to 7), they would have made the playoffs.

Put differently, if they would have employed this strategy and it was successful at least 50% of the time just in the series where they almost swept a team and were swept, they would have made the playoffs.

Would You Rather Pay Fees or Taxes?

A little over a week ago, Matt Yglesias wrote a post on Slate about how to balance the budget while slashing taxes. The solution: call everything a fee.

Well we could solve an awful lot of problems that way. For example, I’d love to see us impose a greenhouse gas emissions fee to internalize the social cost of carbon dioxide. On top of that, I think a small additional fee on the use of gasoline would be justified. And of course road congestion fees on crowded highways. I used to think we should raise the alcoholic beverages tax, but now I think we should eliminate it entirely. Instead, let’s put an “alcohol fee” in place that just happens to be higher than the current tax. Do the same for cigarettes. Legalize marijuana, but subject its sale to a rather hefty fee. It actually turns out that we could replace most taxes on labor and capital with a land occupancy fee, especially if we call it a “land occupancy fee” rather than a “land value tax.”

After reading this post, it made me think of Michael Sandel’s chapter about fines versus fees. Maybe some of the things that Yglesias is talking about in this post should actually be labeled fines and not fees. For instances, if we’re talking about internalizing the social cost of carbon dioxide, isn’t there a moral piece to it? That is, shouldn’t we call this a fine, then? You may disagree, but the nomenclature in this case does matter.

It seems a bit absurd to think that people would be more amenable to paying money for something merely by changing the label from ‘tax’ to ‘fee,’ but labels matter.

While it’s certainly a creative idea to start charging fees and lower taxes, there is an important bit to consider here. Namely, the control of these fees. Have you ever had to pay a fee to get your license renewed? Do you know how much it costs the government to ‘actually’ renew your license? I don’t. But I know that I get charged close to $100 to renew it. Josh Barro solidifies the point:

Politicians tend to regard fees as more palatable than taxes, and more focused too. If a state needs to finance an infrastructure to oversee fishing, why shouldn’t fishermen foot the bill? But groups like the nonpartisan Tax Foundation in Washington worry that governments are now using fees to shore up budget shortfalls rather than cover specific costs incurred by specific users.

“When it comes to paying for bananas, you’ve got the market as a mechanism to make sure you’re paying a fair price,” says Josh Barro, a staff economist at the Tax Foundation. “But when it comes to getting your driver’s license renewed, the government has a monopoly, and you have no idea what it costs the state or what it’s doing with the money.”

The moral of the story: maybe taxes aren’t so bad after all.

Which US City Has the Worst Drivers: No Weather Variable?

A few days ago, there was an article on Slate that claimed to investigate which US city had the worst drivers. I thought the article was interesting as it’s probably something that everyone has an opinion on. That is, we all think that we know where the worst drivers in the US live. After reading the article, I was surprised — thoroughly — that there wasn’t a mention of weather.

Having grown up in Canada, (near Toronto), I am absolutely used to driving in snow and other forms of precipitation. After having lived in 4 different US states (and spending time in 31 others), I feel supremely confident in saying that not everyone is comfortable driving in forms of precipitation. While not an extraordinary revelation by any means, it still seems important. I had to read through the article a couple of times because I didn’t believe there was no mention of ice, snow, snain, or something else related. Weather absolutely affects the way that people drive and their comfort with precipitation will have certainly affect their ability to drive.

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I’ve written before about unexpected snow in Washington, DC, but I don’t think I’ve talked about one of the conversations I’ve had with someone who’s lived in Metro DC for over a decade. She was explaining to me that, not only do you have such a wide variety of drivers in the DC area (those who’ve moved from the South or those who’ve moved from the North or those who’ve moved from the West, etc.), but you’ve also got the weather. More specifically, she was explaining that the “moderate” winters in DC make it awful for driving conditions. When the temperature hovers near freezing, the afternoon rain turns into morning ice. For those who have no experience driving in icy conditions, it can certainly cause drivers to be extra cautious (or mistakenly, not be cautious enough).

This is why I think it is important for any discussion of “the worst drivers” to include a weather variable. Sometimes, we need to be careful we’re not misappropriating the blame.

Is It Time to Pay Politicians More?

A few months ago, I saw this very argument made in Slate. At first, I’m sure you’re doing a double-take? Why would we pay them more? They are hardly doing the job that we elected them to do in the first place. Why would we reward failure, stagnation, and an inability to get stuff done? That’s absurd!

All natural reactions, yes, but when you take a second to think about it, the idea isn’t that bat-crap crazy. For instance, consider the Governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell. Josh Barro over at Business Insider makes the case that the Governor is underpaid. Why? Well, look to the incentives! The Governor of Virginia has a salary of $175,000, which is in the 90th percentile for Governors in the USA. That’s certainly a lot of money — almost triple the median income in Virginia. So, again, you may be thinking, why would we pay them more?

Well, consider the kinds of people that the Governor interacts with on a daily basis. Plutocrats. Governor McDonnell, on a daily basis, interacts with people who have income/wealth that far exceed the Governor’s “measly” $175,000 salary. You may be thinking, why is this a problem if the Governor got into politics for purely altruistic reasons?

Even if the Governor did do such a thing, research tells us that unethical behavior has to do with the kind of person you are and more to do with the situations you find yourself in. For instance, you may be the most ethical person in the world, but if you happen to find yourself in a bind financially and a whole host of other variables are weighing on you, there’s probably a situation that you may find yourself in where overlooking a conflict of interest may seem like an okay thing to do.

That’s the argument for increasing the salaries of politicians — to remove the incentive to be unethical. Of course, there’s still likely to be unethical behavior conducted regardless of what the salaries are raised to, but it may eliminate some of it. How much, I don’t know. What would be a fair salary?

The article in Slate discussed Sinagpore, which is known for being one of the most efficient governments in the world. He explained that in Singapore, the Prime Minister earns more than four times the salary of President Barack Obama and the President gets $400,000 a year! Government Ministers (akin to cabinet Secretaries), earn over $1 million a year. The highest paid cabinet Secretary (Secretary of the Treasury) gets approximately $190,000. So, government Ministers earn more than 5 times as much as their American counterparts.

I’m not advocating this particular raise, but I think it’s a conversation worth having.

I suppose the other option would be to remove the influential plutocrats from the equation. Although, I don’t know that with the American political system arranged in the way that it is, if that’d be constitutional. Larry Lessig, someone who’s been working tirelessly on the option of getting money out of politics was asked what a question about salaries for Congress. I’ll leave you with the question and his answer:

Question: You advocate in your book that congressmen should be paid much more than what they are right now (about $175,000/year). How much do you think they should be paid to make them lose the incentive to become a lobbyist? Does 250-300k sound better?

Lessig: Oh please don’t out me on this. Ok, but DON’T TELL ANYONE I SAID THIS: They are lawmakers. Why aren’t they paid as much as a first year partner at a DC firm? In Singapore, gov’t ministers get paid $1 million a year. Where is corruption in Singapore. NO-where.