Doing Pennants

Steinbrenner can't pay too much for what he really wants

Professor J.C. Bradbury of Kennesaw State University in Georgia tells the Voice that Roger Clemens isn't worth it. In his new book, The Baseball Economist, Bradbury calculates the value of a win in terms of revenue created. He then credits each player for his contributions to those wins in monetary terms—sort of like Bill James's theory of "Win Shares" converted to dollar signs. It's complicated, but then so are both baseball and economics. The bottom line for Bradbury, economically speaking, is that Clemens's worth is about $11 to $12 million, or about a third less than the Yankees will be paying him to start perhaps 20 games in what's left of the season. (Actually, the cost to the Yankees is greater than Clemens's reported $18.6 million salary. They'll also be kicking in more than $7 million to Major League Baseball's luxury tax fund.)

Bradbury isn't the only one who thinks Clemens will be overpaid. Judging from the radio call-in shows, many fans agree, and it isn't just the money some people object to. On "The Fan," former Mets GM Steve Phillips railed against special conditions that the Yankees are allowing Clemens, like not having to travel with the team when he's not scheduled to pitch. "There should be the same rules for everybody," proclaimed Phillips, as if Babe Ruth's career had never happened. ESPN's Jemele Hill was even harsher: The Yankees' indulgences are "disgraceful," she asserted.

Maybe, but everyone seems to be forgetting that deals in baseball, like all other businesses, are subject to the laws of supply and demand. In this case, Clemens has the only available supply of something the Yankees are in dire need of: quality starting pitching. Before the deal was announced on May 6, the Yankees seemed in jeopardy of calling it quits. Now, with the addition of the Rocket and the return of the Pocket Rocket (Philip Hughes, the 20-year-old version of Clemens who should rejoin the team about the same time as his idol), the Yankees have a solid chance to catch the Red Sox or at least to make the playoffs.

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Actually, for Yankee fans, the reaction to the Clemens signing, to quote Yogi, is déjà vu all over again. The same adjectives were used to describe Clemens when he first came to the Yankees in 1999. Most were summed up in a piece I wrote on Clemens for the Voice in October 2001:

When he came here, Clemens was perceived as a carpetbagger, a mercenary who came to New York to finally gain recognition as a winner. The perception, of course, was entirely accurate. And why shouldn't he come to New York for those reasons? Isn't that why everyone comes to New York? Why else would anyone come to New York?

Frankly, he has been too long in coming. Roger Clemens is an asshole, and Yankee fans are assholes; why did it take them so long to get together?

As I said seven years ago, Clemens is an asshole—the kind of pitcher who would, in the words of Bob Uecker's announcer in Major League, "knock down his own kid in a father-son game"—but he's our asshole. New York fans and writers ought to be happy he's back. For starters, he is probably the greatest pitcher in baseball history—second on the all-time strikeout list, eighth in all-time wins, and a seven-time leader in ERA with seven Cy Young Awards. Allowing for the differences in eras, Clemens compares favorably with Walter Johnson, Lefty Grove, or virtually any other pitcher who has ever played the game.

I said "is probably the greatest," and this assumes, of course, that Clemens, who will turn 45 in August, is at least a facsimile of his younger self. Yankee fans are still smarting from the overnight aging of Randy Johnson, perhaps the premier left-hander of the last 25 years. That can certainly happen to Clemens, too, but his last three seasons with the Houston Astros indicate otherwise: Both his average won-lost percentage of .680 and his ERA of 2.4 runs per nine innings from 2004–06 are actually better than the averages of his previous 20 seasons.

Still, the question lingers: Is Clemens worth the money? What he offers is such a rare commodity that it tends to be, in times of crisis, overpriced—and for Brian Cashman and the front office, nearly every issue is a case of crisis management. Having failed to produce enough pitching from their neglected farm system, the Yankees must now pay the price, which means bowing to the laws of supply and demand.

Even Bradbury acknowledges that there are reasons for signing Roger Clemens that go beyond economics. "The things that are difficult to quantify," he says, "are Clemens's star power, leadership, and some as yet unidentified unique characteristics of the Yankees market."

What's likely, though, is that George Steinbrenner isn't looking to make a profit on Roger Clemens. Given his track record, it's likely that Steinbrenner's aim doesn't fit into any economic model: All he cares about is winning.

 
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