LOTS OF MONEY, ONE BIG ERROR

By Murray Chass

April 11, 2010

In the overall scheme of baseball things this season, the development that occurred just after opening day will pale in significance to what happens the rest of the season. But it deserves a longer shelf life and a more prominent spot on the shelf than it will have.USA Today 225

Last week USA Today published an article saying that baseball salaries for players on opening-day rosters and disabled list had plunged 17 percent from last year’s opening-day figure. The problem was it wasn’t true.

This is how the story originally appeared:

Sliding: MLB pay down 17%

USA TODAY

ATLANTA — The salaries of major league players on opening-day rosters have plummeted 17% from last year, the largest decrease since USA TODAY began its annual salary survey in 1988.

The story caught the attention of people in the Players Association office and the commissioner’s office.

Someone in the commissioner’s office called Ron Blum of the Associated Press to find out what his calculations showed. Blum has been tracking major league salaries and payrolls for years and has established a sound track record, the most reliable of anyone who follows salaries closely.

He told the commissioner’s office that his salary study was not yet complete because he was waiting to get the salaries of a few players added to rosters just before the start of the season but that it appeared that the average salary would be up about 1 percent.

The union took an even more proactive approach, and this is what makes the USA Today error so significant. The union issued a news release announcing its opening-day average salary. The union has released its season-ending average salary report for years but had never felt the need to disclose its opening-day calculations. This announcement was a first-time event, unprecedented in the union’s 44-year history.

michael-weiner-225This is the news release the union issued:

“The average salary of a Major League baseball player on Opening Day in 2010 is $3,340,133, it was announced today by the Major League Baseball Players Association. This is the sixth consecutive season in which the Opening Day average salary has increased.

“The Monday, April 5, 2010 print edition of USA Today inaccurately reported that the 2010 Opening Day average salary is $2.7 million, down 17% from 2009 Opening Day. In light of this mistake, the MLBPA, for the first time, is announcing publicly the results of its own annual calculation of Opening Day average salaries.

“The 2010 Opening Day average salary represents an increase of $22,658 over the 2009 Opening Day average salary of $3,317,475, while the total payroll of the 828 players on Opening Day rosters (including the disabled list) this season is $2,765,630,418, which represents an increase of $55,253,618 over the total payroll of Opening Day rosters in 2009 (817 players, including disabled list.).”

The union’s figures show a 2 percent increase in total payroll and an increase of 0.68 percent in average salary. Whether USA Today was talking about average salary or total payroll, it did not drop 17 percent.

Upon further review of its figures, the newspaper corrected its report:

CORRECTION: The average salary of players on opening-day rosters was incorrectly stated in the original version of this story. The average player salary is $3.27 million, a 1% increase from $3.26 million in 2009.”

Even in its correction, though, the newspaper was imprecise. The figures it used represent not a 1 percent increase but three-tenths of 1 percent, which can’t even be rounded up to 1 percent.

USA Today’s error did not surprise me because I have never trusted its salary reports. Once upon a time I did my own salary calculations, and when I would check some of USA Today’s figures I would find errors that distorted its calculations. I stopped compiling major league salaries when the sports editor of The New York Times decided he didn’t want to devote the number of newspaper columns needed to accommodate all of the salaries.

The best reporting on salary and payroll figures is done by the Associated Press’s Blum. He is meticulous in his compilation of player salaries, and his work, before and after each season, can be trusted to be accurate. The same cannot be said for USA Today, which is widely read within baseball and therefore should feel a greater responsibility to get it right.

The erroneous 17 percent report spread around the country via other Web sites and newspapers and in baseball circles. It did sound like a good story, until USA Today’s correction, which came fairly quickly but not quick enough to prevent everyone from repeating the error.

Blum’s report moved on the AP wire the evening of the second day of the season and confirmed that USA Today had been wrong. After a mistake that egregious, it would be difficult to accept future USA Today “salary studies.”Ron Blum 225

When free agency began in 1976, contract information was hard to come by. The Players Association never disclosed individual player figures, and the commissioner’s office was mute on the subject as well.

Agents had access to contract data but were reluctant to share figures unless they made them look good. Clubs were routinely provided figures by the commissioner’s office, and the best chance for a reporter to learn contract details was to develop sources among friendly club officials.

Today contract details are routinely available. And for those reporters who don’t want to work at obtaining them, they can check the AP wire, where Blum will have them in a timely manner, or at a Web site, Cot’s Baseball Contracts, named for Cotton Tierney, a former player, the site explains, who was the “National League’s fifth-leading hitter in 1922 and played the next season for $5,000.”

As much as I applaud the site’s operators for creating and maintaining it, the reason for its name suggests that they lack a knowledge of baseball’s economic history. They can certainly celebrate Tierney in any way they want and they might think he was underpaid after being the fifth best hitter (.345) in the National League in 1922, but considering the salaries that followed him his wasn’t as bad as they thought for a player with two full seasons in the majors.

Forty-five years later, in the first year of the Major League Baseball Players Association, the minimum salary was only $6,000, or $1,000 more than Tierney made after hitting .345. The players needed the union more than Web sites named for them.

The Cot’s site doesn’t have 2010 payroll totals; its totals are incomplete. But if I were searching for an individual player’s salary or contract, I would use it far sooner than USA Today’s salary data base.

Finally, besides the mathematical error of 17 percent, USA Today had a spelling error, far less significant than the 17 percent calculation but telling nevertheless. A heading with the salary survey said “MLB 2010 slaries.”

 

CLARIFYING THE CONFUSION

The numbers can be confusing. I’m talking about average salary and payroll figures. They are confusing because no two offices or people who compute them come up with the same numbers. That’s because salaries are not all simple numbers.

The Players Association and the commissioner’s office compute players’ pay in different ways, and Players Association numbers will always be slightly higher. That’s why the season-ending 2009 average salaries were different, $2,996,106, according to the union, $2,882,336, as computed by Major League Baseball.

Want more confusion? Based on the figures the union cited in its news release, the average salary this year is up 0.68 percent, but the total payroll is up 2 percent. Using Associated Press figures, the average salary is up 1.8 percent and the payroll 3.15 percent. It would seem the percentage of increase for average salary and total payroll should be the same, but the difference is created by the number of players on rosters and disabled list, 817 last year, 828 this year.

 

CRITICIZED FOR DOING HIS JOB

Joe West, the veteran umpire, stirred up something last week, speaking out uncharacteristically for an umpire.

Joe West2 225In an interview with Jeff Roberts of the Record of Hackensack, N.J., West criticized the Yankees and the Red Sox for their slow pace of play in their season-opening series in Boston. The games took 3:46, 3:48 and 3:21, the last a 3-1 game.

“They’re the two clubs that don’t try to pick up the pace,” West said. “They’re two of the best teams in baseball. Why are they playing the slowest? It’s pathetic and embarrassing. They take too long to play. And he added, “This is embarrassing, a disgrace to baseball.”

Players on both teams, in turn, criticized West. I wondered how the commissioner’s office would react to West’s remarks so I called Mike Port, the official in charge of umpiring. Surprisingly, Port did not return the call.

I was surprised that he did not call because Port has long been accessible. Mike Teevan, a member of the commissioner’s public relations department, said Port was unavailable because he was “moving around.”

But the lack of a call from Port prompted me to think that perhaps he didn’t call because he didn’t care for West’s comments and didn’t want to be in the position of criticizing the umpire publicly.

But why would Port not like what West said? Commissioner Bud Selig has long wanted to speed up the pace of play and has directed his special committee on on-field matters to address that issue. It seemed to me that West was articulating the commissioner’s concerns. But Port did not call to express that sentiment.

West, of course, knew whereof he spoke. The Yankees and the Red Sox do play excruciatingly slowly.

According to the commissioner’s office, the Yankees have been among the slowest since 1999. The Red Sox have averaged over three hours each year since 2006. The Yankees and the Red Sox have been one-two in worst time of game each year since 2006 (the Yankees had the worst in 2006, 2007 and 2009, and the two teams tied for the worst in 2008).

The Yankees have been over the 3:00 mark in average time of game in 9 of the last 11 seasons and have been the worst team in 10 of the last 11 years (they were one minute faster than the Indians in 2008). The worst time of game came in 2007 when the Yankees averaged 3:10 per game.

In his comments, West suggested that the Yankees and the Red Sox, as the best teams, should set an example for everyone else by playing faster. However, the Yankees and the Red Sox frequently reach the playoffs the way they play – they have collectively won the World Series seven times in the last 14 years – so they have no incentive to change.

 

NEW-STYLE NEWSPAPERING

The New York Times on Sunday ran a story that was ostensibly about pitchers and their fastballs but was one of the most incredible newspaper pieces I have ever seen. The headline read “They could throw that speedball,” but it should have said “Advertisement for myself.”

It was about the writer’s search for the fastest fastballs and the pitchers who threw them. “There is no definitive answer,” he wrote, “but I think I came up with a pretty good one. It’s right there in my book….” And he gives the book’s title, which I will not do because I don’t want to sell any books for him.

What the Times was thinking in allowing this free advertisement is beyond my comprehension, but is a low point in the history of a once proud newspaper.

Comments? Please send email to comments@murraychass.com.