What can Lebron James, Jacoby Ellsbury and Jon Heyman tell us about player pay in baseball?

On Sunday this week, LeBron James’ agency Klutch Sports, announced that ‘The King’ had decided to play out the twilight of his basketball career in Los Angeles, with the sport’s signature franchise, the Lakers. The nuts and bolts were revealed to be a cool $153m for four years of work during the great’s age 33 and 37 seasons. This adds to the $233.8m James has earned in his career to date, according to Spotrac.

Even as someone with only a passing interest in basketball, it’s unquestionable these sums are earned. James is the global star that baseball continually seeks to confect. He allies Mike Trout‘s game changing, once-in-a-generation talent with a level of charisma that has always been apparent, but which has become even greater as he matured and was humbled both by his return to Cleveland and his statesmanlike response to political events in his home nation.

On Monday evening the great baseball beat writer, news breaker and pugnacious Tweeter Jon Heyman shared a musing on LeBron which, on first glance, seems to back up this point:

Regular followers of the Bat Flips & Nerds Twitter will know Heyman has previous for tweets like this one – ‘Haughty Heyman’ and his biting barbs are a much loved feature of baseball Twitter, and long may that be the case.

The first point to make about this, though, is that Jon clearly didn’t pay much attention in math(s) class in elementary school. As any 7 year old can tell you, 153/7 < 153/4 – where James will take home $38m a year, whilst Ellsbury will settle for a mere $21m.

The point Heyman is making (if it wasn’t obvious) is this: LeBron James is really good at basketball and deserves all the money he gets, Jacoby Ellsbury on the other hand, is very bad at baseball and does not.

On the most basic level, that analysis sort of works. Ellsbury’s time with the New York Yankees has been underwhelming, chequered with a host of lengthy injury layoffs and highlighted by the fact that all of his offensive AND defensive stats have cratered, with the exception of Catcher’s Interference, at which he is a bizarre master.

It’s therefore straightforward to see what Heyman means – ‘on paper’ Ellsbury’s contract in New York is a historical disaster rivaled only by that of Bobby Bonilla‘s at the crosstown Mets, and Carl Crawford‘s with Ellsbury’s old team (and the Yanks’ divisional rival) Boston Red Sox.

In the five years of the contract to date, Ellsbury has spent a total of 180 days on the DL picking up – according to Spotrac – $20.6m in sicknote fees. It should be noted that there is no disabled list data for 2014, Ellsbury’s first in Pinstripes, but given he made 143 appearances it’s safe to assume he spent no time on the DL.

That being said, the stats for Ellsbury’s time in New York tell a rather different tale to the narrative. Through the end of the 2017 season, he tallied 9.9 bWAR in the Bronx at an average cost of £8.54m per win. That’s above the base level of $7m which is seen as average, but maps the trend of increasing cost of performance explored here by Russell Eassom a few weeks ago.

So, even disregarding his poor grasp of rudimentary arithmetic, Heyman’s analysis of Ellsbury’s deal in the Bronx offers an unfair estimation of actual performance.

Furthermore, it entirely ignores the reason why a 30 year old Ellsbury has that $153m deal in the first place, the explanation of which lies in a closer understanding of how baseball pays its stars.

Recent fans of baseball will only know the Yankees Ellsbury, the butt of every podcast joke and target of tweets like the one which inspired this article.

But the one which patrolled centrefield at Fenway Park was a rather different proposition. In his time in Boston, Ellsbury finished third in the 2008 Rookie of the Year voting (behind Evan Longoria and Alexei Ramirez) and 2nd in the 2011 MVP race, behind peak Justin Verlander in a year where the Red Sox own Devon Loch impression down the stretch likely cost him the gong.

He also won two World Series rings (in 2007 and 2013) and tallied a handsome 20.7 WAR, despite missing a whole year to injury. His cost per win in that timescale was a mere $1m. All of which is to say – Jacoby Ellsbury was in the top decile of MLB talent, and unquestionably ‘earned’ the payday proffered him within MLB’s own Byzantine approach to rewarding talent.

During his peak, Ellsbury earned just over $20m through minimum salary and arbitration. In the same period, LeBron James earned $94m having already trousered $18m whilst Ellsbury took home minimum wage and free lunches in the minors.

Whilst the 2017/18 winter saw a historic low in free agent spending as front offices finally wised up to the diminished value in paying aging stars like Ellsbury, David Price and Zack Greinke, there was no effort in last year’s collective bargaining agreement to rebalance player pay in the minors, or for the game’s top young talent.

Even Mookie Betts – one of the game’s megastars – faced criticism for the valuation of his own talent, taking on the Red Sox to pocket a record $10.5m in the first year of his arbitration window.

By age 25, already a megastar himself, James was earning $15m at 2010 prices, almost $17m when you control for inflation, with career earnings before then topping $33m or almost $37m at current prices. Prior to the 2018 season, Betts career earnings were $2.25m.

Baseball’s issue is less what it is paying Jacoby Ellsbury (or David Price, or Bobby Bonilla depending on your personal poison) but that it isn’t paying Betts, or Bryce Harper, or Manny Machado, what their talents merit.

By joking about the wage discrepancies between a single baseball and basketball star, Heyman has thus accidentally drawn attention to what is going on ‘under the hood’ of baseball’s player payment approach and helped highlight a genuine need for change.

Getting that change will be another story that will probably involve lockouts and recrimination. Enjoy your baseball now, there might be a less of it in a few years time.

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