How psychology is keeping Harper and Machado unsigned

The Giants jump in the pool of Bryce Harper hopefuls, plus reports of proposed rule changes spread through the league

TORONTO – On the final weekend before spring training begins, the two greatest free agents in a generation – Bryce Harper and Manny Machado – remain unsigned, and theories on the causes of the marketplace’s deep freeze abound.

Among them: The collective bargaining agreement is flawed; the draft’s bonus-pool structure incentivizes tanking; front offices better understand the risks in free agency and are correcting their past ways; the data-based revolution has led teams to value players so similarly that it’s created an unspoken collusion that’s driving down demand for players.

Each is valid and certainly factors into the current situation, but the one word I’ve keyed in on all winter long, the one that’s really driving how the market operates right now, is objectivity. Kind of dull, I know, and probably not what you were expecting, but in assessing what’s happening industry-wide right now, not enough attention is being paid to the psychology underpinning how teams do their business these days.

After all, a fundamental principle in building many of the decision-making models so widely employed is working to remove all emotion from the process, since human judgment is fallible because of the tricks the mind plays on itself. More than ever, players are seen as commodities and the objectivity in such an outlook creates a detachment that’s demolishing the game’s economic order, and perhaps plays a role in the declining attendance around the majors, too.

“I think it’s a very dangerous time for baseball right now,” says Sportsnet broadcaster Buck Martinez, who once served as vice president on the players union’s executive board.“Baseball as an industry has depersonalized its players, now the players are merely stats and numbers and his runs created is this and everything else. You know what? There are characters out there and that’s always been the appeal to the fans. I’m afraid that’s being lost because now it’s a matter of, ‘Hey, plug this guy in because he’s got a great OPS, plug that guy in because of his WAR.’ What about, ‘Plug that guy in because he plays his ass off and he’s our guy?’”

Not anymore, and in the business world, where more and more executives in the game are coming from, that’s hardly cutting-edge stuff. If your investment advisor, for instance, is still relying on gut feel and instinct over pure data in managing your portfolio, move your money, pronto.

The revolutionary studies produced by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky during the 1970s are largely responsible for that, as the Israeli psychologists helped reshape the understanding of human decision-making and judgment, and spawned the field of behavioural economics.

Their research is neatly collated in Kahneman’s 2011 best-selling book Thinking Fast and Slow, which in the words of one baseball executive completely reset how the sport thinks. Read it and you can connect many of their principles to the way sports teams are run, especially the focus on objectivity.

Increasingly, front offices are eliminating – or at the very least, trying to eliminate – all emotion from their thinking, since people typically have trouble fighting through their biases, relying on information easily accessible in their mind rather than thoroughly thinking issues through.

As a result, teams sort players through data and if the valuation of an established free agent on the open market and a generic farmhand or secondary player in the system is similar, well there’s no emotion in the equation to push the decision toward the established free agent. The potential for surplus value wins every time.

Still, that doesn’t explain Harper and Machado, who would start for virtually every team out there and immediately impact their fortunes. A better explanation comes from Kahneman and Tversky’s Prospect Theory and the concept of loss aversion in risk taking, which demonstrated that people’s desire to avoid loss exceeds their desire to secure gain.

The concept of loss begins with an individual’s reference point for break-even, allowing people to frame the risk-reward structure of a given situation. Given the inherent risks in signing a player to the kind of contracts Harper and Machado are seeking – hundreds of millions, 10 or so years – it’s pretty difficult to objectively frame such a commitment in a way that makes sense.

Emotionally, on the other hand, you can certainly talk yourself into splurging on Harper, as lots of Blue Jays fans have on social media: Think of the buzz! People will fill the stadium! Vladimir Guerrero Jr. needs someone to hit behind him! Merchandise! TV ratings bonanza! Heart emojis!

Objective data tells a different tale, which is why Blue Jays president and CEO Mark Shapiro, long ahead of the curve when it comes to this stuff, ruled out the possibility back in September when he bluntly told reporters, “we’re not going to be playing on Bryce Harper on Manny Machado.”

The reality is even with Harper, the Blue Jays aren’t going to be competitive enough to make a real run at the post-season in 2019, or 2020, or maybe even 2021 (longer if they don’t conjure up some pitching!). By the time they’re really ready to go, Harper will be pushing 30 and who knows what kind of physical shape he’s in by then, with inevitable decline to come?

Forget for a second the commitment he’d want the Blue Jays to make in the surrounding roster to try and win before then. An objective executive would ask why pay out all that money to not make the post-season, negatively impact the bottom line and hurt the team in the draft? Why not wait until the roster is likelier to fully leverage the big spend?

Sure, it feels better for fans to win 78 games instead of 71, but holistically, does that advance the program? Ultimately, the only thing that keeps the people coming is a winning team, so what difference do a few extra wins make on the path to nowhere?

None, and that’s why the market is broken.

Not only is there no incentive to finish in the middle of the pack rather than the bottom, it’s actually detrimental, leaving teams with a worse slot and less money to spend in the next draft. Hence, very rarely do teams feel like they have to get a player and pursue him as such on the free-agent market.

Instead, they talk about alternatives and opportunities and finding ways to create or prevent runs, figuring that if they compile enough value on the roster, a post-season berth will follow.

That stuff about identifying with players, and putting faces of the franchise on the stadium walls? That’s empty social media catnip for marketing to use to pump up the masses.

“The players and their personalities – the George Bretts, the Robin Younts, the Cal Ripkens and the Jackie Robinsons of the world – drew the fan bases to their clubs,” says Martinez. “You have to build that back up so fans can identify with their team, their players and become fans again – not just be an analytical observer that’s going to put numbers on everybody. ‘I look at him and he’s a 0.5 WAR guy.’ What? Look at him and say, ‘He wants to win for the Toronto Blue Jays and that’s what means a lot to me.’”

Objectively speaking, that’s quite a concept.

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