While Dexter Fowler and Matt Carpenter are making a mint, the St. Louis Cardinals need to avoid the “sunk-cost fallacy” and play the best players.
Chances are you’ve heard this, or something like it, already. But it’s a loser’s logic, and we can only hope that Mike Shildt doesn’t take a Sparky Anderson-like approach to the 34-year-olds who are due to make $16.5 million (Fowler) and $18.5 million (Carpenter) in 2020.
A Hall of Fame manager, Anderson had his quirks. One of those was looking at paychecks rather than performance late in his Tigers managing stint. After the Detroit front office signed pitcher Mike Moore to a three year, $10 million contract in 1993, the skipper determined to use the man no matter what.
This would’ve been fine, except Moore pitched poorly (5.22 ERA, 1.479 WHIP, a league-leading 35 homers allowed) his first year in Detroit, and pitched worse (5.42 ERA, 1.562 WHIP, a lead-leading 89 walks allowed) in his second year. In 1995, Moore made 25 starts despite a frightful 7.53 ERA and 1.862 WHIP.
Anderson’s reason for sticking with Moore: “We paid him a lot of money to pitch; I’ve got no choice but to pitch him.”
It should come as no surprise that the Tigers steadily declined over those three years, going from eight games over .500 in 1993 to nine games below in ’94 and 24 below in ’95.
T. Norman Van Cott, professor of economics at Indiana’s Ball State University, calls the Anderson reasoning “the sunk-cost fallacy.” “The player’s salary for the duration of his contract is a sunk cost,” Van Cott wrote in 2016. “It has to be paid regardless of whether the player plays; it therefore shouldn’t figure in the decision about how much play time needs to be utilized from the player. What matters at this point is whether you can find somebody who can play better.”
Still, many insist that the highest-paid players have to play, regardless of their failures. Kean Doherty of sportsbreak.com wrote about Chris Davis’ “horrible, awful offensive season” in July of 2018 yet concluded, “The Orioles, unfortunately, have to play him, since they’re paying him a king’s ransom.” Manager Buck Showalter must have agreed: Davis had 522 plate appearances in 2018 despite hitting .168 with a .539 OPS.
But, hey, Davis was making $23 million. Showalter couldn’t sit him. Could he?
Most Cards fans will agree that Carpenter should get a sizeable number of at-bats (150? 200?) to see if he can hit more as he did in 2018 (.897 OPS) than last year (.726 OPS). But there’s no reason to force Fowler onto the field if someone else — Lane Thomas? Tyler O’Neill? Randy Arozarena? — emerges as a better option.
Fowler has declined as a fielder, and his 142 strikeouts in 574 plate appearances a year ago is alarming. He had a career-worst walk-to-strikeout ratio of nearly 1-to-2. A handsome salary can’t disguise the fact that Fowler might have very little left.
A boss like Patriots coach Bill Belichick never fell for the “sunk-cost fallacy.” Quarterback Drew Bledsoe, the highest-paid player in the NFL in the mid-’90s, was still pulling a hefty salary in 2001, but when it came time to pick a rest-of-the-season starter in mid-November, Belichick went with 2000 sixth-round pick Tom Brady over Bledsoe, the first overall pick in the 1993 draft, and the team’s highest-paid player. It soon became obvious that picking the less-established option, Brady, was the right choice.
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The same challenges occur in other fields. Bosses often have to decide whether to assign a high-profile project to a more experienced employee, who may be making more money, or a newer hire, who may have more talent. It’s fine giving the older, established worker the benefit of the doubt, but baseball is about results. As cold as it sounds, those who don’t produce need to sit —or go — regardless of their paychecks.