Christy Mathewson on How Big Salaries Can Hurt Player Performance

Christy Mathewson

“The thing about a fat payroll and monster expectations is they can lead to huge disappointment.”

So states Los Angeles Times sports columnist Steve Dilbert this morning in response to the Dodgers’ struggling offense in their first three regular season games against the San Francisco Giants. Indeed, the much-ballyhooed Dodger power hitters, whose salaries helped balloon the organization’s payroll to Hindenburg proportions, have thus far not given the team its money’s worth. In the first three games against Giants starters, the Dodgers failed to score a single earned run over 19 innings. They went 2 for 27 with men in scoring position, 1 for 14 in last night’s game alone, a game that saw a shaky Tim Lincecum give up seven walks. Matt Kemp posted 0 for 10 in the series, as did Luis Cruz. Slugger Adrian Gonzalez went 1 for 9 with no RBI. Andre Ethier went 3  for 12 with one RBI. The one Dodger win in the series was thanks to ace pitcher Clayton Kershaw, who in addition to shutting down the Giants in the home opener outdid his teammates with the bat, launching an eighth inning home run that would turn out to be the only run the Dodgers needed to win.

No one in the Dodger organization is hitting the panic button yet. We’re only three games into the season. But after last year’s monster acquisition from the Red Sox of Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Nick Punto, and Josh Beckett failed to carry the club into the 2012 postseason, one can understand why Dodger fans are getting a little frustrated.

It’s a frustration Giants fans should be able to relate to, even if they don’t dare admit it. Better to repeat Brandon Belt’s “you can’t buy chemistry.” Belt may be right. But Giants fans know the disappointment that can come with big contracts. I’ll just mention the name Barry Zito. As Jeff Passan of Big League Stew says, “Baseball knows how to do the disastrous contract better than any other sport.”

Part of the problem comes from acquiring big name players after they’ve peaked. Older players also tend to suffer more injuries, and it’s tough watching a huge investment parked on the bench with the meter running. However, the failure to perform may also have something to do with the enormous expectations put on players who sign big contracts. Teams should expect to get what they pay for, of course, but baseball is a game that is as psychological as it is physical, and inflated expectations can play with a person’s head.

You may think this problem is unique to our time, what with today’s multimillion dollar MLB salaries that make your average Joe and Jane feel like they’re earning sweatshop wages. But as it turns out, player salaries have always had an effect on  performance in professional baseball. In his book Pitching in a Pinch, New York Giants pitching legend Christy Mathewson tells the story of Rube Marquard, an early twentieth-century southpaw who “came to the Giants in a burst of glory and publicity when the club was fighting for the pennant.” Marquard signed with the Giants for $11,000, a lot of money in 1908.

With the pennant on the line, Giants manager John McGraw was reluctant to put Marquard into a game, even as Giants owners pressured him. He feared a loss in an important game might ruin the young left-hander and cost the Giants the pennant. A player himself, McGraw understood the psychology of players perhaps better than anyone else in baseball. But he was also faced with an ailing bullpen. In a double header against the Cincinnati Reds, McGraw, against his better judgement, finally pulled the trigger.

Marquard lasted all of five innings. “The official scorer got writer’s cramp trying to keep track of the hits and runs,” Mathewson quips. The fans screamed for McGraw to take Marquard out. Marquard later confided to Mathewson,

When I saw that crowd, Matty, I didn’t know where I was. It looked so big to me, and they were all wondering what I was going to do, and all thinking that McGraw had paid $11,000 for me, and now they were to find out whether he had gotten stuck, whether he had picked up a gold brick with the plating on it very thin.

It took Marquard two years to get over the humiliation of that game. His confidence would eventually return, and he would go on to become one of the league’s best pitchers. “He became the greatest left-hander in the country, and would have been sooner,” Mathewson writes, “except for the enormous price paid for him and the widespread publicity he received, which caused him to be over-anxious to make good. It’s the psychology of the game.”

Today’s Giants fans can only hope that with his shiny new nine-year, $167 million contract, Buster Posey will be able to keep his head in the game.

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