Jack Welch, the famous CEO of General Electric from 1981 to 2001 was famous for his ten percent rule. He believed that every year, the bottom ten percent of performing employees should be fired. We adopted some of his philosophies at the software company I worked for from 1993 to 2008. I ran Customer Service and I kept a spreadsheet on everything related to performance such as call times, customer reviews, and a dozen of other skill sets. Every year, the bottom performers would be let go no matter how long they had been with us. It sounds brutal but those numbers were posted daily and everyone knew what was expected. Such a rule does not exist in baseball. Many of the bottom ten percent of players get to keep playing.
I did a search on both Baseball-reference.com and on Fangraphs.com to identify who the lowest valued players were in the past three seasons. I searched for those batters who had played at least 250 games over the past three seasons with a WAR of zero or less. In Baseball-reference.com, there were twenty-five such players. Of those twenty-five, only four did not have a job this spring.
I did the same thing and looked for pitchers with at least 210 innings pitched over the past three seasons. There were strangely twenty-five of those too. Of those twenty-five, only six did not have a job this spring, at least in a major league camp.
Why is the mediocrity built into the Major League system? Juan Rivera is in the Yankees camp this spring on a minor league deal. But you know he's going to head north with the team, right? He's on our list. Despite being on that list, he's made $19 million dollars over those three seasons. The Yankees also brought Ben Francisco into camp because their injuries keep mounting. He is on my list.
I have never understood how these players continue to get jobs year after year. One of these conversations always leads to the "good clubhouse guys." Craig Calcaterra of NBC's HardBallTalk recently had a post where he talked to Brandon McCarthy, one of the most stat-savvy players in baseball, and McCarthy reiterated the "good clubhouse guy" mythology. Calcaterra, to his credit, was not really buying it.
Each team has a large amount of players playing in the Triple-A and Double-A level. It would seem really difficult for me to believe that a good portion of these could be as incompetent as these bottom twenty-five players in baseball are. And they could be that incompetent for a lot less money. Is there more to this than meets the eye?
Would it be jaded for me to wonder if baseball would rather keep these awful players around instead of turning them over because that would mean more players qualifying for an MLB pension? On the face of it, those financial concerns wouldn't seem to cost MLB that much money. Can it really be more cost effective to play a lousy player a million dollars instead of a replacement player half that much to save money on pensions? I don't know the answer. But purging the sport of the worst ten percent of the players on a regular basis seems so logical that it has to be another logical reason why it doesn't happen.
The aforementioned Yankees have several outfielders in their minor league system that could very easily replicate what Juan Rivera and Ben Francisco bring to the table. So why don't they go that way? They won't. You just know they won't. You just know the Red Sox will go with Jonny Gomes and Mike Carp over Jackie Bradley, Jr.
For me, back in my software company days, a guy that made other employees feel good and smile a lot just did not make a difference if the customers suffered as a result. In the end, there were too many competitors which would be glad to take our customers if we did not take care of ours. It was an easy decision to make. It was tough. But it was necessary. But for some reason, baseball is different. Old catchers last forever despite production when minor league catchers could do just as well and for a lot less money.
Whether this baseball truism comes from something innocent like a manager's comfort level or something more sinister like the pension angle, the bottom line here is that baseball perpetuates a cycle where the bottom ten percent of performers continue to work in their profession. The government might be the only other employer that does that.