ECON 101I happen to love Adam Rubin and think he's one of the best beat writers around - but I think he's a little off the mark here. But he's not alone.
What’s spent is spent.
Sounds simple enough, right? Yet Major League Baseball teams often stick with things that aren’t working simply because they’re already on the hook to pay for it.
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The bottom line: Are Mets officials keeping the struggling Perez around because he is a valued member of the 25-man roster, whom they are confident will have a pitching renaissance? Or are they loathe to releasing Perez -- who has declined to go to the minor leagues -- because he’s in the second season of a three-year, $36 million deal?
A search of "Oliver Perez" and "sunk cost" on Google turns up over 1,700 results. Here are some other examples from other respected sources:
The Mets don't want to let Perez go because he's still owed about $20m through the end of next season, but that money's already gone. It's a sunk cost. The only reason to hang on to Perez is if you think he could again become effective, and there's just no evidence that that's a real possibility. --SB NationSeemingly everyone is seeming to make the same mistake when it comes to framing the issue. Rubin, and SB Nation, and Will Leitch over at New York Magazine (formerly Deadspin) frame the issue as one of pride, or hubris, or failing to recognize failures. All of them, and most fans who mention the concept, seem to believe that "sunk cost" simply means paying money for something that currently sucks, when there is something out there which can do the job better but more cheaply (one example was bringing up Dillon Gee, who might be just as good and make the minimum).
Recognize a sunk cost.
In 2011, the Mets will pay Carlos Beltran $20 million, Oliver Perez $12 million, and Luis Castillo $6.25 million. These are atrocious rates for players who are past their prime, untalented, or both. The Mets keep waiting around for them to earn their money rather than accepting that they never will. If Perez were not making $12 million this season and next, there is no way he would be allowed near a major-league rotation. Because he is, though, the Mets are doubling their pain. --New York Magazine
This oversimplifies things. There is no reason why Perez needs to "have a pitching renaissance" in the words of Rubin or "earn his money" in the words if NY Mag. Here's a concise definition as per wikipedia:
In economics and business decision-making, sunk costs are retrospective (past) costs that have already been incurred and cannot be recovered. In traditional microeconomic theory, only prospective (future) costs are relevant to an investment decision. Traditional economics proposes that an economic actor not let sunk costs influence one's decisions, because doing so would not be rationally assessing a decision exclusively on its own merits.We can all agree that the contract given to Oliver Perez is a "sunk cost" because it was spent and cannot be recovered. In that sense, the definition provided by Adam Rubin in his article is accurate. However, it seems clear to me that most people depart from rational theory-based economics and view the issue emotionally. The most important issue to consider is this: if none of these ballplayers were paid anything at all, would Oliver Perez (based on his track record and potential) deserve a roster spot or any more time to find himself?
We can all agree on a lot of things. For instance, we can also agree that Perez was overpaid even at the time the contract was signed. But he wasn't just given the money for no reason -- he was worthy of a sizeable investment because of what he has accomplished in the past and what he may still accomplish in the future. The Mets paid for his present, which was tolerable, and his future, which may well have been quite good.
Looking at Oliver Perez today, it is hard to imagine that he was once so successful. It was impossible to predict his knee injury and subsequent loss of velocity. The main problem is, in fact, the fact that nobody really knows who this guy is anymore, or what he is capable of, or whether he will ever round back into form. The bottom line, however, is this: Perez was once a good pitcher, is young, and has the talent to be a serviceable player again in the future.
Viewed from one perspective, it is understandable to see that wanting to hang on to Perez "just in case" he puts it together for another team as a "lack of understanding of sunk cost" or prideful or hubris. I think that is an overly simplistic view of the facts.
I do not believe that the Mets are not holding on to Oliver Perez because they do not want egg on their face. I do believe, and I truly hope, that the Mets are holding on to Perez because they correctly view his contract as a sunk cost and that it doesn't matter what he is earning -- all that matters that he has an ability to put it all together and throw a baseball better than all but a few dozen people on the planet.
I can be long-winded sometimes, so let me get to the point. To me it is all a matter of perspective. Viewed retroactively, Perez has an enormous albatross of a contract and has not pitched well. But viewed with an eye toward the future, we do not owe him a penny more than what his current contract entitles him to, yet he has the ability to be a valuable part of any team's 25-man roster when he's OK.
The final entry on the wikipedia page for "sunk cost" mentions something called theBygones Principle. The section isn't properly cited, but the concept is sound:
The bygones principle states that when making a decision, one should make a hard-headed calculation of the extra costs one will incur and weigh these against its extra advantages. It emphasises the importance of only taking into account the future costs and benefits when making decisions.Instead of criticizing the Mets for not understanding "sunk cost" as a reason THAT THEY SHOULD cut Oliver Perez, I would posit that most fans have the issue backwards. Since the contract is properly conceptualized as a "sunk cost", it should be completely irrelevant to our decision-making. Perez should be viewed as he is - team property for two more seasons no matter what. And with a resume like he has, he's not the kind of guy you want to cut loose for free.
Instead of lobbying for Perez to be released because we are all angry at the waste of money, the Mets have done the right thing by holding on to him. The issue is currently moot because Perez is on the DL, but with the MLB investigating his MRI he may not be there for long. We will see what happens when he gets back, but I for one hope the Mets don't give in to the pressure and cut loose a potentially valuable asset simply because he's making a lot of money. We are on the hook for the money no matter what, so all Perez needs to do is prove that he'll be able to pitch better than Elmer Dessens, or Raul Valdez, or whoever the last man on the roster will be. If he will go to the minors and work out his issues, even better.
The funniest part of the Bygones Entry on wikipedia is that they use the example of a nuclear power plant to demonstrate how people misconcieve the idea of "sunk cost." In this example, Oliver Perez would be the nuclear power plant. I find that absolutely hilarious:
An important example of this is related to nuclear power. In the late 1980s, about two dozen partially complete nuclear power plants dotted the USA's landscape. Some had already absorbed billions of dollars of investment but were not yet ready to operate.
One particularly difficult case was the Shoreham plant on Long Island Sound, New York. By 1987 the owner had spent $5.5 billion on bricks, mortar, fuel rods, and interest, but the operating license had not been granted. From an economic point of view, the $5.5 billion of past investments should not be weighed in decision making processes.
The bygones principle would state that the $5.5 billion of past cost is irrelevant. From an economic point of view, the only relevant issue concerns future costs and benefits. That is, the economic benefits of the electricity that Shoreham would produce.
The key to observe in making this calculation is that the sunk cost of $5.5 billion is irrelevant to future costs and benefits. Studies indicated that, if the $5.5 billion were ignored, the future costs of the nuclear power plant would be slightly less than the next-best alternative, even though the total cost was far higher than the alternative. A purely economic analysis would conclude that the most efficient outcome would be to finish the construction and open the Shoreham nuclear power plant. However, citing many reasons, including the sunk costs, the plant was closed by protests in 1989 without generating any commercial electrical power.