Former Orioles economic adviser: There are lessons to learn from Chris Davis catastrophe

The boobirds at Camden Yards would be more forgiving were Orioles first baseman Chris Davis, who made history Monday by having longest hitless streak ever (47 at bats without a hit), a minimum-wage journeyman. His sin is that he is the highest-paid player in O’s history, and his output nose-dived shortly after his income soared. When you under-produce this spectacularly, the world gets very harsh, very fast.

But there are lessons here. In fact, this sad affair contains proof of the wisdom of three eternal verities.

1. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Orioles’ owner Peter Angelos is, at heart, a philanthropist. Yes, he has always been a hard-nosed litigator, but his ownership of the ball club was motivated by his conviction that his city, despite its small television market (Neilsen ranks us 26th) deserves to be big league and that local ownership of the O’s secures that status — whatever the personal cost.

So when Mr. Davis reached free agency after slugging 47 homers in 2015, on a club that had become a contender for a few years following a long walkabout in the wilderness, Mr. Angelos wanted to please those entreating him to keep the band together, even if it might make little economic sense.

2. Too many cooks spoil the broth.

But did Mr. Davis’ deal have to stretch over seven seasons and divert $161 million from other uses? That it did so resulted not just from the persuasive powers of Mr. Davis’s agent, but also the swirl of voices around Mr. Angelos.

I served as an economic adviser to the Baltimore Orioles from 2012 to 2018, and my O’s boss at the time, VP for Baseball Operations Dan Duquette, had me working on economic evaluations of a new contract for Mr. Davis starting in August of 2015; none of the contemplated offers went beyond four years. I confidently wagered Mr. Duquette a lavish lunch in Little Italy that Mr. Davis’ value on the open market would be less than nine figures, overall.

Breaking down the numbers during Orioles first baseman Chris Davis' record-breaking hitless streak »

I lost that bet, of course. But Mr. Duquette and I were both dismayed that the winning bidder would, eventually, be us. On Mr. Angelos’s request, we had evaluated successively higher offers to Mr. Davis, all of which promised “red ink” in Baltimore’s small, revenue-constrained market. When Mr. Davis turned those offers down, we moved on, trading for Mark Trumbo in early December 2015.

Mr. Trumbo was a slugger who had been playing out of position in right field. With just a year left before his own free agency, Mr. Duquette figured he would be a motivated replacement for Mr. Davis at first base — after which prospects Trey Mancini or Christian Walker might be ready.

But voices within and outside the organization stressed Mr. Davis’ value on the field (though he had, in 2014, already shown a worrying tendency to slump for extended periods) and raised concerns about the P.R. hit if a star attraction was lost. And so, in January, Mr. Angelos made the commitment that he no doubt regrets.

3. Don’t cry over spilled milk.

What now should be done about that commitment? The economic logic is clear but cold: Mr. Davis must go. His remaining salary — 92 million — is a “sunk” or unavoidable cost; it must be paid no matter what. The only relevant consideration is whether, going forward, retaining Mr. Davis might yield incremental benefits greater than incremental costs.

It’s tempting to hope that Mr. Davis’ bat comes back from the dead and a contending team might take on some of his salary. But even if Mr. Davis’s output ticks upward, there will be no takers for his contract: his erratic performance in recent years makes him a bad risk for contenders, which highly value dependability.

And keeping Mr. Davis on the roster in this vain hope carries a cost: He is blocking Mr. Mancini from his best position, and therefore preventing promising young outfielders from getting valuable experience on a rebuilding club.

So it’s smart both baseball- and economics-wise to part ways with Mr. Davis. Given the haunted look in his eyes these days as he searches for his lost game, it just might be the merciful choice as well.

Stephen J.K. Walters served as economic adviser to the Baltimore Orioles for the 2012-18 seasons, and is the author of Boom Towns: Restoring the Urban American Dream. His email is stephenjkwalters@gmail.com.

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