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The economics of Kevin Brown's hand

Kevin Brown broke his left hand with an angry punch to the Yankees' clubhouse wall. The Yanks are reportedly "delving into contract language that would free them from paying Brown's salary until he's cleared to pitch again."

Reader Pat Carey writes to ask why such language is not routine, so that players are "not paid during the time it takes them to heal."

Good question. Clearly, there are similar clauses in player contracts which let teams off the hook for guaranteed contracts in case of injury from risky ventures. Snowmobiling, motorbiking, and skiing come readily to mind, as do the off-season injuries of Aaron Boone (basketball) and Jeff Kent (err, washing the pickup truck???). The Kent case, apparently stemming from a spill while "popping wheelies" rather than a slip at the car-wash, points to the difficulties in writing a contract which is effective in deterring unwanted and uneconomic behavior.

Stupid things that happen during the season are less likely to be effectively addressed by a contractual provision. What's the difference between cutting your finger while peeling potatoes and breaking a bone punching a wall? In the first case, the player is fixing dinner for himself, an ordinary activity. He might have stupidly looked up at Stuart Scott on SportsCenter, and lost his concentration on the paring knife. In the second, he's letting off steam in a traditional, but still pretty stupid manner. In both cases, my hunch is that player contracts don't have clauses which cover the action, so the team still owes the dough.

Why? I can think of several reasons. First, these are small risks spread evenly over all players with MLB contracts. Their impact in most cases amounts to a fraction of a game won each year. Second, distinguishing between a stupid punch at a wall and goofing around in warm-ups and tearing an achilles tendon would get messy. Costly litigation (see Jeff Kent) is avoided by honoring the payments under a guaranteed contract for both types of injuries.

Finally, to put a clause in the contract stopping payments in a Brown-type situation generally harms the player more than the team. Teams are able to spread such risks over seasons, and over the roster. Players only have so many income earning years. To take this to the extreme, suppose the injury was career threatening, and was clearly an accident. Relatively speaking, the player has an enormous amount at risk from this. It is less costly for the team to insure the contract than the player, if the team wants to avoid absorbing the risk. Many teams carry such insurance on player salaries.

In the Kevin Brown case, the Yankees are likely to settle on a fine. The Player's Association will certainly fight to ensure the fine is not equivalent to a dock in pay for games not pitched due to the injury. I'm guessing $50,000 would be the maximum fine they'd be quiet about. $50,000 is enough to send a message, but not enough to change the culture of trashing the water cooler or bashing the clubhouse wall.

I'd personally like it - and imagine that most fans agree - if the boorish aspects of baseball's culture were abandoned to history. Perhaps a standard clause in all player contracts - no pay for broken bones when trashing the clubhouse - could get these guys to act like grownups. But would the players union buy into that? I doubt it. The financial benefits would not accrue for years to come, and the costs would be borne by the likes of Kevin Brown, i.e. the union members with the most at stake.