“Because They Did It” Is Not A Viable Argument

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Baseball analysis has become a newest latest endeavor. Whatever is “working” is seen as the new strategy and this should be copied, in a circular fashion, because it “worked”.

Joel Sherman, whose obsession with the Mets is bordering on restraining order status, says in today’s NY Post column that the Mets should trade David Wright, R.A. Dickey and Jonathon Niese. Sherman, in typical outsider “what I’d do” tone, says he’d make all three moves for prospects or lateral pieces.

What I’d do. It’s an oft-used phrase that denotes a nonexistent fearlessness that, in the trenches, would be real in a small percentage of those who say it.

You know what he and Keith Law and any of these other so-called media experts would do if they were in a position of authority to run a franchise? They’d get swallowed up and be ridiculed and dismissed from the position within a year, if that. It’s so simple and easy to run a franchise and take potshots when there’s no responsibility for the results. Running a club isn’t about being a wheeler-dealer and making trades, holding press conferences, and being interviewed on TV and radio. It’s a lot of drudgery. It’s answering to bosses like owners and team presidents.

The Red Sox are a case study for a display of how that goes for a baseball guy who climbed his way up through the bowels of a franchise as Ben Cherington did and found himself cleaning up a mess with an inveterate meddler in Larry Lucchino hovering over his shoulder at every turn. The Red Sox are a classic example of how quickly images can turn. If, in the winter of 2011, you went to any player, coach, manager, prospective manager, or front office candidate and asked them if they’d love to be a member of the Red Sox, to a person they’d say absolutely. Now with that the atmosphere so toxic and in rampant disarray, who wants to go there and deal with it? That happens to every franchise and it’s based on success, failure and the perceptions of everything in between.

The GM job is not about making earth-shattering trades and getting the players he wants on his path to world domination, lucrative speaking gigs, and best-selling books as to his managing style. The GM has to deal with season ticket holders. He has to sell. He has to provide a plan that lives in the parameters of what’s set by the people he answers to. Not one has full autonomy to do whatever he wants. He doesn’t own it, therefore he doesn’t have that option to do whatever he feels like doing.

In Sherman’s piece, there’s no actual alternative provided if the Mets trade Wright, Dickey and Niese. What are they getting back? How can they sell this to the fans who are still willing to shell out money to go to games? Will anyone go to games if Wright, Dickey, and Niese are gone for prospects that will someday be ready?

It’s a random suggestion that teams do what other teams have done like it’s a mathematical problem that would be solved by copying the formula. Years ago, it was the Moneyball theory; then it became old-school stats; then it became spending money; then it became the Rays’ way; then it became the “luck” argument.

Mets’ GM Sandy Alderson can’t trade Wright or Dickey and he knows it. Presumably, so does Sherman. But that doesn’t prevent this trash from still popping up as if it has credence.

Anyone can find any historical context to provide foundation for a plan that they’re not in power to enact. Because the Athletics traded away their veteran players for youngsters and it worked, that’s become the new basis to call Billy Beane a genius while ignoring that his supposed brilliance was a story of creative non-fiction that spun out of control. Where was the “genius” when the A’s were awful for half a decade in spite of several reboots and attempts to try different strategies, none of which worked? It just happens to be working this year. That doesn’t mean that if the Mets trade any of the above players, they’re going to yield similar results.

The Orioles are called lucky. Were the Rays lucky when they got 13 homers after acquiring journeyman Gabe Gross in 2008? Were they stupid when they gave—and wasted—$16 million on Pat Burrell? When they spent $8 million on Troy Percival?

The new managerial template has clubs hiring men who’ve never managed anywhere. Robin Ventura with the White Sox and Mike Matheny with the Cardinals have their teams contending and that has given validity to this idea. But it’s ignored that Ventura was a calm, cool presence who has clubhouse bona fides as a former All Star player and is the polar opposite of the tiresome act of the man he replaced, Ozzie Guillen. Matheny walked into a ready-made situation with a team that won the World Series the year before and had stars at key positions, with a good starting rotation, and powerful lineup. The “no experience necessary” sign when hiring a manager will last as long as it seems to be working. Once a team hires someone without experience and he presides over a disaster, it too will change.

Law contradicted himself in the middle of a self-indulgent rant against Ron Washington using Michael Young to play shortstop last night. First it was such a horrific mistake that the Rangers were playing Young at shortstop that he went on and on about it, then he tweeted that the Cardinals “big win” over the Nationals meant one game in the standings implying that it had no bearing on the past or future. Which is it?

I have no idea why Washington played Young at shortstop, but it wasn’t the reason the Rangers lost the game. It was used to go on a tangent that I’m willing to bet Law had planned and was waiting for an opportunity to use. Law indulges in these snark-filled, condescending tantrums on Twitter that appear designed to compensate for some inadequacy. It’s like he’s trying to prove something. Washington couldn’t go to the high-end schools that Law did and make it through; on the same token, Law couldn’t play in the big leagues, nor could he run a club on the field.

If you put Law in a position where he was running a club on the field, the players would ignore and mock him. The Rangers’ players play hard for Washington and, judging from the smuggled audiotape from before game 7 of the World Series last season, Washington’s ability to do “player speak” is far more important to that franchise than hiring someone who’s going to adhere to every statistical quirk and possibly lose the clubhouse—and games—in the process.

If Law tried to talk to players in this fashion, it would be similar to the suburban white kid writing gangsta rap framing them as his experiences that spurred the lyrics rather than mimicking what he’s heard from the outside. It’s not real.

Sherman and his ilk can go on and on about phantom stuff they’ve “heard” from “executives”; they can state with unequivocal certainty of what they’d do if they were in a position of power, but it’s as if Sherman put out a cover album of Public Enemy with the undertone that he’d lived that life.

It’s a farce. It’s a joke. And it’s self-evidently transparent if you’re willing to put your own biases to the side and look at it objectively, something Sherman, Law and the majority of the mainstream media are unable or unwilling to do.

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Context Terrible

Books, Media, Paul Lebowitz's 2011 Baseball Guide, Players

I saw the story about former Mets and Royals righty Brian Bannister‘s decision to retire from Japanese baseball and wondered why he would announce it in such a way.

The AP report on ESPN made it appear as if Bannister was terrified by the earthquake and tsunami last month and just bailed on the Yomiuri Giants because he didn’t want to deal with another natural catastrophe. It would be understandable if that were the case, but it’s hard to see a baseball player putting forth that image of fear when there was the built-in excuse (just provided by Gabe Gross, who also retired) that his heart’s no longer in doing everything necessary to play up to the level he needs to.

I thought it was odd.

Then I checked into the story a bit more and found this on the Japan Times site which clarifies the reason Bannister is retiring a bit better when it says: “Yomiuri right-hander Brian Bannister has voluntarily left the Giants organization, citing fears over the nuclear crisis facing the Fukushima Daiichi plant following the March 11 earthquake in eastern Japan.”

Bannister has retired saying he doesn’t intend to pitch at all, but that’s neither her nor there.

The nuclear fear is a little more palatable than simply saying. “I’m outta here” after the earthquake. That one sentence regarding fear of nuclear contamination explained Bannister’s position in far more clarity than the out-of-context presentation on ESPN; it’s a concise lesson in the importance of full disclosure in writing a story.

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Book Review—The Extra 2% By Jonah Keri

Books, Management, Players

There are easy and convenient explanations from both side of the spectrum in baseball analysis as to how the Tampa Bay Rays were able to craft one of the best and most efficient organizations in baseball.

Were they the product of stat-based theories with some outside-the-box application of strategies from other industries?

Were they beneficiaries of the ample number of high draft picks accumulated as a “benefit” of being so awful for so long?

Are there ancillary aspects to the surge from baseball purgatory to a case study of how to run a team properly?

Is it all of the above?

Jonah Keri answers all of these questions and more in The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First.

Stuck in a small market with an atrocious and difficult to access stadium; a history of heinous on-field results and rotten off-field behavior; awful front office decisionmaking; and an owner who micromanaged and alienated civic leaders and local businesses, the heretofore named Devil Rays were a laughingstock like no other.

There was no hope; no future; no reason to pay attention to them…until they were taken over by a young, fearless and energetic group led by Stuart Sternberg.

Foregoing what had failed in the past for the Devil Rays and other clubs, sifting through what worked and didn’t work by cutting to the heart of what makes a successful player, team and organization, the newly named Rays have become the blueprint on how to run a baseball team whether in large or small market.

What was the secret?

Those who are invested deeply in stats see the Rays as a validation of their way of doing things with cold, objective reasoning; old-school thinkers point to the high draft picks, speed, pitching and defense that would’ve made John McGraw proud; others (myself included before reading the book) feel that the Rays turnaround began in earnest once they stopped tolerating players like Elijah Dukes, Josh Hamilton and Delmon Young whose behaviors on and off the field led to the perception that the Rays were like the lawless deserts of Yemen—anything goes with no one willing to put a stop to it. They also stopped bowing to the Yankees and Red Sox as evidenced by the willingness to get into on-field scraps with both.

The truth is that it’s a combination of everything.

Sternberg, team president Matthew Silverman and de facto GM Andrew Friedman took advantage of the foundation that was left by the prior regime; they were lucky with players like Gabe Gross, Grant Balfour, Dan Johnson and Carlos Pena; they jettisoned the likes of Dukes and Hamilton and were unperturbed by Hamilton’s blossoming into a star with the Reds and Rangers; they got rid of Young, but made sure they acquired the pieces—Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett—that were a tremendous boon to their leap into a pennant winner.

The Rays took bits and pieces from everyone and everything.

They utilized former Indians and Rangers GM John Hart’s innovation of locking up players long-term before they reached arbitration years; it was that which allowed them to sign Evan Longoria to what’s being called the most value-laden contract in baseball history.

Dumping contracts before they became prohibitive—like their trading of Scott Kazmir—provided freedom to do other things they would otherwise not have been able to do like trade for an established closer in Rafael Soriano.

They’ve opened baseball academies in countries where baseball isn’t a known entity; I’ve long thought there were ripe areas to explore in the Middle East, Europe, Africa and South America. The Rays are doing that and finding players whose athletic skills would’ve been on a soccer field rather than a diamond; they’re bound to find players in this manner and other clubs will by copying them.

Of course, sports is reliant on people and their performance; you can’t look at the numbers, calculate a formula and automatically expect the desired result—it doesn’t work that way. In any endeavor of dealing with human beings, there are bound to be times for a necessary and conscious decision to deviate from established praxis.

The front office and manager Joe Maddon are aware of this; Maddon is allowed the freedom within structure to defer to his baseball wisdom—accrued through years and years of doing anything and everything within the game—and run his team as a man with a brain and not as some faceless, middle-managing automaton.

Maddon isn’t under threat of job security if one of his off-beat maneuvers doesn’t work. I’m on record as saying that I don’t like the way Maddon game-manages; nor am I a fan of his quirky “theme trips” like players wearing hockey jerseys on the road. I’m the “you’re wearing a coat and tie and shut up” guy; but Maddon’s style is suited to the Rays from the front office through the players.

Sections in the book—such as the discussion of how the Rays missed out on Albert Pujols (it’s specious and mentioned that every team except the Cardinals missed on Pujols); and the battle for viability with no money and a terrible ballpark—drag a bit; but this is no love letter to the Rays way of doing business at the expense of dissenting thought.

All voices are heard without ridicule or dismissal.

The Extra 2% and the Rays turnaround under a strict budget is compared to the Moneyball model, but Moneyball and The Extra 2% are sparsely compatible. You can almost see Keri’s subtle and lightly expressed eye-rolling at the cut-and-dried nature in which Moneyball was presented as a biblical text; that the implication in Moneyball of “if you don’t do it this way, you’re a moron; Billy Beane is Midas, period” is viewed with disdain.

The Extra 2% is not Moneyball and like other strategies, the narrative therein cannot be copied by mirroring what the Rays have done. Each circumstance is different. One question postulated and answered is whether the Rays would be able to run their club the way they do if they were in a more scrutinizing market with a fan base that reacted angrily if something like trading a Kazmir was done while the team was still in a moderate form of contention.

The easy answer is no.

But given the fearlessness with which the front office has squeezed every ounce of use they could from the players they’ve had and dispatched them without remorse, I believe they would run the team in the best way based on the bottom line of winning and doing it within their financial parameters; it’s a testament to the strategy. It’s not about taking Wall Street to baseball; it’s about doing what is necessary to maximize the investment and that, more than anything else, is the overriding theme of the book.

The Rays way is done without smugness, condescension or abuse; it’s systematic and it works. You’ll see that in Keri’s book.

Speaking of books, my book got a nice shoutout on Twitter from WCBS in New York sportscaster Otis Livingston.

olivingstonnyc

You can’t start your baseball season off right before checking out http://amzn.to/hSJEEO and get my buddy @PRINCE_OF_NY book.. I did!

I published a full excerpt on Wednesday here.

The book is available  now. Click here to get it in paperback or E-Book on I-Universe or on Amazon or BN. It’s also available via E-book on Borders.com.


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