July 24, 1998
Another Trip Down a Dusty Road
Stat-based analysts often bemoan the use of so-called "intangibles" as markers of value for baseball players. While no one denies the existence of intangible contributions, there is enough tangible statistical evidence describing a player's contribution to make intangibles largely irrelevant to the analyst's task. What a player does on the field of play is recorded in detail in the statistical record, and while writers with a romantic or philosophic bent might draw delightful word pictures about things that "don't appear in the boxscores," the analyst is concerned mainly with what happens on the field. A tangible run scored is always worth more than an intangible contribution, or rather, if the intangible DOES contribute something, it WILL appear in the boxscore. As Bill James pointed out long ago, if an elephant walks in the snow, there will be footprints.
James' most recent book, the fascinating and excellent "Bill James' Guide to Baseball Managers from 1870 to Today," isn't about baseball players, but instead focuses on the people who direct the players in their efforts. As always, James offers an inspired read: intelligent, catty, confident of his opinion no matter how right or wrong he is, James is ultimately a great writer as much or more than he is a great analyst. (And it always bears repeating that the quality of James' writing is what sets him apart from the large majority of statiscally-based analysts of baseball.) However, James falls victim to certain pitfalls of the stat-based approach that are instructive for all of us who would examine baseball under the statistical microscope. For it is one thing to assert that statistics are extremely important to the analysis of baseball player performance, and to claim that a player's contribution can be accurately reflected in his stats, but quite another thing to assume that everything in life can be reduced to tangibles. Anti-statheads, obsessed with dismissing quantifiable evidence, too frequently reject the entire notion of quantification; their arguments are all intangible, even proudly so. But statheads must also be aware of the dangers of falling too much in love with our own tools, and must remember that what works in one situation (evaluating player performance) will not necessarily work in other situations.
Take baseball managers, for instance. Analysts continue to make fine progress in breaking down the "percentages," helping us to understand the relative value of bunting, stealing bases, and other aspects of the game that are controlled by the manager. These tangible parts of a manager's job are important, and any evaluation of a manager's contributions must take into account the value (negative or positive) of his in-game tactical decisions. James does much to advance this aspect of analysis in his book, including an interesting discussion of what information should go on a manager's baseball card.
Furthermore, it is becoming more clear with time that the way a manager uses his pitching staff is vital not only to the short-term success of a club, but also to the long-term success of both the club and the individual pitchers. The increased attention to pitch counts is only one area where stat-based analysis is offering vital information which contemporary managers (hello, Jim Leyland) ignore at the peril of their pitchers' arms.
Nonetheless, I want to argue here that for managers, unlike for baseball players, the intangibles are indeed important. As James notes on the very first page of his book, "There is one indispensable quality of a baseball manager. The manager must be able to command the respect of his players. This is absolute; everything else is negotiable."
James then spends the next 300 pages leading up to the above- mentioned manager's baseball card, which lists tangible, quantifiable evidence about a manager's performance but, unavoidably, completely ignores that which he claims on the first page is absolute.
Now, we can safely ignore speculation about a player's intangible contributions, because we have footprints in the snow: the statistical record. I don't care how Barry Bonds hit that homer. I care that he hit a homer rather than struck out. But I suspect data about how often Dusty Baker calls a pitchout is the wrong kind of footprint. If we follow those footprints, we'll end up at the end of the wrong road, in a way that doesn't happen when evaluating player performance. It is the player's job to produce on the field, which is what the statistics explain. But what is a manager's job? To lead the team, to "handle people," to extract the best possible performance from the players he is given, to "command the respect of his players." And I don't think we're ever going to be able to quantify that part of the manager's job. Again, a player might have some influence on his teammates in this regard, but the far larger portion of his contributions come on the field, while the manager's influence can only be felt off the field.
Dusty Baker does many stupid things during a baseball game. He bunts too much, he overworks his bullpens, his lineups are often oddball, he seems to have a preference for "proven" veteran players over young guys who might actually be able to play well. But Dusty also has two Manager of the Year awards, given for seasons where his team seemed to outperform expectations in a huge way. Coincidence? Mere chance? Perhaps. But it's possible that opposed to all the negative stuff Dusty does with strategy, tactics, or lineup construction is one huge positive that more than overcomes anything else you can say about him: he commands the respect of his players. Maybe they play better for Dusty than they would for other managers. How do we quantify that? How important is it that Dusty gets the best possible season out of guys like Rey Sanchez, when Rey Sanchez isn't much good to begin with? That's pretty hard to say, but Baker's success with two different Giants' teams tells me that he is doing something right, and it doesn't seem to have much to do with knowing when to bunt.
The great Earl Weaver was another master at maximizing the performance of his players, although you couldn't find two more different managerial styles than Weaver's and Baker's. While Weaver liked players who, in the contemporary parlance, played "within themselves," he also firmly believed that "there is no such thing as a 'winning' or a 'losing' player. It comes down to a player's ability and how he produces." (This quote comes from the indispensable "Weaver on Strategy.") What Weaver attempted to do as a manager was to draw on the player's ability. He looked, not at what a player was bad at, but instead at what a player was good at, and then tried to find as many opportunities as possible to get the player in the game when what was needed was what the player was good at. So he'd have his lefty-hitting slugger and his righty- hitting slugger, his defensive specialist and his utility man, and he'd maneuver the team so that each player got plenty of chances to perform his specialty. He wasn't friends with his players; on the contrary, he felt "a manager should stay as far away as possible from his players," and claimed he didn't say ten words to Frank Robinson in Robby's entire Oriole career. Nonetheless, by focusing on a player's ability and accentuating the player's strengths, Weaver got the most out of those players.
But that's not what managers like Dusty Baker do. Baker focuses on what Weaver claims doesn't exist: 'winning' and 'losing' players. Dusty Baker has an apparent ability to make each player on his team feel like a winner. Whatever the motivational tools, Dusty's players believe in him and believe in themselves, a fact made clear in the Baseball Weekly article. Rich Rodriguez says the Giants are winning for one reason: "It's Dusty." Robb Nen states that "you want to play for a guy like that." Even the opposition takes notice: Gary Sheffield chimes in to claim that "It doesn't matter how the cards are dealt to him, Dusty gets the most out of it, and the man finds a way to win." As noted earlier, Baker's strategic moves are not always as clearly helpful as those of a controlling manager like Weaver. But perhaps Baker is indeed creating 'winning' players.
It's important to note that baseball is the most individual of team sports. While teamwork is paramount in sports like basketball, football, and soccer, where each player continually interacts on the field with other players, in baseball, it comes down to a pitcher and a batter. If the leftfielder and the catcher don't get along, it hardly matters, whereas a shooting forward who gets on the wrong side of a point guard might not see the ball as often as he should. And again, this seems to be where a Dusty Baker shines. Dusty would get a guy like Glenallen Hill, who was down because he'd lost his starting job, and somehow he'd convince Hill to keep from letting his disappointment affect his play. The problem wasn't that Hill might have poisoned the "teamwork," the clubhouse atmosphere. The problem was that Hill might have poisoned his own attitude to where he couldn't reach even his own low potential. Baker makes each player feel good about himself, creates 'winning' players, then hopes the result is a winning team. Which is backwards from Weaver's argument that "A winning player is nothing more than a player on a winning team."
I think Earl Weaver was the greatest manager in my lifetime, partly because what he did taught statheads how to think like statheads. Weaver was also one of the most successful managers of all time. But for managers, there is more than one road to success, and some of those roads come down to intangibles, those very things which are so maddeningly useless when analyzing players. I don't think there's any way for us to know how much respect a manager commands amongst his players, but I agree with Bill James that it is indispensable to the manager's success or failure. In this case, at least, intangibles matter.
[Steven Rubio would like to add, as bitterly as possible, that yesterday's trades close the book on whether or not Brian Sabean is an idiot.]