September 6, 2012
In A Pickle
How the Grinch Stole Strasmas
"Are you seriously writing about the Stephen Strasburg 'to shut down or not to shut down' decision? Really?"
Yeah, really. But let's get some things straight. Here's what I don't care about for the purposes of this here article: whether the Nationals win the World Series this year, whether the Nationals win the World Series next year, whether the Nationals win any World Series ever. I am not, in other words, acting as your typical blogger/analyst/whatever, even though that is quite often the way I act. Sometimes even on these very pages.
See, every bit of discussion I've read of Mike Rizzo et al.'s decision to keep Strasburg on a strict innings limit has focused on how this affects the baseball team on the field this year and for the life of Strasburg's tenure with the club, whether they could have won more games via a different scheme, and so forth. Some of these analyses have been quite interesting. Enlightening, even. The debate has been lively, though I will note that it is largely uninformed by the studies that the Nationals apparently did in-house that led them to implement the plan in the first place. But put that aside.
The much larger omission from the discussion is the human element. The current generation of Internet sabermetric fans has a distinctly team-oriented bent, in the sense that we (no accusation here can be leveled at any of you any more than it can be leveled at me as well) analyze general manager moves and team moves: Should X make this trade? Should Y sign this free agent? Which stadium proposal should Z take? The basic question is nearly always: Did/will the transaction put the franchise in a better position than it was in before said transaction took place?
Now, we like to phrase these things in terms of wins, because wins were the first thing we cared about as fans. They're the measurement unit for a sports team. But, as we do sometimes acknowledge, it actually boils down to something far more basic. Baseball teams, for the most part, do not try to win baseball games for the sake of it—they try to win because winning is a pretty good way to make money. They are multi-billion dollar enterprises enmeshed in a multi-trillion dollar economy. They aren't service clubs or charitable organizations. They have no mission beyond making money. (There are exceptions, or at least apparent exceptions. The Mike Ilitch situation is a bit too morbid for me to want to discuss expressly, but one might see his approach to running the Tigers as slightly off the usual beaten "let's all make piles of dough" path.) Our typical analysis, then, tries to answer the question of how companies should best make money.
Analyzing which franchises are good at this is well and good (and it's the lifeblood of this very website), but it can cause us to forget that, to steal a hoary anti-stathead cliché, the players—the guys without whom none of this winning and money-making happens—aren't robots. I don't mean that in the sense that players have emotions and don't perform the same way every day. (It's true; it's just irrelevant.) I simply refer to the fact that these players aren't machines toward whom the teams (the owners) have no moral obligations. Robot baseball, whatever downsides you may perceive, does have one virtue: Teams can use the players until they're no good and discard them (ideally recycling the recyclable bits). Of course, owners can do that in real baseball, too (minus the recycling, probably). The question is whether they should.