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July 20, 2006

Schrodinger's Bat

A Plethora of Blunders

by Dan Fox

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"This book is, for the most part, about managers and general managers and owners who sat down, considered something for at least a moment and said, 'I sure think this would be a good idea.'

"Except it wasn't."

-- Rob Neyer from the introduction titled "Hello and Good Luck"

I think most baseball fans appreciate baseball books that challenge their preconceived notions and the game's received wisdom, and widen their understanding of the game.

From attending the recent SABR convention where Jim Bouton spoke, I can recall that tenor in more than one conversation regarding Ball Four. Books like George Will's Men at Work, Daniel Okrent's 9 Innings, and everything from The Hidden Game of Baseball to the Baseball Abstracts to Moneyball have all served both to enlighten and to gently contest my view of the game.

While not quite rising to the level of those books, I do have another that I can slot just below: Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Blunders: A Complete Guide to the Worst Decisions and Stupidest Moments in Baseball History.

Behind the Blunders

There are two underlying reasons why this book captured my attention; its eminently just and considered methodology, and the way in which that methodology is supported by solid reasoning.

First, the methodology. As quoted at the beginning of this column, the book includes 47 major actions or moves primarily taken by managers and general managers (but also including owners both individually and collectively), most of which hurt their teams. What is most important, however, is in how those moves were chosen. Neyer makes the point in the introduction that in selecting these blunders for inclusion in the book he used three primary qualifications; "Premeditation. Contemporary questionability. Ill effects."

Taken one at a time, what those mean is that the move must have a) been well considered and not simply an act which is the product of historical contingency (it could have been otherwise), b) a physical error (a dropped throw or missed catch), or c) a heat-of-the-moment reaction (a missed call or a Zidane-style head butt, for which there is no event in baseball history that really comes close). Second and by far the most important, there had to be at least some rationale available at the time for not making the move. After all, anyone can play Monday morning quarterback, but it's far more difficult to articulate a reasoned case before the results of an event are known. Finally and most obviously, the move had to have ill effects on the franchise in question, therefore making it a blunder.

As an illustration we need look no farther than the recent Reds/Nationals trade. While the full effects will not be known for years to come, the trade fits the first two criteria and may be able to serve as a prominent chapter in a revised version down the road. In this case our own Christina Kahrl made an extremely well-reasoned case for how what we know about the eight players involved in the trade leads us, to put it kindly, to call the deal into question (at least from the Reds and GM Wayne Krivsky's perspective). This kind of analysis, with which Neyer's book is fully stocked, is in sharp contrast to other analysis you'll run across that is perhaps not so well-reasoned.

To cite a similar example from the book where a team traded a hitter in order to shore up the bullpen for the stretch run, Neyer takes on the Jeff Bagwell-for-Larry Andersen trade that Red Sox manager Lou Gorman executed on August 30, 1990. After navigating his way through a bit of historical revisionism Gorman laid out in his biography, Neyer cuts to the heart of the matter and illustrates two key reasons why the move, albeit working out better for the Astros than even they had hoped, could've and should've been called into question.

To start, the Astros asked for any numbers of players in return for Andersen, including pitching prospects Kevin Morton and Dave Owen, who were both in Double-A with Bagwell that season. The fact that neither panned out is not the real issue, but rather that there is so much inherent variability in the futures of pitching prospects (TINSTAAPP) that trading one is far less risky than trading a position player prospect. Even aside from that, however, what was more damning is that the Red Sox failed to take proper note of the context in which Bagwell (and the two pitchers) performed. His 1990 .333/.423/.457 performance in a pitcher's park in a pitcher's league was enough for Bill James, before the 1991 season, to note Bagwell as one of the 15 minor leaguers who might have an impact that year. Well, he certainly had an impact, and as a result the Red Sox hit the trifecta.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention, however, that some the "blunders" in the book are not actually defined as such by Neyer himself. For example, the sale of Babe Ruth to the Red Sox (the chapter also busts the myth of No No Nannette), the playing time given to Pete Gray by the Browns, the trade of Roger Maris from the Kansas City A's to the Yankees, the swap of Nolan Ryan for Jim Fregosi, and even the acquisition by the Royals of Mark (but certainly not Storm) Davis are all cast as deals that don't quite meet the three criteria. In each case Neyer presents a compelling argument for making the move.

I'll have to admit that while reflecting on the book it occurred to me that perhaps all this focus on negativity is bad for the soul. Why not title the book "Baseball's Mercurial Moves" and focus on those whose moves did turn out to be the difference? The answer probably lies in the fact that the marketing is easier since as we all know good news doesn't sell nearly as well as bad. And even if the book had come from the other direction, those at whose expense the moves were made would still play a prominent role. That's also why the three criteria are so important. In the end they make the book a fair one.

The second reason the book appealed to me was the logical arguments used in almost all of the blunders. Behind that reasoning is a solid grounding in the accepted practices of performance analysis, with an emphasis on Win Shares.

Although Neyer finds it necessary to apologize for the tables he uses in the book (needlessly in my opinion), he does a fine job of integrating the concepts of analysis and introducing the numbers appropriately. Neyer is among the best of a new breed of writer caught up in the midst of a Kuhnnian revolution that sees the baseball world a bit differently, as well as a bit more clearly.

As an example of his use of quantitative analysis, consider the chapter titled "Bill Veeck Trades the Farm." In the offseason prior to the 1960 season and after winning their first pennant in 40 years, owner-operator Veeck of the Chicago White Sox made four terrible trades. In analyzing those trades, Neyer uses Win Shares to quantify the impact of the trade that goes like this:

        1960 1961 1962 1963 1964 1965 1966 1967   Totals
Coming    76   77   23   34   12    3    2    0      227
Going     66  125  120  109   87  113   96   70      786

The "coming" included Minnie Minoso, Dick Brown, Don Ferrarese, Jake Striker, Gene Freese, Roy Sievers, and Herb Score while the "going" counted John Romano, Bubba Phillips, Norm Cash, Johnny Callison, Earl Battey, Don Mincher, and Barry Latman.

Neyer then analyzes the Sox seasons during that time frame and considering a number of factors concludes that:

"with those three trades [the Latman for Score trade was minor in comparison to the others], he certainly cost the White Sox two pennants, and perhaps as many as five."

The mention of quantitative methods and performance analysis leads me to a small disclaimer that needs to be made. Neyer enlisted contributions from various writers, and our own Maury Brown, Jim Baker and Rany Jazayerli all contributed some fine work: Brown on collusion and its effects, Baker on Pete Gray, and Jazayerli on the draft and, of course, the Royals.

The Anatomy of Blunders

The book is arranged chronologically with the first blunder, titled "White Sox Replace Hitter with Crook", that tells the story of how the Sox let first baseman Jack Fournier go at the start of the 1917 season and replaced him with Charles Arnold "Chick" Gandil. Needless to say, the slick fielding of Gandil was not enough to make up for the offensive production of Fournier, and when you factor in Gandil's cancerous effects on the team, the move truly rates as a blunder.

From that start the book works it way through the decades and concludes with the chapter "Mo Gets Mo' Rest" recounting how Joe Torre, up two games to one in Game 4 of the 2003 World Series, failed to use Mariano Rivera when it mattered most. Neyer contends that Torre, rather than leverage his best reliever, became at least a temporary slave to the Culture of the Save and therefore:

was afraid that if he used Rivera for a couple of innings before the Yankees took a lead, he'd have to use Contreras or Weaver or Chris Hammond in the "save situation."

Each piece runs from two to five pages, and are thus easy to digest between innings (as I did for many of them). Perhaps my favorite feature is the numerous margin notes sprinkled throughout the text that offer additional insights, opposing views, and related information often penned by writers other than Neyer. For example, in the chapter cited earlier criticizing Bill Veeck, the margin includes a response from White Sox aficionado Dom Zminda.

Finally, in addition to margin notes the text includes "Interludes" which are longer essays that include a series of blunders that run in the same vein. These include:

  • "Missed It By That Much", a two-part essay that takes a chronological look at second-place teams that finished just one game out, and perhaps could have gotten to the postseason had they played their cards a bit better.

  • "Bad Trades", another chronological two-parter that examines trades that don't rise to the level of a full essay, and in which at least one of the parties usually should have known better. Interestingly, the June 15, 1964 trade between the Cubs and Cardinals that essentially exchanged Lou Brock for Ernie Broglio is one that Neyer views as not such a bad deal since the bar of contemporary questionability was not reached.

  • "Managers Who Probably Shouldn't Have Been" takes a peek at eleven really bad managers, and briefly discusses their typically short reigns, which in includes some fine players, notably George Sisler, Joe Adcock, Ted Williams and Lou Boudreau.

  • "Bad Drafts", perhaps my favorite of the interludes, starts with the Mets 1966 draft of Steve Chilcott. The essay continues on through the 1999 draft and makes stops along the way. For example, the 1989 draft is profiled where six teams passed on Frank Thomas, and the Cubs selected high-school outfielder Earl Cunningham, a "prospect" whose subsequent minor league statistics are painful to remember. Neyer moves on to the Marlins' 1993 pick of Josh Booty, and concludes with the Devil Rays' selection of Josh Hamilton in 1999, now in the midst of a comeback after a litany of trouble. What I like most about the essay is that it is both a condensed history of the draft as well as an analysis of mistakes into which teams fall.

But in order to wet your whistle a final time, I'll leave you with my three favorite blunders from the book:

  • "Cubs Convene College of Coaches": In this chapter Neyer recounts the failed experiment of owner Phil Wrigley in 1962, where four coaches shared managerial duties throughout the season. Predictably, it was a miserable failure, but the story of how the idea was hatched, combined with other notions that Wrigley entertained in the early 1960s are laid out in the margins, form an interesting look at the mindset of someone not wedded to doing things as they've always been done.

  • "Mariners Hire Maury Wills": For pure comedic value, no chapter tops this recitation of the many failures of Wills in his oh-so-brief time at the helm in Seattle for five months at the end of 1980 and the beginning of 1981. Steve Rudman's list of Wills' gaffes included by Neyer is priceless.

  • "John McNamara Falls Asleep": While an endless number of stories have been written about the tenth inning of Game Six of the 1986 World Series, Neyer takes McNamara to task for his lack of action in the eighth inning. It was then that leading 3-2 with the bases loaded the Mets brought in Jesse Orosco to face Bill Buckner. Rather than pinch hit with the superior Don Baylor and replace Buckner with Dave Stapleton as he had in Games One and Five, McNamara inexplicably did nothing and the rest, as they say, is history.

There are certainly other compelling blunders such as "Royals Sign Davis Bros." and "Cubs Hire Dusty Baker" that could be added to the list, but the latter's contemporaneity makes it a bit too painful to discuss in any length. Be that as it may, adding this book to your baseball library will certainly be anything but a blunder.

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