One of the best things about being involved with BP is the people you meet. Since we started doing Pizza Feeds a couple of years back, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet several hundred people who trudge their way to a Feed, all of whom have an intense interest in baseball, and all of whom are very generous with their time and support. It’s pretty common for people to hang out and talk after the main event’s over. Sometimes, someone will have an in-depth topic they want a long answer on, or they want to talk about available positions with BP or in a front office, or they want to argue with me about Derek Jeter’s defense.
The most common question I get after the end of the feed is about books. Some recurring themes come up during the evening, and one of them is often: “What skills does a general manager really need?” The question that inevitably follows is: “What books do you think a GM should read when they first get the job?” It’s a good question, so I thought I’d make some suggestions here. I’m going to stay away from baseball books, including our own, and focus instead on the first books anyone should they read if they’re going to be serious about their business. Many of these books are applicable to a number of industries, but I believe they’re particularly relevant to running a major league club. So, in no particular order:
I’ve had a number of discussions over the past week or so that center around QuesTec, and all the issues associated with the company–their financial viability, the role of their technology in the administration of games, the aesthete and on-field consequences of usage, etc. I wrote a piece about the problem of asking umpires to handle ball/strike calls two years ago, and my views haven’t changed since then. Simply put, given the operational needs of the game on the field, (e.g., limitations on the options available for positioning of umpires), it’s just not possible for home plate umpires to do an adequate job of determining whether a pitch is a ball or a strike.
Whether in person, by e-mail, or on the phone, I’ve been listening to a number of arguments, recently, regarding QuesTec as part of a comprehensive system of umpire review. Eventually, most people come to agree that the job of accurately calling balls and strikes is simply too difficult for someone to do well. From there, however, nearly everyone who opposes QuesTec’s use falls back on the “It’s part of the human element of the game” argument.
The thing is, if you take that argument and drill down, you end up with the following call to action: “Hey! Let’s go out to the ballpark and watch umpires @#$% up calls!”
We’ve collectively fallen prey to a common mistake. As we’ve been fortunate enough to reach a large number of new people, we’ve not done a particularly great job of talking about why we do what we do. Or, put another way, how come we don’t like to talk about RBI when evaluating hitters? I forget about this because of the kind of cloistered atmosphere we tend to run in, but a lot of stuff that we take as stone cold gospel is completely foreign and brand new for the vast majority of baseball fans.
So, as a service to the people who may be exploring serious baseball analysis for the first time, or who may be new to Baseball Prospectus, here’s a brief rundown of some basics of performance assessment. It’s spotty, but it’s a start. For you longtime readers, please consider this a cheat sheet you can use when discussing baseball in bars, or with Bob Feller.
Alex Rodriguez, who might as well have the number 252 tattooed on his face a la Mike Tyson, inspired a media circus this week by suggesting he would accept a trade if the Rangers believed it to be in the best interest of the franchise. This was immediately misinterpreted as a request to leave Arlington, and brought out the same yahoos who are going to follow Rodriguez around for the rest of his career, criticizing anything he does short of tossing 225 innings with a 3.10 ERA for the Rangers.
But let’s put aside for a second whether or not it makes sense for the Rangers to make a deal that moves Rodriguez. Let’s similarly put aside any ridiculous, ill-informed tripe that suggests Rodriguez isn’t a team guy, or that “winning obviously wasn’t a priority” when he signed with Texas in 2001. Let’s ignore that the Rangers have done an impressive job of blowing money down the toilet on a number of other players with a heck of a lot less return. And for this exercise, let’s not even admit that the Rangers develop pitchers about as often as TV producers improve a show while it’s “on hiatus.”
At the end of January, I was fortunate enough to sit down and talk with executives from a couple of clubs, and reader response was heavy and extremely positive. So we’ve imposed once again on the executive of the AL Club who was so generous with his time back in January, and here’s what he had to say as we approach the final third of the season.
As we hit the unofficial halfway point of the season, and a large number of BP Staff hit Denver this weekend, I wanted to take this opportunity to say thanks to all of you who come to visit Baseball Prospectus on a regular basis, and have supported us through your purchase of the Baseball Prospectus Annual, and your subscriptions to Baseball Prospectus Premium. We had very high goals for this year, and thanks to you, we’ve not only met our goals, we’ve dramatically exceeded any reasonable or unreasonable expectations we may have had. Thank you very much.
We’ve added a number of new team members who we hope you’ll enjoy reading, and over the next few weeks and months, we’ll be rolling out a number of new features and functionality that we hope you’ll enjoy, as well as taking steps to deal with the technical and operational challenges that inevitably come from rapid growth. We know that you have high expectations when you come to Baseball Prospectus, and we’re working very hard to earn your repeat patronage.
Gary Huckabay takes a look at the first day of road trips to see if road teams’ performance declines in that situation, compared to other road games.
Baseball Prospectus mourns the loss of pioneering sportswriter Leonard Koppett.
Everyone knows the shorthand of fan apparel. A Red Sox hat? Well, you know you’re dealing with a borderline alcoholic with a proclivity for self-flagellation. (See also: Woolner, Keith.) An old-time White Sox uniform fashioned from modern fabric? Probably a gullible masochist whom you can defraud for a lucrative second income; but be careful–could also be creepy, stalking Scientologist. A Pete Rose jersey and matching haircut? That’s a future Wal-Mart greeter who spends the majority of his free time calling political talk radio shows. A cap sporting the colors of both the A’s and Giants? Those are David Koresh rejects who should be dragged from their ’82 Dodge Colts and savagely beaten into a persistent vegetative state.
But save your pity for those gilding themselves with the colors of the New York Mets.
As you know, the Mets fired Steve Phillips, and now find themselves facing not only their own intra-Gotham inferiority complex, but with a number of landmines in house that may not be possible to avoid. The days of being able to readily unload horrifying, soul-draining contracts is largely over, and the Mets have their share. They’re not going to be able to Mondesi someone about the head and shoulders, a la Toronto. Those days are over. What are they really facing as they try to rebuild a team?
Baseball could learn a lot from Don King. When Don King puts on a fight, there’s instantly a thin, greasy film of sleaze on it, but most of the time, King’s able to overcome the aversion and distrust inherent in his productions, and sell the damn tickets. When King promotes a fight, he works his butt off to transform the tomatoest of cans into a Mythic Warrior whose nobility and sense of purpose is matched only by his strength and cunning in the ring. Then, after the inevitable whooping of Steve Zouski by Drederick Tatum, the No. 3 contender of the Uzbekistan Boxing Council (not affiliated with the Uzbekistan Boxing Association), people feel ripped off, and know they were stupid for signing up for the $84.95 pay-per-view event–even though they kinda liked the two chicks beating the living crap out of each other on the undercard.
The promotion of the fight was great, but the fight itself, the actual product, was pretty lame.
Baseball’s in exactly the opposite situation. The product is amazing beyond description, providing a mix of rapid, short-term thrills with the mysterious narrative of a 162-game regular season that still actually counts. Collectively, MLB clubs have lost their focus on getting people to actually watch the game, be it on television or in person. Over the past 20 years, management’s developed an affinity for publicly trashing their own product, and in terms of holding onto the front of the sports fan’s mind, they’ve had their butts handed to them by Pete Rozelle, Paul Tagliabue, and even the Michael Lerneresque David Stern. From the Commissioner writing off a third of the clubs before the season starts in an attempt to get givebacks from the players, to George Steinbrenner talking about how dangerous it is to come to Yankee games, no stone’s gone unturned in the inexplicable quest to keep fans away. To date, no club has come up with “Persistently Infected Sore Night,” but at least one club did threaten Jason Tyner bobbleheads.
Joe Sheehan calls MLB’s efforts “anti-marketing,” which is certainly a solid enough label, even if it’s overly kind to MLB.
If I were making even the major league minimum, I would think an off-season visit to a woodworking group and a couple hundred bucks investment in various types of stock would be worth the risk. The cost difference between a bat made out of Padauk and a bat made out of maple really wouldn’t be all that great, and if it can get you 2% more velocity off the bat, that might be the difference between a multi-year deal that sets you up for life and running the produce department at Giant Eagle. After all, gaining an advantage by going against the rules is called cheating. Gaining an advantage by working around the rules to an area not previously considered by the rulemakers is innovation.
There’s an awful lot of stuff in baseball analysis that’s just a complete waste of time. Some people love doing studies that take a look at something either esoteric, rare, or with no potential practical application when it comes to the actual game of baseball. That’s great; there’s nothing wrong with those kinds of diversions. We’ve all got those kinds of activities in our lives. But in terms of practical application on a real life baseball team, a “sabermetric” biography of the 1952 Yankees isn’t particularly useful. That sort of stuff has never spun my wheels, and it’s one reason I tend to yell and scream at BP writers who mention ballplayers from before Kristy Swanson was born.
Historians and fans of sepia tones will undoubtedly pipe in with: “Of course you can learn something from history!” (Derisively insert sound of adults in Charlie Brown cartoons here.) No one’s saying that’s not the case. But we prefer to focus on ideas that actually have practical applications on the field, and can directly and visibly translate into more wins, which means more championships, more money, etc. We’ve taken a fair amount of flak over the years for not making more things public, and not fully embracing an academic model for the serious study of baseball. Some of the criticism is well-deserved, some of it’s simply a disagreement over what people in the field are really doing. We like the idea of innovating to gain a competitive advantage and beat the snot out of opponents, rather than having the material published in some peer-reviewed journal.
When Rany Jazayerli came back from a Pizza Feed a few weeks back and mentioned that he had talked to a couple of front office guys about a different kind of platoon, my chin hit the virtual floor. The idea he had mentioned, and which was apparently perceived as novel, was at least 20 years old, and Gary Huckabay had been approached about studying the idea by a major league club back in 1998. (Even more surprising is that the club that wanted this issue studied is not largely perceived as a progressive organization.) This supposedly novel idea had also been mentioned in one of the old Elias Analysts, but was never really fleshed out in those pages.
What kind of platoon are we talking about? Using the groundball/flyball tendencies of pitchers and hitters to determine and acquire the most favorable possible matchups.
On Wednesday evening, approximately 40 people gathered at Rocco’s Pizzeria in Walnut Creek for a BP Pizza Feed. Unlike most of the NorCal Pizza Feeds, the evening didn’t consist primarily of me, Wolverton, Wilkins, and Cleary answering a bunch of questions and listening to a rather malicious version of Les Nessman’s Death Watch, usually focused on Steve Phillips. We were fortunate enough to be joined by Mark Wolfson, the Director of the Oakland A’s Broadcasts on KICU 36 in the Bay Area. Mark knows more about broadcasting and that side of baseball than anyone really should, and has a facility and feel for the business that most people wish they had about any business. If you missed it, you missed an informative and entertaining evening, and a gathering of a bunch of very nice, very dedicated and jovial baseball fans. I hope you can make the next one. (Houston and Fresno–we haven’t forgotten about you.)
One of the topics that always comes up when conversation turns to baseball broadcasting is the length of games. There’s a common perception among people on the broadcasting side that games are too long. You’re probably familiar with the line of thinking; kids today are used to more stimulation, instant gratification, and the long “slow spells” in baseball make it difficult to sell the game to people, particularly young kids. The powers that be in MLB’s front office have responded to this perceived challenge by forming a task force with the goal of speeding up games. Personally, I like a lot of the simple, quick hits that have been implemented. It makes sense to have a batboy ready with an identical bat in case one breaks. There’s a lot of little things along those lines that make sense for MLB and the fans, and it’s good to see those steps being taken.
On Tuesday, Florida Marlins’ starter A.J. Burnett underwent Tommy John surgery, after exploration of the elbow revealed a torn ulnar collateral ligament. The surgery went well, and Burnett’s expected to return fully healthy down the road. Previously, pitchers who have had this surgery take about a year, maybe a year and a half, to get back on the mound and eventually return to form. The procedure and rehab have become something of a commonplace miracle, despite the fact that the rehabilitation regimen’s about as appealing as a porta-potty at the Stockton Asparagus Festival.
The real issue here isn’t Burnett, however unfortunate his injury is. We wish him the best, and I have no doubts that he’ll push the rehab envelope and get back as soon as he can. The real issue here is painfully obvious–was this avoidable? You’ve already seen a number of perspectives about pitcher abuse, injury likelihood, and the very nature of pitching itself, so I won’t go into too much detail here. I think the real interesting issue here is a long-underlying one that’s been talked about, but never really addressed. That issue is the balance between performance, overwork, responsibility, and accountability when it comes to handling pitchers. So let’s put aside the specific case of Burnett, and examine the issue.
There are lots of ways to present numeric information. In addition to just handing someone a big stack of numbers, you can create charts or graphs until the cows come home or the Tigers score five runs in a game–whichever comes first. In many circumstances, there will be some sort of an industry standard, and if you choose to diverge from that standard, you can bet that some of your very valuable time is going to be spent justifying your deviation from the norm. That’s what’s been going on in the baseball media and front offices for nearly a quarter century now–trying to change the norms of what information is used to evaluate players.
For a long time, I’ve been trying to find someone who’s at or near the top of the ladder in an MLB marketing department to talk to me about some of the unique challenges, opportunities, and practices in marketing an MLB club, and to give a spin-free answer to some of the tougher questions that readers have asked about MLB’s policies over the years. On Thursday, I was fortunate enough to talk with the lead executive of an MLB club’s marketing department, and they agreed to answer any questions I threw out, so long as I didn’t give out their name.