In the offseason, I wrote an article titled How the Padres Won the Offseason. That article was written shortly after the James Shields signing and, therefore, less shortly after the acquisitions of Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, Wil Myers, Derek Norris and others. I praised the Padres because they seemed to be acquiring discounted talent wherever they could, regardless of fit, and were thus doing so relatively cheaply. The end product of these moves was the construction of a team that seemed potentially competitive, and at the very least improved, for a price below what anyone would have guessed it would cost to do so. As to what the Padres would do going forward, I wrote the following:

What is next? Luckily, for the sake of intrigue, no one knows…Hopefully, the new regime will continue to be strategically opportunistic and agile (and therefore active), continuing to add values wherever they come, and continuing to add or prevent runs as each opportunity presents itself.

As you can tell from the wording, I was working under the presumption that the Padres were being “strategically opportunistic and agile.” After another data point (the Craig Kimbrel-Melvin Upton’s Contract Trade), I started to wonder if my presumption—that the Padres were taking advantage of any opportunity presented—was valid, or if they were in fact executing a strategy based on an overarching theory, such as acquiring high-ceiling talent wherever possible. Now this might not seem like much of a distinction on the surface, but it is an important distinction in that each of these positions would probably lead to very different decisions going forward.

Luckily, we have some help explaining the difference between these two strategies. In Isaiah Berlin’s essay The Hedgehog and the Fox, Berlin famously writes, “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” As we can see, the first strategy is “fox-thinking,” while the second one is “hedgehog-thinking.” Hedgehog-thinking—understanding the world through the lens of big, overarching ideas and theories—is useful in asking important questions, coming up with big ideas, and driving change. Additionally, we all need some overarching theories of how the world works in order to simply get through the day or else risk being crushed by its overwhelming complexity. However, our world has almost always proved to be too complex and too dynamic for such ideas to hold at all times. In the hyper-competitive landscape of a professional sports league, hedgehog thinking can surely be effective, but it will always be limited. I could try to explain, but I will first throw this over to Jason Wojciechowski, who explains (and does so excellently) what hedgehog-like thinking looks like for baseball front offices in Every Team’s Moneyball: Oakland Athletics: There is No Moneyball. Wojciechowski posits that while the Athletics use fox-like thinking, many other teams follow a hedgehog-like system (often very rational, very complex ones, but still an overarching strategy at its core). Wojciechowski writes,

…the competitive landscape may be filled with teams desiring to reach some Objective Truth about players, the marketplace, even the game of baseball itself. If this were poker, we might say those teams are playing the cards: If their hole cards are good enough, they'll raise pre-flop, and if the flop hits, they'll bet and raise; but if they miss at any point, they'll fold. Now, they're not stupid, so a mathematically correct percentage of the time that they don't hold cards good enough to bet and raise, they will use a trick they learned from David Sklansky's The Theory of Poker: If they calculate that they should be bluffing one-eighth of the time, they will bluff when the first card on the flop is one of six cards they predetermine, on a one-time basis, will trigger the bluff, taking out of their hands the possibility of becoming predictable, overbluffing, or underbluffing. They'll employ other, similar strategies. They will grind the game down to its mathematical core, they will take advantage of the fish at the table, and they will reap a small profit. The whole game is down to a system.

(Note: the above is a really long quote, but it is so very good and very important to understanding and analyzing strategy. So if you glossed over it, please go back and read it and cherish it).

As Wojciechowski hints at and as we mentioned above, these strategies are often complex and rational. We are also pretty sure that almost every team’s strategy blends analytics, scouting, and player development. Now these systems are not all the same and some are better suited for success at any given time than others, but they are all still, at their core, systems. The issue with any system is the same issue with any hedgehog-thinking described above, that being that it cannot hold at all times, that each system has situations it is better and worse suited for as each system has its biases and blind spots.

It is important to note that each team’s system does not function in a vacuum; rather, each system is affected by the systems and consequent decisions of its competitors. Obviously, in baseball, both on the field and in talent acquisition, the success of one team almost always come at the expense of another. Successful strategies are consequently oft-copied and such arbitrage opportunities are quickly closed. The consequence of all this is that any time a bunch of teams value something, the cost of acquiring that thing goes up (increases in demand leads to an increases in price); thus making the thing being valued less valuable. Additionally, teams cannot value all things at all times. Sure, a team could value all things equally, but they would then value some things less than teams that were more focused with what they value.

What the A’s have done, and what I presumed the Padres were doing, was simply grabbing whatever was not priced at a premium, whatever was undervalued because of the preferences of the rest of the market (their competition). Back to Wojciechowski to explain this strategy:

The A's, by contrast, are playing the players: They're far more interested in what you've got in your hand than what they've got in theirs; they are, for that matter, far more interested in what you think they have in their hand than in what they actually have; they'll win just as often by getting you to fold superior cards as they will by trapping you into betting with an inferior hand.

Ultimately, this strategy can handle any environment because it is not a strategy at all (I am guessing this is why Wojciechowski’s article was titled “There is No Moneyball”); rather, it is fox-thinking dressed up as strategy. The brilliance of this is that so long as there are hedgehogs, teams playing the cards, or teams following a system, fox-thinking will always have the blind spots, biases, overreactions, and underreactions of their competition on which to capitalize.

The interesting question now is whether the Padres were capitalizing through fox-thinking/strategic agility or if they simply used a process that worked for some situations, but not in others. We will definitely not be able to answer this question, but trying could be interesting. Some hypotheses follow:

Hypothesis A: The Padres took a hedgehog approach, following the theory of acquiring impact talent at the major-league level wherever possible. The consequence of this was some nice values (Upton, Myers, and Shields), some fair values (Norris, Will Middlebrooks, and Brandon Maurer), and some overpays (Kemp and Kimbrel).

Hypothesis B: The Padres were fox-like in all of their acquisitions this offseason, trading with teams eager to move redundant, expensive, and/or expiring players and thus acquiring those players for under-market prices. By targeting talent as opposed to need, the Padres were able to capitalize on many of these opportunities. While the Kimbrel trade does not fit with this line of logic, it could be that the Padres could have either (i) pocketed all money they “saved” by coming in below budget with these relatively cheap acquisitions or (ii) used the excess moneys to further improve their team. If the latter was the case, and if Kimbrel was the best player available in their price range, then maybe the Kimbrel signing does not have to jibe with the other moves in order for the Padres’ fox-like strategy to be.

Hypothesis C: The Padres new front office inherited a team full of “not their players.” Consequently, the new front office went out and acquired “their players” and what happened, happened.

Hypothesis D: The Padres not only acquired players that would improve the major-league product, but were hoping to sell high on some of their prospects (who were, again, not their players), while buying low on other players (Hypothesis B). This would then allow the Padres to take a shot at the playoffs this year, while still giving them the flexibility to move these newly acquired pieces at the trade deadline, potentially for pieces they prefer more than the pieces traded to acquire them.

Hypothesis E: Make the team not boring.

Hypothesis F: Some combination of the above hypotheses.

Hypothesis G: Something other than the above hypotheses.

As we can see from the above, there is potential for fox-driven strategy and hedgehog-driven strategy. It could even be that the Padres are philosophically hedgehog-like in determining strategy, but tactically fox-like in the execution of their strategy. Because of all this and because we are not in the room, there is really no way to tell what is going on, but at least it continues to be interesting.

Thank you for reading

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This article reminds me of the audio-guide at Stonehenge. At each step it makes you stop and then the speaker says. "look over there -- that stone is exactly a 90 degree angle from the stone you are standing in front of -- why? -- we don't know."
I honestly came here expecting an Austin Hedges related article.
This article was much better than an Austin Hedges related article.
This article is why Baseball Prospectus is a must-read. I believe the Kimbrel deal doesn't jive because it was at the beginning of the season. Would the price have been lower at the trade deadline? It's probably doubtful. Also, you avoid a bidding war and win the game before anyone even started playing. While it seems different I believe it is one of those perceived trades that will get a team over the proverbial hump into the playoffs even while the marginal return on wins per dollar decrease.
Curiouser and curiouser. Thanks for the thought exercise.