The start of anything new offers you a great opportunity for introspection. Given that I’ve never really said what this blog is about, the dawn of a new year is as good a time as any.
First of all, let me start out by saying that I’m a baseball fan first, and an Indians fan second. What that means: I’m probably as passionate about the Tribe as anyone I’ve met, but that passion stems from a love of baseball in general. The fact that I grew up in Northeast Ohio just means I happened to become a fan of the Indians. And that wasn’t real easy given that my first recollections of the Indians was watching the 1985 team on WUAB. Of course watching the next, oh, decade of Indians baseball wasn’t that great either, but I guess it gave me a sort of tolerance for awful teams that others may not have. Every time someone writes the PD complaining about the Indians, I laugh and remember 1991. The Internet (at least as we know it now) wasn’t around, but if it was, I could imagine the weeping and gnashing of teeth. Heck, John Hart was just starting to implement his rebuilding plan (the 20th or so version since 1959), and although the talent was definitely there in retrospect, the results on the field didn’t show it. That was the season I really got into Indians baseball, the year I would listen or watch as many games as I could. You could say that I picked the wrong year to start closely paying attention to the team, but I was more fascinated in the game itself, the intracacies that baseball alone could offer. That I loved watching a 57-105 team speaks volumes about the sport itself, and since then nothing, including player strikes, owner lockouts, steroids, Jose Mesa, Interleague play, All-Star games which ended in ties, and the New York Yankees could make me give it up.
I’m fascinated with baseball mainly because it’s run so differently than other sports. It’s not a TV-friendly sport like football is. It’s not as flashy as the NBA is, and not as brutal (in a nice way) as the NHL. It features a lot of guys mostly standing around on a field waiting for one guy to throw a ball. But the farther you delve into the sport, the more it sucks you in. The immense strategy it offers, the dizzying numbers of statistics, the massive number of players to keep track of, it’s storied and relevent history to study, and sometimes, its indescribable beauty has kept me interested since then.
The dismantling of the team starting in 2002 gave me the impetus to start what eventually became this blog, because it allowed me to revisit the rebuilding I grew up watching. Will this scheme work just like the Hank Peters/John Hart plan? No, because it’s different; even if it succeeds, it will succeed in different ways from the mostly organic approach employed in the early 1990s. Hart exploited the six years of control a team has over a player to perfection through his long-term contracts, but really couldn’t adapt afterwards. Mark Shapiro has employed a sort of hybrid between the Athletics plan of exploiting market inefficiencies through statistical analysis and the more traditional scouting concepts that clubs like the Atlanta Braves have used for years. Gone are the long-term deals for the most part; Shapiro is more willing to go to arbitration instead. If Westbrook, Blake, or Riske do so, it would be the first case since…you guessed it…1991. The Indians aren’t really a Moneyball organization, but aren’t a pure tools organization, either. Both concepts (or even a hybrid of the two) will work if executed correctly; the Twins and Athletics are great examples of teams that have won using drastically different methods. The key is to determine what works for your organization, execute it, and be consistent with it. That in my opinion is what every successful organization does. And that’s why each GM can succeed with different environments, characteristics, and preferences.
So where does this blog fit in? It, in essence, is the pursuit of determining how exactly a baseball organization in today’s environment can win. Yes, I give you my uneducated view on player moves after they happen, but the most instructive analysis in my opinion when you step back, add some context, and look objectively at a baseball organization. Too often I think we look at something in isolation and extrapolate an opinion from so minute a sample that it’s worthless. So while I definitely focus on the present, I mix in some of that all-important context from time to time; that means asking and trying to answer larger questions. Right now, one of those larger questions that has been brought to the forefront is a player’s value based on past performance. Or in other words, how much money is a Jaret Wright or a Carl Pavano really worth, given their fairly short periods of success? And is it worth overpaying for them, given a small payroll? Examining current trends in baseball is just as important; for example, the San Francisco Giants have decided to forego draft picks in an attempt to win now. Will that work, and what would be the long-term effects of their version of the early 1970s Washington Redskins? Again, it might work for the Giants, who happen to have one the best players in baseball history nearing retirement, but it might be disastrous for other teams on the other side of the Success Cycle. I think looking at the broader picture is a lot more interesting than micro-analyzing who got lost in the AAA portion of the Rule 5 Draft. I can do both, but there’s really only so much I can say about a 25-year-old minor-league reliever without repeating myself.
That’s where context comes in. Baseball has a lot of history, and if you can harness it, you can come up with some interesting conclusions. Yes, each player presents his own unique traits that sometimes defies prediction, but the more you delve into what makes a prospect turn into a major-league star, you can start to see patterns emerge. And going up a level, you can start to see characteristics of successful organizations. Though sportswriters today aren’t really expected to step back a little when examining a club, I think it’s a necessary ingredient for thoughtful analysis. It’s much easier to criticize a player during an 0-30 slump than to say that, given his career numbers, he’ll be all right. The former sells newspapers, and the latter just sounds like a hedge. But that’s what baseball is about; a batting average doesn’t care that you went through a horrid hitting slump in August, it just cares that you hit .290 for the entire season. Baseball is about context and bodies of work, not one play during a Sunday matinee in June.
To take things to a higher level, organizational moves are also best viewed in context, but that may mean waiting a long period of time before reaching a conclusion. When the Indians started to sell off players in 2002, it was certainly easy to declare the club was going back to the Dark Ages of the 70s and 80s because there was no real hard data to refute it, beyond minor-league data and faith. When the Indians signed Ronnie Belliard instead of Todd Walker, the move was roundly criticized (no pun intended). Now that he’s back for another season, the move was mostly lauded. Hindsight is a tool easily used and easily abused; foresight is elusive and, if used properly, deadly. Moneyball wasn’t really about OBP per se; it was about finding undervalued commodities and using them to your advantage. Determining what’s undervalued is one of a GM’s hardest jobs. The Indians use a computer system called DiamondView to help out with the number crunching, but deciding what to target given the teams’ needs can’t be determined by a computer printout; it takes the aforementioned foresight in concert with experience and sometimes just plain old luck to get a player like Belliard for $1M. That’s how teams with low payrolls can get better players than teams with higher payrolls. Another way of course is by drafting them; an organization controls a player for 6 years if they can develop them. That 6 years of control is a key reason why a well-stocked farm system is almost imperative for lower-payroll teams to win in today’s financial environment. To collect a lot of cheap, young talent, you have to draft or sign it, and this time you’re essentially on a level playing field with the whales of baseball. So you again must find undervalued (as far as talent goes) players and draft them, but this time you take the same amount of risk as the big boys. The reasoning behind a player move is just as important than the move itself; otherwise, why not use a random number generator to build your team?
Whether the current “Blueprint for Success” actually succeeds on the field, where a GM is ultimately evaluated, is relevant only to the extent that we can say why or why not it suceeded. That “why” question is the main reason I’m here, and hopefully we’ll answer it together.