Monday, January 23, 2012

On plans and prejudice

by Jason Wojciechowski

A man, a plan ...
DN-0006156, Chicago Daily News negatives collection,
Chicago History Museum.

You know that parable about the elephant and the blind men? Baseball fans might could think about it sometimes.

Now, don't fret. I'm not here to repeat myself. This is a different point than what I've written elsewhere about acknowledging uncertainty, though it's perhaps a kissing cousin. What I want to zero in on in particular is premature judgment of a plan or the ongoing execution thereof.

The issue arises in particular in the off-season. In the cold months (ok, I'm in Los Angeles: relatively cold months) of winter, front offices begin making changes, and they're operating on multiple horizons. They're preparing for the Rule 5 draft, the early part of the season, the dog days, the stretch run, the next off-season, the next three seasons, and, for some owners, at least, the next decade over which they'll develop their fan-base and revenue streams, build a stadium, get out of the business and back into hotels, or what have you.

This should be daunting. It doesn't mean we can't do analysis, but it does mean that we should be careful about prejudging a team's plan, in particular because of the risk that an early-formed idea of that plan may prejudice our analysis of later moves that don't seem to fit that plan. Ideally, we would incorporate each new piece of information into an ongoing idea of the team's larger goals, but I'm not convinced that we do that very well.

Moves can be evaluated when they happen, to the best of our understanding of how they fit the plan, because some moves are bad risks and some moves are good risks. The Houston Astros signed Jack Cust for $600,000 and a team option. We can look at his defensive numbers and scouting reports, the decline of his bat, the Astros' other options, the tiny amount of money they're paying him, the fact that they don't have any top outfield prospects in the high minors, and the low likelihood of being competitive in the NL Central in 2012 and say that it's a nice little upside move, a chance to see if Cust can rehabilitate his value and be flipped or give the fans someone to cheer for besides Carlos Lee and Jose Altuve.

by Keith Allison

Some moves, we should wait and see. A clean, simple example is the Red Sox trade of Marco Scutaro to the Rockies for nothing much at all. The speculation (and it may be more than that, but I haven't done extensive research on this) is that this will free room for the Sox to pursue Roy Oswalt while they live with some combination of Mike Aviles, Nick Punto, and maybe Jose Iglesias's glove at shortstop. Judging this move on its own would be foolish. It is certainly possible that the Red Sox went through with this trade without complete certainty that their free agent target (if indeed there is one) will sign, and it is thus possible that someone else will swoop in and steal said player, thus leaving the Red Sox millions richer in the pocketbook and a few wins (?) poorer on the field. It's possible that they'll get exactly what they want.

Most moves don't telegraph the existence of a simple "this and then this" plan quite so obviously, mainly because baseball GMing involves so many moving parts and so much uncertainty -- they can't know for sure whether a rival GM will raise a free-agent offer, back out of a nearly done trade, suddenly retire, etc. This just means that as things change, we should be willing to re-evaluate our earlier ideas.

Some of this re-evaluation is about actual outcomes -- if a team drafts a player that I think is a terrible pick, but that player turns out quite well, then perhaps the team knew something I didn't. Then again, maybe they didn't, and they just got lucky. To an extent, then, we should be willing to re-evaluate from the perspective of the time, but putting ourselves in the shoes of the front office with the knowledge that we have gained since then of what that front office had up its sleeve. That is, I'm only a little interested in "this worked out" or "that didn't work out" because if we or GMs knew what would or wouldn't work out, the whole enterprise would be dull and the Yankees would win every year. What's interesting is the question of how a given signing or trade made in November looks like once we see how the team's overall budget shook out, what kind of contracts other players signed (if we can attribute some knowledge of the prices of other players to the GM at the time, anyway), what direction the divisional rivals were moving in, and so forth.

None of this, I should note, should be taken as arguing that we shouldn't evaluate the plans themselves (as best we can). Take, for instance, the way the A's traded Carlos Gonzalez and Huston Street for Matt Holliday a few years ago. The plan there was clearly to compete in that year, as Beane thought he saw a window of opportunity. This plan is open for criticism -- maybe we argue that he overestimated the rest of his team, or that he underestimated the Angels. The execution is also open for critique -- maybe Beane shouldn't have given away Carlos Gonzalez so easily, or should have insisted on including a lesser secondary asset than Street. (We ought to be sure, incidentally, that we're clear, both in our minds and in our writing, which of these aspects of a front office's work we're examining at a given moment.)

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