Thursday, December 16, 2004

So Long And Thanks For All The Fish

I've only read a single Bill Plaschke column in my life, but here's what I predict from him tomorrow:

So this is what we get.

A computer whiz knocks on the door with a bunch of fancy numbers, trades away the team's heart and soul all-star catcher for an unproven pitcher, lets the best player in baseball leave the team in free agency, and then trades the pitcher and the team's best remaining hitter for someone who was booed out of New York and a couple of minor leaguers.

Anyone wanna fix this guy's computer?

It's not all bad; we've still got a washed-up second baseman, convict centerfielder, and a whiff-o-matic first baseman.

Hey, who can complain?

Here's the deal. Adrian Beltre has spent most of the past five years as my favorite player in baseball. It was great that he finally had a breakthrough year.

But Beltre didn't say goodbye to me, and Paul DePodesta didn't take him away from me. Both of them calculated their interests, and the result was Beltre playing for a different team. It made Peter White happy, so why should I complain?

It's easy to come up with silly explanations for why things ended up the way they did. It's easy to use anecdotal evidence to call this a firesale or something silly like that. Frankly, I don't care. I'd rather assess the situation and look forward.

If a baseball team makes a bad decision, I enjoy gathering evidence to make the argument that they've made a bad decision. If they make a good decision, I enjoy gathering evidence to make the argument that they've made a good decision. The thing is, the Dodgers didn't make much of a decision. Beltre chose one of two offers. The Dodgers offered a good deal, the Mariners offered something marginally better, and Beltre took it.

You might say DePodesta made a bad move in that he didn't have a backup plan. That's ridiculous. Earlier today, I looked at evidence to discuss different alternatives. They all look like decent backup plans to me. The thing is, a baseball team doesn't need to have a slugging third baseman. It doesn't need to have an all-star catcher. It doesn't need to have a flamethrowing set-up man. It needs to win, and there are a ton of different ways to put together a winning team.

Beltre was worth around 11-13 wins last year. That's a big loss. Brazoban was worth about two and a half wins, Lo Duca and Mota three and a half each. Finley was worth two and a half and Green was worth about four. Ouch.

But Hee Seop Choi should be worth four or five wins, Javy Vazquez should be worth five to seven, and Jeff Kent should be worth six or seven. And odds are good that the combination of Tom Wilson, Mike Rose, and Dave Ross can make up most of Lo Duca's production. Plus, the Dodgers won't give any innings to Hideo Nomo.

I can pretend J.D. Drew's in the bag, and that that makes up the remainder. But why? Here's why I love baseball: because there's so much data, and all of it can be analyzed, and it's a blast to analyze it well. Saying DePodesta is trying to remake the team in his own image, Frank McCourt is trying to raze the Stadium, or Jamie McCourt is really one of the Crab People, dwelling underground and plotting to take over the earth, seems like such a waste of time to me. Why analyze what we have no significant data on when we have so much data?

What I'm saying is that, try as we might, we don't know what the Dodgers' plans - and contingency plans - are, and I see little reason in trying to evaluate their decisions in light of them unless there's substantial evidence that the decisions they've made have left them without a reasonable course of action. There isn't. Just because the average beer and tacos baseball fan isn't familiar with Brian Myrow or Kevin Youkilis doesn't mean that they're not somewhat viable alternatives.

Here's something Bill James had to say on the subject, courtesy of Rich Lederer:
I’ve never said, never thought, that it was better to be an outsider than it was to be an insider, that my view of the game was better than anyone else’s. It’s different; better in some ways, worse in some ways. What I have said is, since we are outsiders, since the players are going to put up walls to keep us out here, let us use our position as outsiders to what advantage we can. Let us back off from the trees, look at the forest as a whole, and see what we can learn from that. Let us stop prentending to be insiders if we’re not. Let us fly over the forest, you and I, and look down; let us measure every tract of land and map out all the groves, and draw in every path that connects each living thing. Let us drive around the edges and photograph each and every tree from a variety of angles and with a variety of lenses; and insiders will be amazed at what we can help them to see.
This is not the time to analyze the motives of anyone involved. This is the time to do what, in my heart, I think fans should do: analyze the situation and think of what they would do, and analyze what has been done in the context of the best reasonable course of action. It's not okay to criticize the team that doesn't score because they didn't bunt the runner over in the eighth because it didn't result in runs being scored; to criticize a decision, you look at what can be expected and make an argument about what would be most beneficial in that context. If you think DePodesta and the Dodgers should have offered 6 years, $80 million, don't say "Now, we'll have to sign Darren Oliver and Joe Randa and win 65 games." Account for the extra expense and what it would mean to the team. Give a detailed account of the available players, both in the Dodgers organization and outside of it. Make your argument on analysis, not speculation. That's what a fan does, in my book anyway.

Billy Beane has famously argued, and I'm paraphrasing here, that the first third of the season is to see what you've got, the second third is to get what you need, and the final third is to win. The Dodgers entered this offseason with, by almost all accounts, one of the top farm systems in baseball. Now they've added two of the top eighty picks in next years draft and two of the top eighty prospects in baseball, if the trade reports are indeed accurate. That doesn't ensure that the Dodgers can get what they need to make the playoffs in any given year or to win the World Series in any given year. But it does mean they're in a pretty good position to do so.

The first entry in this blog was, in part, about my emotional attachment to the baseball player Adrian Beltre. When, sometime in the future-- maybe months from now, maybe years from now, maybe decades from now-- I make my last entry, it will no doubt be about the emotion of baseball. Emotion is there, and it's important. Baseball is a wonderful thing to be in love with, but it will love you so much more when you give it your love too. Baseball players, managers, and executives will break your heart, but as long as you love baseball enough the wounds will heal.

Thank you! What a breath of fresh air after reading 100+ comments over on Dodger Thoughts.
- Jonathan
That quote from James was so amazingly arrogant it was stupefying. He will let me "see"? Wow, thanks. That's probably why DePodesta can't close deals, because he's arrogant. I love your blog, I think your statistical analysis is spot on, but one thing you have to realize about being a great GM is not only the ability to analyze situations, BUT TO BE A NICE PERSON SO YOU CAN CLOSE BIG DEALS. Also, you need to know when not to play hardball, and when to play hardball. DePodesta wanted Beltre to fit into a mathematical formula he had devised, rather than taking into account human greed, and need to be treated kindly. He failed, and will continue to fail. Yet another Ivy League arrogant New Englander failing to get what he wanted.

That was one of the best columns I've ever read, and your Plaschke impersonation is flawless.

Your baseball-fandom philosophy is one I've adopted myself recently. I've also been looking at this year's Lakers in the same way.

It's so much more enjoyable to not buy into the hype, easier on the blood pressure as well.

A lot of the stats you use are new to me, but I love your analysis and look forward to reading more of your work in the future.
I appreciate that you like my blog. I agree that James comes off as a bit arrogant, but his point isn't that he has all the answers but that taking a step back provides a lot of important answers that the insiders tend to ignore. You may be right that DePodesta really screwed up in how he handled the matter. The truth is, though, that I don't have any way of knowing why DePodesta, Boras, or Beltre made the decisions that they made, and in light of that I think it's best not to try to analyze them. While the ideal GM would have an acute understanding of baseball and could charm the pants off of Margaret Thatcher, I don't think that combination comes around so often. And given the choice between those two attributes, I'd prefer the GM with a better understanding of baseball.
Strange position to be in but I am a Mariner fan and a Dodger fan so I truly have a tough time sorting out my opinions about Beltre leaving the Dodgers to join the Mariners. I will be more than happy to see Adrian at Safeco Field, though if that is at the expense of the Dodgers winning it will for sure be a bittersweet happiness. I am surprised that Beltre did not take the Dodgers to arbitration rather than sign the contract he did. I am not a stat guy but my hunch is that Beltre would be more valuable to the 05 Dodgers than he will be to the 05 Mariners. Safeco Field can be a tough place to hit for a right handed hitter. Add in his unfamiliarity with teammates and opposing pitchers, and I can imagine a real possibility that Adrian will struggle at least at the outset with the Mariners. I hope that is not the case because I like both Beltre and the Mariners.

With Beltre gone it seems to me that DePo almost has to sign Beltran. Even if Adrian had stayed, it seems to me unlikely that he would have posted the same production in 05 as he did in 04. I would assume that Jeff Kent will pick up some of the slack from the missing Beltre but he will need quite a bit of help. Kent plus Betran has in my mind at least a chance of offsetting the loss of Beltre and Green. Add in a solid free agent pitcher and I think the Dodgers have at least a chance to be better than the Padres and Giants in 05, even with Beltre in Seattle.

Tom, I'm scraping my jaw off the floor after reading your alternatives when I ponder that you actually consider them alternatives. Stats-based analysis is what you do best. Please show me how any of the scrubs you would plug in at third -- or anywhere else on the field -- are going to replace Beltre's 2004 production. This was an offensively dismissive piece for those of us who realize that Beltre's 89.1 VORP won't be easy to replace. Yes, my reaction to Beltre's departure has been very emotional, but before you decide that it's just not important, you'd better have a realistic plan that doesn't involve the team descending into mediocrity.
I'd be very suprised if Beltre matched Beltre's 2004 production...ever.
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