However Beautiful the Strategy

The season is over. We've had some dreadful luck, but a reversal of fortune by itself couldn't change the commanding position our rivals cumulatively hold over us.  We're five games behind Chicago and no better than they are, in terms of runs scored and allowed.  We're six games behind a Minnesota squad that overall has been 37 runs better.  And we're now ten games behind Detroit and 49 runs worse than them.

The differences in runs matter for two reasons.  First, they show that our poor standing isn't just about bad luck, timing and leverage.  Just because we're 13 games under .500, with 12 losses that should have been wins, doesn't mean we should be 11 games over.  It doesn't work that way.  We should have won most of those 12 games but not all of them, and we stole a few back, too.  Bad luck and timing aside, this club is still a mediocrity at best, and injuries happen to all clubs, not just ours.  That leads me to the second reason that the differences in runs matter:  They suggest strongly that there's little reason to think we can catch Detroit or Minnesota, and we're not even 50-50 to catch Chicago.

Let's be honest.  Luck can't explain the club's manifest mediocrity, three years out of four. The Indians front office has won respect and accolades within the industry, adoration across the blogosphere and plenty of lavish praise on this very site.  The Indians consistently have put together good teams on paper that fell apart on the field.  We've excused them for bad luck, for random variation, for injuries and variance and vagaries.  At this point, it is fair to say, simply, that the people in charge have not gotten the job done.

Winston Churchill said it best:  "However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results."

Can we discuss this like adults?  Should we even try?  Hard to say.  It is so much simpler just to say, fire the manager.  The Indians have failed; we know that much.  We have a pretty clear idea how they've failed, but we're pretty fuzzy on why.  There are web forums now boiling over with the usual reasons and theories, the sorts of things that get dismissed here out of hand.  For most of those theories, it's time to redouble our dismissiveness — the problem surely isn't that we've failed to give Barfield more of an opportunity.  For others, it may be time to reconsider.

I won't fault Shapiro's front office for having a plan.  (How stupid is that?  Would we rather they didn't have a plan?)  I would like to pose some theories as to why the Shapiro program has failed much more than it has succeeded up to this point.  Each theory deserves a lot more thought and research than a new dad is likely to cough up after midnight — that would be none — but that will come later.  For now, let's just try out some new ideas — and old ones.

Theory #1:  They might as well be bloggers.

Maybe the joke is on us.  The Indians make the "right" moves, like signing Dave Dellucci, not the "wrong" moves, like signing Raul Ibañez.  They know the stats, we know the stats, so when they make a move, it looks right to us.  Problem is, we tend to forget that the numbers rarely tell us the full story.  It's one thing to argue the numbers with a fellow fan — all I've got is the numbers, and all he's got is the numbers, because neither of us are scouts — but it's quite another to praise a front office for being able to Paint By Numbers.  I mean, hell, any of us could paint by the numbers.

Maybe it isn't a good thing that I can understand and explain most every move the Indians make.  Maybe they should be making moves that don't make sense to me — because after all, all I've got are the numbers.  The saberblog view is essentially that since the numbers are all we can be sure about, the numbers are all that matter, and anything else is pure luck.  In other words, the entire career of a GM like Pat Gillick was pure luck.

The Indians have done a great job at amassing value on paper, but they've shown little ability to discover value that isn't evident in the numbers.  I've been able to explain pretty well why the Indians do almost everything that they do — aside from burying Marte.  Maybe that's a problem.

Theory #2:  The scouting and player evaluation is mediocre.

It is entirely possible that the Indians simply don't have a good scouting apparatus and don't have a genuinely gifted group of evaluators in the organization.  Where there's a clear track record and a big sample size of performance data, the Indians have done a pretty good job of figuring out which players have value, but they rarely are in the market for such players.  More often, they're in the market for a third-tier veteran, with a spotty or inconsistent track record, often distorted by injury.

Samples in baseball are never really "controlled" in a scientific sense, but drastic variance in a player's physical health render a player's entire performance record essentially moot.  Imagine if some ballparks half as large and others twice as large, and imagine you never really knew which ballpark a player was playing in for any given game — injuries are like that.  For many other players — for every reliever —  there isn't that much of a record to go on, and the ability to amass performance data and project it forward is basically useless; what your evaluators see with their own eyes and report to the club is paramount.

Antonetti pointedly noted last winter that no team consistently out-performs the market in free agency, but this is an odd defense.  For an organization with the stated goal of producing industry-best results in all phases of its operation, the failure to out-perform the market is simply that:  a failure.  It is the front office's function to outperform the market on statistical analysis, and also to outperform the market on valuation and risk assessment, and finally to outperform the market on scouting.  That is, if there are five players who project stastistically to similar performance in the coming year, the Indians ought to be able to pick which one is likeliest to outperform (and least likely to underperform) that statistical projection, based on the scouting alone.  There is little evidence that the Indians have the ability to do this, especially when you look at the ways the Indians have outperformed and underperformed in acquiring talent.

The Indians often are criticized for a conservative draft strategy, but the criticisms don't really add up.  I think the numbers show that the Indians' strategy makes perfect sense, but there's a much stronger case that their mediocre yield is simply the result of mediocre scouting.  Right strategy, wrong players.

In free agency, the Indians can't shop at the top of the market, nor can they usually sign second-tier players who generally represent very poor value in terms of risk and marginal wins.  The analysis leads them to third-tier players, but their scouting may not be good enough to select the right ones.  Right strategy, wrong players.

Business analysis has the Indians investing heavily in much of Latin America, while pulling back in the corrupt and over-saturated Dominican and moving into other international markets.  They've done very well in this area, but why?  I submit to you that the Indians have had some breakthrough conceptual ideas in their development strategy — education and dentistry among them — and that beyond that, this is basically a numbers game.  The Yankee Years has a great digression about how the Indians ended up with a guy like Fausto Carmona, and Shapiro essentially concedes that it's a cattle call.  You don't need great scouting to sign a few dozen 15- and 16-year-olds with really great tools, and beyond that, productivity in Latin American signings is about process and volume, not evaluation.

Yes, what I'm suggesting is that scouting 16-year-olds may not be all that hard, and that's why the Indians can excel in this area.  It may be that scouting 18-year-olds isn't hard either — maybe the Indians could outperform other teams if they drafted more high school players, but their analysis is telling them (correctly) that that's a bad idea.  Perhaps the analysis says they need to focus on more fully developed college players — the kind they may not be all that great at scouting.  How would that be for irony?

The Indians have also done very well in trades for prospects, but they are always acquiring prospects who are thriving in Double-A or who are performing very well at a young age in Advanced-A.  Think about the big line that the PTM system draws, between age-22 in Advanced-A and age-23 in Double-A.  It takes great scouting to identify college players who eventually will perform very well in Double-A, or high schoolers who someday soon will thrive in Advanced-A.  Once they've done that, however, it probably doesn't take particularly good scouting to figure out that they're probably going to make good major leaguers.

Or maybe we really needed to keep Tony LaCava.  I can't help but notice that Brian Tallet is having a much better career than Billy Traber.

Theory #3:  Their statistical analysis isn't all that great.

I know, this one seems like it's out of left field. I think it's beyond question that the Indians are doing an amazing job of collecting the data.  They're collecting all kinds of crazy things, from the distance the catcher's mitt has to move to catch each pitch to the quotes that players give to reporters after the game.  There's no question that high-quality data collection is the foundation of high-quality data analysis, but not everyone who's doing the former is getting the latter.

Before hiring Keith Woolner last year, the Indians didn't even have a full-time data analysis executive.  It was, apparently, assistant GMs and interns running numbers in Excel whenever they wanted to analyze something.  So we had a club spending $100 million on players every year, spending upwards of $1 million on data collection, and apparently not spending $100,000 on dedicated data analysis.  And while the Indians' decisions have been sabermetrically sound, again, there's scant evidence that their methods are more advanced than those used by dozens of bloggers every day.  In particular, they seem to be fixated on positional value — VORP, Sabermetrics 101 — while evidently being baffled by defensive value — until recently, a doctoral-level topic in sabermetrics.

Think about it.  We could have stuck a group of defensively excellent, mediocre hitters in center field, at shortstop and catcher, while moving Grady, Jhonny and Victor to LF, 3B and 1B — years ago. We would have had outstanding defense at basically all six of those positions — and the kicker is, we ended up with a bunch of crap hitters at all the corner positions anyway.  Gootz in center, Asdrubal at shortstop, Shoppach at catcher.  Hell, we could have done that this year.

How long did we stick with Jhonny at shortstop?  How many runs did it cost us?  And now, quick — what's the difference in positional value between shortstop and third base?  Would you believe it's only five runs over 162 games?  And the difference between LF and CF is ten runs.  Does anyone believe that the difference in defensive skill between Sizemore-Gutierrez and Dellucci-Sizemore is only ten runs?

Let me assure you, I am only playing devil's advocate here.  It is by no means clear that any of those decisions were wrong. I'm just saying, there's a case to be made that the Indians' application of sabermetric concepts is fairly unsophisticated.  I mean, seriously, they're putting Garko in the outfield.  You can't tell me they really understand defensive value when they do things like that.

 

Theory #4:  Eric Wedge has no clue.

I have long held that fire-the-manager is the lowest form of baseball discourse, but as many here have noted, my tune changed earlier this year.  It's one thing to argue, year after year, that we can't prove that the Many Bad Things that happen to the Indians are the manager's fault.  But after a certain number of years, the question rightly should be reversed.  With so many qualified candidates in the world for such a tiny number of jobs, at some point, the question becomes not why fire him, but why hire him?

In other words, what reason do we have to believe that he's helping this team win games in any way?

Eric Wedge may be a special guy.  He may be special friend.  He may even be a great motivational speaker.  But it is time to put to rest the assertion that he is a great motivator.  We have had some great talents who've had some great seasons, but apart from them, it seems we've seen a lot more down years than up years from our regulars.  If Wedge is such a great leader, how has his leadership helped Peralta, Garko, Francisco or Carmona?

Who, in fact, has it actually helped?  Guys like Sizemore or Martinez, who are so famously self-motivated?

Understand, I'm not impressed with dissection of Wedge's tactical game.  Managers are often criticized for sticking with their starters too long — allegedly trying to get them the "W" — but this criticism misses the basic fact that a struggling starter is almost always a better pitcher than the club's 6th or 7th best reliever, and that's the pitcher who's going to get used in the 5th or 6th inning.  As for bunts and hit-and-runs and the like, those plays more often than not are close to break-even, with the specific personnel involved more than capable of tilting the balance one way or the other.

No, the apparent problem with Wedge is much worse.  He doesn't seem to have any kind of grasp on which players deserve playing time.  Time after time, we've seen hundreds of plate appearances given to hitters whose results are terrible and have been terrible for a long time.  This gets back both to player evaluation issues and to the monoculture.  Wedge consistently and openly favors players whom he feels are giving him a "quality at-bat" or who have "the right approach." (I don't mean to mock by my use of quotes, only to quote.)

Here's what Wedge doesn't seem to grasp.  Those players with the lousy results and great approach are getting the lousy results despite the great approach.  The great approach doesn't suggest that the player will do better; rather, if the Indians are right about what constitutes a great approach, then a great approach suggests that that player can't do any better than he already has been doing.  Specifically, it doesn't mean that Dellucci is going to bounce back; it means that this is the best he can do.  He's seasoned and maximizing his game, and his production likely can be matched by even a raw and inconsistent Matt LaPorta.  In decision after decision, Wedge has favored a player whose approach he respected over one with actual upside.

 

Theory #5:  They've created a monoculture.

We've been kicking this one around for about three years, and the evidence has mounted that not only is it true, but it's harmful. They're looking for a certain kind of player personality, and they've found about 18 of them, and a little too often, all 18 of them slump at the same time.

If you aren't one of Shapiro's Right Guys, you can't get in this organization.  And if you aren't one of Wedge's Right Guys, you can't get in the lineup.  I don't excuse Brandon Phillips for his crap attitude, and I don't excuse Jhonny Peralta for being a young veteran who doesn't respond to coaching.  Still, it is undeniably a failing of this organization that with players who don't fit a certain mold, there is a total breakdown in communication.  If you're not in, you're way, way out.

The monoculture extends most noticeably (and humorously) to the front office personnel, where it has produced a group of people whose ideas, speech patterns and jargon are utterly interchangeable.  (If we asked Brad Grant about th Hafner contract and Antonetti about the draft, would the answers really be any different?)  The Indians insist that they have an open organization where everyone is empowered and ideas are heard.  But what if they seek out and retain people who essentially have the same types of ideas?

Shapiro's character test has always been at once admirable and dubious.  His job is to build a championship-caliber baseball club, and the Indians already have the deck stacked against them when it comes to financial resources.  Is it really wise to further restrict the players who we're willing to sign based on highly subjective character judgment?  I recognize that creating a great clubhouse culture has its upside, but it's inevitable that in a limited marketplace for talent, you can't put a premium on personality while holding constant your premium for talent. 

Sandy Koufax said it all:  "In the end it comes down to talent.  You can talk all you want about intangibles, I just don't know what that means.  Talent makes winners, not intangibles.  Can nice guys win?  Sure, nice guys can win — if they're nice guys with talent.  Nice guys with a little talent finish fourth, and nice guys with no talent finish last."  (I've pulled this one out before, but it bears reprinting.)

This doesn't just apply to players, either, but to everyone in the organization.  Here's a chilling thought for you — maybe by insisting on the Right Guys across the board, they've managed to miss out on many of the best scouts.


Theory #6:  This is all one big problem.

A few years ago, it was fashionable to speculate about why Billy Beane's "stuff" doesn't work in the postseason.  A better question now might be, why doesn't it work in Cleveland?  The most obvious explanation is that Shapiro cares a great deal about things that Beane basically doesn't care about at all.  Specifically, he cares about the character of his players, he cares about what each player might mean to the community, and he cares about what his manager thinks.  While I'm sure all of that makes for a more rewarding workplace, there is scant evidence that any of it has helped the Indians win games.

Analysis and decision-making often drift toward areas of organizational confidence, even if that drift puts decisions out of balance.  The Indians are appropriately humble about statistical projections, but they must figure that they know as much as anyone else about this.  They're confident that they know what makes a player a good teammate, and they know what "the right approach" looks like.  Given the subjectivity of scouting, they favor the player with the best statistical projection.  Given the uncertainty of statistical projection, they favor the player who has a great approach and is a great teammate.  And given the vagaries of defensive evaluation, they favor putting a player in his most valuable position, because that math is simpler.  They are sure that a slugging catcher is more valuable than a slugging first baseman, and they are sure that Dellucci's approach is better than LaPorta's, and they are sure that Casey Blake is a better teammate than anyone in the world.

So if you're looking to wrap it all up in one big theory, here it is:  The Indians are smart, serious and well-intentioned.  But when they make their decisions, they put a lot of emphasis on a bunch of things that, in the grand scheme of things, really do not help a baseball team win ballgames.  I can't tell you how to build a bullpen that isn't historically bad, but I'm pretty sure it doesn't have much to do with statistically analyzing a very small sample of innings or showing up to camp in good shape, and it doesn't have anything to do with being a good teammate or getting along with Eric Wedge.  The Indians seem to know an awful lot about those subjects and almost nothing about putting together a non-horrible bullpen.

That, and maybe their scouting sucks.

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