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|Monday, August 13
Be fair before you criticize
By Bill James
Special to ESPN.com
Editor's note: Bill James is the first of five guest columnists who will fill in this week for Rob Neyer, who is on vacation.
I have a question for you, and a proposition (keep your pants on, Andruw; it's not that kind of a proposition). The question is: What is a fair way to evaluate the management of your "own" team, the team that you root for? The proposition, which might seem for a moment to be unrelated, is that the world is infinitely complex, and therefore none of us really understands more than a sliver of all that happens.
I have a friend who is a Royals fan. Now, when a writer says he has a friend, you should immediately be suspicious, as very often when a writer says "I have a friend who ... " his real object is to delude you into believing he is the kind of person who has friends. In this case, however, I really do have such a friend, and my purpose in using the phrase is somewhat different. I am keeping the friend's name a secret so I can misquote the things he has said to me in private conversations without giving him an excuse to sue me.
Anyway, this friend is a Royals fan, but he absolutely seethes at the Royals management. Everything the Royals do, in his judgment, is done wrong. This is not uncommon ... there is a mind-set. It isn't just the Royals' management that this friend cannot see eye to eye with; he is hypercritical of the management of any and all teams for which he roots, whether their coaches are good, great, or kill their players by dehydration and heat stroke. And this mind-set, again, is not unusual; I actually have had many friends who ... OK, you caught me. I actually have known many people who had the same mind-set. The teams they rooted for were always mismanaged, in their eyes, no matter what kind of records those teams might have posted.
We argue about the Royals quite a bit, this friend and I, and one thing he will say to me is, "Bill, how can you defend them when everything they do flies in the face of the things you have written and talked about for the last thirty years?"
The Royals have chosen for many years to try to win as a low walk/low strikeout team, although I pointed out years ago that there basically aren't any winning teams in this group, or at least in the part of that group where the Royals hide. The Royals make a high-school pitcher their first-round draft pick pretty much every year, although I published research years ago which essentially proves, not to put too fine a point on it, that anyone who uses a first-round draft pick on a high-school pitcher is a moron.
My friend's approach is to ask, "Do the Royals do what I would have done?" If they don't do what he would have done, then he is disappointed in their decisions. But what I have to ask myself is, "Am I the residue of all knowledge and wisdom about baseball? Must every team do everything the way I would do it? Or would it be possible for someone to ignore sabermetrics, and approach the problem of building a team in other ways?"
Could you not have, for example, a manager who knew nothing about sabermetrics, but who was so good at identifying and sorting out young Dominican prospects that he could manage successfully anyway? Yes, of course you could; see Felipe Alou. Could you have, for example, a manager who knew nothing about sabermetrics, but who was so good at motivating players, by a combination of intimidation and opportunity, that his teams would play well anyway? Yes, of course you could; see Billy Martin. Could you not have a manager who knew nothing about sabermetrics, but who was so good at teaching and training players, so good at hiring coaches who could teach and train, so good at maintaining the focus of the organization, that he could manage successfully anyway? Of course you could; see Bobby Cox.
There are many different ways to successfully run a team. I haven't dealt with strategy, creativity, pitching or common sense. If Royals management knew the things that I know, that would help. They don't -- but that isn't the test.
Baseball organizations make thousands of decisions every year: A-level decisions, like "Who will be our manager?" and "Should we make a commitment to sign Johnny Damon?"; B-level decisions like "Who are we going to use as a leadoff man?" and "Who is going to be our first-round draft pick?"; and on down to Z-level decisions like "Should we use a pinch-runner here or a sacrifice bunt?" and "Is it time to move Tubby Poholsky up to Double-A?"
It seems to me that if you begin reviewing all of those decisions by a standard of "Is this the way I would have done this?" then you launch into a process that is, by its nature, neither fair, nor logical, nor constructive. Why? Because it is impossible, by doing that, to form a comprehensive picture of what the organization has done. You cannot hold 7,000 decisions in your mind while you think them through, so what you inevitably begin to do is pick and choose those which serve to advance your prejudice.
Four-and-a-half years ago, the Royals traded Michael Tucker to Atlanta for Jermaine Dye. For two years, people who were critical of the team focused heavily on that trade, and used it to bash the Royals management. But once Jermaine Dye turned the trade around, poof; it disappeared from the list. It wasn't something we talked about anymore. Now we accept Jermaine's presence on the team as a fact of life, and talk instead about the second Jermaine Dye trade, the one where we lost him to Oakland.
Earlier this year, people who thought the Royals couldn't do anything right would ask why Raul Ibanez was on the team. But when Ibanez turns out to be perhaps the best fourth outfielder in the league, he disappears from the list; we don't talk about that decision anymore.
When the Royals' bullpen was the worst in baseball, we talked a lot about that. Since it isn't such a problem anymore, it doesn't come up. The Royals do a magnificent job of maintaining and improving their stadium, but since it isn't a problem, it doesn't make the list. The Royals have a better-than-average radio production: good announcers, good distribution. Since it isn't a problem, it isn't on the list.
I have long argued that on-base percentage is critical to a team's success. But much more fundamentally than that, I have always argued for evaluating players, and teams, and management, by methods that are comprehensive, fair, and logical, rather than arbitrary and prejudicial. The real problem with my friend's view of the Royals is that this process of selective decision review, in which he constantly engages, is arbitrary rather than comprehensive, and for that reason is a forum more amenable to prejudice than to logic.
Look, there is no way to defend the Royals' management in 2001. I have no inside information, but Tony Muser is going to be fired at the conclusion of this season; we all know that he is, and the season is getting worse and worse as everybody is kind of sitting around waiting for Tony's time to be up. My friend will greet the firing gleefully, and will immediately begin to pick at Muser's successor. I will say goodbye to Tony, quietly, with sadness in my heart, while acknowledging frankly that it would have been better if this had happened some months ago.
Glenn Dickey, I believe it was, wrote that Charles O. Finley's teams always had poor attendance, even when they were great, even though Finley was a clever and hard-working promoter, because Finley was incapable of psychologically "giving" the team to the fans. I eventually realized that he was exactly right.
Finley wanted the world to see his teams as a testament to his genius. To force the world to see that connection, he had to re-assert his authority over the entire operation from minute to minute. If the only way he could make you see how much he was in charge was to fire the public-address announcer in the middle of an inning, the PA guy was history. Finley had to remind you every day that this was his team, Charles O. Finley's team, by God, and this made it very difficult for other people to adopt the team as their own.
But just as Finley was incapable of psychologically "giving" the team to the fans, might it not be that there are some people who are incapable of accepting the gift? It's not "my" team in the sense that I have authority over them. They are my team in the sense that this is the team that I have been given to root for. I accept my wife's flaws and foibles, and I love her anyway, in the hope and expectation that she will accept mine. I accept my children for what they are; I accept my university and my state for what they are, and I love them. It seems to me to be healthier and more constructive to do the same with my baseball team -- even, and especially, when they are having a year like this.
Bill James has written many baseball books, including "The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract," which will be published this October.
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