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Cyclical Smart Guys

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It's been noted here and elsewhere that the baseball blogosphere can't keep from swooning each time a small market team starts to find success via appealing strategies. That adjective, "appealing", is a difficult one to define in this context—I'd say the real point is that "smart fans" (that's you, doofus), like to be able to look at a successful team and at least partially understand why they're winning. The keystone of this whole assertion is MIchael Lewis' Moneyball, the over discussed book that helped baseball fans get the same thrill that MBA students have experienced for decades. Lewis presented a pretty straightforward case study, offering a simplified view of strategies and characterizing the actors within it as cagey, gifted, and charismatic (which they probably are). It is, essentially, a sports version of a Jim Collins book, with the added wrinkle that Lewis is undoubtedly a world class magazine features writer and he has no problem stretching those talents over a longer work. Regardless, Lewis' book is part of a long tradition within management literature, one where leaders of big organizations are so smart you can't help but fall for them as they execute strategies that seem revolutionary as you read the text. It's only in retrospect that you realize maybe "revolutionary" was too strong of a word for the leader's actions and, further, maybe the strategies weren't so sound.

Anyway, the larger point is that "smart fans" (you, over there, in the dress shirt/sweater combo at work), loved the book for the same reason MBA's eat up those case studies—they allow anyone of moderate intelligence and imagined charisma to put himself in the leader's shoes and think, "Hey, I get these strategies! I comprehend the power of spreadsheets! I could do this!" The fantasy of a fan-turned-GM is much more realistic when you start to believe the prerequisite for the position is a modicum of cleverness and a penchant for creating dramatic scenes around the office, as opposed to the long-standing prerequisite: a long career within the game leading to a much more difficult to define skill set linked to the subtle art of player evaluation. Cleverness makes the team's strategy "appealing"; sound evaluation, far less so.

The Athletics may have been the first flavor of the month, but more would follow. The Indians had their day in the sun, and there was much fawning over DiamondView and straightforward strategies like acquiring platoon outfielders. The Mariners followed and, for about ten seconds, everyone lost their minds over matching team strengths to the advantages offered by home field, as well as the oh-so-revolutionary-strategy of acquiring the best pitcher in baseball. This past season, the Rays fully grasped the mantle and we were once again told, in book form, that there was a magic synergy between what's taught in introductory MBA courses and winning baseball games. Almost all of these cases missed the forest for the trees. The forests were, in order: the Athletics' pitching, the combination of CC Sabathia (not a Shapiro acquisition) and the luck of the Colon trade, the fact that the Mariners actually stunk, and the Rays core of high draft picks.

It's largely anecdotal (and perhaps invented), but my impression is that all of those teams were held in much higher regard by us "smart fans" (you, pretending to hate the new Franzen novel), than were teams like the White Sox, Twins, Cardinals, or Angels, all teams that had substantial success. In some cases, that may be linked to payroll but I think the more telling through line is that it's very hard for the typical "smart fan" (god, like, it's all such a John Cheever rip off, right?) to explain why this second group is any good. There are compelling "just so stories" about franchises like the Indians and Rays, where there are none for the Twins and Cardinals. St. Louis and Minnesota excel at the basic work of team-building—they evaluate talent exceedingly well, which the blogosphere does not tend to do. As a result, they can become punching bags over 'strategic mistakes' (see: playing Nick Punto), even if those mistakes are far less damning than the systemic, evaluative issues present in organizations like the Indians of 2005-2010 (hopefully that end date is correct).

Granted, I'm painting with a very broad brush here. The formula for the secret sauce of the Rays, if there is one, may very well be locked in the brain of Gerry Hunsicker, even if Andrew Friedman is the one getting all the job offers. Each of the franchises I mentioned above deserves a more nuanced analysis than I want to offer here, and they aren't all perfect (or even good) analogs of the cohorts I've imposed.

I want to circle back, and give a little credit where previously I gave none. I do believe that the parade of front office geniuses, from Shapiro to Epstein to Friedman and on, represents a real cachet of brainpower, of analytical ability, and of clever strategy making. It's not a coincidence that so many GMs now fit into the Shapiro mold—he's an impressive guy and lots of teams have chosen similarly impressive guys to run the show. Compared to fifteen years ago, more teams are now run by more analytical, less Jim Hendry-ish, characters. The teams that have stuck with old school baseball guys have done so because they've found guys that are very good at being exactly that—Terry Ryan is back, Walt Jocketty still lives, and Dayton Moore could outdraft your computer with a radar gun and a can of dip. The teams that have gone with brainiacs did not skimp on the brains—Alex Anthopoulos studied economics at McMaster, just like Jon Daniels did at Cornell. The crop of GMs in the game today seems, to me, to be a lot of fun—there are a lot of guys who want to be innovators, there are a number of gifted, gifted baseball minds, and there are interesting wild cards, like Kenny Williams and Ruben Amaro Jr (Stanford grad, by the by).Then, of course, Dan Duquette's back, but whatever.

It's because I find this crop of General Managers so impressive that I'm excited about the new CBA. I don't understand the new CBA yet, not even close, and I don't know where the holes are. It doesn't matter what I understand or know, though—I'm positive that every single front office is trying to find those holes, and figure out how to exploit them for an edge. This has happened in small degrees in the past, with a notable example being the Red Sox' hoarding of compensation picks. The new agreement, though, has brought a number of significant changes to player acquisition and teams need to modify their strategies significantly. Talent evaluation is likely to always be the bedrock of great franchises, but the CBA's disruptive effect offers another place for teams to gain an edge, an edge to be gained through cleverness. And, what do you know, we've got a whole bunch of GMs that we spent a decade fawning over because they're supposed to be exceedingly clever. Who will modify first? Best? Would you bet on our guys?

I think this is going to be fun to watch, at least for "smart fans."