Some of the rather ridiculous A's-hate going down in Dejan Kovacevic's new Q+A compels me to give the issue a lot more attention than it deserves.
Kovacevic asks his readers to explain why the management techniques of the Florida Marlins don't get the praise that Oakland's do. He prints several responses and sums up his own position after the first one:
...I disagree 180 degrees about the worth of championships. That is what all sports are about.
Of course they are. The issue here is what role management has to play in championships won.
More from Kovacevic:
I am increasingly convinced that the Beane love affair is more about numbers than anything else. As I wrote above in the Q&A, I am not big on emphasizing statistics above all else. Seems to me there is an entire segment of the baseball-loving community that feels completely comfortable analyzing the game from a cubicle rather than getting out to the stands and watching it. I find such practice to be preposterous. The game is played by humans, not by matrix dots on your PS2 screen.
Strawman alert! Honestly, what baseball fan doesn't watch baseball? And what does that have to do with Oakland GM Billy Beane, who played major league baseball? Watching baseball and trying to organize our observations about it (that's all statistics are, right?) are not mutually exclusive. Obviously.
And then the readers weigh in. Hoo boy.
But Oakland won more due to the Hudson-Mulder-Zito pitching trio than for any other reason. Beane didn't acquire those players.
Uh, hello? Beane drafted Zito and Mulder and was involved in the A's front office when Hudson was drafted. It is certainly no surprise that there are readers submitting arguments with false premises, but why is Kovacevic publishing them? And why doesn't he at least correct them?
Then, from a different reader:
Theo Epstein worshipped at the Billy Beane shrine until a light bulb finally went off in his weasel brain (weasel because he twice pawned off damaged goods on Dave Littlefield in 2003, but that's a different discussion). Adding Orlando Cabrera and Doug Mientkiewicz strengthened two positions at which the Red Sox had been very weak defensively. Look what happened. It only took the Red Sox eight decades to figure out defense wins games.
Oakland has had one of the best defensive teams in baseball the last two years running, and advanced methods of evaluating defense were discussed extensively in Moneyball. It is a ridiculous myth that Beane does not care about defense or that Beane has consistently lost in the playoffs because of poor defense. Beane's A's have fielded some less-than-elite defenses, sure - but they've also fielded some great ones. I'll stop repeating the cliche that "Moneyball is about exploiting market inefficiencies, not OBP" when the people who say otherwise actually read the book or, you know, pay attention to baseball.
Kovacevic simply says "Argh" in response to a reader's question of what we would think of the 2003 Marlins if Josh Beckett and Dontrelle Willis had gone down with injuries that year.
Methinks Kovacevic somehow lacks the ability to see shades of gray here. Kovacevic's position seems to be that if a GM's team wins a championship, he deserves all the credit, whereas if a team fails to win a championship, the GM must be at fault somehow. Why can't a team's performance be the result of both planning and luck?
Obviously - obviously - lots of things that result in wins and losses for his team are out of a GM's control, as the Beckett/Willis question makes abundantly clear. Is it to Marlins GM Larry Beinfest's credit that Beckett and Willis were healthy for most of 2003? Possibly - but why then haven't Beckett or Brad Penny or A.J. Burnett been able to stay healthy in just about any other year? Is it to Beinfest's credit that he acquired Chad Fox to help out down the stretch in 2003, and Fox posted a 2.13 ERA? Possibly - but why then did Fox post a 6.73 ERA for the Marlins in limited duty in 2004? Is it to Beinfest's credit that at midseason, he traded a number of prospects for reliever Ugueth Urbina, who posted an ERA two full runs lower than his career average in 38 1/3 innings down the stretch? Maybe - but why then were all of Beinfest's main in-season acquisitions in 2004 (Paul LoDuca, Guillermo Mota, Juan Encarnacion, Billy Koch and Ismael Valdez) all merely acceptable or downright bad?
I don't mean to suggest that the Marlins' management didn't do anything right in 2003 or the seasons that led up to it. They had a fairly good core of young talent that matured and played just well enough to sneak into a wildcard race and into the playoffs, and for that they deserve some credit. But the Marlins were very bad for several seasons before 2003, and merely okay in 2004; if the Marlins' world championship in 2003 was the result of brilliant management, why hasn't the management appeared brilliant in any other season?
The answer is, quite clearly, that every season, good or bad, is a mix of planning and luck. The Marlins planned decently for several seasons before 2003, then got quite a huge dose of great luck that year. The Urbina example is telling. The Marlins gave up a king's ransom to get him - including Adrian Gonzalez, a very good prospect, and two more marginal ones - after offering the same package to the Mets for Armando Benitez, a better reliever than Urbina who, as it turns out, didn't perform nearly as well as Urbina down the stretch. At the time, the Marlins' record was 47-45 and they were 4 1/2 games behind the Phillies and Diamondbacks in the Wild Card race.
Here are Urbina's numbers in 2003 and 2004:
2003 TEX 38 2/3 IP 41 K 18 BB 6 HR 4.19 ERA
2003 FLA 38 1/3 IP 37 K 13 BB 2 HR 1.41 ERA
2004 DET 54 IP 56 K 32 BB 7 HR 4.50 ERA
Which one of these is not like the others? Urbina is a good pitcher, but there is no way Beinfest could have known that he'd be spectacular with the Marlins before going back to being merely okay for the Tigers. There's no other explanation for what happened there than LUCK LUCK LUCK.
Let's say that in a hold 'em game, a player across the table from you abruptly pushes all-in despite not being short stacked. You have pocket aces, so you call and are thrilled when he flips over a 5-7 offsuit. Then comes the flop and it's 7-7-5. Does that mean that the player's all-in was a savvy move? Sure, it turned out nicely, but there's no way the player could have known the flop would turn out so well for him. He made a bad gamble, but it worked. He got lucky. It's clear to us when it happens in poker; why is luck treated so dismissively when it comes to baseball?
Another question first: if luck plays an important role in the way a baseball season turns out, how to we evaluate GM performance?
Let's say I flip a coin three times, and each time it comes up heads. Does this mean the coin is magical, that it's coming up heads as a result of mystical forces we can't see? Of course not; it's just a coincidence. Flip it a hundred more times, and you'll almost certainly get tails dozens of times. The more you flip it, the more likely it is that you'll get tails about 50% of the time.
Sorry for the elementary, and possibly condescending, little lesson, and feel free to skip the next couple paragraphs if you already know where I'm going with this, but I get the feeling that some people don't. The point is that in the case of coin flipping, and in the case of baseball, repetition tends to neutralize luck. This is why the Devil Rays can beat the Yankees a few times each year, but can't ever finish ahead of them in the standings. This is why a player can hit .450 in April, but not over the course of an entire year. And this is why any team can beat any other team in a short playoff series.
If the Devil Rays beat the Yankees three times out of five in July, no one except the Yankee faithful would blink an eye. Why, then, do baseball fans freak out and draw wild conclusions when an underdog wins three of five in a playoff series? It's because it appeals to our need to create narratives for ourselves to describe playoff baseball, which I find perfectly exciting even without the narratives. Such narratives give the results of the playoffs a kind of moral or even supernatural authority. Derek Jeter is a god in the eyes of many because of his playoff performances - and never mind the fact that he flopped badly in the 2004 ALCS against Boston.
To many fans, the playoffs have some mystical quality; some indefinable trait emerges in the hearts of one team, giving it the strength to come through when it matters most, and never mind that that trait often fails to show up in the very same players in later playoff series. And not only is there some indefinable trait that causes winners to win - let's call it "guts," or "moxie," or "clutch" - general managers should be able to identify that trait in a player before he exhibits it. It's impossible to predict in whom or when this trait will turn up, since the same players don't demonstrate it year after year. You only know after the fact - unless you're a major league GM, in which case you're praised or criticized for your ability, or lack thereof, to spot it. This is what Kovacevic's position amounts to, and it's basically a belief in magic. He criticizes Beane fans for buying into some sort of "mystique," but the mystique that Kovacevic buys into is far more pervasive, confusing and nonsensical.
Of course championships are what matter, but what courses of action are likely to result in championships? Here's a good one - field the best team possible and make sure it gets to the playoffs. After that it really is just five or seven games. They're five or seven really important games, but they're prone to unpredictable outcomes that are out of a GM's control. People seem to understand this concept intuitively when it's applied to a collection of five regular season games, but believe that something changes when the playoffs begin. There's no evidence that anything much does change. I don't see why this should make watching the playoffs any less fun. There are still heroes and great stories - it's just that the heroes are simply really good baseball players who happened to come through at the right time, rather than a bunch of superhumans whose hearts grew to twice their normal size and then returned to normal a week later.
The 2003 Marlins were a good team who will be remembered as a great one; there was a lot of luck involved their World Series victory, and I won't give much extra credit to Beinfest for it, since much of what happened was out of his control. He and Dave Dombrowski get credit for building a good team. They should be proud of that, and Beinfest should be thrilled about winning the series. Isn't that enough?
Now, back to an earlier question: how do we evaluate GM performance? And back to an earlier answer to a different question: over the course of a baseball season, or a career, repetition tends to neutralize luck. The more games are played, the more likely luck is to even out. The most important piece of evidence of GM ability is thus wins over time, which suggests that Beane is a better GM than Beinfest. Despite budget constraints, Beane's A's have won over 90 games five years in a row; Beinfest's Marlins have done so once.
This is, of course, a very simple way of looking at things, and we might also consider the logic of individual moves, as well as other factors, when assessing Beane's performance compared to Beinfest's. While Beane has certainly made some questionable moves, however - Scott Hatteberg's current contract comes to mind - this approach would make Beane look even better.
Still, for our purposes here, performance over time is a great place to start. While championships are, again, what matter most, Kovacevic has not proven that championships tell us more about how a GM performs than their performance in the regular season. He would rather judge Beane and Beinfest on seven total playoff series - less than forty games - rather than the thousands of games their teams have played since they took their jobs.
The suggestion that luck may have played a role in the Marlins' win frustrates Kovacevic ("Argh"!), and I'm guessing one reason why is that he doesn't even want to consider that luck has anything to do with GM performance, despite abundant evidence that it plays a major role in the success of a GM's team. Did Beinfest have some sort of special skill when he traded for Urbina that he didn't have when he traded for LoDuca? Of course not, it's just that one trade worked and another one hasn't, and the one that worked just happened to come in the context of a playoff run. But many fans would rather imagine that this isn't the case so that they can make a hero of Beinfest, or Derek Jeter, as a way of explaining a series of events and giving it power. The guys who simply do things right year after year, like Beane, don't fit so cleanly into the stories people want to remember. Beinfest is a decent GM, but Beane is a lot better, World Series title or no.
So, you may be wondering, what does this have to do with the Pirates? Nothing. They're terrible, man.