Monday, November 10, 2003

In Which Joe Morgan Proves
Charles Darwin Was Wrong  

Because most people are uncomfortable with change and because most people with healthy egos like (or need) to believe in themselves and their ways-of-being and personal value, it's hard to escape a level of nostalgia for one's own past that distorts one's view of the present. In all organizations, there's a tendency to look back and produce "memories" that don't match the historical reality well. And so when these nostalgic Bitgods (Back in the good old days guys) compare the past to the present, the present always comes out much weaker in contrast. Ironically, this is almost the same impulse that believes without evidence that things are always getting better...whatever it is now, the concept of progress assures us it's better now. They're identical simplistic concepts, but reversed, like the negative of a photo.

The Bitgod mentality in baseball is a wonderful example of the tendency in general. In part, it's because there are statistics to disprove myths, making the Bitgod assertions more clearly absurd. And in part, it's because baseball playing careers, even successful ones, have a much shorter lifespan than described-as-successful government, academic or corporate careers (that is, you can yack about Carlton Fisk's or Nolan Ryan's longevity, but just compare that to Strom Thurmond's or The Pope's or Jack Welch's). As a result, retired players have a long time to be active Bitgods as commentators on radio and television.

Example #217,113

Joe Morgan, an extraordinary second baseman of the 60s and 70s is now a television and ESPN commentator, and this week on ESPN's site he wrote a gargantuan piece of Bitgodliness called MLB talent too diluted. Here's the distilled essence of his Bitgodawful argument:

After a fantastic season, baseball's postseason came down to the final four teams -- the Florida Marlins and the Chicago Cubs (in the NLCS) and the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox (in the ALCS). But while these were supposedly the four best teams in Major League Baseball, each team had glaring weaknesses.

I never thought I'd need to say this, but I believe the reason is that there isn't enough talent to go around MLB today. There aren't enough bona-fide major-leaguers available to fill every major-league roster.

Was there a team this season that you'd compare to the great teams of the past?
With the decline of the Yankees' most recent dynasty -- if you can call reaching six of the past eight World Series a decline -- MLB has lots of good teams with weaknesses but no great teams. It looks like we're in an era of greater parity. Was there a team this season that you'd compare to the great teams of the past? You'd have to combine two of these final four teams to field a great team.

MLB has seriously considered contracting franchises in recent years, and contraction would solve part of the problem (although it would create other problems). Too many No. 5 starters are weak, and too many position players -- five or more per roster -- are basically minor-league players. The bottom line is that there are too many teams today for the amount of talent that's available year in and year out.

MLB's best players are still as good as ever. But the talent toward the bottom of each roster is lacking, in my opinion.

Ignore for now Morgan's plaint that there is too much competition ("greater parity"). Ignore the fact that the great teams he played on (The Big Red Machine teams of the early 70s) were not balanced teams but had only C or C+ starting pitching most of their great years.

Let's take a quick statistical look at the probabilities that rosters are weaker than their counterparts of Days Gone Bye. In 1940, there were 16 teams, in 1970 there were 24 teams, and in 2000 there were 30 teams.

In 1940, the U.S. population of white people from which baseballists might be drawn (you have to exclude people who were called "colored" in that year's census since baseball didn't allow them to play in the Majors then) and add Mexico, you get 138 million (MM) people, and amortized over 16 teams meant each major league team's "share" was 8.6MM people.

In 1970, baseball was integrated, allowing men of any color to play (though excluding women), and the U.S. population with Mexico and Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic thrown in was about 261 MM, and amortized over 24 teams meant each major league team's "share" was 10.9MM people (about 25% more people to choose from per team).

In 2000, drawing from those same nations (and ignoring the dozen other countries which now send players to the Majors but which didn't back in 1970 or 1940) provides a base population of 393.9 MM, and amortized over 30 teams meant each team's "share" was 13.1MM people (about 20% more pool per team than in 1970, and over 50% more per team than in 1940).

Unless nutrition and training regimes and training tools and equipment have decayed since 1970, it's mathematically improbable that you could increase the range of choice by 20% and have lower performance "toward the bottom of each roster". I don't believe any of those have decayed with the possible exception of nutrition among certain sectors of the baseball-playing world's population.

Think of any endeavor you know well. Little league teams - increase the pool of available kids by 20%, the likelihood is you'll be a little better, but it's almost impossible the best roster you can pull from the bigger pool will be weaker. Bank loan rates - increase the number of estimates you get by 20%, it's likely you'll find better terms, and it's almost impossible that it'll make terms worse. Army recruiting - raise pay and benefits to get 20% more applicants, the likelihood is you'll be able to fill out your requirement with a little higher quality of recruit, but it's almost impossible the best selections you can pull from the pool will be worse.

Does anyone really believe the 4th outfielders, utility infielders, back-up catchers and long relievers of today's major league rosters are any worse than their peers in 1970 or earlier? Morgan's point defies probabilities in a such gargantuan way that it becomes a glaring spotlight on the natural foolishness of Bitgod missives in, and outside of, baseball.

You see The Bitgod Fallacy at work sometimes. You see executive teams that grew up together or grew older together freezing the strategy or processes or compensation for the rank-and-file or simply their cultural assumptions, drifting into ineffectiveness by the process of change in their environment but resisting internal changes that might (or might not...they don't assess, they just resist) start to turn things around for the organization.

Bitgods in baseball are no more Bitgodawful than those outside baseball. They're just more obvious. And not as well-compensated.

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