Thursday, November 20, 2003

Part II: Giants' Problem-Solving Technique-
Taking on A Piece at a Time  

In the last entry (directly following this one), I explained how most American managers confronted with multiple situations requiring attention (usually action) tend to one of two, binary extremes. I also pointed to the San Francisco Giants' Brian Sabean's recent trade as a good example of using variance as a factor in picking from among which situation among multiple ones to deal with first. If this technique is something of interest to you and if you haven't read the previous entry, it stages the set for this one. To restate the Giants' front office challenge from Baseball Prospectus:

Since the target 2004 payroll is $75 million, that leaves the Sabean only around $7 million to fill the holes at first base, shortstop, right field, catcher, and the starting rotation.

Limited resources, & at least five "problems"/opportunities for solutions.

In choice-rich environments where there are many decisions to be made, and the variance is likely to be high or astronomical (for example, hiring day labor, the beginning of a fantasy draft, picking stocks, staffing a call centre) it makes most sense to deal with the highest-variance components first. For those of you who particpate in roto or fantasy schemes that don't have dollar budgets, but just a draft, I think you know this already. If there's a second baseman, say, Alfonso "The Butcher of the Bronx" Soriano, who is so significantly superior at offensive production than any other at his position, while at first base there are a large number of essentially similar options, you go for the high-variance position first, because the degradation that comes from going deeper into the pile for the first baseman is much smaller than the value shear-off that comes from going deep into the pile at second base.

Either way, though, you're faced with a set of decisions that have to do more than just be good on their own, but fit together in a complementary way. Unlike a fantasy drafter, Sabean needs to mix different kinds of talent for his recipe, left-handed and right-handed, with an attention to defensive competence and complementarity (if the left fielder is losing range, the center fielder needs to be a player with solid or better range, etc.).

In a normal situation, I'm biased towards attacking the most critical determinant (high-variance) situation first. Among the "top 50", according to ESPN's site, free agents, eleven are corner outfielders, (eleven and a half if you add Juan Gonzalez), ranging from Vladimir Guerrero, probably the best position player among this year's free agents, down to generic (though major league) talent like Rondell White. But in a resource-hungry situation (like Sabean's 5+ positions to fill, $7 million or so to do it with), it makes some sense to attack the lowest-variance and get it out of the way, leaving energy to focus on the more complex choices. Sabean traded with the Minnesota Twins for an essentially somewhat better-than average catcher, A.J. Pierzynski.

His OPS is .824, higher than average for a catcher. His defensive ratings are middle, on balance (Zone Factor -- flaky at catcher -- is high, Range Factor -- also not writ in stone for receivers -- average, and his ability to throw out baserunners -- an interplay between his arm, a pitcher's holding intentions and the patterns of other teams' steal attempts, poor statistically) is average or perhaps a little better than. He's a good fit for the Giants' China Basin home park, a left-handed hitter who doesn't get a lot of his value from hitting HRs (the park kills lefty HRs except for those batters who have attained transcendence). And as a Twin, Pierzynski hit better on the road than at home last year, not a bad sign.

The noteworthy free agent options at the position were Pudge Rodriguez (way too expensive), Javalina Lopez (way too expensive), and a bunch of gap-toothed trailer-trash QVC fire-sale junk. This was an easy decision on the acquisition side. Perhaps he gave up too much in the exchange, but if he did -- and I'm not saying he did -- part of his payback will be he now has one fewer dependent variable with which to contend. And another advantage of Pierzynski as the quick fill-in is his balance. While he's not a scary hitter, he hits from the left, which the team defintely needs. He does have a lefty's platoon split; he hits right-handed pitching better than left-handed, but the skew has not been so extreme that you wouldn't pencil him in against some lefties (.785 OPS versus lefties this year, .840 against righties). Depending on a manager's theory of line-up construction, this could be an advantage or a disadvantage, but by acquiring this balanced player, it hasn't limited Sabean in his acquisition of a corner outfielder or a first baseman. If the catcher he'd chosen was, for example, a right-handed hitter who had an extreme platoon split favoring his hitting against lefties, it would put an incredible amount of pressure on Sabean to make his next acquisition a left-handed hitter, limiting his range of choices on the more important position by half.

Shortstop might be easy (with his budget, the choices are essentially low-variance). Right field and First base are lush with options and variables. He shaved off the simple problem and now has focus and attention for the more challenging, high-variance ones. Specific choice aside for the moment, I think it was the right problem-solving approach.

How would you handle multiple challenges with limited resources?

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