Wednesday, December 03, 2003

Either/Or: The Keystone
Combo of Doom  

Baseball has a current misguided debate raging that's a fine peek into a knee-jerk perception that misguides non-baseball organizations such as corporate, military, academic and government ones. They all come about because the kinds of people who ascend to positions of executive power tend to possess the ability to strip things down to simple (or simplistic) models, avoiding analysis paralysis. The result, though, is a lot of what I call binary thinking.

Binary thinking is where the decisionmaker views things as having two opposite possibilities, and no others. Nuance tends to be winnowed out for the binary thinker. What channel shall I distribute through...direct or indirect? Should I plant soybeans or sorghum? Should I expand our markets or look for a buyer?

In baseball, the binary argument is between "little ball" advocates (usually the old timers) and "big inning" mavens (the philosophical descendants of Earl Weaver including most of the sabermetricians). Moneyball, this year's big-selling book by Michael Lewis, made widely-known the big-inning populated with plate patience approach. A counter-reformation of the Bitgods (back in the good old days folk) has, predictably, arisen.

The Weaver-ites argue that the act of maximizing the chance for one run (using tactics like the stolen base, or the sacrifice bunt) will maximize the opportunity for a single run in an inning (by spending an out and likely advancing a runner it makes it more likely that advanced runner will score while shortening an inning by an out, which, if not shortened, might have resulted in other, run-producing, events). The argument is laced with an either/or basis.

This week, Mike Needham of Williams College wrote a piece for a college publication yclept Billy-Ball: Oakland's Uncanny Ability to Lose the Big Game. His argument overcomes the binary fallacy by accepting the truth of both sides just long enough to argue (it's been argued before, but he's using interesting contemporary examples) that what it takes to win a lot of games during the season is the opposite of what it takes to win playoff games and titles. Whoops, another duality...of dualities.

Needham's argument has elements of good sense. He contends that teams that get to the playoffs have better pitching, and that they are able, because of days off, to use their better pitchers (from within their better pitching staffs), amplifying the difference from what batters get to face during the regular season. This makes games tend to be lower scoring, and lower-scoring game environments tend to reward one-run strategies (because each run is a larger constituent of victory in a 2-1 game than it is in an 11-10 game).

The truth is that teams, to be successful, need to use both approaches during the regular season to be successful and in the playoffs to be successful. Real teams inhabit a spectrum of options between the big-little ends. Granted, they tend to lean one way or the other, depending on their home ballpark, their manager's proclivities, and, if the manager is halfway acute, their roster personnel.

I know that to be true. But what actually works in the playoffs when every game appears to be completely vital? I'm not sure what recent history shows, but in my next entry, we'll go over the facts (Needham didn't present any) which might confirm Needham's idea or disabuse us of it.

The cure for binary thinking isn't always compromise. Sometimes it's finding a solution that's not even on one of the many oversimplified two-end either/or continua that most execs think in. But baseball is the magnifying glass that makes the models easier to see and analyse.

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