Tuesday, May 18, 2004

The Yanks' Management By Wishful Thinking:
When 2nd Place Is Cherry-Pie Time  

I've written about Management by Wishful Thinking (MBWT) before, even recently. I've never explicitly stated it, but MBWT is usually the stomping grounds of intellectually lazy or -challenged organizations (for example, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays), the resource-constrained-so-they-don't-have-many-alternatives organizations (for example, the Montreal/San Juan Expos), and the resource-ultra-rich-but-still-trying-to-figure-out-how-to-squeeze-more-juice-out (for example, the Seattle Mariners).

But according to Stephen Goldman (my favorite regular columnist who covers a single team), the Yankees off-season was powered by MBWT, a very specific kind. It's hard, on the surface, to criticize the Yanks' pre-season plan: they replaced a fine, if overrated, Andy Pettitte and aging, the-said-he-wanted-to-retire Roger Clemens with the two best available pitchers. Kevin Brown, (second best hurler in the Majors) and Javier Vazquez (merely excellent, though not featuring a long track record). They acquired the best player in baseball whose first name isn't Barry (more on A-Rod in a sec, because he's part of the issue).

On the surface, it's hard to believe they could have had MBWT -- after all, they fit none of the aforementioned categories of organizations most subject to the disorder. They have tons of resources and tons of willingness to spend those resources, combined with a smart front office. Moreover, they are in 1st place in their division this morning at 22-15, projecting out to a 97-win season. It's not time for second-line dancing in Gotham.


But there are subtle indications the team is not as good as Yankee fans had believed. Their Pythagorean winning percentage (a formula introduced by Bill James that projects what a team should winprobabilisticallyy based on the number of runs they score and the number they allow) is only .514 this morning, which is more like 19-18, which would put them in 3rd place, 3 games behind Boston and chasing Baltimore. Now Pythagorean projections are just soft indicators in themselves -- it's one of those stats that works beautifully in the general, consolidated case, but has hordes of exceptions in the individual cases -- but it's a strong (though not absolute) indication of future success. This is believed to be because luck tends to balance out and that if you're significantly overperforming or significantly underperforming your Pythagorean won-lost record, the next set of events is likely to draw you towards your Pythagorean. So since the Yanks are in 1st place, it's partially because of luck, and because luck tends to even out in the end, the Yanks are "due" to regress to their Pythagorean winning percentage.


The biggest single reason, I believe, the Yanks got in this position was their focus on, & success in, signing Alex Rodriguez. They already had a very potent team and added the pitching. But the lure of The Single Big Solution is a lure in baseball and outside of it as well. Intellectually lazy management will try to attack problems or shortcomings with a single great solution, a coup de grace. It's simple...you attack one thing persistently. In simple systems, it works pretty well. In this case, the Yanks signed the best offensive player in the American League, and he's more than adequate at his key defensive position (though he's not playing it at the moment, but that's a different issue).

But A-Rod has been like the hundred-billion dollar investment over the last twenty years that Republican and Democratic administrations have poured into the Star Wars Missile Defense System - flushed down the toilet to no resulting gain. While we were pouring a vast percentage of our wealth and military research into a The Single Big Solution, our enemies have innovated a gaggle of low-cost ways of killing The Single Big Solution can't and won't address.

It happens in business as well as military organizations. A marketing department falls in love with a specific kind of promotion and beats it to death by seeing it as the only thing they need to do. Auto-makers see demand for urban assault vehicles and other lard-ass cars, and make new offerings bigger every year as the solution to their doldrums when the gasoline demand the trend fuels creates upward price pressure on gasoline, constraining their initiative's success.

While the Yanks brought in A-Rod as The Single Big Solution (the piece that would put them over the top), the team was basing it's assumed success in other areas on MBWT. Here's Goldman's list of MBWT items the Yanks started the season with:

Going into this season, the Yankees made a number of wagers:

We can throw together a starting rotation.

Jose Contreras is a major league starter.

We can get by with no outfield depth.

None of our old players will act their ages.

No one will get hurt.

We can buy a better bullpen.

We can do without second-line depth of any kind.

Enrique Wilson is an everyday player.

Jason Giambi can play first every day.

A DH rotation involving Bernie Williams and Kenny Lofton will be more about "hitter" than "designated."

As has been reported virtually everywhere except Freshwater Fisherman's Quarterly, the leadership spent a lot of money backing up these wagers. The results have been mixed.

The key bet was the one about second-line depth, because it meant that the Yankees have very little in the way of Plan B at any position. Last year's performance showed that Contreras was a weak gamble at best. Donovan Osborne, the latest in a long line of failed Joe Torre Cardinals retreads, was an extreme long shot. Even when healthy, Jorge DePaula did not scream Walter Johnson to anybody. On offense, Ruben Sierra's comeback has been a stroke of pure luck, not genius, and it remains to see if it will last. Wilson was just a dream. Miguel Cairo may continue to .802 OPS in a Mariano Duncan '96 sort of way, but it's extremely doubtful.

Of course, the team's lack of alternatives could not have been solved in just one winter. It's a problem that has been building for years, and it's only going to get worse. The only escape is to get the farm system out of mothballs and start running a productive draft (which won't happen this year regardless, because the talent is supposedly quite thin). It is cheaper, in the long run, to buy 10 college pitchers for the price of one Jose Contreras and school them yourself rather than having to guess how a middle-aged pitcher is going to perform once he escapes from despotism. (emphasis mine)

Goldman rightly points out that the problems are not from this off-season's moves, but collected over time and improbable to solve in one off-season, especially by a team that went to the World Series (success makes change more difficult for an organization).

The Yanks have done the improbable, though. They have made MBWT by an intelligent, resource-rich organization something that seems possible to me. Do you have any other examples of it?

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