Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Jiffy-Popped From Last to 1st:
The 1890 Louisville Colonels, Lucretius & Why
Not All Success (or Failure) is Planned  

Booms and busts can muddy the the apparent success or failure of managers in all endeavors. Baseball has some clarifying lessons. In baseball, we can really see, usually measure, successes and failures; there are no Enron bookkeeping tricks, no dipping into Social Security Trust Funds to make ratios look better. Because baseball is so open, the easy path is to think of them as "deserved". The 2003 Detroit Tigers were a "bad" team, the 2004 St. Louis Cardinals were a "good" team. These are measurable -- the Cardinals won over 100 games, the Tigers lost over 100.

In general, a manager, unless he has a free pass, is tagged with the level of success at which his team is measured. Under this model, Phil Garner was considered a poor manager with a fluke season until this year, and now is presumed to be a good manager.

Managerial Record

 Year    League   Team       G     W    L    WP   Finish
 1992 AL East     Milwakee   162   92   70   .568      2
 1993 AL East     Milwakee   162   69   93   .426      7
 1994 AL Cent     Milwakee   115   53   62   .461      5
 1995 AL Cent     Milwakee   144   65   79   .451      4
 1996 AL Cent     Milwakee   163   80   82   .494      3
 1997 AL Cent     Milwakee   161   78   83   .484      3
 1998 NL Cent     Milwakee   162   74   88   .457      5
 1999 NL Cent     Milwakee   112   52   60   .464      5

 2000 AL Cent     Detroit    162   79   83   .488      3
 2001 AL Cent     Detroit    162   66   96   .407      4
 2002 AL Cent     Detroit      6    0    6   .000      5

 2004 NL Cent     Houston     74   48   26   .649      2
                  Detroit    330  145  185   .439
                  Houston     74   48   26   .649
                  Milwakee  1181  563  617   .477
      TOTAL                 1585  756  828   .477

The conventional wisdom is now granting Garner genius after this year's Astros turned it around when he was installed mid-season, and they made the playoffs .

I've discussed the importance of context many times & how important it is to analyse results using context. Garner's career has been strongly affected by context. Both the Brewers and Tigers were pretty poorly-run franchises, so of course Garner's record is going to be less successful than, say, Joe Torre's during the same years. ┬┐How much of this is beyond Garner's control and how much is it his making a worst of a bad situation? We have some data, and some opinions, but we don't know.

Beyond context, though, there are managers who are blessed or cursed by the Dance of Random Chance. Some environments just extrude out and swallow up the best-laid plans and talent, or, converely, allow you great opportunities or even make you successful in spite of your own incompetence.


The Louisville Colonels were an early baseball franchise playing in the American Association until that league folded; they then joined the National League until they were sold to the owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates and their best players transferred to the Pirates' roster.

An article in the most recent SABR publication, Road Trips (2004, University of Nebraska Press) edited by SABR's publications wizard Jim Charlton, has an article by Bob Bailey about the 1889-1900 Colonels, the first team in professional baseball history to go from last place to first in consecutive seasons. That team's manager had had one successful season before and never followed his pennant with another good season. The 1st place team's talent was actually less than it had been in the previous year. And yet they won. Pure Lucretian Dance of Random Chance.

The 1889 Louisville club featured an all-time great hitter, Pete "The Wooden Indian" Browning (he wasn't Native American, he was a fielder totally devoid of range or instincts) and an all-star caliber outfielder, Chicken Wolf. It had Guy Hecker, one of the better hurlers of the era, and short-career abuse victim Toad Ramsey, who was breaking down after seasons of pitching 588, 561 and 342 innings (and he was a strikeout pitcher, the AJ Burnett of his time).

The '89 team just sucked lukewarm prune juice through a plastic straw, putting up a pythagorean win-loss mark of 37-101 and underperforming even that toxic waste pool by going 27-111 on the field. This wasn't just a last place team, it was a bad joke told by a bad comedian. Browning had his worst full season ever, Hecker and Ramsey, too. The supporting cast was inadequate -- and played worse than that. A pair of interesting pitchers were Scott Stratton, who had a good season over few appearances, and a young Red Ehret, who wasn't good but still was one of the better arms on the team.

Moreover, the owner was experienced severe financial difficulties and was trying to sell his better players and the league was trying to mess with him so he couldn't. The struggling owner, with nowhere else to turn, tried to balance his books by fining his non-unionized players for whatever he could, creating a Wal*Mart kind of working environment.

The team was managed by four skippers during the year. The last was Jack Chapman, who had managed the team during its more appealing, mediocre, years. Not that his 1-6 record at the end of 1889 was indicative of great things to come.

But Chapman's fortunes were rising anyway. Several things happened between the finish of the 1889 campaign & the beginning of the 1890 season.

  1. The Players' League formed, a third league partially-owned by the players who played in it. The teams drew from the existing leagues and thus diluted the remaining talent in general.
  2. Louisville got new owners who were less player-unfriendly.
  3. The best team in the American Association, the Brooklyn Bridegrooms, and the fourth best, Cincinnati's Red Stockings, jumped to the National League.

During the 1890 season against weakened competition, Hecker returned to form, Ramsey had his final flowering before his arm imploded, several recruits had career years (and never had any other decent ones), Chicken Wolf had a Manny Ramirez year (his best ever), Stratton had is career year, and Ehret grew up and threw the first of a fistful of good seasons.

Playing cohesively in a weakened (and weakened) league, and with a roster having more career years than about any team since, the 1890 Louisville Colonels (renamed by the press the Cyclones because a tornado hit Louisville that year, and because the team was such a major force) had a Pythagorean win-loss of 85-47, enough to win the league, but overperfromed that on the field to the tune of 88-44 (the equivalent in a 162-game season of going 108-54).

The following year, the 1891 Chapman-led Colonels returned to the primordial ooze from which they had come, going 55-84 and escaping the cellar only because the league added the Washington Statesmen, who were 11 games worse. Chapman never got close to great achievement as a manager again.


Sometimes things align for success independently from your skill. Sometimes it's in spite of your moves.

This is going to be a fine decade to be a petroleum-exporting nation that owns its own reserves and doesn't just eke out royalties, because of Asian energy consumption expansion, the US' unique committment to consume without enforcing consumption standards or behavior-altering energy taxes, and spreading instability in the biggest oil-producing region. Entire countries that had nothing to do with the Middle East's implosion will reap dozens of billions of dollars in windfalls from the coming troubles...and that's if oil sells at only $39/bbl.

I had a client 20 years ago who was really lazy. He had a warehouse full of old, dated parts and knew he needed to get rid of them and write them down as a loss, but it wasn't fun and he kept avoiding the yucky effort. A few months after we had last talked about it, I was looking through a Federal publication for RFPs to respond to and just happened to look over the section that covered materials acquisition, and stumbled across an announcement for an AID contract for Indonesia or the Phillipines (I can't remember which now) that was looking to buy old parts of the exact type my client had. He was able to sell off most of his dead inventory at a sweet premium to market value. It wasn't because he was smarter than the market -- it just so happened his laziness created an opportunity and he happened to have a consultant who happened to read a publication that served a market he didn't.

When you see managerial success and failure, it's important to measure not only the results, but allow for the Dance of Random Chance as well. Sometimes bad things happen to good managers, and sometimes you're Jack Chapman...everything just clicks and you were talented enough not to disrupt that wave.

Sometimes you get a Jiffy Pop and all the kernels pop. Sometimes you end up with a pan full of burnt dross and unpopped kernels. Sometimes you're the Louisville Slugger, sometimes you're the ball.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

free website counter