Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Bosox Formula:
Loose Cannonades & World Championships  

David Wells on Bud Zelig: ''I think he's an idiot, to be honest with you.
He's the commissioner, and that's that. But we don't have to like it.

Last week David "Boomer" Wells, the defending champion Boston Red Sox starting pitcher opened his mouth like Vavoom in an old Felix the Cat cartoon and created a political tangle.

It was perfectly predictable. The Bosox knew something like this would happen inevitably, just not exactly when, or over what, or how big the cleanup effort would be. There's a great lesson for non-baseball organizations in the most recent Wells brouhaha. The lesson answers the question, "Are you better off hiring people who don't make waves?". The answer is "Sometimes". I'll explain what I mean, but first a little Wellsian Shape of Things to Come for your amusement

The comments that set off the tempest in a teapot (or was that a chihuahua in a teacup?) were an extended response to a reporter's questioning Wells about the League upholding a suspension. This wasn't an ordinary suspension, this is a suspension that Wells sounded convinced he didn't deserve. Did he deserve it? I suspect not. He was accused of bumping an umpire, and in the admittedly abbreviated video, abbreviated allegedly to show the moment of impact, it looked like he didn't get near the ump. Nevertheless, the suspension was upheld, and so Wells held forth, and fifth, on an encyclopediac swath of subjects all designed to irritate the Commissioner of Baseball, Bud Zelig.

Some selections from the Boston Globe's version of the lumpy lefty's lippiness:

Wells claimed that his regular criticism of commissioner Bud Selig probably led Selig to intervene in the appeals process and tell arbitrator John McHale Jr. to ''stick it to him."

Wells went on to criticize Selig's handling of the steroid issue, claiming, ''Major League Baseball I don't think has a clue what's going on. They're just hoping that somebody screws up [and fails a test]."

Wells also said MLB waited to announce Rafael Palmeiro's steroid test until Aug. 1, a day after the Hall of Fame induction ceremony, to avoid attention. The Aug. 1 announcement followed a lengthy appeals process; the Baltimore Sun, for one, reported that Palmeiro failed his test as early as May. Palmeiro, Wells said yesterday, ''singlehandedly whipped our butts" in early July, when the Baltimore slugger knocked in nine runs in a four-game series vs. the Sox, with Boston losing three times.

{snip}Wells, of course, has criticized Selig repeatedly in the past, perhaps never more maliciously than during spring training this year. Wells, in an interview with the Hartford Courant, said Selig isn't qualified to be commissioner.''I think he's an idiot, to be honest with you," Wells said then. ''He's the commissioner, and that's that. But we don't have to like it."

{snip}Wells suggested he's not done with his criticism. ''I'm very bitter at this whole situation," Wells said. ''I'll show that more and more as it goes along, as I get more information."

I have to tell you, I've managed a lot of voluble employees over the past few decades, but Wells managed to twist his volume up to 11 on this one. In suggesting to the world his organization's CEO was "an idiot", he was not apple-polishing for his next big raise.

The official MLB public response was predictable.

Rob Manfred, MLB's executive vice president of labor relations, answered back on Selig's behalf last night, calling Wells's account of the Palmeiro case ''pure fiction."

''David Wells has once again created a distraction with a series of ill-informed and ill-conceived comments," Manfred said in a statement. ''With respect to Rafael Palmeiro, Mr. Wells has absolutely no accurate information concerning the processing of the Palmeiro case.

The behind the scenes response was just as predictable. Veiled threats at the Boston team's management, an organization that's very vulnerable right now because they are in the thick of a pennant race and a wide range of unfortunate happenings could occur to them, from assignment of certain umps to key games, to subtle rules interpretations. It rarely pays to piss off such people, unless you can depose them in the process, which neither Boomer nor the Red Sox' ownership was about to do here.

So the Red Sox apologised on Wells' behalf. Then Wells sorta apologised on his own behalf sorta about the steroids topic alone.

"I understand that I was wrong in my statements about these issues and for that I apologize," Wells said in a statement issued by the players' association after Wells met with baseball officials. "Now that I have had this opportunity to sit down and discuss the issues, I better understand the procedures that go with steroid testing."

and left the other topics, including Zelig's idiocy off the table for now. For now, that's where the incident ends. Wells has perhaps lost a chance to start a 30th game, which would lose him a small (to him) financial incentive, but the suspension also put him back to a slot in which he'll be opening a series against the rival Yankees, something he's bound to relish. Plus, and you have to see this as his personal currency, he got to call the Commissioner an idiot and he hasn't yet, apparently, apologized for that.

Wells, I suspect, is a little humbled, will probably be on good behavior for about ten days, and feels great.

The Red Sox wish they didn't have to deal with the blowback, but they knew what they were getting into when they signed him -- this is not like Late Onset Tourette's or anything. This is unreconstituted Wells, the very guy they inked to a contract last December.

Moreover, he's their second best, perhaps best start depending on the way you look at the numbers (table from The Hardball Times).












1 Wells 6 155.0 4.41 3.61 1.60 5.6 0.8 0.94 92
2 Clement 6 166.0 4.45 3.87 1.36 7.2 2.9 0.81 101
3 Arroyo -7 173.3 5.14 4.36 0.81 4.7 2.1 0.98 0
4 Wakefield -1 179.7 4.81 5.01 0.91 5.8 3.0 1.45 103

Clement has thrown more innings and given up a fraction fewer homers, while having essentially the same Runs Allowed. Wells has the better K/BB ratio (he's still walking about nobody, fewer than one per 9 innings), he's got their best groundball to flyball ratio, and his Fielding Independent pitching ability, based on a stat that aims to neutralize the vagaries of different levels of defensive support, indicates he's better. It's about even.

So the Bosox, without a dominant starter when last year they had two dominant starters, need Wells to defend their championship. They need to apologize for him to protect the team and they need to suck up the pain and not poke a stick at him to protect the team's chances.. It's not like what he said about steroids changes anything because basically noone cares what Boomer thinks about designer drugs. It's not like his calling the Commissioner an idiot is going to offend any of his teammates; the sum of the entire 40-man roster's minutes per day dedicated to thinking about Zelig is probably under one of those mid-show TV commercial breaks. And those that do think of the Commissioner are at least as likely to agree with Wells as disagree.

BEYOND BASEBALL -- When Voluble & Valuable Collide
Most organizations stay away from loose cannons, even talented ones like Wells. Here are the two reasons it happens, and why, in most cases, it's a mistake.

The most common reason it happens is because the hiring manager cares more about her comfort than her team's overall performance. Take that attitude to The Fens for a minute: You know David Wells is going to cause a scene or five sooner or later, so instead of Wells, you sign Mr. Cub Scout, Aaron Sele. Sele is the anti-Boomer, the public equivalent of one hand not clapping, a guy who tirelessly helps geriatrics perambulate across busy thoroughfares, looks unrumpled and unflappable even when opponents batted .315 off of him this year. The problem is Sele is having a bad year -- for the Bosox, giving Sele the innings they had given Wells would have cost them on the field to the tune of about 5.3 wins (using Baseball Prospectus' nifty Expected Win table). Based on today's standing, that would put them out of the AL East lead, though in the pack contending for the wild card. So in a manager, this willingness to sacrifice performance for comfort is not necessarily fatal, but will almost always surrender effectiveness. I think both of us agree it's better to be in the driver's seat for a Division flag with a guarantee of making it into the playoffs than it is in the pack contentding for the possibility of facing the team with the best record outside of my division. And when I say better, I mean both from a glory/fame point of view, but also from a potential revenue p.o.v. There are limits to what kinds of employee behavior you should be willing to tolerate, of course, including acts that are felonies in your jurisdiction and anything that nets out to undermine total performance.

The next most common reason organizations don't want to hire loose cannons is because they are rational but not intelligent enough. In these organizations, the manager is actually trying to make a rational benefit/cost decision. Loose cannon employees like Boomer come with a definite cost and those costs become quite obvious when tripped off by the tremors the talent triggers. So you can project a likely denominator, or at least an actuarial range of probable costs.

The managerial limitation, though, comes from the benefit side. Most managers are defensive, preferring to avoid mistakes than generating advantages (or believing avoiding mistakes is the one true path to generating advantages). For many simplistic managers, they put a zero as the numerator, and the benefit/cost then results in a "0", that is, no discernable benefits. For other managers of this ilk, they just throw up their hands. It becomes easier to choose Aaron Sele than to try to dissect what performance improvements result in what benefits. These are weak-minded acts, and not managerial.

The Red Sox don't do that. (1) They hire loose cannons who are talented enough that the benefits outweigh the costs, and (2) they are successful; they are defending World Champions apparently going to the playoffs again this year.

Do the math.

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