Saturday, January 31, 2009

Byrd Plans Late Return...
to a Feathered Nest  

So when the 39th-most successful American League starter announces a remarkable business decision, it's not headline news. So it's with deep gratitude that I have to thank my baseball associate Jeffrey Balash for pointing out to me that Paul Byrd, a member of the rare breed of Crafty Righties announced late this month he was going to pull a "Roger Clemens" and not go to Spring Training, not accept any contract, but not retire. Instead, like Clemens before him, he was hinting that he was likely to make himself available in the stretch run for a contender looking for pitching rotation help.

As Ken Rosenthal noted:

The obvious question is whether a team would want him at mid-season; he would not be a high-impact, high-profile addition like Clemens was for the Astros in 2006 and Yankees in '07.

Byrd, however, says that two general managers asked him to consider their clubs if he decides to return, with one telling him, "We know you can roll out of bed and throw strikes." {SNIP} Byrd went 8-2 with a 3.46 ERA in 12 starts after the All-Star break for the Indians and Red Sox. For the season, he made 30 starts and pitched 180 innings. He said he is not putting his career on hold due to a lack of interest in him as a free agent.

"I got some really nice offers. That's what made it hard," Byrd said. "Nice offers from very competitive, big-time teams that just need someone to fill in at the back end of their rotation. I also got an offer or two from small-market teams that said they wanted me to come in and be their No. 1 or 2 guy.

{SNIP} His thinking is, if he starts off the season at home, his family might be more comfortable if he departs for 2-1/2 to 3 months in July or August instead of working the entire six-month regular season and possibly the postseason.

Why would Byrd make such a decision, and what can managers learn from it?

Byrd is taking a chance on no-one being interested when the time comes (the stretch run in late summer or early Fall), though it's likely some team fighting for the playoffs & looking for a little extra depth would take a chance on Byrd, a starter who has contributed to several serious teams.

As Rosenthal noted, though, he's no Roger Clemens, not intimidating marquee name who looks to transform a playoff series. Last year, for example, he started 30 games with a record of 11-12 and his 4.60 ERA was about 2% worse than the league -- not bad, but not ace's numbers.

Using a measure I've written about before that more fairly assigns a rating to a pitcher based on his performance that's less dependent on how well the pitcher's offense supported the starts, he should have won 14 games and lost 16 in his 30 starts. Incidentally, Byrd's teams won 14 of his starts and lost 16 of them.

But Byrd split his season between two teams, and I think his 2008 experience triggered the creative thought. Because in August, he was traded from the struggling (surprisingly so) Cleveland Indians to the playoff-bound Boston Red Sox. He had the pleasure of moving from a disappointing team that had gone 8-14 in his starts, to a thriving one. And, as most playoff teams have better-performing offenses than disappointing ones do, and better-performing bullpens, it wasn't surprising the Red Sox were 6-2 in Byrd's starts, even though statistically, they were of closely-comparable quality. And another 2008 note for Byrd: August was his best performance month in 2008 and over his career as a whole, too.

It's possible Byrd may believe (and it may well be true) that he can pitch a little less than half a season for a little less than half the paycheck, with the close-to-guarantee that he'll be working games that matter for a team that's having fun, and that his performance will be at the top of his ability.

Unless one loves playing baseball to the exclusion of other parts of life's experience, from a quality-of-life perspective, Byrd's choice was almost irresistible. Because any team you start the season with could fall out of contention, but if you start the season at home with your family, you can wait for the teams to sort themselves out mostly into playoff-bound and probably-not piles, skip the grind of the longest pro sports season in North America, and then ante in with a sure contender. If you can find one to take you on.

Paul Byrd, as I mentioned, is not Roger Clemens, a household name. But he's not generic, either. He's been pitching for a long time, he's a "solid citizen", a known quantity with a consistent-enough track record over his eight years of full-time work that most organizations would think they could know what they're getting if they sign him for August and September.

It might not work out for him. While I suspect his consistency will get him what he's looking for, he was one of the oddly-accused-by-mention pitchers in The Mitchell Report; Mitchell's team cited a newspaper article that had accused Byrd of buying prescribed HGH from a pharmacy implicated in other players' violations. Some teams will remember and find significant the unpleasant banging-around the Tampa Bay Rays gave him in his only playoff outing last year. And except for his career-year, 2002 when he was 17-11 for a K.C. Royals team that went 45-89 in his non-decisions, he has never had an award-threatening season.

I heard Byrd's podcast interview at High & Tight. I came away with the impression that Byrd is really ready to play out the hand with grace if he gets his way or if he doesn't, which is the way we should all try to make our way (well, except for Lou Piniella).

Beyond baseball, the talent (and the organizations that hire them) almost always lean towards protocols. The available protocols don't cover a Byrd choice -- it's neither the current fave -- outsourcing, nor full-time staff. Among Beyond Baseball models, the one that comes closest to Byrd's choice a consulting engagement with a retainer agreement.

For the last 50 or so years, Baseball has been a lot smarter about acquiring and retaining skilled staff than other endeavors like business and government. This is a case where Baseball will need to learn a Government (and to a lesser degree, Business) staffing technique and see if it can be successful with it. Prospective teams have to compete on calendar time (act too early, you might not really be in contention when the time comes; act too late, you get aced out of Byrd's services) and judge his game-readiness in late Summer for later-Summer appearances.

Does your organization use some Paul Byrds, reasonably-skilled talent to fill in sporadic gaps? When they do, do they do it well?

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