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Taking a Cue from the Worldwide Leader

I have a pair of topics brought to us by ESPN here. Firstly, last week Gregg Easterbrook led off his column roasting the perception of NFL and college coaches as the end-all, be-all of wins and losses. He feels they're overpaid and get too much of the credit for wins and one would presume too much of the blame for losses. He cites 6 factors for this disparity.

  • The illusion of control.
  • The abdication by politicians and intellectuals of the father-figure role.
  • The exaggeration of insider knowledge.
  • The illusion of special motivational ability.
  • The winner-take-all of modern economics.
  • The Walter Mitty daydream.

I tend to agree with all 6 observations and think this is just as applicable and maybe even mores applicable to Major League Baseball. I've long been of the opinion that there are far more things that a baseball manager can do to screw up a win than there are things they can do to generate a loss. The two most important things a ML manager can do are keep players from murdering each other on the team bus and using his bullpen effectively. There are also things like building a batting order that makes sense and using platoons and double-switches, but those are things that historically should be fairly straightforward, yet with most managers they appear not to be.

Still, even if you get things right, you only maximize what the players available provide. You don't have many rabbits you can pull out of a hat. There aren't innovations that come along every half decade and there's very little in the way of evolution in the tactics of the game. There's no west coast offense or zone blitz or Tampa 2 or run and shoot to be found. The closest you can really get in the last 25 years are the 5 man rotation and the slow evolution of reliever usage patterns that has led to LOOGY's  and ROOGY's, setup men, and one inning closers. When I think of managers contributing to wins, most of the time I think of guys just getting out of the way and letting their players do what they do. Don't reflexively bunt anytime somebody is standing on first base with 1 out. Don't talk the general manager into padding the bench with stiffs that you had with your previous team. And don't count out rookies or bench guys who can contribute just because they're not grizzled veterans a couple years away from shuffleboard and early bird specials at Denny's.

Now with that in mind you might find it unsurprising that find contracts like Dusty Baker's old one with the Cubs that paid him a reported $15M over 4 years to be the picture of insanity, even more so than the reported 8 years and 32 million dollars the University of Alabama handed Nick Saban.

The one factor listed by Easterbrook that really annoys me as a stat centric fan is the "illusion of special motivational ability" effect. This is something that we get bombarded with what seems like more and more every season. ESPN itself is culpable as I believe coverage of sports itself leads to more and more talk of coaches magically turning lackadaisical bums into ultra-motivated grinders. It seems as though every time you turn on a pre-game show or SportsCenter or any other mainstream sports program, no matter what sport, the commentators (usually former players) aren't talking about who is the inherently better team, but rather asking questions which boil down to the old catchphrase "who wants it more." I get the feeling that these shows would be better if staffed by sports psychologists since they might have some actual insight into these matters rather than listening to John Kruk bleat on about how an old coot like Jim Leyland makes the difference because he doesn't put up with foolishness and makes his players focus and play hard at all times. Are we to assume that when Alan Trammel was in charge, the Tigers sat around eating cheetos and didn't really give a damn?

As documented by the Phil Miller of the Sports Economist blog, Easterbrook's numbers may be a bit hyperbolic, but I think his overall point is dead on in all sports. We invest far more into these glorified middle managers than what is really warranted. The column is a great read.

The second topic of debate is brought to us by Peter Keating, ESPN's new sports business analyst, who notes that the NBA is going to look at using the money the league has earmarked to help small market teams to reward only those small market teams that use their money wisely and produce teams that consistently win on the court and maximize the revenue that they pull out of their market. The column is in the January 15th issue of ESPN the Magazine.

This is something that some have been clamoring for in baseball for some time. Just writing checks to organizations that make small amounts of money regardless of whether those teams are in that position because of market size or because of managerial neglect or incompetence is far from ideal. The perception of the common fan seems to be that the NFL model of distributing revenue equally no matter what is the perfect recipe for all sports. I tend to disagree as it's been my suspicion that various organizations, notably the Arizona Cardinals and Cincinnati Bengals have at various times over the last 2 decades sandbagged their fanbase by going cheap on scouting and player acquisition because they had no real motivation for doing so. They earned a healthy profit by keeping costs low and living off of diehard fans and national revenue sources such as the mammoth TV deals the NFL gets from the giant network TV giants. Since the advent of baseball's revenue sharing after the 1994 strike, we've seen very brazen attempts to do exactly this kind of thing as the Expos were shameless in taking the easy money and betraying their fans in doing so. All sports leagues should have revenue sharing models tailored not just to help teams in smaller markets but also to encourage them to draw more revenue from those more modest, yet still important markets and to discourage teams from becoming apathetic. In no sane world does a team from the St Louis or Cleveland markets hand money to a team in the 5th largest metro area in the country in the name of fairness and competitive balance.

So kudos to David Stern for recognizing that teams from smaller markets who engage their fanbase and employ competent professionals in decision-making positions need to be rewarded and teams in mid-size or smaller markets who fail to do these things should struggle to make ends meet. If they don't, what motivation do the people who own said teams have to improve the situation?