Monday, February 28, 2005

SABR-rattling

J.P. Ricciardi, a sabermetrically-oriented GM, tussles with Batter's Box, a sabermetrically-oriented website; what gives?

This interview recap is, of course, of only slight interest to Nats fans and bloggers (not that the two are mutually exclusive . . . ), but there is this:

JP is fully aware that numerous Bauxites have called numerous times for the acquisition of this or that player during the past few months. “We’re four steps ahead of you,” he said bluntly. The Blue Jays have already tried to trade for some of the players suggested by Bauxites – JP didn’t name
specific players, but Brad Wilkerson, Austin Kearns and Nick Johnson were among the hitters most commonly suggested at Da Box.


Oh no you don't!!!

(Well, Ricciardi has my permission to get Kearns.)

At any rate, the meat of the interview recap is in the notion that a so-called "Moneyball GM" who was one of the first front office types to make himself accessible to bloggers, now has a beef with a blog whose viewpoint appears largely sympatico with his.

The easy answer, of course, lies in the fact that the Blue Jays stunk like month-old tuna last year (and, in light of my prediction they'd win 88-90 games, well, boy did I miss that one!). When an animal gets backed into a corner, it gets a little testy, so to speak.

The interesting point, however, is that Batter's Box itself (well, its writers, more accurately) has turned the heat---such that a blog, even a well-known one, can create---on Ricciardi. I don't read Batter's Box religiously, but it certainly seems like the writers and posters there generally took a pessimistic view of the Shea Hillenbrand acquisition; in light of Hillenbrand's status as a stathead whooping boy, it's more surprising that Ricciardi obtained his services than that Batter's Box would criticize the acquisition. Also, Ricciardi apparently chafed at criticism stemming from his acquisition of Scott Schoenweiss, a thoroughly mediocre pitcher now entering the inevitable "journeyman" phase of his career.

Well, I could go on, but let's cut to the essence. According to Ricciardi, as memoralized by Da Box:

“Over the last year, you guys have lost perspective a little bit," he said You get more excited when we sign a minor-league free agent who has never played in the major leagues than when we sign Scott Schoeneweis, who
we’re trying to make a reliever of – you guys rip it apart. “A team might hit
on one out of ten minor-league free agents,” JP continued, “but when we get a proven major-leaguer to come up here, you guys are disappointed. Every time we spend money, you guys get disappointed. It’s almost like you think we should put the 25 cheapest guys out there and win.”


I suppose it's accurate to say that Ricciardi derides a point of emphasis of the "stathead worldview": the concept of replaceable talent being replaced by cheaper replaceable talent. And you get a two-fer if you insert the word "young." In the late 90s or so, Baseball Prospectus emphasized the point rather militantly.

For example, if my memory serves, BP kept on touting the Minnesota Twins after they reverted to a youth movement---mainly on the basis that the Twins' prospects could get better, while the Indians' veterans could only get worse. In fact (probably a bad choice of transition), I think I recall BP predicting that the Twins could give the Tribe a race as early as 1999. (The Twins eventually improved in '01 and are now three-time defending AL Central champs---such a distinction that may be.)

The point Ricciardi's little dust-up with Batter's Box demonstrates, if I may be so bold as to attempt to glean one, is one that statheads themselves have acknowledged many times over the past decade at least but that still bears repeating: we (stat-oriented fans; internet forum posters; bloggers), by nature, operate in a world of "theory" (for lack of a better world). Maybe our "theory" has a basis in reality; no, certainly aspects of it certainly do, such as the ability to predict major league performance, within a reasonable range, by contextualizing minor league performance.

But when it comes down to brass tacks, we are not the ones making the decisions. What if Ricciardi really is, as he claims, "four steps ahead" of a mere internet blogger? What if the factors he cites really are inhibiting him from getting the guys he targets? (And what if his "stathead worldview" is more moderate than the Batter's Box guys, as it apparently is?) What does he do? He does what he can, and he pleases who he needs to please. Maybe he just acquired Hillenbrand as a sop to those who worship runs batted in. (The other stuff---the "grinder" personality, for instance---just seems like a cover story.) Sometimes you have to do that, I guess.

This is obvious, I suppose, but I want to be sure that I do not miss the practical application: My observation is that statheads/bloggers/what-have-you sometimes demonstrate a bit of a haughty perspective, as if we know better. I am sure I am guilty of this. That's bad.

So, I propose this idea, just for myself perhaps: There exists a presumption that a general manager---such as, say, Jim Bowden---knows what he's doing, within the context of the factors in which he operates. Now, this doesn't mean that:

1) I, for instance, cannot disagree with certain moves; or
2) other bloggers, for example, cannot call certain rationalizations as bull-flop; or,
3) the presumption cannot plainly be removed (see, e.g., Cam Bonifay).

But I think this may assist in defining, for myself at least, exactly the scope of that which I criticize on occasion here.

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