Baseball’s problem of knowledge

As baseball begins to further cement its corner of the online universe, the ability to dissect and analyze games, trades, lineups, etc. becomes viral. Analysis is an instant phenomenon that gets approached from every potential degree until it addsl up to 360. The end result is equal parts positive and negative.

While the increase in intelligent and unqiue analysis has done wonders for our understanding of the game, there has been an increase in the apparent need to break baseball down into dichotomies. Moves are either good or bad, trades have winners and losers, executives are geniuses or imbeciles.

The executive side of baseball—and sports at-large—is fascinating. The amount of information and money required to effectively run an operation is truly spectacular, making the real success stories so impressive. As a baseball fan, having an executive team you trust at the head of your team makes life much easier. A clear plan throughout the franchise, quality transactions and a good product on the field are all things fans look for.

In an episode of the Jonah Keri podcast from March 7, 2011, television writer Michael Schur—perhaps more famously known as Ken Tremendous from the irreplaceable baseball humor blog Fire Joe Morgan—spoke to his trust in then-Boston Red Sox GM Theo Epstein, “I feel so calm and secure that these are the guys running my team.”

The thought that there are fan bases who have complete and total trust that their teams will make the right decisions caused me to wonder how much we, as people who are on the outside of organizations, can determine when it comes to trades and roster management? Certainly we know whether we like something or dislike something, but there are factors beyond our scope of knowledge.

The teams that act on their internal information most effectively are the most successful.

Baseball executives have information that is virtually unmatchable by those who don’t hold identical jobs. This isn’t an issue as simple as insiders versus outsiders, it’s a matter of those who work in operations for a living and those who do not. Plenty of people have privileged information and reliable sources, but the number of people who have executive caliber information and those that do not yields a much more drastic ratio.

We have the ability now to dissect statistics and performance to a greater degree than ever before, but it would be next to impossible to convincingly argue that we can get a truly comprehensive insight into a franchise’s decision making process.

Consider the recent trade between the Blue Jays and Astros which exchanged Ben Francisco and Francisco Cordero as well as a host of prospects for J.A. Happ, Brandon Lyon and David Carpenter. The prospects going to Houston were of some repute in the Toronto organization, including two compensatory first round selections, but they were far from blue chips.

While the Jays unloaded one of their least productive outfielders (Francisco) and most unreliable bullpen arms (Cordero), many were quick to jump on the trade as a negative one because they dispatched these prospects. All of this despite the fact that none were a key to the development system, nor had they played above A-ball. This simply isn’t a logical reaction.

It’s common for those who look at development systems to get locked in on the idea of bringing players up through the system into the big leagues, regardless of the feasibility or the timeline. Similarly, it’s common to get locked up in the surface logistics of player-for-player trades.

“Why did they trade player X? They just drafted him two years ago?”

“Why couldn’t our team get player X? We can offer more than team Y did.”

The problem with third party analysis is simply that it’s from a third party. That’s not to say there is no use in the evaluations it can yield—there is, when done carefully. However, not every move is a simple face value one, and this is where the problem of knowledge lies in baseball.

We saw a similar reaction to those above upon the announcement of the Ichiro Suzuki deal. There was a collective “That’s it?” when the Mariners’ haul was made official. For a player—though, truthfully at this point a name, really—that’s not a whole lot. But this is the problem of knowledge for the baseball fan, the analyst, the observer.

Sport is an incredibly fair venture, and baseball abides by that more often than not. The players who play the best and the decision makers who make the best decisions will win on any given day. As such, when tertiary aspects of sport don’t appear to be completely fair, we begin to wonder. This again, however, is the problem of knowledge. There is much beyond the realm of the field which is completely inaccessible to our knowledge, and much of it is inaccessible to anyone but the truly big players in the sport.

If a team trading prospects doesn’t make sense, it means the team likely no longer values the player the way it once did. In the case of the Blue Jays, consider their trade for Sergio Santos this past offseason. Many fans had a similar negative reaction to the trade of Nestor Molina to the Chicago White Sox after a stellar 2011 season in the minor leagues.

Thus far in 2012 though, Molina has failed to perform at a level of any real quality. The Blue Jays acquire Santos, a proven major league pitcher despite his injury woes this season, for a prospect who has put together only a couple of good seasons in the low levels of the minor leagues, leaving some wondering if he’ll be able to make the jump at all, let alone as an impact pitcher.

Alex Anthopoulos has made the Jays a relevant team again through shrewd moves and good value plays. The prospects they shipped out could turn out to be good baseball players, and he would be the first to acknowledge that, but based on the information the team has internally regarding where the players are and where the team was hoping they would fit into its plans at this point, they became expendable commodities.

Houston believes that they will be good baseball players who fit into the Astros’ long term plan. That is how a deal is made.

Looking at the Ichiro deal, you would be hard pressed to argue that the Mariners got maximum value in two minor league pitchers who will likely never be more than Quad-A players. But you can be certain that the Mariners and Ichiro had a deal to send him to a contender, and the Yankees specifically.

When Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln said that Ichiro asked the team to consider trading him, it is apparent he had designs on going to the Bronx. After he spent 13 seasons of stellar work in Seattle, the Mariners were more than happy to help him out, even at a rate of lesser return.

If an organization is going about things that don’t seem to compute, it’s because there’s more going on that is not apparent on the surface. It’s not a matter as simple as the people in charge don’t know what they’re doing. Sure, there are individuals who are better at their jobs—in some cases much better—than others, but that’s a fact of life that extends well beyond baseball. There’s no need to create a false dichotomy.

As we inch closer to the non-waiver trade deadline on July 31, there will be plenty of moves that do not necessarily make sense if you take them at face value. That’s just how it works. Some deals will be flat out bad when it’s all said and done and we look back, but the devil is in the details and those details will stay with 30 general managers.

References & Resources
Jonah Keri Podcast Episode 29 with Michael Schur
Fire Joe Morgan
Mariners Press Release with quotes from Howard Lincoln

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