Confessions of a rebuilding team’s fan

This rebuilding of teams is a funny business. Most organizations have to do it at some point, often more than once.

As with any change, the process can be painful, but there is also opportunity. Fans don’t always see it that way, which complicates matters. While a front office may have an organization’s long-term health in mind, the people who pay to watch the games are more interested in seeing a competitive product on the field right now.

The Padres this year have been one of the top “sellers” of talent. They started moving in that direction before the season even started, shipping veteran shortstop Khalil Greene to the Cardinals for a couple of minor league relievers.

Over the past few weeks, they have traded Scott Hairston to Oakland and Jake Peavy to the White Sox for a total of seven pitchers, none of whom falls under the category “known quantities.” My colleague Adam Guttridge has examined the Peavy deal in terms of expected value for both clubs, and he’s a bit more bullish on the Padres’ return than I am, but that is neither here nor there.

The point is that the Padres felt the need to unload an established player’s contract sooner rather than later and did so. They’re not unique in this. The A’s famously followed a similar path with Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder. Ditto the Indians and C.C. Sabathia. And on and on…

In each case, the decision makers had to balance the needs of the team with the needs of the fans. Player valuation tools such as the one employed in the analysis of the Peavy deal are useful but they don’t tell the whole story.

Many fans—and I’ve learned this the hard way—aren’t the least bit interested in these models, regardless of how instructive they might be. Most, or at least the most vocal, just want to know who moved their cheese, er, Peavy.

We watch these players, we grow attached to them. On a certain level, we may feel like we know them in some way. I first saw Peavy pitch when he was still in A-ball. I’ve been following him a long time. I’ve seen at least 80 percent of his big-league starts, and of those, probably 30 or more in person.

As a fan of baseball and of the Padres, I have derived a tremendous amount of pleasure from watching him pitch. Peavy is a talented young man who applies his craft with a great deal of enthusiasm. He is fun to watch.

A part of me is sore that Peavy is gone. I won’t get to see him pitch for “my” team anymore. I imagine that many A’s fans felt similar pangs when Hudson and Mulder left.

At the same time, as a student of the game, I recognize what the Padres are trying to accomplish. How well are they doing it? I don’t know; that’s why we have tools like the Guttridge-Wang trade model. You can work out the probabilities if you’re smart and interested enough to invest the time. And then you can wait a few years to see if your predictions are right.

The trouble is that not everyone who comes to the ballpark thinks (or wants to think) in these terms. There are many different reasons to lay down hard-earned cash for a big-league baseball game. For some it may be to appreciate the artistry or the strategy; others are more interested in the vibe, the buzz, the hot dogs and beer; still others may focus on the players themselves. (There were a lot of Peavy jerseys in the stands the night he was traded.)

And it’s a gross oversimplification to suggest that any one of these would be the sole motivation for a given individual. More likely, there are a combination of factors that comprise the experience.

Still, for many fans, the presence of Player X could be the determining factor in deciding whether to spend money on a game or, say, a movie. Even if Player X isn’t playing that day, at least he’s on the roster, providing symbolic value.

I know people who think the Padres aren’t worth watching now that Peavy is gone. It does no good to remind them that the team was playing poorly even with him there; that misses the point. There is no amount of logic or information you can present that will change their minds. It’s just not how they think about baseball or maybe even entertainment in general.

And while it’s tempting to think that these people aren’t that smart or knowledgeable, the reality is that these are the same people who are buying the product. And if they aren’t satisfied—for whatever reason—with said product, they will spend their money elsewhere.

This may not be a problem for you or me, but it presents a challenge for the people trying to sell tickets and run a sustainable business. You can show me a spreadsheet justifying a trade. I may or may not agree with its conclusions, but I’ll at least consider what it attempts to measure and that some amount of thought went into the process.

But again, I’m geared toward this type of thinking. Many fans, when presented with such a spreadsheet, will kindly ask you to get that thing out of their face and give them back their Peavy.

Think they’re being close-minded? Could be, but they’ve got the wallets. Are you selling ideologies or seats in a ballpark?

Nothing exists in a vacuum. Everything is connected. Player valuation is critical in making these decisions, there’s no questioning that. But if your kid’s favorite player is Jake Peavy, and one day Peavy is no longer part of “your” team, having been replaced by a bunch of relative nobodies, spreadsheets aren’t going to help.

How do you tell a kid to look at the bigger picture? Heck, how do you tell an adult?

As an analyst and a student of the game, I try to keep the two aspects of my fandom separated. Yes, it’s devastating to see a young man I’ve been watching since A-ball leave the only organization he’s ever known. Yes, I understand why the Padres made the move.

I am fascinated by the details of who “won” the trade. At the same time, I don’t care at all because Peavy is gone and what else is there?

But these things tend to go in cycles. I’ve seen it with the Padres. I’m sure A’s fans can tell me plenty of stories, same with the Indians. Don’t even get me started on the folks in South Florida.

I love baseball beyond reason, though. Nobody needs to sell me on the product. Barring another work stoppage (the last of which did keep me away for some time), I will be there.

Not everyone is as easy as I am. If you’re in a front office, that’s a good thing to remember when making these types of decisions. Use all the spreadsheets you need to justify your moves internally, but when someone asks you, “Where’s my Peavy,” be ready with a good answer. Your business may depend on it.

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Comments

  1. Scott said...

    When talking about the fans having the wallets, not the people who care about spreadsheets, another point to consider is a fan can “remain loyal” and follow the team without spending money.  Some people are angry about a trade, but still want to stay loyal to their team.  These days they can do that without spending money.  They can listen on the radio or watch on TV instead of coming out to the park.  Yes, the team still gets considerable money from advertising, but its not nearly as profitable as if that fan were in the park: giving up straight cash for the seat, more for dinner, more for refreshments, more on souvineers, and even more on dessert. 

    Even less profitable for the team is if the fan decides, “you tell me this move is for the future, then I’ll ignore the present and follow this future” by not watching games, instead following stats on the pros and the minor leaguers over the internet.  Those fans who want to remain loyal can still maintain their emotional connection to their team this way.  But the businessmen who own the team do not profit from this loyalty anymore.  I sure do hope the Nationals notice that I went to 20 games in person last year and don’t even watch on TV this year.  I still pay attention, but I do so on my time and at no cost to me from sources who give no money to the team.  I’ll be back in the park when the team earns the money I give them.

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