Sunday, October 30, 2011

Different ways to win

Ten years ago, the Arizona Diamondbacks defeated the New York Yankees in the World Series. The elite talent on the team essentially boiled down to two great starting pitchers -- Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, as well as a slugging left fielder, Luis Gonzales, having a career year.  Schilling and Johnson won the World Series almost single-handedly, pitching almost all the innings in the last two games.

In the years since, the conventional wisdom was that having elite starting pitching as close as there was to a sure path to postseason success in baseball.  In a short series with off days, when you can have your top two or three pitchers throw a large share of the innings, having those inning thrown by two or three of the top ten pitchers in baseball is a great way to win.

Of course, you did need more.  You needed some offense.  You needed a closer.  Some situational relievers would be nice. But you start with the pitching.

Surely, this is what motivated the Phillies' roster construction.  With Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels, the Phils had three of NL's top 10 pitchers.  Throw in Roy Oswalt, who had been among those just recently, and Vance Worley, who appeared to be joining them, and it looked like they'd mow through the competition.

But it didn't work out that way.  The St. Louis Cardinals, with one starter who consistently delivered quality starts, won the World Series.

The Cardinals has their share of starts.  Carpenter was consistently solid and occasionally brilliant.  David Freese deservedly picked up a load of postseason awards.  Allen Craig broke through as a consistent run producer.  Albert Pujols and Lance Berkman continued to hit and strike fear into opposing pitchers.

But in my judgement, the star of the Cardinals postseason run was their deep bullpen.  They had seven or eight pitchers in the bullpen in each round who were capable of pitching in any situation.  And Tony LaRussa did.  Often, by the time teams reach the World Series, managers only have a few relief pitchers they have confidence in, and managers overuse them or push their starters to go further than they should.

Ironically, this was a strength for the Cardinals in part because it was such a weakness for them in the early parts of the regular season.  Because they were so ineffective, each reliever got a shot in the set-up and closer roles.  And even though none of them pitched well enough to seize those roles, they pitched well enough that La Russa would not hesitate to use them.

By the time the playoffs rolled around, the cardinals had eight battle-tested relievers who were relatively fresh.  And then Lance Lynn came back from injury and was able to fill in for Kyle McClellan, who was worn out.

I'm not sure this success can be replicated.  It took the right circumstances and the right manager to make work.  But it's hard to deny it worked this year.

Still, I wouldn't bet against the Phillies riding their starters to next year's title.  There's more than one way to win.  That's what makes baseball, and sports, interesting.  The Miami Heat have two of the five best players.  That didn't win them the title last year; it may this year.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Stardom vs. Leadership

Must stars also be leaders?  Does "star treatment" carry with it some responsibility?

These are what I think are the interesting questions in the aftermath of the Cardinals' 2-1 loss to the Rangers, with the winning run resulting from an error by Albert Pujols, and his failure to address the media afterwards, leaving his younger and lower paid teammates to answer for the Cardinals.

On the one hand, I'm not sure why we expect athletic talent (or particular talent in any field) to also correlate with leadership ability.  I never thought it was a moral failing that LeBron James defers to Dwyane Wade.  We don't fault less talented players for failing to be leaders.  Isn't it enough that Pujols puts up huge numbers, and helps put the Cardinals in the World Series, and leave the leadership stuff Tony La Russa, who was hired specifically for that purpose?

On the other hand, groups, particularly groups of men, will tend to follow the lead of the most talented and successful person among them, no matter what the org chart says.  When the most talented person and the person ordained the "leader" are two different people, that is not a stable situation.  It may sort-of work sometimes, as in the Jeter-ARod situation with the Yankees, but it often leads to confusion for the rest of the team.

Then there is the "star treatment," which I am certain Pujols has consumed his share of over the years.  Nobody ever points out that he doesn't run out ground balls.   He probably knew his manager and teammates would cover for him when he bolted last night.  The media needs access to him, so they back off.   And, though he may not be making as much money as he could in the open market, his salary is still several multiples of that of most of his teammates.

I do think that consuming such star treatment does carry with it some responsibility.  First, being accountable for the results, and not leaving that to others.  If you're allowed to do things your way, and your way doesn't work out, then you've got some explaining to do.

So, I don't fault Pujols for not being a leader, but I do fault him for not fulfilling the responsibilities that come with star treatment.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Occupy the 1990's New Jersey Devils...

In the mid-1990's the New Jersey Devils adapted a defensive technique known as the "neutral zone trap."   I'm sure I'm oversimplifying it, but it boiled down to clogging the middle of the ice so that the opposing team could not move up the ice with any kind of speed.  This was possible in part, because the offsides rules limited the amount of ice they had to cover at any given time.

Despite not having any elite offensive players, the Devils were able to leverage this technique to become essentially the default Stanley Cup champions for about a decade, frustrating more star-laden teams like the Philadelphia Flyers and Detroit Red Wings.   And the fans hated it, because it was boring, and star players spent the games frustrated.

Coming up with the neutral zone trap required ingenuity on the part of the Devils' coaching staff.  And executing it required hard work and discipline on the part of the players --  no other team was able to replicate the Devils' success with the trap.  It was perfectly within the rules of hockey, and not at all malevolent -- the Devils didn't set out to injure opposing teams' star players; they just limited their effectiveness.

Nevertheless, the NHL's failure to make the trap a less effective technique is a big reason why the league declined in popularity in the late 90's, and the rule changes it made to confront it are a big reason it's back.

The Devils found a way to increase their own success to the detriment (or at least not to the benefit) of the league.  It exploited certain peculiarities of the rules.  It was the responsibility of the league to act to make this less rewarding.  

The same is true of other sports.  If a less talented basketball team really could consistently negate a talent disparity by deploying a well-executed full-court press, then the powers of basketball would need to act to make it a less effective technique.  If "Moneyball" meant that the A's could be successful by fielding a team of a bunch of fat guys who drew lots of walks and hit home runs, baseball would need to act.  If things like "icing the kicker" really worked, the NFLwould need to act to prevent it.  It's the responsibility of the grown-ups in charge to ensure that the team's incentives are aligned with the interests of the league as a whole.

But what if the Devils also controlled the commissioner's office and the competition committee?  Do you think they'd act against their own interest?  Probably not.  In fact, given such a situation, I'd expect rule changes that made the trap even more effective.  Resulting in more trapping.  And the league's popularity would spiral downwards.

I think this is one way to think about what has happened to the "top 1%" over the past several years.  Some people have figured out ways to reliably make money in ways that do not have an apparent benefit to society, or that are actively harmful.  These ways may be quite ingenious.  They may require hefty amounts of discipline and hard work.  That doesn't mean they're benefiting society, or that people have an absolute right to continue to use these same techniques to enrich themselves indefinitely.

Trying to re-balance these incentives needs not be a moral condemnation of those who have enriched themselves, any more than rejiggering the NHL's offsides rules is a moral condemnation of the New Jersey Devils.  Nor is it destroying a delicately perfect machine.  We're not getting just results now; it's time to take a look at the incentives that are in place.  It would mean the Devils would have to figure out another way to win.

This is what healthy systems do.  They correct themselves -- not magically or invisibly, but the grown-ups take a look at the situation, and change things that need to be changed.

Where are these grown-ups today?

And, sorry Mr. President, but I don't consider asking all of those who are rich to pay more taxes to be the fundamental change we need.  It may or may not be the right thing to do.  But the problem isn't so much that people are allowed to great a share of the spoils of victory.  It's that these techniques lead to victory in the first place.