Friday, October 7, 2011

Blink + Moneyball= Texas Rangers Power

This is a long post that has nothing to do with baseball cards.  You’ve been warned.

I just finished Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent book “Blink” while traveling.  It's a book I've meant to read a long time and thought my most recent trip to Canada would be a great opportunity to knock it out.   The general premise of the book is that as a species, we are designed to be able to make quick decisions and judgments (thin slicing what the process is called in the book) based on conscious and subconscious data we have accumulated in the internal computer of our mind.  If we can avoid certain pitfalls that sometimes accompany this process of thin slicing (personal prejudices, stereotypes, misinformation etc.) our ability to make snap judgments and decisions is often more reliable than if we seek out external data.  That’s a pretty gross oversimplification of the book, but you get the point.    Normally, I would not have tied this book into a discussion of baseball, but I also just recently went with the lovely wife to see the excellent movie, Moneyball* and it occurred to me there was something interesting to talk about between these two books.   I was a big fan of the book Moneyball since it came out several years ago, and recently re-read and enjoyed it all over again.  

*On a side note, I was a little disappointed  my favorite part of the book was left out.  There is a scene in the book that depicts the 2002 draft and the A’s war room.   They basically go into the draft expecting to get a few players they really want, and experience joyous disbelief as other teams skip over other top players on their list resulting in a windfall of picks.  Anyone who has ever had an awesome fantasy draft can relate to this euphoria on a small scale.  Yes, I know many of the picks did not pan out, but that’s not the point.

One of the general tenets of Moneyball theory is that it is faulty to only judge a player by what you see on the field in a short sample size, especially in baseball, where the value of a player is realized over the course of a long season.  Stats- not just stats, but the right stats, are needed to help evaluate a players potential value to the club.
Both Blink and Moneyball philosophies make sense to me, and perhaps are not as conflicting as they appear.  One of the chapters in Blink discussed the opportunity for failure when our eyes deceive us and we don’t know it, which goes along with the Moneyball approach.   
The Texas Rangers seem to think both theories have value too, although it seems they lean more to the “blink” way of looking at things.  In the front office sits Jon Daniels, Cornell graduate, and seemingly the kind of new breed of GM that would place a heavy emphasis on stats.  However, Daniels has shown a commitment to scouting that seems to be somewhat counter intuitive to the Moneyball approach.  "From Day One, I think people thought I'd be a numbers first, second and third type of guy," Daniels said.”But I always kind of described myself as a centrist.We were going to use objective analysis and we were going to use the evaluation skills of our best people. But the more I've grown into this job, the more I lean towards the scouting end of the spectrum. And not by a small margin."

In the dugout sits the epitome of the term “baseball man”, Ron Washington, who I am not really sure has ever looked at statistics to determine his decisions.  If he does, he certainly isn’t beholden to them.  I read a quote from Washington the other day that I wish I could repeat verbatim, but it was something like, “The lineup will be whoever’s name comes out of my pen that day.”  Not, “We’ll take a look at the matchups and see what the numbers tell us to do.”  Ron Washington is a “Blink” manager personified, in my opinion.  That’s not to say that he isn’t well informed, or that his “gut” decisions are random.  His ability to make decisions has been honed over years and years of playing and watching baseball, and that is when the blink ability is at its best.    Keep in mind; these are my impressions as a fan, not an expert.  I would be interested in Joey Matches take on this at the greatest blog of all time, Baseball Time In Arlington, a site that has as good a handle on the meaning and importance of statistics as any.  

It occurred to me that I needed to quantify Ron Washington’s in game decisions by writing an algorithm to calculate his success rate.  While my blink side tells me he generally makes good moves, my Moneyball side says I just test it to be sure.  The first thing I had to do was learn what an algorithm was.  Once I saw an actual algorithm, I realized I would not be writing algorithms any time soon.  It would be cool to tell people I wrote an algorithm though.  I would like to publish an algorithm in a scholarly journal, or present it at a board of directors meeting.  Or, I’d just like to write one on my office window with window markers, like the Gladiator guy did in that math movie.

I think the Rangers have the perfect blend of smarts and instincts at the operational level.  The farm system is still brimming with talent, they recognize value in the market (Mike Napoli) and are willing to spend (Adrian Beltre) like the big market club they really are.
I don’t know what’s going to happen the rest of the way this season, but the Rangers are a power, and they are not going anywhere for a while.


Spiff said...

I liked the follow up question to Washington: "Will your pen be holding a press conference?"

The Lost Collector said...

Insightful post Doon. I liked it.