This post may disappoint some of my fellow Royals bloggers, who, in most cases, take a statistical approach to baseball analysis.
While I agree with that approach and use it as my primary lens as well, I’m going to stray from that path in this case. My stance on this subject is by no means an indictment of advanced statistics or sabermetric; it is only an attempt to understand the limits of that approach, as sabermetrics is, in fact, a response to the limits of more traditional approaches.
I think it’s a good thing the Royals weren’t selling at the trade deadline—Ervin Santana or anyone who might help them win this season.
Yes, it means fighting probability. It means taking a course of action in which the likelihood of success if very slim. I think Baseball Prospectus put the Royals chances of making the playoffs at less than two percent at the trade deadline. That’s not good at all. But they still need to go for it, and here’s why.
Competitive sport revolves, primarily, around winning. It’s not just the main goal; it is virtually the entire reason for playing. There is a difference between those two ideas, though they work in tandem. If winning is simply the goal, the best tactic for the Royals would have been to trade Santana, Luke Hochevar, and maybe Greg Holland, receive maximum return and try for another push in 2014. When winning is a goal, it makes sense to maximize opportunities to win and minimize risk.
When winning is the reason for playing, teams cannot easily bow to the pressures of the goal of winning, even if “going for it” is not the most efficient thing to do. It seems paradoxical, maybe because it is, but the human condition is paradoxical. We live in a country that values both individualism and a sense of unity. How on Earth does that make sense? Instead, what is most efficient (the goal of winning) bows to what essential (winning as the reason for playing).
It’s sort of like when fans see some great athletes being assholes. We criticize them for being assholes because we want them to be angels, not thinking that the traits that make them assholes (arrogance, competitiveness, a wild disregard for boundaries) are probably also the traits that made them great athletes. They are essential to that great athlete, not to be turned off and on with the flip of a switch. If you lose the asshole, you lose the great athlete.
This is why the decision at the deadline really isn’t a decision to buy, sell, or stay put (and yes, now I’m getting way off the deep end). The decision to buy, sell, or stay put is already made by the time a general manager decides whether or not to remove what is essential from the game and his team. When a general manager decides that focusing on the goal of winning is more prudent than maintaining what is essential to the game, the decision is made. All that’s left after that are details—finding the right trading partners, scouting players, and all that. In fact, one could argue that once a team has decided to pack it in and sell, they are no longer playing baseball but are instead playing front office. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing when circumstances call for it, but it’s obviously not ideal.
General managers are competitors too. Winning is their reason for playing as well. This is why so many choose to sidestep efficiency in favor of essentialism. Efficiency is not a necessary component of baseball. If it were, teams with less than optimal chances to make the playoffs would just sell automatically, but we know that they don’t. In fact, more teams with less than a 50 percent chance to make the playoffs buy or stay put than sell. Why? In part, because they have to in the way people have to drink water.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing for a complete shut down of the trading system. I’m not saying that all teams that are not mathematically eliminated should buy at the trade deadline. That’s ridiculous. General managers have the unenviable task of making a decision about removing what is essential to their team. Sometimes, they must put the goal of winning ahead of the reason for playing. Instead, I am arguing for an understanding of why teams take such wild chances, why they cling to near hopeless circumstances staring so strongly at only a sliver of light.
As a fan, I’m happy that the Royals decided to buy—though I’m not so thrilled at the details, a point I’ll make in another post. I know their chances are long, and I know they probably will not make the playoffs. But if every team acted in the interest of efficiency, there would be no great come from behind stories. Baseball wouldn’t be baseball. Sports wouldn’t be sports. Who wants to tell their kid this story some day? Listen up junior. I’m going to tell you the story of the team that was favored to win and did because cost-benefit analysis eliminated all the other teams. Whooohoo!
Sometimes, I get caught up in numbers. I wanted the Royals to trade Santana before their long winning streak because I saw only the need to maximize efficiency. In efficiency, I saw safety. But I don’t want sports, and especially baseball, to lose the belief in winning against odds just because it’s not the most efficient idea. I want there to be good stories and crazy comebacks. Yes, let’s debate whether the Royals should buy or sell every year, but let’s also understand and enjoy when they push aside efficiency and tap into what is essential.