The above video really has nothing to do with the content of the post, but I followed a link to a Weezer cover from Oilogosphere alumnus Andy Grabia the other day, realized I’d already heard the song and liked it and now knew the song’s title. I’m turning thirty in less than two months and am painfully aware that I’m becoming disconnected with newish pop culture stuff, particularly given that this album apparently came out in 2008.
I’m a part of a vanishingly small proportion of Canadians under the age of 30 (huh, turns out that the above was a segue into the post) who continues to care about baseball. I caught a great game the other day at SkyDome with my sister, as Roy Halladay absolutely crushed the Red Sox and a so-so game tonight with my sister and some friends as the Jays beat up on my brother-in-law’s Indians. One of the reasons I’m such a baseball fan is that there’s so much fantastic writing about the sport. Even if I was bored with the game itself or despised the people who ran it, I’d still enjoy reading books like Moneyball (ahem, Lowetide) or Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Blunders, which bills itself as “A Complete Guide To The Worst Decisions and Stupidest Moments in Baseball History.”
Neyer is – or was – a Royals fan, and he devotes a chapter in his book to the Royals’ 1989 signing of Storm Davis and Mark Davis. It’s the Storm Davis signing that I’m interested in at the moment. I’m going to quote what Neyer has to say about it:
…On the other hand, the December 7 signing of Storm Davis – three years, six million dollars – was a mistake by any definition.
Storm (no relation to Mark) had, just a few years earlier, ranked as one of the better young pitchers in the game. He was in the majors at twenty, and a world champion with the Orioles at twenty-one, then 225 innings when he was twenty-two, and like most young pitchers he simply couldn’t survive the workload. By the time he was twenty-five, his second team (the Padres) had given up on him. Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan, then in Oakland, indulged their fondness for reclamation projects and gave Davis a shot. He responded with sixteen wins in 1988 and nineteen more in ’89.
Those nineteen wins weren’t nearly as impressive as they looked, though. In fact, you could make a compelling case that Storm had the most unimpressive nininteen-win season in major league history.
For one thing, despite starting thirty-five games for the A’s that year, Davis threw only 169 innings, less than five-and-one-half innings per start. No other pitcher has ever won so many games in so few innings.
Then there’s the fact that Dvais wasn’t all that effective in the innings he did pitch. His ERA in 1989 was 4.36. The league ERA was 3.88. The Athletics played their home games in a pitcher’s park.
So how did Davis, pitching not all that often and not all that well, win nineteen games? It was simple, really. Pitchers don’t win games. Teams win games. And the Athletics were, in 1989, the best team around. They had one of the best hitting attacks in the game, and when Davis started they were the best hitters; Davis had the highest run support of any starter in the majors.
And the A’s bullpen was not only the best in baseball, but one of the best ever. Four relievers threw fifty or more innings for the A’s in 1989, and their ERAs were 3.26, 2.35, 2.24 and 1.56. That 1.56 belongs to Dennis Eckersley, then in the midst of the greatest reliever peak of all time. Combine league-leading run support with a bullpen that (almost) never blows a lead, and it’s surprisingly easy to rack up the W’s.
And the W’s were all the Royals saw. As pitching coach Frank Funk said when asked about Davis’s ERA with Oakland, “We don’t want pitchers with good ERA’s. We want pitchers with wins.”
That’s an astonishing statement. It’s the equivalent of the CEO of a publicly held corporation announcing to the world, “We don’t care about making a profit. We care about raising our stock price.” The Royals confused the ends with the means. They were obsessed with the product – Davis’s record – while ignoring the process – the fact that Davis owed all those wins more to his teammates’ performance than to his own.
After Davis signed with Kansas City, the process hardly changed. After accounting for league and park effects, Davis’s ERA in his last season with the A’s was fifteen percent below average. In his two years with the Royals, his ERA’s were nineteen percent and then sixteen percent below average. But the product went to pot: his record was 10-19 as a Royal, and by the end of his contract he was pitching garbage relief.
As some of you might be aware, Martin Biron signed for $1.4MM over one year today with the New York Islanders. The Islanders are now paying $3.9MM for a goalie tandem of Dwayne Roloson and Biron (I think Rick DiPietro is likely gone for the year). It’s a tandem that looks a hell of a lot better to me than the Oilers $4.45MM Khabibulin/JDD tandem.
There are two points here, I think. First, a lot of Khabibulin’s case is product. A Stanley Cup, a conference finals appearance this past year, the fact that he’s been a starter. It’s product. It ignores the process, like the fact that Khabibulin’s Stanley Cup came behind the third best offensive team in the NHL and his conference final appearance came behind the fourth best offensive team in the conference.
Until last season, he’s never played for a team that developed another goaltender while he was there or had a backup who could push him – in his career, his backups have included Tim Cheveldae, Dominic Roussel, Tom Draper, Scott Langkow, Darcy Wakaluk, Parris Duffus, Pat Jablonski, Jimmy Waite, Mikhail Shtalenkov, Robert Esche, Kevin Weekes, Dieter Kochan, John Grahame, Evgeny Konstantinov, Kevin Hodson, Craig Anderson, Adam Munro, Corey Crawford, Patrick Lalime, Brian Boucher and Sebastien Caron. That’s a pretty lengthy run of playing in front of prospects and has beens up until last year. Does he have a glittering starter resume if his teams had ever had other goalies who could challenge him for his spot? If he doesn’t have a Cup, a recent extended playoff run and the “STARTER” stamp, does he get this contract? What differences are there between him and other options that were available to the Oilers that aren’t product?
Second, and more importantly, Neyer’s anecdote could probably be told about any number of teams and signings in the 1980′s and 1990′s. Teams were routinely making terrible decisions, decisions that people outside the game knew were terrible and that could not be objectively supported. Baseball’s come a long way since then – there’s a far greater understanding of the distinction between the product and the process. Reading through the thread at Lowetide’s and some of the discussion at Hockey’s Future, I see a good deal of argument advanced that relies on blind faith in the idea that the Oilers managment has access to other information about the players. There’s been explicit statements to the effect that they’re professionals with hockey expertise and that a lot of the people criticizing this move are not.
Fair enough. But Frank Funk and then-Royals GM John Schuerholz (some of you may know of his later work with the Atlanta Braves) were professionals with tons of expertise as well. They were presumably applying what passed for the wisdom of the day. Neyer’s comments would, today, be accepted as conventional wisdom by baseball insiders. They weren’t at the time.
I’ve always thought that, if a player is a difference maker, you’ll find tracks in the snow. The statistical record will reveal it. Many goalies who are regarded as great, it shows up in their save percentage. Ed Belfour, Patrick Roy, Roberto Luongo, Dominik Hasek…these players routinely post save percentages that far exceeded the league average. Nobody thought that the Panthers or Sabres were brilliant defensively.
A lot of the cases in which I disagree on the conventional wisdom about a goalie, the conventional wisdom is founded on product as opposed to process; Stanley Cups and conference final appearances behind loaded offensive teams rather than demonstrated above average save percentage. I find it somewhat difficult to accept that the men who run hockey teams, in the early days of hockey’s information revolution, are somehow above or beyond making the mistakes that the men who ran baseball teams made during the infancy of baseball’s information revolution. It just doesn’t strike me as reasonable.
In any event, I’m interested in testing the idea and I’m opening the floor for ideas on how to do this. My initial idea is this: if hockey general managers were good at identifying where goalie dollars should be spent, there should be some sort of a correlation between UFA goalie statistics like save percentage and their salaries. I don’t think that there will be. For the record, I think that outside of the guys who post out of this world numbers, it’s damned difficult to project the save percentage a goalie will put up, because the gap between great and bad is so small and randomness can drive a guy to either extreme.
If I’m right – and I’m willing to do some work to test this hypothesis – then it seems to me that one should be extremely hesitant to laud any GM who spends big bucks on a UFA goalie. If the market as a whole is bad at identifying the great goalies, why should we have faith in individual people on the basis of their status as insiders?
I’m willing to put the work into this. I’m open to other suggestions as to how it should be structured. One idea I’m kicking around is running some sort of a control. I’d be willing to bet that GM’s are much better at figuring out which forwards to give the money to than they are at identifying which goalies to give the money to, even though there are problems of product versus process there as well. Any suggestions?