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Values and Strategy

January 13, 2021
        rtallia posted this question in "Hey, Bill".  I machine-gun-typed an answer, but then I liked the answer enough that I decided to expand the answer and post it here, as an article:


A question on your "relievers throughout history" article. Since the top reliever workload is now exactly half of what it was 30-40 years ago, presumably those next 70 innings are now being pitched by each team's SECOND best reliever. The question that 2nd reliever, who gets a bunch of "Holds" to his credit and maybe 4-6 saves throughout the season, almost as good (at this point) as the closer himself? Do you think that the combination of the 1 +2 revlievers, especially over the past 5 years, is equal in effectiveness to that 140 innings from the top reliever from 40 years ago?


My answer, somewhat edited:


       I don't have a good understanding of that, nor, I think, does anyone else.  


In the evolution of strategy, when the managers/executives by groupthink focus on an advantage within a strategy, they are working blind to the fact that there is also a disadvantage within that strategy.   Eventually the strategy will expand usage until the point is reached at which the disadvantage becomes self-evident.  But to calculate the costs and benefits of a strategy is in almost all cases such a complex mathematical problem as to be almost impossible to resolve. 


For every strategy, there is a point in its expansion at which the costs of strategy will outweigh the benefits.   Stealing bases, for example.  If you only have one base stealer and he can steal 80% of the time, no doubt it is a good strategy.   If you start stealing bases with your second-best base stealer, your third-best, your fourth-best.  ....


If you start stealing bases in the optimal base-running situation. . .let's say two out, singles hitter at the plate. . ..if you start stealing bases in that situation, OK, but then you start stealing in the less-optimal situation, the next less-optimal, until eventually you are trying to steal bases down 4 runs in the 9th inning.  Which I have seen, I think; I have seen players do that. 



If you start stealing bases when you have a pitcher on the mound who is slow to the plate and a catcher who doesn't have a great arm, that may be a great strategy.   The pitcher is slow to the plate and the catcher has a "D" arm; GO.  But then you start stealing when the catcher has a C arm, and when the catcher has a B arm, and when the catcher has an A arm.   As you expand the use of the strategy, you move into the area in which it is no longer optimal strategy.  


Let us say that a leadoff man who has a .350 on base percentage but can steal 100 bases a year is more valuable than a leadoff man who has a .360 on base percentage but can't get out of his own way.  But as you expand the strategy, the on-base percentage of the players you choose to put on your roster gets lower and lower, until eventually you have Omar Moreno in your lineup every day.   The costs of the strategy expand as its usage expands.  


What I am trying to get to. . .EVERY strategy is bound in this way not by a single cost, but rather, every strategy is surrounded on all sides by a variety of costs, all of which increase as the usage of the strategy increases.   It is impossible to calculate what all of these costs are at each point.  Baseball people see the benefit in a strategy and adopt it and use it more and more and more, until it becomes apparent that its cost are outweighing its benefits.   But no one ever knows what that point is until it becomes apparent; therefore, strategy changes endlessly, always shifting, always trying to find the balance points at which each strategy is at maximum value in comparison to other strategies.  


            And this, of course, is not unique to baseball or to sports.  Every business, every endeavor at all points in time is relying on strategies that have expanded to the point at which they have become self-destructive.  Television commercials.  Television stations rely on commercial revenue, so they try to sell more commercials and more commercials and more commercials.  But as the strategy expands, the costs of the strategy expand.  You put enough commercials in the middle of a sitcom, people start watching baseball games; you put enough commercials in the middle of a baseball game, people start watching soccer, or they go out bird-watching or mountain-climbing or kayaking or something.  Then somebody starts something like Netflix; they can make sitcoms just as good as the TV station can, collect a few dollars a month from a vast number of people, and all of a sudden the network which relies on selling commercials finds its revenue plummeting.   It works until it doesn’t work anymore. 

            Or negative advertising/opposition research in political campaigning.  The assholes who promote this stuff have studies that prove that it works.  They can prove the benefits—but the costs are enormous.  You start broadcasting negative stuff about your political opponents; eventually people start to believe that it is true.  They start to believe that is true about both sides.   After a while you have Senate confirmation hearings in which every Senator makes an ass of himself trying to throw mud the other Senators.   Eventually you have riots in the streets, with the people who believe that the Republicans are venal rioting against the strongholds of the Republicans, and the people who believe that the Democrats are venal rioting against the strongholds of the Democrats.

            It is the same thing; it is strategies expanding until the costs of them become much higher than the benefits.  We are surrounded by this on all sides; the undocumented, unmeasured costs of old strategies wash up against the sides of our house.  This is why societies need value systems.  You need a value system that says "attacking your political opponents is wrong" which is stronger than the research of political operatives which says "NEGATIVE ADVERTISING WORKS."  

In baseball, too, you have to be guided by Values, rather than strictly by math and strategies.  Many of you will remember that I have written many times about Red Rolfe in Detroit in 1951-1952 platooning Vic Wertz.  This fascinates me because it is one of the clearest examples of this principle that I am trying to explain here.    Casey Stengel’s brilliant use of platooning made platooning a hot strategy.  Detroit manager Red Rolfe started platooning Vic Wertz, who had driven in 133 and 123 runs the two previous seasons.  It pissed off Wertz, destroyed Rolfe’s managerial career, and the Tigers went from 95 wins to 104 losses in two years.  VALUES.  You don’t believe in the strategy more than you believe in the player.  You don’t believe in the commercial revenue more than you believe in producing a good television show.  


COMMENTS (13 Comments, most recent shown first)

Maybe someday someone will come with the idea that giving only 60 innings a year to your best pitcher is not the ultimate stategy.
8:11 PM Jan 15th
Interesting article. I commented on previous article about use of relievers and what is best strategy for such usage and I stated we don't know what is the best strategy. Now you've got me to think that there never can be an optimal use that stays optimal in that the opponent is always adjusting to meet your strategy. Evolution shows this in spades. War too. And the cost/benefit dichotomy always is there to affect what you can do: i.e., designing/building a bridge - you have to define weight requirements that the bridge will be expected to hold, how long the bridge will last, cost of repairs, etc. It would be crazy to spend triple the money to make a bridge that can hold more traffic than you can park on the bridge. At least baseball has tried to reduce the effects of some strategies that would hurt the game, i.e., how many players you can have, luxury tax if you pay too much for your players, both these rules reduce the effect of buying and stockpiling all the best players. Having all the best players would be an effective strategy.
11:26 PM Jan 14th
Thank you once again for your clear thinking, Bill.
7:48 PM Jan 14th
We might think that MLB.TV would be Netflix to the mainstream's...well, mainstream. But no! On MLB.TV, when you've paid your subscription there are commercials between innings and when there aren't, there are highlights of old games. And you can't fast-forward through them.

But hey, it's in summer so as Bill says, I can just go mountain-climbing instead. And I do.
3:21 PM Jan 14th
Over-reliance on a single strategy is most obviously damaging in a war or in the circumstances that lead to a war. The story you hear is that in its wars, the U.S. military has a bias toward attaining control of the air, and this leads it to neglect control of the ground, where the people it fights are living. Hence the inability to subdue Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
2:42 PM Jan 14th
Don't forget that baseball is a game in which a team often can NOT use its best players, certainly not as often as it would want to. Miller Huggins, the Manager of the 1927 NY Yankees, would have liked to use Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in every at bat, but he couldn't- besides them, he had to draw up a lineup which included the shortstop, the catcher, and the pitcher. The "second best" relief pitcher on a team might well be as good as the first best reliever after 70 innings.
1:33 AM Jan 14th
Great references to how this has applied (and is applying) to things besides baseball.

I sometimes think baseball teaches us about everything.
Correction: I always think it.

Bill, it's one of the things I've most appreciated about your writing: how the things you say can be key for things in general. And really, the gist of this article is much the same as the main gist that I've gotten generally out of your work forever:
Issues have multiple factors within them, operating in different directions and carrying different weights. Try to discern what are the main factors for any given issue, have an idea of what direction they operate in and how much, and crunch it all together in the most meaningful way you can.

I use it in everything.
12:37 AM Jan 14th
Regarding the original question about relievers, my guess is that the combination of two relievers pitching 70 innings each is less effective than the single 140-inning reliever--in the season where he's actually pitching 140 innings. The gain comes from the increased likelihood that the ace will pitch 70 effective innings the next year, and the year after that, instead of tearing a ligament or a rotator cuff.

That's my guess, like I said. I haven't studied the question of whether relievers tend to stay healthier now than 40 years ago.

10:32 PM Jan 13th
Despite being a certified baseball nut, I stopped watching baseball games decades ago. The commercials drove me crazy. Not only every half inning, but worse, every bloody time a reliever comes in. Nothing kills the excitement of a rally more than switching to a commercial just as a team brings in a reliever to quell a rally.

Getting even more tangental to a discusion of strategies, how about balance? Everything in life has sweetspots - just the right balance or ratios. They may flucuant, but at any given moment, there is an optimal amount.

6:43 PM Jan 13th
Strategy, in baseball at least, has hit a point where the game is boring. That's why baseball is losing interest among the youngins. It's boring. Baseball needs rule changes because the dominant strategies of today are creating a boring game that after my generation no one will care about.
5:37 PM Jan 13th
Stolen base attempts (SB+CS per 40 PA), after rising steadily between 1950 and 1980 have been falling pretty consistently since. Stolen base success rates [SB divided by (SB+CS)] have been rising steadily since the 1920s.
4:59 PM Jan 13th
I started thinking about the "three true outcomes" offenses yesterday, really about this issue (see my post in the reader post section). Overall, runs per game have not varied much over time. But since 1980, the game has shifted toward a lot more strikeouts (up from 12.5% of plate appearances to 23.4%), and more home runs (from 1.9% to 3.5%). (Unintentional walks haven't changed significantly.) But my sense is that for a lot of fans these changes have degraded the game experience even as scoring has, basically, not changed. I don't know whether the rising strikeout rate (which really took off around 1980) led to the rising home un rates, or vice versa. But it does seem that, once it started, it has fed on itself.
4:36 PM Jan 13th
This idea is true, and I've never seen it expressed so clearly. I thought of an example from football. For years, football rules have been modified to encourage more passing and scoring. There's a cost to that: more injuries. In brief,

More passing = more plays from scrimmage
More scoring = more kickoffs, which are more dangerous than plays from scrimmage
More passing = more high impact collisons

More plays per game + more passes + more kickoffs = more injuries. Not because the individual plays themselves aren't safer than the plays that were run in 1975, but because of the increase in the number of plays being run. It's a huge cost that's not totally offset by safety measures or advances in medicine, training, and equipment.
3:06 PM Jan 13th
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