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Joe Posnanski, Bill James, Professionalism and the Love of the Game

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http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2009/writers/joe_posnanski/08/31/bill.james/index.html?eref=sihp

One of the many things that strikes me about Bill James -- who is just one month away from his 60th birthday -- is that his mind never stops whirling. Here we are watching an astonishingly boring game between the Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royals last week, and suddenly, out of nowhere he says this:

"You know one little way in which baseball changes us? We don't even think twice about Japanese names anymore. You know what I mean? Remember how foreign those names used to sound to us a few years ago? But now I can think about Masahide Kobayashi and it just feels familiar, you know what I mean?"

...

"The problem is the idea of professionalism," Bill says, while we watch Kansas City's Willie Bloomquist ground out to second. This has been an overpowering thought for Bill the last few years -- his idea is that for all the good that has come from it, "professionalism" has taken a heavy toll on American society. "Cops became police officers, but the crime rate soared," he wrote in the New Historical Baseball Abstract. "Professionalism in law has brought us the O.J. Simpson case in lieu of justice. ... Professionalism in medicine has given us medial miracles for the affluent but hospitals that will charge $35 for aspirin."

In baseball, he thinks the pursuit of professionalism has made teams like the Kansas City Royals second-class. The Royals don't have enough money to compete the same way as the Red Sox, Angels or Tigers. A short boxer cannot win using the outside jab. A quarterback with a weak arm will not win by throwing deep. A 5-foot-10 basketball player cannot make it to the NBA with a back-to-the-basket game. The one sure way that the Royals will lose is by using the same blueprint as the New York Yankees.

And yet ... that's what the Royals (and other small market teams) do. They play the game conventionally. They fall back on old ideas. They hire old school managers and preach old school baseball values and scout players on the same 20-80 scale that players have been scouted for 50 years. Bill pulls out his spiral notebook -- he always brings a spiral notebook to games -- and on a page he draws two ladders, one on top of the other. The higher ladder is the "professional" ladder. The lower ladder he calls the "amateur" ladder. He then draws a picture of someone dangling from the bottom rung of the professional ladder. That, he says, is the Kansas City Royals.

...

Is Bill saying that the Royals or the Reds or the Pirates or the Nationals really should do such a thing? No. He's saying that they would never even THINK about doing such a thing because it would look unprofessional. People would laugh. And that potential laughter keeps teams like the Royals locked in their boxes, a permanent baseball underclass clinging to the ever-fading hope that (through luck and instinct and, yes, professionalism) they might collect enough good players to contend for a little while.

The Royals are on pace to lose 100 games for the fifth time in eight years. The Pirates have had a losing record every year since 1993. The Reds will have their ninth consecutive losing season this year. The Baltimore Orioles lost the American League Championship Series in 1997 and have not won 80 games in a season since.

To Bill: That's professionalism at work.

...

But Bill doesn't love baseball statistics. And he isn't cynical, either. No, it's just that Bill doesn't accept anything at face value. He believes every single thing should be questioned and then questioned again and then questioned again. The world is a big and complicated place. Baseball is a big and complicated game. We can't understand it all ... and what has driven Bill James for most of his life is just that, bursting the arrogance of anyone who thinks (even for a moment) that they have it all figured out.

Still ... he does love baseball. He loves the stuff that some people might not think he loves -- the smell of the grass, the crack of the bat, the nicknames, the chatter on the field, the way strangers talk to each other in the stands. He figures baseball statistics because he would like to get a little closer to the truth. And on occasion he can come across as harsh because he does not suffer fools, and he is allergic to the stuff my father always called "baloney."

But he still gets a thrill out of baseball games, even lousy ones like this game. He likes to observe different batting stances. He likes to think along with a pitcher. He likes the rhythm of a game that just goes along, slow drumbeat, and then suddenly crescendos with a fantastic moment.

"That was a great play," he says as he applauds the Royals throwing out Cleveland's Jamey Carroll at the plate. Kansas City's center fielder Mitch Maier had made a nice throw to shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt who had made a solid throw to catcher Olivo, who placed the tag on Carroll. You would mark it 8-6-2 in your score book, but that's the thing. Bill isn't keeping score.

The "professionalism" section is an interesting point. I think that really goes to the heart of, for example, Moneyball; both the concept and the reaction. The whole idea is to use your resources to produce the most wins, using unconventional methods if that is what you need to do. And what form has most of the negative reaction taken? Ridicule.

I also like the take on Bill James. I don't think there are very many better people to watch a game with, and the idea that most of what he has figured out about the sport over the years has come simply from asking, "Why?" is something we could all think about.

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Earlier this year, Malcom Gladwell wrote a New Yorker article on this same subject - how underdogs can win by using unconventional strategies.

The full article is long, but worth reading. It's actually mostly about high school basketball - here's an excerpt:

David's victory over Goliath, in the Biblical account, is held to be an anomaly. It was not. Davids win all the time. The political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft recently looked at every war fought in the past two hundred years between strong and weak combatants. The Goliaths, he found, won in 71.5 per cent of the cases. That is a remarkable fact. Arreguín-Toft was analyzing conflicts in which one side was at least ten times as powerful—in terms of armed might and population—as its opponent, and even in those lopsided contests the underdog won almost a third of the time.

In the Biblical story of David and Goliath, David initially put on a coat of mail and a brass helmet and girded himself with a sword: he prepared to wage a conventional battle of swords against Goliath. But then he stopped. "I cannot walk in these, for I am unused to it," he said (in Robert Alter's translation), and picked up those five smooth stones. What happened, Arreguín-Toft wondered, when the underdogs likewise acknowledged their weakness and chose an unconventional strategy? He went back and re-analyzed his data. In those cases, David's winning percentage went from 28.5 to 63.6. When underdogs choose not to play by Goliath's rules, they win, Arreguín-Toft concluded, "even when everything we think we know about power says they shouldn't."

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Earlier this year, Malcom Gladwell wrote a New Yorker article on this same subject - how underdogs can win by using unconventional strategies.

The full article is long, but worth reading. It's actually mostly about high school basketball - here's an excerpt:

I remember reading this a few months ago. It really is a terrific article.

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Earlier this year, Malcom Gladwell wrote a New Yorker article on this same subject - how underdogs can win by using unconventional strategies.

The full article is long, but worth reading. It's actually mostly about high school basketball - here's an excerpt:

Yeah, someone posted that in the comments on Poz's blog, and I got to read it there. I highly recommend it as well.

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That was a terrific piece, and the professionalism bit has a lot of truth to it. As I'm sure most of you know I'm an unyielding critic of the baseball establishment doing stuff only because that's the way the 1912 Giants did it. Or because that's where the rules committee just happened to stop flailing around in 1888.

You see teams like the Royals and the O's and the Pirates constantly trying to win by doing little miniature versions of what the Yankees and Sox do. Of course it fails. When your big thing is to sign Mike Benjamin to a 4/12 contract and they sign Burnett to a 5/85 deal, of course you're going to fail.

I think it's good that MacPhail is so heavily emphasizing developing pitching. The Yanks want a balanced team with a balanced development system, so if the O's have 143 pitching prospects that's an advantage that can be exploited. If they just go toe-to-toe with the big clubs trying to match them at each position they'll absolutely fail.

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http://joeposnanski.com/JoeBlog/2009/09/02/a-few-baseball-ideas/

A follow-up, including mentions of the Orioles! :P

More great stuff. But unfortunately we're not on the verge of a breakthrough, we're not going to see any unconventional strategies any time soon.

Look at indy leagues. The Atlantic League, or the Northern League. When the Northern League first started up they had a definite streak of unconventional-ness. They had a pitch clock for the first year. The St. Paul Saints were run by Mike Veeck, and he did all kinds of goofy promotions, spawning a million minor league imitators. But the pitch clock was unworkable, and now they're just plain vanilla leagues with plain vanilla coaches and manangers straight out of the MLB establishment.

I'm sure somebody runs a 4-man rotation, and they might do a few semi-, quasi-innovative stuff out of desperation and necessity, like occasionally letting their right fielder pitch. But 99% of the time every single indy league team, who has absolutely nothing to lose by being crazy and everything to gain in popularity and marketing and maybe even on-field success, just uses the same ideas that the 1940 Boston Braves used, or every other professional team today uses.

This spring the York Revolution toyed with the idea of employing a 3' tall person as a designated pinch hitter. He'd just walk every time up, and a walk that always occurs in a high-leverage situation would be a huge benefit. But they chickened out.

If you can't get a completely unaffiliated team that draws 3000 people a game and is full of non-prospects and former MLBers long past their expiration dates to be truly innovative, what hope do we have for the rest of the baseball establishment?

I think our only hope is a project like this. We, yes I mean we, need to start a webpage, start a project, with the goal of buying the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs. Or some other independent league team. And run it the way we think a baseball team needs to be run.

Of course the problem with that is once we have 10,000 people together pitching in their own money the strategies that come out of our committee of the whole will look a lot like those employed by the 1940 Boston Braves.

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I never post here - mostly just read, but this is one of the best hidden threads I've ever seen here. Great links and articles. Especially the soccer team. It's almost unbelievable that no one is willing to break the mold in a major US sport.

I suppose the football Dolphins have tried recently with their alternative formations to an extent. It seems that the craziest idea in baseball now is shifting the defense for an extreme pull hitter and then every team ends up doing the same thing for the exact same batter. Ultimately the decision to employ unusual tactics has to be a decision made by upper-management. Otherwise it will be short lived.

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I think our only hope is a project like this. We, yes I mean we, need to start a webpage, start a project, with the goal of buying the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs. Or some other independent league team. And run it the way we think a baseball team needs to be run.

Are the Blue Crabs for sale? And for how much?

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Are the Blue Crabs for sale? And for how much?

No, I'm sure they're not. I was just using them as an example.

I think Atlantic League expansion teams have been in the neighborhood of $5M or $10M. That's still a lot of money. If you got 10,000 people to contribute that's still $500 each. Then you'd still have to convince the Atlantic League management to allow your unorthodox group to have a team. Then there's the matter of a stadium...

The beauty of the open system in European soccer is that there are stable, long-term professional and semi-pro teams down to very small levels. The team that the internet group bought was for well under £1M, or maybe a bit over $1M. You can swing $100 a head.

In US baseball the only way to get a team that cheap would be an indy league franchise that's struggling, or is in a league that isn't very stable. Which would make it much harder to get contributors.

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