Monday, October 23, 2006

I'm getting a decent amount of flak from people who defend every decision Jim Leyland and Tony La Russa make, because they managed less-than-elite teams into the World Series.

I want to make a few things clear:

- Jim Leyland and Tony La Russa are good managers.
- I don't believe I could manage a team better than either of these men.
- Nevertheless, they make poor choices with regard to many obvious decisions.

I play a lot of poker. In the poker world, when a winning player makes obvious errors that compound in the long run, they are called leaks. Though this player will still win plenty in the long run, perhaps even enough to earn a living, he will still fail to reach his potential win rate unless he stops making these basic errors.

Though there are a countless number of decisions a winning poker player must get right in the long run, two things are of paramount importance:

- Get the big decisions right. Big decisions usually mean close decisions in big pots. If you are able to win one big pot each session that a mediocre player wouldn't, you are way ahead of the game.

- Get the frequent decisions right. These are decisions that aren't a big deal in the short run, but come up quite often. For example, if you decide to just once play a terrible hand, like 8-4 offsuit in hold 'em, it doesn't cost you that much. If it costs you $10 to call, you may lose $4 or $5 per call in the long run. But if you start playing every hand, you will get killed in the long run as these losses add up.

In baseball, there are few truly big decisions that come up in big situations, and in most of these it is obvious what the best play is. Because sports "analysis" is based primarily on results, the praise usually goes to the manager who made the decision that turned out best, even if it made no sense at the time. If Yadier Molina had delivered a game-tying or game-winning hit in the ninth inning yesterday, La Russa would still be fighting off reporters asking him how he knew Molina was going to deliver. Jim Leyland could have made a (correct) big decision by bringing in Joel Zumaya after Todd Jones allowed the tying run to reach second base, but instead he looks brilliant for sticking with Jones, who got Molina to ground out to end the game.

We know why Leyland stuck with Jones: Jones is a "closer", and that label cannot be removed when it's still a save situation. I don't understand why Molina was allowed to bat, but presumably La Russa considered his options and decided the weak-hitting catcher was the best hitter he had available at the time, perhaps because of Molina's NLCS-winning homer last week. Either way, two managers each made poor decisions in a big spot, and the fact that one of them won the game should not affect the way they are viewed.

More common are the small errors that come up all the time. Writing the wrong player into a lineup card is a small error, but one that affects your team every game until you stop doing it. Every time Jim Leyland starts Ramon Santiago when Chris Shelton could be playing, he is costing himself perhaps .04 wins. This isn't a big deal if he does it only once per year. When he does it every day, that's over six wins a season lost, or in the case of the World Series, potentially .28 wins lost. In a series where a single game is often the difference between a championship ring and a long off-season of regret, it is absolutely unacceptable to make this kind of error.

Continuing to use Jones over Zumaya as the team's closer this season is a similar mistake. This one ended up costing the Tigers only a couple of wins this year, as Jones converted many more saves than he should have based on his other numbers, because he gave up most of his runs in non-save situations and constantly put the tying and winning runs on base before getting out of the inning, collecting the same "save" despite doing a much poorer job. Managers treat saves as a predictive stat, when they are simply a record of what has happened in the past.

If the managers in the major leagues cannot get these decisions right, it's time for them to hire someone who can. The NFL long ago hired specialized coaches for every position, and baseball teams have hitting coaches, base coaches, pitching coaches, bench coaches, and bullpen coaches. Baseball Prospectus estimates the value of an additional win at over $2 million. If teams can find the room in their budgets to give $40 million to a below-average, injury-prone starter, they can afford $20,000 for someone to make decisions like this correctly. It would take only .01 additional wins per year to earn this money back.

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