I follow the Cleveland Indians, who are sort of the unsuccessful version of the Oakland A’s. They’re run by the sort of guys glorified in Moneyball, but they’ve made the playoffs only once in 11 years, and are about the miss again, and by a lot. Perhaps unsurprisingly – if maddingly, for Indians fans – the front office seems to be responding to the team’s failures by doubling down on dorkitude. The other day the team website featured a piece saying that Ubaldo Jimenez, who’s been one of the worst pitchers in baseball since the Indians acquired him more than a year ago, has actually pitched quite well of late – even though he’s given up just as many hits and runs as usual, in his Indians tenure. The GM and manager cited some stat-nerd numbers in support of their argument, and in fact they may well have a case that if he keeps this up, the hits and runs will come in more of a trickle, rather than a torrent. Be that as it may, the piece can only reinforce the widespread perception that these guys will do anything to rationalize their own failures, obsessing about any and all numbers that – ahem! – don’t go by the shorthand “W” or “L.” Wasn’t there anyone in the front office who thought that putting out this story might not be such a good idea? Its appearing shows not just that they’re nerds, but that their office has been enveloped by a groupthink bubble.
But is that always bad? What about Apple under Steve Jobs? That was groupthink city, including in the company’s darkest days, and everything turned out pretty nicely in the end. Maybe, like Apple, the Indians front office is filled with geniuses who’ve had a string of bad luck and been undermined by just a few of their decisions going wrong. Plenty of smart baseball observers are taken by the team’s approach, and every year they seem to win what I call the Rob Neyer World Series, when this (hardcore stat-nerd) writer proclaims them his dark horse pick to go deep into the playoffs, or even – at last – win it all. I imagine that every time this happens, the champagne and confetti come out in the Indians offices, no matter that it’s usually February and if you threw or spilled either outside in Cleveland, it would get lost in the snow.
In all seriousness, I wonder how the team’s owners, at season’s end, will assess the performance of the team president, the GM, and their staff – the guys who make the baseball decisions. On bottom-line numbers – Ws and Ls – they should all be fired. But is that the right criterion to use? Just now, the Moneyball way offers the only compelling approach for building a winning team on no money. Other cheapskate Moneyball teams – the A’s, the Rays – have gone through tough times. But Moneyball has worked for them. The Indians owners have no money, or at least none they’ll spend on anything beyond minimal major league player salaries and the standard minor-league player development costs. So Moneyball is the way to go, if they want an approach that’s both coherent and offers some demonstrable chance of success. So maybe for them, the front office unthinkingly showcasing its own stat-nerdiness, in a time when the team is losing up a storm, could serve as proof that they’ve got the right guys. The same ones, unfortunately, who are so into their idiosyncratic approach to their work, they’ve shut themselves off to anyone who would them that they look like idiots.