Neal Huntington And Jack Zduriencik: Process Or Results?

Yesterday there was an interesting discussion about the Mariners' failed season in the FanPosts, and in the comment thread there was some stuff about Dave Cameron, who writes for FanGraphs and USS Mariner, and his role in hyping the Mariners and their general manager, Jack Zduriencik.

As for Cameron's specific arguments before the season, I'm mostly going to stay out of it. I really like his writing (he's an entertaining polemicist, if nothing else), but I didn't pay close enough attention at the time. Since then, though, he's received a ton of criticism, at least by baseball-blogger standards, and much of it focused on his March article that called the Mariners the sixth-best organization in baseball.

Everyone who has blogged about baseball for more than a few weeks knows that it's easy to get things wrong, and it happens all the time. For example, I liked Andy LaRoche a lot and completely missed the boat on Jose Bautista. That sort of thing happens constantly, and when you have the courage to say what you think will happen, you have to deal with possibility that you'll miss. No one gets them all.

That said, I'm glad I've never had to defend an article like the one Cameron wrote. To his credit, he did defend it, and the defense goes in some interesting directions.

I’m of the opinion that we should see everything in shades of probability. Since we don’t know what’s going to happen, I don’t find a lot of value in predictions. They are, for all intents and purposes, just guesses, some more informed than others. For instance, in my pre-season just for fun predictions post, I named Josh Hamilton as my AL MVP. I thought he was in store for a pretty good year. I had no idea he was going to go nuts like he has, of course, and I don’t think he’s proven that I had some special insight into how his season was going to go.

So, when people point to the Mariners record and how 2010 has turned out, I don’t look at it as proof that this result was inevitable. It was one of many possible outcomes, and one I tried to make clear was possible ahead of time.

Right. Cameron's hype of Zduriencik was a bit much to begin with, but it wouldn't have looked so silly if the M's hadn't been much worse than anyone had predicted. Only so much of what happens in any given season is foreseeable, and even then, it's imprecise. For the Pirates this year, the emergences of James McDonald and Evan Meek weren't inevitable. The implosion of Charlie Morton wasn't inevitable. They were simply outcomes, among many others that could have happened but didn't.

More:

Yes, teams with bad processes get lucky sometimes. If you watch enough poker, you’ll see a lot of bad players beat good players with hands they should have never been involved in to begin with. But the good players are good players because the understand that small advantages add up over time, and they’re willing to put their money on the line when they have an advantage because, more often than not, they’ll win.

More often than not, the good process teams beat the bad process teams. It won’t always work out that way, because there are far too many variables that clubs cannot control, but you want to bet on the teams that are doing things the right way, not on teams that are relying on career years from unexpected sources.

I love poker analogies, both because I'm interested in poker and because it's really similar to general managing. You only have so much control over the results. All you can do is improve your odds by playing well. And if you play a lot, you learn that it isn't even particularly healthy to worry about the results, at least not on a day-to-day basis. You should only worry about getting your money in good and playing well.

The question, when evaluating a GM, is not, "Is he getting good results?" but rather, "Is he playing well?" That's counterintuitive (because obviously the temptation to judge the GM based solely on how the team is doing is so enormous), and complicated (because figuring out if a GM is playing well is a lot more difficult than figuring out if he's getting good results). Also, we can't see all the GM's cards, and so sometimes we have to look at the results to see how he's playing.

The point, though, is that the process is what we should focus on, and it's no accident that Neal Huntington and Frank Coonelly talk about it all the time. There are only so many outcomes they can control, so they just have to focus on those. And when people here defend Huntington, I think what they're mostly saying is that he's getting the process right, not that the results are necessarily going to turn out perfectly.

That might sound like excuse-making, or like this, but it isn't. If Major League Baseball were like a poker tournament, the Pirates would be one of the shortest stacks at the table. With good play and some excellent luck, they could come out on top. But because they can make so few moves and have to depend so heavily on the whims of chance, the distribution of possible outcomes is still skewed toward failure. I'm probably known as one of Huntington's biggest supporters, and even I don't think it's very likely he'll even be able to lead the Bucs to the playoffs. But I think that's largely a function of the size of his stack, rather than an inability to play.

Unless Major League Baseball makes a new tournament where everyone starts with the same number of chips, though, I think Huntington's plan of building through the minors is basically correct, and there's no reason to try something different. Although I have some qualms with many of Huntington's smaller decisions (fascination with guys who throw hard but can't pitch, inability to build benches thus far, the whole Akinori Iwamura debacle), I'll continue to give him the benefit of the doubt, because I think he's mostly playing strong poker.

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