Friday, September 14, 2012

The Worst Front Office Move Ever?

Babe Ruth (1918)
Babe Ruth (1918)
It's not hard for most people to come up with a list of "dumb front office moves" in the history of baseball. Here are 10 off the top of my head:
  • #10. Philadelphia Phillies trade Larry Bowa and Ryne Sandberg to the Chicago Cubs for Ivan DeJesus. (1982)
  • #9. The Cincinnati Reds trade Frank Robinson to the Baltimore Orioles for Milt Pappas. (1965)
  • #8. The Cubs trade Dennis Eckersley to the A's for three guys that never made it to The Show (OF David Wilder, IF Brian Guinn, and P Mark Leonette). (1987)
  • #7. Chicago Cubs trade Lou Brock to the St. Louis Cardinals for Ernie Broglio. (1964)
  • #6. Tigers trade John Smoltz to the Braves for Doyle Alexander. (1987)
  • #5. The Expos trade Randy Johnson, Gene Harris and Brian Holman to the Seattle Mariners for Mike Campbell and Mark Langston. (1989)
  • #4. The Expos (again) trade Pedro Martinez to the Red Sox for Carl Pavano and Tony Armas. (1997)
  • #3. Cincinnati Reds trade Christy Mathewson to the New York Giants for Amos Rusie. (Rusie would only play 3 more games before retiring with arm trouble). (1900)
  • #2. Mets trade pitchers Nolan Ryan and 3 other players to the California Angels for Jim Fregosi. (1971)
  • #1. The Red Sox sell Babe Ruth to Yankees for $200,000. (1919)
This list is far from complete. But the problem with the above list is that we only know they are bad moves with the benefit of hindsight. If the move seemed reasonable at the time, then we can't honestly say that it was a horrible move. An action is smart or dumb based on the facts on the ground at the time it is made. You can't go back after the fact and call something stupid because it didn't happen to work out.

For example, lets say you are trailing 4-3 and you have Dave Roberts on 1st base in the bottom of the 9th. And just for fun, let's say that you're managing the Red Sox in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS. The right move is to steal second. It increases your chance to win. Even if Roberts is caught stealing, it is still the correct move.

Pedro Martinez
Although Pedro Martinez is a future Hall-Of-Famer who helped the Red Sox break an 86-year losing streak, the Expos did avoid having to cough up a giant free agent contract to keep Pedro in Montreal. One could argue it wasn't a bad move at the time.

Legend holds that 
Harry Frazee sold Ruth to finance a musical, but the truth is that Ruth was demanding a 100% raise. Frazee actually unloaded The Babe for the same reason that the Expos traded Pedro: money. The Red Sox owner said of the deal at the time:
"With this money the Boston club can now go into the market and buy other players and have a stronger and better team in all respects than we would have had if Ruth had remained with us."
However, it seems clear that Frazee was only covering up the fact that he had put his financial priorities above his team's chances to win. The New York Times knew that the Yankees had made out like bandits before Ruth played his first game in pinstripes:
"The short right field wall at the Polo Grounds should prove an easy target for Ruth next season and, playing seventy-seven games at home, it would not be surprising if Ruth surpassed his home run record of twenty-nine circuit clouts next Summer."
So, that seems like a trade that you don't need hindsight to criticize. To find the worst front office move ever, we need to find a move at least as comically stupid as selling Babe Ruth.

Luckily, the Nationals have made the search very easy, by shutting down Stephen Strasburg for the rest of the season.

Stephen Strasburg
As I write this, the Washington Nationals have the best record in baseball (89-54) and the best top 3 starters in the National League. If you simulate the rest of the season 10,000 times, the Nationals win the World Series an amazing 26.0% of the time.

Without Strasburg, their World Championship chances drop to 19.7% -- a 24% reduction in their chance at a title. To look at it another way, shutting down Strasburg costs the team .063 World Championships (.260 championships minus .197 championships). And this doesn't even account for any psychological effect on the other players because their team is waving the white flag in September.

Is it worth cutting your title chances by almost 1/4th to keep Strasburg healthy?

Without shutting him down, the chance of a "complete recovery" from Tommy John surgery is 85-92%Just for the fun of it, let's assume that shutting down Strasburg raises the success rate to a 100%. So, shutting him down might eliminate a 15% chance of ruining his arm.

Strasburg becomes a free agent after 2016, at which point he has absolutely no value to the Nationals. So Washington is trying to save his arm for the next four years.

The Nationals are a good team. But they aren't the 1927 Yankees. At best, the Nats start 2013 as the favorites to win the World Series. Unlikely, but possible. Even as the best team in the majors, they have about a 15% chance to win the World Series. Without Strasburg, this drops to about 11%.

As a rough rule of thumb, each win adds about 1% to a team's World Championship chances (among teams in playoff contention). If Strasburg averages a WAR of 4.0, then the Nats' chance of winning it all drops by about 4% without him.

So the Nationals lose .04 World Titles in 2013 if Strasburg is on the DL for the entire season. Add up the years from 2013 through 2016, and you could conceivably get the value of a healthy Strasburg up to .16 World Series titles. In other words, a 100% chance of keeping Strasburg healthy is worth 0.16 more World Series titles than a 0% chance of keeping him healthy. 

But we assumed that shutting down Strasburg can only increase the chance of him staying healthy by 15% (at most). So we have to multiply that 0.16 World Series titles by 0.15. Now the value of shutting him down to keep him healthy for the next 4 years is only .024 World Series titles over the next four years -- that's less than 40% of the value that you are giving up in just one year by shutting him down for the rest of the season.

And remember, this is assuming that the Nationals have the best team in baseball for the next 4 years -- a pretty absurd assumption. It is far more likely that the Nats regress to the mean. If they do, then a healthy Strasburg has even less value in terms of World Championships.

Even in the most charitable analysis, the Nationals are idiots. And you don't need the benefit of hindsight to figure that one out.


Unknown said...

i agree wiht you on Strasburg, this whole thing has been mishandled from the beginning of the year

Dro said...

I don't get admit that "dumb" should be analyzed according to the apparent factors at the time of the decision, and still call this list the "dumbest front office decisions". Simply put, that is a terrible list in that case.

#6 is a perfect example of this. Doyle Alexander did exactly what was expected of him post-trade. The vast majority of traded minor-league SPs have amounted to nothing...the fact that the Braves got a low-pedigre (22nd round pick), very young, and to that point unproductive pitcher who became John Smoltz was more bad luck than bad decision.

The Babe Ruth sale falls under this even more so. It was NOT just a money decision...there were a myriad of reasons the team sold Ruth, including his becoming the first player who fits our contemporary "diva" label, a lifestyle that could have left him dead in his apartment at any time, and trouble in the clubhouse. Go read the NY Times writeups from after the was considered to be a very wise decision at the time, and it's worth noting that Ruth was sold for the HIGHEST dollar amount ever for a baseball player at that point. Without a doubt, the correct just ended up being a poor one.

If you want to make the list "moves that turned out worst in hindsight", go for it. Simply put, though, this is NOT in any way a "dumb FO moves" list.

Anonymous said...

I thought the point of the Stasburg shutdown was to protect his health and his long term productivity.

Given that there so few pitchers have gone through what he's gone through, nobody can KNOW if shutting him down is better for his long term health than letting him pitch as often as he can.

Given that Strasburg has "already done the job", it doesn't seem unreasonable for him to be shut down as far as I can tell.

I assume he'll pitch in the post season and he's getting some work here and there to keep sharp.

Dumbest move ever? Again, nobody will know until the future unfolds.

Randy said...

As a Tiger fan, I'll agree with #6. Yes, Alexander helped Detroit make the postseason. But it cost them a young, talented pitcher in john Smoltz, and created a logjam in the rotation, giving Detroit 6 starters for 5 spots. They then traded Dan Petry for Gary Pettis to relieve this, and were stuck with three starters on the wrong side of 30, and all locked under contract through 1988.Had they not made this trade, by 1991, the Tigers could've had a rotation of Jack Morris, Dan Petry, Eric King, Jeff Robinson, and John Smoltz. that's not that bad.The rotation in 1991 was...

As for the Mark Langston trade, it really wasn't that bad. In essence, considering how the players worked out, it amounted to trading a wild young lefty, Randy Johnson, for a veteran control pitcher who was a staff ace, Mark Langston, on a team that badly needed one. The only reason this trade didn't look so good is because the Expos missed the playoffs, and Langston left as a free agent.

You also forgot the Red Sox trading Jeff Bagwell to the Astros for Larry Andersen in 1989. Now *that* was a bad trade.

Anonymous said...

Most of those trades needed hindsight to determine who got the better deal.

Although Nolan Ryan was known to have blazing speed by the end of 1971, he had not been given many starts by the mets and Jim Fregosi had been thought by many fans to still be a player of allstar quality. My friends who were Angel fans at this time were shocked to here Fregosi was traded.

Now Milt Pappas had never established himself as an ace starter and everyone except the Reds GM new Frank Robinson still had gas in the tank back in 1965. Based on knowledge of the time, this has to be number 2.

Peter Shergalis
Baseball fan since the 1960's

ildd said...

What about the Red Sox trading Jeff Bagwell for Larry Andersen?

Anonymous said...

Maybe management is still working in "Expos mode" where you have to make dumb moves in order to ensure you never win anything.

Clay Dreslough said...

@Dro. I'm not saying it's a list of dumb front office moves. I'm saying that it's easy, without doing a lot of research, to come up with moves that people think were stupid, with the benefit of hindsight.

Clay Dreslough said...

I was going to add Bagwell, but I didn't want it to look like a list of Red Sox trades. ;)

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

* Martinez's trade from Hollywood to Montreal, even at the time was surprising.

* Doyle Alexander for John Smoltz?

* Willie McGee for Bob Sykes. Bob Sykes never played a game for the Yankees let alone major league baseball after the trade in 1981

* A year later in 1982 McGriff, Collins and Morgan are traded to the Blue Jays for ...... Yes the Yankees had Bye Bye Balboni on the team and they also had someone named Don Mattingly. Still, hindsight or not, what would have happened if McGriff stays in NY....memory serves he ended with 493 home runs. Would that have been 650 in Yankee Stadium? Does Gary Ward break McGriff's back?

* The Cubs trading Rafael Palmero and Jamie Moyer in 1988!!!

* Should we lambast the WhiteSox for trading Sammy Sosa?

Big said...

Seattle trading Derek Lowe and Jason Veritek to the Red Sox for Heathcliff Slocumb. Woody Woodward was a brutal GM.

Toastmaster said...

Steve Carlton from the Cardinals to the Phillies for Rick Wise over a few thousand dollars. Stupid at the time; stupid in retrospect.

BB said...

@BIG, yes and no, but Woody was never afraid to bloster the Roster, Vince Coleman, bullpen help in 1997, he tried to just improve the team. Better than "Stand Pat" or the distaster known as Bavasi. Bavasi took the mariners back to 1989 without the talent. Hurt the fan base, Woodward took the team forward, under his watch, he got Moyer, Buhner and many others including RJ.

Fyord said...

Totally mishandled Dennis/strasburg, surely someone must of raised that exact issue, or at least been thinking it wasn't going to pan out.

Smoltz, I will just never get.