I know most of you on this site are on board with the Cubs strategy when it comes to things like the draft, signing free agents, and promoting prospects. But if you have the temerity to delve into social media and sample a wider swath of Cubs fans, you’ll quickly find that the feeling isn’t universal.
You’ll find fans that want to promote Kris Bryant and Javier Baez to the majors now. You’ll find fans who feel the Cubs erred by not drafting and/or trading for pitching when that is considered the team’s biggest long term question. You will find a whole lot of people who now think the Cubs dropped the ball when they signed Edwin Jackson.
Well, all of us can agree in hindsight that the signing didn’t work out the way the Cubs hoped. But it’s hard to argue with the process that led them to that decision. And that in a nutshell is what this article is about. It’s about using objective measurements to give you the best odds for success. You may lose some of the time, but if you consistently play the odds, you will win more than you lose.
Odds are a tricky thing. So is logic. People misunderstand them all the time. Things like confirmation bias mess with our perception. Sometimes we add extraneous information. Sometimes things simply aren’t intuitive as intuitive as they seem.
Just for some nerdy fun, here are a couple of non-baseball examples of what I mean,
I read this question a few months ago in an article on a study that intended to show how the general population is biased against atheists,
“The study asked participants to decide if a fictional driver damaged a parked car and left the scene, then found a wallet and took the money, was the driver more likely to be an a) teacher,b) an atheist teacher, or c) a rapist teacher?”
The article remarked at how people were as likely to answer b as they were c. But that isn’t what caught my attention. What caught my attention was the obvious logical flaw in the question.
Can you see it?
Remember the old “Lets Make a Deal” game show? Well, if you understand how odds work, you could give yourself a better chance to win should you ever find yourself in such a situation.
For those who don’t know the set-up, the contestant was given a choice to pick one of 3 doors, one of which had a prize of value behind it and the other 2 with little or no value at all. Let’s say the prizes were a car and the other two contained non-prizes or prizes of minimal value. To keep it uncomplicated, let’s say the other 2 doors contained a goat.
You would make your guess, say door #3. Then the host, Monty Hall, would reveal that one of the other two doors contained one of the goats, let’s say door #1. You now have a choice of sticking with your original choice of door #3 or switching to door #2.
What do you do?
I am not trying to torment you with logic and probability problems here that I know you hoped you were done with when you finished school. I am just trying to make a point here that our intuition, while often useful, can also betray us. Sometimes what seems logical, really isn’t. And we should always pay attention to facts and statistical odds if we want to get things correct more often than not.
Below are the answers. People of all intelligence and educational levels were fooled by these questions, so don’t feel bad if you didn’t get them right.
In example #1, the answer is simple. It is A because all the choices are teachers. B and C are subsets of A and they cannot be more likely as possibilities. An atheist teacher is still a teacher, a rapist teacher is still a teacher. Even if it turns out that only atheist teachers would steal the wallet, then at minimum that puts them in a tie with teachers as a whole. Odds are that you’ll get at least one from more than one category who would steal the wallet, so you are far more likely to be right if you just answer A because that, by definition, includes every teacher who would steal the wallet.
Example #2 is a bit more complex. Once you pick door #3, you have a 1/3 chance of being correct and a 2/3 chance of being wrong. People assume that once door #1 is eliminated the odds change to 50/50 between the two doors, so you might as well stick with your original choice. But that is incorrect. The odds do not change. When you picked door #3 you had a 1/3 chance of being right, meaning that there was a 2/3 chance that the correct answer was door #1 or door #2. Even after you eliminate door #1, it doesn’t suddenly increase the odds that your original choice was right. There is still a 2/3 chance it was one of the other two. By eliminating one of those doors, Monty did you a tremendous favor because now there is a 2/3 chance the car is behind door #2 and still a 1/3 chance that your original answer was correct. You have to switch your answer because it doubles your chances of winning the car. Don’t believe me? Try it for yourself.
Now these kind of scenarios don’t pop up in baseball, at least not in a literal way. It’s just a fun exercise to show you how intuition can sometimes fail you and why you have to develop a decision making process that relies on logic, probability, and objectivity. You may not be right every time, but it increases your odds of being right.
On Promoting Players
Eliminating answers such as the need to be entertained or to have cookies in a season where fans are starving for something fun to watch, I will focus on those answers that at least try to look at things from a baseball standpoint. So what are some of the intuitive arguments for promoting players?
The intuitive argument
- Players can benefit from experience in the majors.
- You cannot worry about 6 years from now, put your best team on the field now.
- The Cubs have a lot of money and can always sign players to team friendly deals like they did with Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro.
The problem is that we don’t know any of this. Some players benefit and some don’t, but there is no objective way of knowing beforehand. Castro and Jeff Samardzija were able to adapt on the fly, but Anthony Rizzo had to be sent back, as did Brett Jackson, Josh Vitters, and quite possibly, Mike Olt and Junior Lake. It worked out for Rizzo but the future of the other 4 players are very uncertain right now.
We also know that Castro and Rizzo were willing to sign team friendly extensions, but Matt Garza and Samardzija were not.
These answers are at best subjective and speculative. There is no objective process to measure it’s value, so it isn’t something you can rely on with any kind of consistency.
So we focus on what we do know or at least on what is likely to happen:
The objective argument
- Moving players to the roster now means you will have to remove a current player from the current roster now and it will mean one less eligible player you can protect from the Rule 5 draft later. For every non-roster player you promote now, you stand the possibility of losing 2 players for that privilege. Regardless of what you think of those players, that is objectively a loss. The Cubs lost assets and did not gain any in that process. There are times when losing assets become unavoidable, but the Cubs are not yet at that point. So why lose them now if you don’t have to?
- Promoting a player now will cause them to become a free agent earlier as opposed to waiting until May of next year. You are trading 3 months now for an entire year later. That in itself is an objective loss. What’s more, given that, historically, players tend to be better players by that 6th year than they are in their first 3 months. You are not only objectively losing time with that player, you are probably losing time with a better version of that player.
- While the Cubs can afford to pay their players when they are free agents, it is objectively better to pay them their 6th year at the cost-controlled rate than it will to pay them open market value. The same player for less money is better value than the same player for more money. Payroll budgets are finite, and any money you can save on one player gives you additional money you can spend to acquire or sign another.
On drafting (or trading for) position players instead of pitchers
The intuitive argument
- Teams win with good pitching.
- The Cubs don’t have top of the rotation pitching prospects in their system.
The objective argument
- The rate of success for college hitters drafted is much higher than that of either college pitchers or high school pitchers. You are far more likely to obtain value by drafting a college hitters.
- That value becomes a commodity. It is an asset that can be exchanged for assets of equal perceived value. You draft the best available player. If you think a college hitter can be a grade 7 player while the best pitcher can be a grade 6. You grab the grade 7 player, not just because he has more value, but because he can be exchanged for an equal value if needed down the road. Also, by drafting the player that is more likely to succeed, you can wait a couple of years and eliminate some of the risk involved when trading for pitchers, who are demonstrably less likely to succeed. You will have bought yourself two more years of information on a pitcher and thereby eliminate all those arms who turned out to be unhealthy or ineffective. By the time you want to trade your position player asset for a hitter, you have shrunk the pool of potentially successful pitching draft picks and thus eliminated much of the speculation. That is objectively a better position to be in than taking on that initial risk yourself.
On Free Agency
- Sign the most well-known and historically productive players on the market, regardless of cost. Results are paramount. You win with the best proven talent.
- Sign the players who are more likely to have success in the future.
- Sign players based on metrics that focus on things that a player can control individually. He cannot take environmental factors with him, so traditional statistics like RBI, ERA, Wins, are at least partly influenced by the team around him. Advanced metrics like BABIP, walk rates, K rates are much more dependent on the individual and can be carried over to a new environment. If the advanced metrics are good and/or trending upward while the traditional statistics lag behind, the chances are you have an undervalued player.
- Players that are below 30 have a higher probability of sustaining or even improving performance than players that are over 30.
Players like Edwin Jackson fit the objective argument very well, so that is why you make that investment. Does it guarantee success? Of course it doesn’t. Neither does drafting college hitters or waiting to promote players.
But those decisions are based on higher probabilities, known quantities and objective measurements. In a game where nothing is certain, you have to at least reduce some of the uncertainty. You cannot stick with door #3 based on your intuition when door #2 is far more likely to yield success. You may get the goat anyway, as the Cubs have from time to time, but by following good process you at least decrease your odds of doing so while simultaneously increasing the odds that you get the car.
Until the Cubs find a way to peek behind the doors, that is all you can ask.
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