“The next revolution of baseball strategy will be in player development.”
This (or something like this) is a comment I ran across a few months ago that’s been rattling around in my head and has led to what I think are some pretty interesting insights into how to build a successful baseball organization, and into how the Mariners intend to go about doing just that.
The main thrust of the above comment is something that most people would probably agree with: the ability to gain an edge via the use of statistics has greatly diminished. Every team uses statistics, and every team is full of people who have at least a basic understanding of what WAR is, who understand that batting average is by itself an empty statistic, that ERA is hugely influenced by defense and luck, that Wins and RBIs are massively context-dependent, that contract status is important, and so on and so forth. Every team has the tools at their disposal to get a pretty good idea of just how valuable a player is in the present, and so “finding undervalued players” is not nearly as simple and easy as it may have been in the past. These days, the idea of being able to acquire players who are currently good and valuable for cheap just because the rest of the league doesn’t understand that said players are currently good and valuable is increasingly a fantasy.
How to gain an edge, then? Well, it’s simple: you find players that are going to be better in the future than they are in the present. Simple, though, does not mean easy, and it’s not like everyone else won’t be trying to do this too. There’s always the dream of being able to find some statistical indicators that can show you players who are currently not good but who will become good, but that’s, like, really difficult and maybe not even especially possible. The better way to go would be to just figure out how to MAKE players get better. Hence, player development.
My personal philosophy is that success in nearly any endeavor will be determined first and foremost by hard work. Yes, “talent” matters, but it matters way less than most people believe. Yes, hard work is useless unless it’s channeled mindfully, but that’s what coaches are for. So, then, the trick to player development is to get players to just work really hard. However, there’s a limit to how much control organizations have, and to really pull this off at a level that would give you an edge over everyone else (since, obviously, every team is going to try to get their players to work hard), you would want to get your players to be extremely self-motivated and to truly want to work really hard on their own time.
One way to do this is simply to acquire players who are already extremely self-motivated to work really hard. To an extent, it appears that this has been the Mariners draft strategy, what with the emphasis on “baseball rats” and guys who “just want to play baseball” and such. But, obviously, you can’t JUST acquire players who think like this, and ideally you’d like to find a way to get the players who don’t already think this way to hop aboard the bandwagon. It’s a tricky prospect, though, since self-motivation is inherently something that can only from the, well, SELF. How, then, can you convince players that they truly want to work really really hard at baseball, on-the-clock or not?
You could just have your coaches constantly tell players this, and I’m sure you would do that, but this has the problem of coaches being authority figures. Anyone who has ever attended school knows that authority figures are inherently hard to trust completely, even if they are probably right and only looking out for your best interests. Messages are much more convincing coming from peers. So what you do is you set out to acquire players who are known for their hard work, who can serve as role models in building a culture of individual self-motivated hard work.
Suppose you’re the new GM of a largely hopeless organization, and you’ve got a talent-bereft go-nowhere major league team on your hands. Like, say, the post-Bavasi Mariners. Since your current major league roster isn’t going to be winning much anyways, your main motivation at this point is to acquire players who have future value, but players with obvious real future value can be hard to come by. One thing you could do is fill your team up with AAAA longshots and hope for some lucky breaks. Or, alternatively, you could sign a bunch of noted hard-working low-cost veterans, guys who “play the game the right way,” in order to build that culture of hard work in the hopes that it’ll trickle down to the guys who WILL be there once you’re ready to try putting a serious contender on the field. In this way, signing guys like, say, Adam Kennedy is in fact an investment in the future. An investment that in its way could pay invaluable dividends down the line. It could be so valuable, in fact, that this might be THE way to go in building a successful baseball organization. And I think the Mariners might be doing it.
Let’s talk about Michael Saunders. Saunders is a player who was bad and then became good, largely because he kept working at it. I recently saw a comment on this here site wondering if it reflected badly on the team that Michael Saunders had to go outside of the organization to make his breakthrough. But I choose to look at this another way. I think it reflects well on the team that Michael Saunders chose to go outside of the organization in the first place, that he chose to really dedicate himself to getting better, for himself, regardless of whatever “official” tools for improvement the Mariners organization gave him. Maybe Saunders was motivated by being around guys like Adam Kennedy. Maybe he wouldn’t have even bothered going outside of the organization if he hadn’t been exposed to some hard-working but not especially good veterans who care enough to work their asses off on their own time. Maybe now Michael Saunders is a role model himself, and soon Justin Smoak will work his ass off and go outside of the organization for help, and then Dustin Ackley, and then Alex Liddi, and so on down the line. Maybe, just maybe, the Mariners are way ahead of the curve on this idea. Maybe the Mariners are on track to be an incredibly successful baseball organization. Maybe not. Who knows. It’s nice to think about, at least.