Falling Off the Bandwagon

We are all products of our environment. The recent environment in San Diego baseball has been one of winning. Since moving downtown for the 2004 season, the Padres have seen unprecedented on-field success. For the first time in franchise history they’ve enjoyed four straight winning seasons. In 2005 and 2006, they reached the post-season in back-to-back seasons, another first. And as fans in these parts are all too aware, they came within a strike of making it three straight.

Through Monday, the Padres have won 360 games since 2004. That’s more wins than all but three teams in the National League (Cardinals, 389; Phillies, 369; Braves, 368) over the same period. Only the Padres and Phillies have posted winning records in each of the past four seasons.

Critics will cite the Padres’ lack of post-season success as evidence that the team has been “good but not great.” This ignores the fact that short series are largely variable and therefore unpredictable. Would anyone call the 2006 Cardinals a great team on the basis of their World Championship? They won 83 regular-season games that year, the same number as Florida had won the previous season. Heck, the Padres have exceeded that total in three of their first four years at Petco Park.

It’s in this context that we’re seeing an interesting response from fans in the wake of a poor stretch to begin 2008: people are giving up on the team six weeks into the season. Perhaps in the absence of adversity, we’ve lost the ability to deal with it. Perhaps the way 2007 ended has battered our collective ego to the point where we can’t shake it. Or perhaps we really are as fickle as our reputation (“Know what California and granola have in common? Just a bunch of nuts and flakes.”).

Listen to talk radio, read the papers (heck, they’ve even got the players buying into it), or peruse the comments right here. There is a sense of panic more appropriate to followers of an organization in disarray — the Pirates, Nationals, or Reds, to name a few recent examples. For fans of a team that is in the midst of its most successful run in nearly 40 years of existence to start fantasizing about next year with more than 120 games remaining on the schedule is nearly unfathomable, but that’s just what we’re doing.

Sociology of Sports

If you find this stuff interesting, and you probably don’t, there’s some good work being done in this area. I haven’t read through all of these carefully yet, but I’ve skimmed them and they appear to be worthy of further attention:

Academic Papers

Masters Thesis

Book

Newspapers

This list is hardly comprehensive, I’m sure, but it’s a starting point.

The notion of fans abandoning their team when things go bad isn’t unique to San Diego. Sociologists have even come up with a couple catchy acronyms — BIRGing and CORFing — to help explain our behavior. BIRG stands for “basking in reflected glow,” while CORF is “cutting off reflected failure.” The clothes we wear and the pronouns we use in discussing a team (“we” win, while “they” lose) are manifestations of this. I haven’t found anything in the literature about bad-mouthing one’s own team, but I’m guessing that would constitute a form of CORFing.

Whatever the case, we’re encountering a lot of mindless negativity (as opposed to “constructive criticism,” which would focus more on solving problems than on belaboring them) toward the Padres right now in spite of their recent success. Where negativity does yield to constructive criticism, most of the “solutions” we’re seeing concern the promise of a brighter future as opposed to fixing the here-and-now. (The sociologists probably have something to say about that as well, but no matter.)

In this vein, I’ve heard some creative suggestions for “rebuilding for the future”; here are my favorites:

Jettison the Veterans and Let the Kids Play

The abstract concepts of, say, Matt Antonelli, Chad Huffman, and Wade LeBlanc are more appealing to many than are the tangible realities of, oh, Tadahito Iguchi, Paul McAnulty, and Shawn Estes. Nothing against Antonelli, Huffman, and LeBlanc, all of whom are fine young prospects, but it’s a lot easier to love them when you haven’t seen them play yet.

We have a good idea of the strengths and weaknesses of Iguchi, McAnulty, and Estes (well, I don’t think he has any strengths, but you get the idea) because we’ve watched them enough to have a feel for their game. The prospects, on the other hand, are just romantic notions in our heads. They are a magic pill that will “solve” whatever it is that people imagine ails the franchise.

What happens when the pill doesn’t work? We had Ryan Braun in our minds but we got Adrian Gonzalez instead. Not the Gonzalez we’ve come to know and love, but the version the Rangers gave up on too soon.

So there’s one question: How long do you wait for the kids to become productive big leaguers before jettisoning them in favor of the next wave of prospects? Here’s another: How much confidence do you then have that your player development people will convert those kids into somethng useful?

Part of the trouble with embarking on a full rebuild is that you’re effectively putting all of your proverbial eggs into one equally proverbial basket. We saw how well that worked in center field this year. Even if the talent is there, why would an organization want to bet the farm on, well, the farm?

The Arizona Diamondbacks won 90 games last year with a youth-oriented roster. They’d won 76 the previous season. Aside from the fact that they have some exceptional talent in their system (how many teams can cast aside Carlos Quentin because they’ve got younger and better options?), the fact is that veterans like Orlando Hudson, Eric Byrnes, Doug Davis, and Livan Hernandez all played prominent roles on the ’07 squad (with Tony Clark and Randy Johnson providing value in more limited opportunities). If the Snakes had decided to ditch even one of those guys because of a “youth movement,” they most likely wouldn’t have won the NL West. By most standards, failure to reach the playoffs would be considered a less successful season.

Trade Established Guys Who Are Overrated

This one’s tricky because there’s a subtle bias at work. Look at the word “overrated.” Who is rating these players and according to what criteria? I’ve heard the label slapped on Kevin Kouzmanoff, Khalil Greene, and Chris Young, among others. We watch these players every day, and maybe in the process we lose some of our objectivity in attempting to evaluate them. It’s hard not to do that. It’s difficult to separate, e.g., Greene’s career 98 OPS+ from the image of his flailing at sliders down and away. We had trouble doing it with Phil Nevin when he was here, why should Khalil be any different?

Returning to the issue at hand, the concept, as I understand it, is that the Padres should trade these guys while they still have value. Of course, trades don’t happen in a vacuum. At the risk of sounding incredibly crass by speaking of human beings in this manner, an exchange of goods takes place. So if you decide to move Greene or Young, you’ll be getting something in return for them. And of course, from the Padres standpoint, a trade makes sense only if they’re able to get equal or greater value as a result of such a move. (I know this seems like really basic stuff, but you’d be surprised how many people miss the concept and simply want to trade someone because, well, just because.)

The good news is that Kevin Towers has a tremendous track record when it comes to making trades (see pp. 164-190 of the Ducksnorts 2008 Baseball Annual). That said, there still has to be a market. And if nobody wants (or more appropriately, is willing to pay an agreeable price for) the guys he might be dangling, then what can he do?

So when we talk about “overrated” and “while he still has value,” we need to be careful in defining our terms. Young, for example, is a solid #2 starter on most teams, maybe a #3 on some. I doubt that many executives view him as more than that, but if Towers can find one who does, then by all means, he should explore whatever resulting opportunities might arise. Unfortunately, for the most part (yes, there are exceptions), these guys getting paid big bucks to make big decisions aren’t nearly as stupid as we seem to think they are. Every now and then a team will run into something spectacular, but if it were that easy to turn, say, Young into Jose Reyes, then it would happen more often.

More to the point, the fact that you or I may think a player is “overrated” doesn’t make it so. And therefore our conception of his value shouldn’t play a role in what a team’s general manager, who is charged with doing this sort of thing for a living and at stakes a tad higher than bragging rights at the water cooler, ultimately decides to do in terms of personnel moves. (And if it does play a role, then you should be very afraid of your team’s general manager because he is making decisions based on the wrong inputs.)

Play for the First Overall Pick in 2009

It’s been suggested that the Padres might be better off trying to lose as many games as possible so they can tab SDSU right-hander Stephen Strasburg with the first overall pick in 2009. This is so rich, I hardly know where to start.

Let’s disregard the ethical implications for a moment and focus on the strategy itself. Assuming the Padres finished with the worst record in baseball this year, picked Strasburg, and signed him, how long would it take to develop him into a big-league pitcher and what upside would he have? What are the risks involved in such an investment?

History shows that the chance for failure exists. Even if Strasburg (or whoever) makes it to the big leagues and achieves some degree of success, will it be enough to turn around a franchise that just finished with the worst record in baseball? According to Jim Callis, of the 301 first-round picks from 1990 to 1997, a mere 4.3% became stars. Those are pretty long odds.

Shifting our attention to ethical considerations, there are two basic problems. First, the strategy demonstrates a lack of integrity and respect for the game. It also betrays an alarming ignorance of history. You may recall that (some of) the Chicago White Sox tried to lose games in 1919 and it didn’t go so well. Pete Rose? There’s a reason he’s not in the Hall of Fame. (Although he never bet against his team explicitly, you have to wonder what he was thinking on days he didn’t bet for his team.)

Second, it breeds tolerance for and even encouragement of losing on the field of battle. If you tell your charges that the goal for this season is to lose as many games as possible in pursuit of the first pick in next year’s draft, how motivated do you suppose those players will be to perform for you when you’re ready for them to stop losing?

As strategies go, this one is right up there with cramming oneself into a barrel and floating over Niagara Falls. It could work, but I wouldn’t want to bet anything of value on it.

Bringing It All Home

The Padres have played some of their best baseball in franchise history over the past four years. Fans have been mostly supportive — the occasional grousing about payroll, beer prices, and “boring” (low-scoring) games notwithstanding. Despite the level of trust we might expect this to afford the club, with less than a quarter of the season behind us, many folks have given up hope. Attendance is at its lowest since the Padres moved to Petco Park, and fans are more interested in ditching the current plan in favor of some other, ill-defined plan than in seeing their team make an honest attempt to compete.

Without question, the Padres are off to a poor start. There’s no way to sugarcoat that. They aren’t hitting well and they aren’t pitching well. They’re already 8 1/2 games out of a playoff spot, and it will take a fantastic effort to make up that kind of ground. At the same time, with 123 games remaining on the schedule, it’s hardly fait accompli that the team will continue to stink all year.

With a few notable exceptions, players aren’t performing up to their abilities. Greene and Josh Bard have been hitting well below their established norms, Young has been inconsistent, and Trevor Hoffman stumbled out of the gate. In the case of Hoffman, maybe we could sense it coming because of his age, but the other guys are in their primes. We knew there were questions in center field and the #5 spot in the rotation, but who imagined the bullpen collapsing the way it has?

The season is long. We’ve gotten spoiled with a winning environment these past four years, and that’s great because — well, it’s been a long time coming and we deserve it. The downside is that success raises our expectations. When the club falls short, we don’t quite know what to do. The logical course of action would seem to be getting behind the team and encouraging them to win, but instead we stop attending games and devise various schemes for tearing the club apart and putting it back together again.

It’s a fascinating response, don’t you think?

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94 Responses »

  1. #29@parlo: This is good food for thought, thanks. I will have to take a closer look at the ’74 Mets.

    #34@Bryan: Yes, I agree that the current regime is paying for the futility of eras past. It’s too bad, but that seems to be the reality. As for 86.5 wins, NL teams have reached the post-season with fewer in each of the past three seasons, and one of them won a World Series.

    #35@Dex:

    …combine a fan base where a good percentage readily admits that the Padres are their second favorite team in baseball and that leads to people just looking for something else to do until the team turns it around again.

    That’s a pretty good description of “fickle,” I think.

  2. #48@Schlom: I did consider this. Here’s a bit that got cut during editing…

    Acknowledging that the first pick overall won’t necessarily be a franchise-changing player (sure, I’ll give you Harold Baines, Darryl Strawberry, Ken Griffey Jr., Chipper Jones, and Alex Rodriguez; you can give me David Clyde, Danny Goodwin, Al Chambers, Shawn Abner, and Matt Anderson)…

    Assuming that you’ll end up with one of the former is a dangerous idea.

  3. Speaking of Strasburg, on Baseball America today:
    http://www.baseballamerica.com/blog/college/?p=404

    Great writing, Geoff. Love feeling the fire in you. Just what we need right now.

    I commend you on mentioning the integrity of the baseball game. At times we as fans just lose it and completely forgot how good a baseball game is and that we all should enjoy it as such and that means taking the losing gracefully at times like this.

  4. I disagree that people should not be frustrated. As others have outlined, the FO took some risky moves that seemed to designed to fill things in on the cheap this year.

    Capable CF options were out there
    Just saying “Hairston is it” without any plausible back up is very risk
    Capable 4/5 options were out there
    Just saying “Kouz is it” without any plausible back up is somewhat risky
    Bullpen is hard to predict, but they ended up with some stinkers; this may be bad outcomes to good decisions

    Then there is my frustration with penny-wise/pound foolish on drafting. Granted drafting is messed up, but seeing the Padres trying to buck the system and enforce drafting slot discipline is fine but a losing battle.

    My final irk when I see them taking extra risk towards avoiding final commitment is the taxpayers have skin in this. They paid big money for the ballpark. What do they get? Pay more for tickets.

    This FO has been very good on trading and bullpen, but stingy on impact FA and on paying for quality draft picks. When you pull it off, yes, you can shut people up. When it blows up in your face, I don’t think you can ask people to say “Shucks, what do we do next?”

    Especially when the city ponied up money into the franchise.

    Again, it sure looks like they are gearing up for 2009 all along. But, if that is so, do it whole hog and not partially.

  5. #54@jay: Nearly every city “ponies up” money for their sports franchises, one way or another. It’s why the franchise is there. Ask the people in Seattle how they feel about the Supersonics getting stolen by Oklahoma City.

    By your logic, every team whose ever had a facility built with public monies must win, or they are renegging on their deal with the city. This seems like such a flawed argument to me. You voted to build a new ballpark to have the right to watch baseball. Give that choice to people in Nashville. Give that choice to people in Boise. Give that decision to people in New Orleans. I guarantee you they’ll vote for a team, even if they suck.

    I do not understand the conflation of “I voted for the stadium, therefore I deserve a winner.” You voted for a stadium. You voted for the privilege of watching a team play professional baseball. You didn’t vote for a World Series.

  6. 30: Nice counterpoints/addition.

  7. Geoff,

    Wow. That’s why I constantly tell you that you are a great writer.

    Keep it up, man.

    Dave Rouleau

  8. #54@jay:

    “This FO has been very good on trading and bullpen, but stingy on impact FA and on paying for quality draft picks. When you pull it off, yes, you can shut people up. When it blows up in your face, I don’t think you can ask people to say “Shucks, what do we do next?”

    That’s it. If the front office wants to be known as the uber-smart crew that thinks its way to success, then there’s no complaining when they get a D on an essay. They can’t talk about how much success they had with Piazza and Maddux and ignore Vinny Castilla and Jim Edmonds. They can’t use Jenga as an example of the buy-low philosophy and expect everyone to forgive Joe Randa. They can’t tout Kevin Cameron and throw up their hands when people ask about Joakim Soria.

  9. #55@Phantom: Not to speak for jay, but I didn’t see “I paid taxes and I deserve a winner.” I read that as “the citizens of San Diego have an investment in the franchise and have a right to make their feelings known, not to be accused of disloyalty.”

    GY was worried about the fan support before the season started. If he was right, and support had not kept pace with the team’s on-field success, then doesn’t the problem lies more with the Padres ability to sell themselves to the public than with the fans overreacting to a bad April. It’s like a parent telling his kid that the bedtime story is great because it won an award from Whatever Association Gives Kids Book Awards, but the kid thinks it’s boring. If fans aren’t buying the Padre “story,” then you need to get a new story or tell the current one differently.

  10. #55 Phantom: Much of your argument seems to be based on the idea that we should be grateful that we have a franchise, and therefore we should not ever complain. I wholeheartedly disagree.
    If our only alibi is to bring up Boise Idaho, and Nashville Tennessee, then god help us all.