The Upside of Mediocrity

Dave Cameron has a really nice piece on the Royals, who open tonight’s World Series against the San Francisco Giants. Like a lot of analysts, Cameron was critical of the Royals’ 2013 trade for starter James Shields, which required giving up super-prospect Wil Myers. Shields has anchored a pitching staff that has led the Royals’ on an improbable run through the AL playoffs, positioning KC for a chance to capture its first World Series title since 1985.

Cameron asks himself where he went wrong in evaluating the Royals’ decision-making:

The playoffs—like most short tournaments between competitors of mostly equal stature—are mostly random, with the outcomes swinging wildly on things that simply couldn’t have been predicted in advance.

There’s a decent chance that the Royals don’t even make it out of the wild-card game if Geovany Soto doesn’t get injured on a play that began when Billy Butler screwed up a stolen base attempt. The Royals’ postseason run has been amazing, but it was also six outs away from not happening, and we don’t want to treat results that could have legitimately gone the other way as evidence that this was a probable outcome. Sometimes, the answer really is just that an unlikely event occurred.

But that can also be a cop-out. We can’t take every example of our expectations not being met as an unlikely event occurring without at least asking if we got the odds wrong. If we just write off all unexpected outcomes as randomness, we’ll create a bubble in which a false sense of our own understanding thrives without being challenged. The Royals’ World Series run doesn’t inherently mean that we should have all seen this coming and my analysis of their team over the last two years has been entirely wrong, but it’d be folly to not at least consider that possibility. Maybe this was randomness shining on the Royals, or maybe I missed something.

What Cameron thinks he missed, more than any specific guesses about individual player performance, was the degree to which it makes sense in baseball to build a just-good-enough team, in a sport in which just-good-enough might be barely better than average:

In other sports, where the value of a top draft pick is so much higher than it is in MLB, the correct decision is often to either be great or terrible, with mediocrity as the awful middle ground. Perhaps too much of that sentiment crept into my own thinking about the upside of building an 85-win team, because in today’s baseball world, 85 wins and a little bit of luck can turn a franchise around. I’ve argued against losing on purpose, but perhaps I’ve argued too strongly for wins in the 88 to 95 range and not strongly enough for wins in the 80 to 88 range. The win curve is a real thing, and some wins are more valuable than others, but that doesn’t mean that I’ve correctly evaluated the marginal benefit of pushing yourself from 82 to 86 wins.

The economic upside of making a serious run now, both through better TV ratings and by engendering future fan interest and loyalty may well outweigh whatever short term payroll savings delayed gratification might confer. All of which suggests that more middling teams might make the kinds of moves the Royals have. And it appears they wouldn’t be crazy to do so.


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