Heat Shields
Intangibles, Dept.


At Bill James Online today, ten years on, Bill released a behind-the-scenes blow by blow that reveals what happened at the Boston Bullpen By Committee debacle in 2003.  

As many of you know, James was hired by the Red Sox in October 2002, after having been baseball's wisest man for 20 years past.  One of the first things the Red Sox did was try to exploit James' insights on relievers' Leverage Index:  it's theoretically more efficient to use your Closer in a tie game, 8th inning, than it is to use him when ahead 5-2 in the 9th inning.

The Boston press misconstrued this as a Closer By Committee strategy, screamed loud and long before the season began, and then .... the Boston relievers mangled SIX games on their first road trip.  For a few brief shining moments, it looked like Baseball(TM) was going to be able to beat back the sabermetric tide, get James powerflushed, and retreat to the days of Babe Ruth on the team bus yakking with the faithful beat writers.

To make a long story short, Bill James gracefully absorbed the press' screaming.  He refused to run around saying, "Hey, it's not ME who said any of that.  It's the OTHER guys who are failing in this front office."  He played rubber popup punching clown in his first few months as a Sox VP, acted as a "heat shield" for the rest of the Boston front office, and apparently endeared himself to other Boston suits for doing so.  

All's well that ends well:  Boston in fact had a 13-5 record after eighteen games that season, and went on to some of its best seasons in the ten years since.

James remarks, en passant, that the 2012 Red Sox collapsed in part because Bobby Valentine was not a heat shield for his players, the way that Terry Francona used to be.  Bobby V could be considered rather unlike a heat shield, in the sense that an American election season could be considered rather unlike a romantic dinner at Ruth's Chris steak house.  

Eric Wedge performs this function rather well for the Mariners, by the way; when Jesus Montero's pitcher gave up a lot of runs, he didn't throw Montero under the bus, even though Eric Wedge had to be wincing with every Montero pitch call.  You're probably sitting there thinking right now that Jesus Montero did a surprisingly good job as a catcher, despite the fact that as they occurred, Wedge enjoyed exactly zero of Jesus Montero's starts.  

That's being a heat shield, when YOU don't agree with an org decision as a manager, and yet nobody knows that you don't agree, and in fact you're perceived as on board with the process, and in fact you're even pitching the print media on the young man's future as a catcher.

There was a time just fairly recently when we in the blog-o-sphere, especially me as Dr. D / jemanji / Gene Wilder / That Annoying Guy, thought hey.  Bobby Valentine could be just what the Seattle Mariners need following Don Wakamatsu - somebody to play a kind of Billyball here, to stick their chests out, to take on the other guys.  But the relationships between managers, executives, and worker bees can be complex when the stakes are so high.  Even the Boston Red Sox didn't see this kind of land mine coming.

Zduriencik and Wedge are amassing a lot of young talent, and they have that young talent popping tall and marching in step.  There is a certain brand of sabertista that DETESTS the subject of "intangibles," but the Red Sox did not lose 93 games this year due to tangibles.  Just because you don't understand something doesn't mean that you get to declare it irrelevant.  And isn't that where sabes came in when arguing with oldtimers about W/L and ERA?

I'm not Eric Wedge's biggest fan by any means, but I am a fan of being objective about a person's strengths and weaknesses.  There are a whale of a lot of things that Eric Wedge does verrrrrrrry skillfully, and many of those things are beyond the perception of bloggers.



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