>Isaac Newton’s third law of motion roughly says this: “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”. I’ve worked at a summer science camp and successfully taught this idea to kindergartners, usually by letting a balloon fly around the room, and the kids usually can comprehend it. I admit that the kids who attend this camp are exceptionally geeky children, whose overeager parents ruin their summers by sending them to science camp, dooming them to lives of ridicule and asthma and nerdy baseball websites, but still, they can understand it because the law is not a particularly difficult concept to grasp. The law’s uses reach from billiards to actual rocket science. However, it does not apply to the successful construction of baseball teams.
Let me explain. Each year, Omar Minaya’s offseason strategy seems to be dictated by the failings of the previous year. In this bizarro Newtonian scenario, the previous year’s failure is the action, and Omar’s offseason moves are a reaction. Action > Reaction. The 2007 Mets imploded in epic fashion when they failed to get a big start out of anyone down the stretch (action), so Omar Minaya went out and got Johan Santana (reaction). The 2008 Mets bullpen imploded in equally epic fashion (action), so Omar asked for and received two closers from Santa (reaction). Now, these moves improved the team marginally, but simply fixing the previous year’s problem isn’t enough. Being a good general manager is about building the best team possible, anticipating new leaks and not just plugging the already dripping ones with chewing gum, ala Chevy Chase in “Vegas Vacation”.
A pool ball hit with a set amount of force at a set angle will ricochet around the table in a predictable manner, and will follow a similar path each time it is struck. Baseball teams aren’t so easily predicted. Players have down years, up years, they suddenly lose bat speed, they get injured, they get in taxicab accidents during snack runs, they can be Oliver Perez. It’s random and often unpredictable. The best strategy to combat the randomness is to construct a team strong in all areas, so a deficiency that inevitably develops in one can hopefully be overcome by strength in another. Building the best possible team doesn’t guarantee success, but it seriously improves the chances.
Omar Minaya fails because he doesn’t see the randomness. He still sees the pool table. His shot goes awry and he compensates by aiming a little more to the left or right. He gets a Johan Santana but neglects the bullpen. He rebuilds the bullpen, but then hands a AA infielder the starting left field job based on two months in the majors, and the catcher’s job to someone with a career .652 OPS in the minors based on one Fenway home run. He sees the 2009 Mets suffer from an absurd number of injuries and an embarrassing lack of power, and then looks for players who don’t get injured and hit home runs (I assume). This is a stupid way to build a team. It’s like busting on one hand in blackjack, and then refusing to hit on a 5 and 6 because you busted on the previous hand. Its different cards each deal. The shortcomings of last year don’t predict as much as Omar thinks because the 162 game season involves a ton of chance. Omar asks himself, “how can I fix the problem?” when he should be asking himself, “how can I put together the best team possible?” He reacts when he should act because he ignores the effects of chance.
Seeing the effects of chance is important. It prevents you from handing out two-year deals to the Julio Franco’s and the Marlon Anderson’s of the world, and it explains why giving a three-year deal to a relief pitcher is silly. Understanding that old injury prone players get injured more often explains why relying on a 40-year-old Moises Alou is stupid, and why relying on a 41-year-old Alou is unforgivably stupid. More importantly, it keeps you from thinking that just plugging the holes on a rotting ship is enough. Just adding K-Rod and Putz while failing to improve other areas isn’t enough. You can keep patching holes, but building a stronger ship is a better plan.
Imagine this plausible scenario. The Mets lacked power this year. Omar, after turning on his computer for the first time ever, will eventually stumble onto Molina’s baseball-reference.com page after Google searching “bENngie molina is he anygood please help interweb i might be fired?“, and he will see that Bengie Molina hit 20 home runs. He’ll miss the part where Molina only walked 13 times because Omar isn’t sure what “BB” stands for, and he asks beat reporter Marty Noble, who happens to be walking by on his way to a Matlock marathon. Mr. Noble explains to Omar that “BB” is a new Sabermetric whose formula looks like this. So Omar just sees the 20 home runs, and gives him a three year deal, and then gives Jeff Francoeur a three year extension just to make this made up scenario really horrible. Omar puts his feet on his desk and thinks to himself “power problem solved, mission accomplished” and proceeds to hibernate until spring training. Indeed, Molina may patch the home run problem, but does signing the Mario* of the Super Molina Bros. create the best possible team? Probably not, because Bengie Molina is an out-machine on a team that already has too many out-machines, and will likely cost more money than he is worth. Omar needs to ask himself if signing Molina creates the best team, rather than if he just patches a hole. Maybe the money spent on Molina would be more effectively spent elsewhere.
*He gets to be Mario because he’s the pudgiest looking one. I think Yadier can be Luigi, and I’ll make Jose Wario because he’s on the Yankees, and thus the evil one.
Omar Minaya’s problem is that he is a reactionary GM. He doesn’t realize that reaction is not a plan, it’s a response. Fixing a broken bullpen is a good idea, but maybe adding a corner outfielder is a better idea. Doing both is the best idea. The Mets will continue to fail until the distinction between active planning and reactive hole plugging is made.