Saturday, April 13, 2013

Next Man Up

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Believe it or not, I follow other sports besides baseball.  I love hockey, golf, rugby, and I can even get myself interested in soccer during World Cup or Euro time.  And like millions of other red-blooded North American males, I love football too.

There's a fascinating book called Next Man Up, written by John Feinstein, in which the author was given nearly unprecedented behind-the-scenes access to a full season of an NFL team -- the 2004 Baltimore Ravens.  The title is a reference to the philosophy that permeates football teams when it comes to injuries.  Here's how Feinstein prefaces the book and the reason for the title:
"Football is an unrelentingly punishing sport, and every NFL team prepares constantly for the likelihood -- the certainty -- that even franchise players can go down at any timeSomeone new must always be ready, trained, and primed to step in at a moment's notice.
 "In the NFL there is only one sure thingevery day, someone will have to be the Next Man Up."
In a football application, it's a cruel yet efficient philosophy.  Football is a game in which a hundred moving parts interact with one another on any given play from scrimmage, and even a dozen small individual failures within a play can still produce a successful team result, if the other team has more of those individual failures on that particular snap of the ball.  So outside of some key positions, a starter can be injured, and his small part in the offensive or defensive scheme can be assumed by an inferior player. You can lose a starting left offensive guard, and his backup might not be as capable, but you can adjust blocking schemes to ensure the center and the left tackle help him out in pass protection.  You can lose a first string wide receiver, and adjust by running the ball a bit more, or throwing more passes to other receivers.  There will be an impact on team performance, but the system is designed to absorb that impact. 

The difference in baseball, of course, is that every play on the field really only involves a few people at a time.  The outcome of each -- or more pertinently, the aggregate outcome of all of them over the season -- can be more significantly affected by the skill levels of those involved.  That is to say, 550 plate appearances from Jose Reyes are far more likely to contribute more to the success over the course of the year than the same number given to, say, Pete Kozma.  An entire area of study has in fact been dedicated to understanding and quantifying these contributions.

Replacing regular, outstanding contributors in baseball is tough, because not only are you replacing them with inferior players -- usually of the dreaded "replacement level" variety -- but the players remaining can't just cover off the gap created.  Those teammates are what they are and they contribute what they contribute.   You can't game plan your way around a significant injury by putting a greater emphasis on other talent.  You still only get to bat once out of every nine spots, and balls are still going to get hit to the area that's been vacated by the injured starter.

So what do you do if you're a baseball general manager to prepare for the eventuality of injuries to your starters?  You can't stockpile first-tier players three deep at every position throughout your organization.  Your replacement players are, more often than not, going to be replacement level.
But what you can do is endeavour to make sure the rest of the roster is as thoroughly well-constructed as possible.  You can build in versatility in the infield with veterans, perhaps not all-stars but solid major leaguers, who have played all positions in case one goes down.  You can make savvy free agent signings and secure contract extensions for run producers in the heart of your lineup, ensuring that in the largest number of spots in the order as possible, players will be getting on base, hitting for power and scoring runs.  You can remain vigilant on the waiver wire, and execute cheap acquisitions of players that can potentially fill a key role either temporarily or longer term.  You can accumulate the kind of prospect depth that allows you to trade for proven, high-level pitching talent, making your starting rotation superior to most competitors and putting your team in a better position to win games day after day.  You can bring in a manager who understands how to maximize the impact of the talent you've assembled, with smart use of platoons and the bullpen.

You're not going to prevent the worst from happening, but you can prepare for it and insulate your team from its worst potential effects.  You control what you can control, and plan for what's quantifiable.

And then, at a certain point, you leave it in the hands of the team you've assembled.  You count on what isn't quantifiable -- the mental strength to play three months without a key offensive catalyst and thrive under the challenge; the drive of your players to be better than they have been because now they need to be; the ingenuity of your manager to put the best shine possible on the gold he has, and spin a little bit more gold from the straw he has alongside it.

Three months without Jose Reyes is a brutal blow.  I'm not trying to sugarcoat it.  But all the things Alex Anthopoulos did right to prepare the 2013 Toronto Blue Jays for success are still, mostly, there.  This injury is exactly why, if you're going to make a serious push, you don't go halfway.

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