1987 was Eric Davis’ best season. His combination of power, speed and defense produced 7.9 WAR at age 25. That’s the highest single-season total for any Reds position player since. He mashed 37 homers, stole 50 bases and drew 84 walks. Davis won a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger.
It was also the year the Irish rock band U2 released Running to Stand Still on the Joshua Tree album. It’s the tune that popped into my head every time I sat down to write this post. I guess the title resonated with how I saw the actions of Reds management the past few weeks.
The song is about heroin. It tells the story of an addicted couple and how decent people can get trapped into hopelessness by an arrangement that prevents escape.
But its broader message is about fighting overwhelming forces that push us backward. You didn’t have to grow up in one of the seven towers of Ballymun Flats to connect with that message. The struggle it depicts extends beyond the serious issue of opioid addiction.
It feels like the Reds have been running just to stand still the past few weeks. At the end of July, they declined to pursue an aggressive finish for the rebuilding process. Last week, they chose not to trade Matt Harvey to the Milwaukee Brewers.
Reds executives publicly characterized their reason for not making these trades as the need to grow a winning culture and positive momentum. Their theory being that keeping good players in the short term, even at the expense of building a better team in the long term, will help them win more games now, leading to winning more games in the future.
Let’s take a closer look at that reasoning.
The Absurdity of Positive Momentum and Winning Culture
Keeping Matt Harvey will mean he makes six or seven more starts for the Reds, including Friday’s loss. How many more wins will the Reds have in those games compared to their record if Lucas Sims, Sal Romano or Michael Lorenzen made those starts? One, two, maybe none. Even if there was a winning culture at stake with retaining Matt Harvey, it wouldn’t carry over to the 2019 Reds if Harvey doesn’t play for the 2019 Reds. We’re a long way from that. Many other factors, like the health of key players, the rate of Joey Votto’s decline and offseason acquisitions will have far greater effect on the 2019 Reds positive vibe than, say one or two more wins the previous September. Especially for another 90-loss season. All that assumes there is such a thing as momentum at all. The Reds’ poor start in April and May didn’t prevent them from playing well between May 8 and July 14. And that winning stretch of 60 games didn’t stop their August swoon.
Laying out the reasoning exposes the preposterous logic. You don’t need a major league analytics department to figure it out. The back of a napkin would do it. Maybe even the front. The folks toiling at 100 Joe Nuxhall Way are too clever to believe it themselves.
No, Nick Krall and Dick Williams were covering for their boss.
Paragraph of Stipulation
The Reds are Bob Castellini’s team. As owner, he can run it any way he sees fit. Speculation about the ownership-front office dynamic is modern day Kremlinology, informed by anonymous, undescribed sources scattered through the Twitterverse. The “owner as villain” narrative is grossly oversimplified. Bob Castellini is well intentioned, wants to win and has spent a lot of his money on the Reds. Much more than the previous two owners. (His family has also gained tremendous wealth by owning the Reds.) His ownership has built a Great American Ball Park, Reds Hall of Fame, Reds Fest and Reds Community Fund that are tremendous sources of pride for Reds fans.
Paragraph of Optimism
I’ve been optimistic about the 2019 Reds. And I still am. When the Reds had a healthy batting order — that long glorious lineup of Scott Schebler, Jesse Winker, Joey Votto, Eugnio Suarez, Scooter Gennett, even Tucker Barnhart and Jose Peraza at times — the offense wasn’t mediocre, it was sublime. Add Nick Senzel to the mix. The Reds will acquire more than one starting pitcher this offseason. Not washed up retreads, but legitimate guys, ones that can pitch toward the top of a rotation, ones better than 30-year-old Matt Harvey. It will require additional ownership money and painful trading of prospects. But the front office says they’ll have the resources and assets and they know it’s necessary. Simon for Suarez, Latos for DeSclafani, Straily for Castillo, Frazier for Schebler (Peraza TBD), Curt Casali as a backup.
In Love with the Familiar
If holding on to a winning culture isn’t the real explanation for the club’s paralysis, what is?
Human nature. We’re wired to prefer the familiar. The strength of this bias varies from person to person, but it’s found in many aspects of our lives, such as what we eat, the music we listen to, how we dress, where we live and the hobbies we choose. Comfort food, after all, is really just familiar food.
Psychologists refer to the preference for something familiar as the “mere-exposure effect.” Mere exposure to something makes us more comfortable with it.
We then overestimate our expertise on things we’re close to. Think of the gambler who bets too much — for or against — the team he cheers for. Often we don’t change until a situation has become dire and fraught with decision-making peril. (You didn’t think we’d make it through this topic without mentioning the Aroldis Chapman debacle, did you?)
In Love with Mediocre
Overvaluing what we own is another psychological trait that can lead to an irrational status quo bias. It’s known as the “endowment effect” and been demonstrated by numerous studies. People place a greater value on things once they have established ownership due to identity association.
The Harvey-Mesoraco trade seemed like a reasonable idea in May. The Reds added pitching depth and took a chance that Harvey would turn his failed season around and become a lucrative trade chip. That part worked better than planned.
Not factored: The club’s owner falls in love with another shiny object he comes to own.
It’s the same syndrome that will turn a solid interim managerial hire into an awful permanent one. And convert an opportunistic waiver wire pick-up into another costly, long-term post-arbitration contract.
Was this object even that shiny? Matt Harvey has started 18 games for the Reds. His stats are 4.14 ERA, 4.33 FIP, 4.36 xFIP and 4.29 SIERA. In each case, his numbers lag the average for National League starters: 4.06 ERA, 4.13 FIP, 4.09 xFIP and 4.20 SIERA. Take your pick.
Fans vs. Management
In a bit of delicious irony, familiarity and owner identity bias are the same phenomena that lead people who live in a certain place to become fans of local sports teams. In fact, the business side of a sports franchise counts on us overvaluing the home town team, the one we see all the time, the one we consider “our” team.
Fans have cognitive biases. We’re emotional. We identify with “our” players. We see them all the time and overvalue them. We resist changing them.
But for those same teams to be successful on the field, their executive decision-making must be cold and calculating, rid of as much bias as possible.
I actually believe Dick Williams is up to that task.
The Adam Duvall trade proves it. Shipping Duvall off with an injured Winker and Schebler meant a certain drop off. The front office ignored winning momentum. The Dylan Floro trade had a similar long-term thesis. Same with trading Straily. All wonderfully focused on the future.
But the headwinds have strengthened. The front office and ownership appear to be pulling in different directions. It’s hard to imagine the crew that made the Duvall deal was the same that failed to move Matt Harvey.
Further, decision makers strive to be (seen as) objective and free of bias. Recall Dick Williams’ press conference after the July trade deadline. He detailed a weeklong, intense process with top scouts and staff in a war room. They came up with specific “parameters” to evaluate trade offers.
It sounded so very, very objective. I nodded.
Then Williams started covering for his boss with squishy, subjective concepts like vibes and winning cultures.
When it comes to his Major League Baseball team, the Reds owner is a fan, first and foremost, laden with the baggage that comes along.
So Back to What Happened
Familiarity and ownership identification mean trades don’t happen. Like other businesses, government or charitable organizations, a baseball team can fail if a person who is important in its decision-making structure develops blind spots or bias. These specific biases manifest as a refusal to move on from the objectively mediocre. The team settles for what it knows and owns because it overvalues its assets.
Lest you think market size and a low payroll trap the Reds into being change averse, keep in mind the example of the Milwaukee Brewers. Last season, Milwaukee won 87 games, representing a 13-game improvement over 2016. They missed the postseason by one game. Yet despite what some might refer to as positive momentum the Brewers signed long term deals for a new center fielder and right fielder. They found new players for first base, second base, shortstop and third base. They’ve switched to a new closer and main set-up reliever. They have three new pitchers in their starting rotation. The Milwaukee Brewers are on track to win 90+ games.
A team infected with status quo bias puts more value on its players than the trading partner. With a mismatch in valuation, trades falter. The Reds were shopping players but expected too much in return. The same cognitive bias explains why the Reds owner would target a below-average pitcher with a scary history of serious arm problems and sign him to a long-term contract. It’s not a new failing for Castellini’s Reds.
You can also blame that euphoric time from mid-May to mid-July, when the Reds went 35-25. That winning felt so good, so amazingly good. No one wanted the rush to stop. It was easy to convince ourselves this is it, the winning will go on and on. Mind you, it wasn’t just Bob Castellini who fell for it. Plenty of terrific , well informed Reds fans became intoxicated by good feels, clamored for and subsequently defended inaction at the trade deadline. Others counseled at peak elation the Reds needed to stick with making changes to the roster, but the Redlegs were winning big. Rapture won out. It’s a hard feeling to kick.
Bottom line: Status quo bias and contentment play out as change aversion. In this case, it happened at the worst time, the trade deadline. team with a track record of several 90-loss seasons, and headed for another one, stood pat.
It turns out the Reds’ main problem is one of culture. But you won’t find it in the clubhouse. It’s in the boardroom.
And it’s not the silly one they highlighted in public statements. The lack of a winning culture isn’t holding the Reds back. If the front office assembles a good enough team, wins in sufficient quantity will follow.
Rather, the team operates with a debilitating culture of change aversion due much to its owner’s apparent preference for the familiar and what he already owns.
There’s plenty of evidence. Hiring family members, the dominant practice of promoting from inside, holding on to players for too long, hiring an internal manager without a search — these are all symptoms of a single, common malady. The failure to trade Matt Harvey isn’t a big deal on the merits. We’re talking about six starts. But standing still on Harvey showed that change aversion has enough sway to influence relatively big decisions. The Reds have organization-defining choices to make the next few months: a new manager, extensions, trades and free agent acquisitions.
The past few weeks have shown the club is fully capable of blowing them.
Baseball — no, understanding how to win baseball games — has profoundly changed in the last ten years. That trend will accelerate. Paralysis from change aversion won’t cut it in a division where the other four teams have aggressive, smart leadership pulling in the same direction. The path the Reds appear to be taking is sacrificing increments of competitiveness they can’t afford.
That intense high from the wins in May, June and July was like cheap smack in Dublin. Poison from the poison stream. It sapped the clear-eyed resolve of Castellini’s Reds to do what’s necessary. They’re running to fall further behind.