Saturday, October 27, 2007

Losing the battle, winning the war

Why does this concept seem to be so hard to grasp in the world of sports?

I think it has to do with a combination of ego and the fact that most experts in sports are too engrossed in the sport itself and have no idea about general game theory and strategies. It seems to me this shortsightedness is most prevalent in baseball (taking one game at a time, not really thinking about the series as a whole). It is the only major US sport decided by a series of contests where major matchup differences come up in every game (the starting pitcher changes every game).

Why must aces go against aces? For example, take this year's world series. Jeff Francis is clearly the ace of the Rockies's staff, but the top three pitchers (Francis, Jimenez, and Fogg) for Colorado are not that far apart. On the other hand, Josh Beckett is by far the man on that Red Sox staff. So why not semi-concede game one at Fenway by pitching Fogg against Beckett, pitch Jimenez against Schilling (the best chance to steal an early game at Fenway), then make sure your ace is there in Game 3 in front of the home crowd to change the momentum of the series? This way, you'll still have your ace pitching again in game 6 at Fenway where you'll need him, but not going up against the unhittable Beckett.

The reason noone does this is because it is against conventional beliefs to "concede" a game and there are also ego issues at stake. Another example where baseball managers do not concede a game that drives me nuts is when they use perfectly good relievers in games where they're down 8+ runs. Sure you don't want to give up the chance of coming back by putting in someone who's more likely to give up more runs, but why waste a possible shut-down reliever to salvage an 8 run deficit? To me, when you have Tim Wakefield, you throw him into those games because he can give you many innings, come back on short rest and do it again, and you don't have to waste your other relievers where you need them to come in and shut down one or two batters later in the series.

The lack of proper game strategy and game management also shows up a lot in american football. I remember a few years back when Belicheck's NE Patriots took an intentional safety deep in their own territory down by 1 with little time left. Of course that was clearly the only thing to do, and even though the commentators kept saying how ingenious that move was on Belicheck's part, it wasn't that hard to come up with. But you know what? My guess is more than half the head coaches in the NFL wouldn't know to make that call. Look at Herm Edwards' clock management. Look at Wade Philips a few weeks ago going for a field goal with 8 minutes left down by 14 and his defense not coming close to stopping the Patriots.

I'm not saying all these head coaches/managers are dumb, but clearly their expertise is very specific to the sport and not with game theory. So why can't teams hire a game theorist/strategist consultant to help? One of my favorite writers (Bill Simmons aka The Sports Guy on ESPN) constantly talks about how teams need to hire a VP of common sense because most of the higher-up people in sports don't have common sense. And after all, game theory, like most economic subjects, is just about logic and common sense.

Now, I'm glad that the only real team I root for any more is the Patriots, so I don't have to worry about this happening with Belicheck at the helm. But considering how many of these horrible game managers I have monetary interests with, it's enough to drive a guy to rant on his blog.

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