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The Lesson of Pat Burrell

It felt like it had been coming forever, but it wasn’t until Saturday that the Tampa Bay Rays finally designated Pat Burrell for assignment. Signed from the the Rays’ 2008 World Series opponent Philadelphia Phillies after that season to a two-year, $16 million dollar contract, the now-ironically nicknamed Pat “The Bat” was supposed to add offensive punch at DH. Needless to say, as R.J. discussed Friday, things haven’t worked out that way, and the American League East-leading Rays seem to be ready to go with a Hank Blalock/Willy Aybar platoon. This has all been covered. But perhaps the failure of the Burrell Era in Tampa Bay can be a little reminder, or lesson, for us.

Just over a year ago many (myself included) were lauding the Rays for their contract with a good hitter whose defensive problems would be rendered irrelevant in the AL as he filled their Cliff Floyd-sized hole at DH. The Phillies did not offer Burrell arbitration, and so the Rays didn’t have to give up draft picks.* A win-win for the Rays. Now that they’ve basically admitted that it didn’t work out, what can we make of them, and, of course, “us” (the community of internet baseball bloggers who have nothing in common)?

* In the wake of the Ryan Howard Contract Brouhaha, Philadelphia’s side of the story, involving Raul Ibanez, lots of money, draft compensation, Ibanez’s career year in 2009, and so on is important, too, but outside the realm of what I want to get at in this particular post. So far, yes, Philadelphia has done well for themselves in the Ibanez-over-Burrell sweepstakes. Still, keep in mind that the Ibanez contract isn’t done yet, his 2010 is a far cry from 2009 at this point, and there’s still his age 39 season left after this one.

First of all, the obvious: if the Rays didn’t think Burrell was going to give them anything better than what they could do with Blalock/Aybar platoon, then they had to dump him. The Rays are winning the East now, but the Yankees are right there, and the Red Sox aren’t completely vanquished yet. Whether the team is a contender like the Rays or on the other end of the win curve, holding on to a washed-up hitter who can’t play the field on the five percent chance that he might “heat up” before the deadline and bring back a C-minus prospect if Tampa Bay eats the whole salary is, well, not a good process. I hope that’s obvious to everyone at this point (ahem). Now, let’s get to “us.”

Let me be clear: this isn’t a Very Special Moment of Critical Self-Reflection. It is simply a little reminder. While it’s clear that the Rays got the short end of the stick on this one, that doesn’t mean it was necessarily the wrong decision at the time. Maybe the Rays’ scouts and statisticians did miss something. ZiPS and CHONE, two well-respected publicly-available projections systems, saw Burrell as a good hitter going into 2009, and I’m guessing the Rays had similar numbers. Sometimes, things just don’t go the way one expects. Projections are not guarantees, they are best estimates of “true talent in context” for as many players as possible. When looking at how they do for large groups, they do well. But the nature of the beast is that they will miss on a number of individuals, too. The Rays front office knows this, and this implicit in the analyses of most sabermetrically-oriented analysts, too, even if it is rarely explicitly stated. Sometimes brevity is more important. If every blogger filled up their “brief notes” with as many qualifications as I do, well… it wouldn’t be good.

This isn’t to say that the Rays front office or their internet admirers are above reproach when they or “we” turn out to be wrong about something. A miss is a miss. The point is that while the tone of some analysts may seem certain, implicit in the good work is the assumption that we are working with “densities of probabilities,” and that inevitably, one will be wrong about (many) things (not me, of course, but everyone else). The goal is to be right more often than wrong. I think it’s safe to say that despite how the Burrell contract worked out, over the last few years, the Rays have accomplished that.