Why Not Understanding Marginal Utility Is a Circular Problem

Let’s say you are building a dam, and you want to make sure this is the best dam that’s ever been built. You gather your logs, get some help from friendly beavers, and in two weeks have put together a pretty fine dam if you can say so yourself.

Then, when the river starts to actually run strong, you begin to see that some pieces of wood aren’t that great. But you know those holes are there; they’re always going to be there. Not every piece of wood can be equal. The foundation, the best pieces of wood, the core of your dam, is what makes it a great dam. The other logs are just inevitable imperfections that, even if they are mended, won’t ever make that big of a difference.

So, needing to strengthen your dam somehow, you push the strong logs of your dam. And you push them and push them until you can’t take it anymore; but you’re dam still isn’t as good as you want it to be. You give it a serious look-over. No, it’s not the minor logs that are serving their purpose. It’s not your building skills. It’s the damn supposed “best logs” not living up to their expectations. So you rip them out and try to get even stronger pieces of wood. Before you know it, you’re out of the logging business and trying to get a senior scouting job with some National League club.

By now, you get my drift. Unfortunately, not everyone does, and the problem isn’t as minor as it seems. When executives of any trade, but for our purposes baseball, refuse to improve on the margins, they are not only hurting their overall utility but creating future problems.

The best example I can give here is the Mets, although I’m sure you can think of examples with your own favorite team. The Mets started this season with the following lineup:

C Rod Barajas
1B Mike Jacobs
2B Luis Castillo
3B David Wright
SS Jose Reyes
LF Jason Bay
CF Gary Matthews Jr.
RF Jeff Francoeur

Do you see the weak logs? It shouldn’t be that hard. Mike Jacobs is now a Triple-A player for the Jays after proving he can’t hit major league pitching during his brief stay with the Mets. Gary Matthews Jr. had a .234 wOBA for the Mets, striking out in 41% of this plate appearances. Rod Barajas is currently on the DL, but has been below average with a .292 wOBA and 0.5 WAR on the season. Jeff Francoeur honestly doesn’t deserve to play baseball at any level professionally, despite how affable he may be. His .284 wOBA is made even worse by his tendency (or just self-afflicted rule) to swing at everything often and early. I won’t even mention Alex Cora.

Many of those players have been replaced. Josh Thole has been very good during his limited time at catcher, Angel Pagan has been one of the best players in baseball this season, and Ike Davis is having a nice rookie year at first base. Still, this unsurprisingly hasn’t been enough for the medicore Mets. When you see that it took months for R.A. Dickey and Hisanori Takahashi to replace Oliver Perez and John Maine in the rotation, nobody should be surprised at the record of the Mets.

When James Kannengeiser of Amazin Avenue gave some wise ways the Mets could improve their ballclub, it was met with this reply from Matt Cerrone at the ever popular MetsBlog:

Sure, releasing Oliver Perez, Jeff Francoeur and Alex Cora might help, and it would sure get the attention of fans, but, at the end of the day, Mike Pelfrey, Carlos Beltran, Francisco Rodriguez, Jose Reyes, Jason Bay and others are still on the roster and still need to get their collective act together.

Matt saw that the weak logs were hurting the dam, and simply decided that the bigger logs had to get their “act together.” I guess it didn’t matter that Mike Pelfrey has a better ERA/FIP/xFIP/tERA than last year, or that K-Rod has been flat-out great, or that Jose Reyes has been incredible after a slow start thanks to coming back from an injury (and is still on pace for a 3-WAR year per 150 games), or that Carlos Beltran got back from serious knee surgery after the All-Star break. The strong logs were not strong enough.

I wish I could say that this is a problem that is just relayed via talk radio and blogs, but it’s not. General Managers consistently choose to ignore minor holes on their roster, and this comes from a lack of understanding the true value of stats like Wins Above Replacement (WAR). Solid roster management is one of the most valuable traits that any sports executive can have. Unfortunately, those strong logs can only take so much pressure until they break.

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Pat Andriola is an Analyst at Bloomberg Sports who formerly worked in Major League Baseball's Labor Relations Department. You can contact him at Patrick.Andriola@tufts.edu or follow him on Twitter @tuftspat

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This is one of the things Frank Wren accomplished when building the 2010 Braves. David Ross, Brooks Conrad, Omar Infante, and Eric Hinske aren’t sexy names, but they’re great role players who’ve done a fine job supporting some “big logs” like Chipper, Escobar, Glaus, and McLouth, who aren’t/didn’t play up to expectations.