This week the NBA had its trade deadline, a trade deadline that pales in comparison to the frenzy of the MLB trade deadline. Seriously, it doesn’t even come close. Aside from the trade of Carmelo Anthony and Deron Williams, one of the biggest moves came when the Celtics agreed to trade Kendrick Perkins to the Thunder for Jeff Green. This move continues to evoke anger and confusion from Celtics fans who wondered why the Celtics would sacrifice size, given that it makes their matchups against big teams like the Magic or the Lakers more difficult. Yet there was a contingent of Celtics fans who refused to get upset about the deal, reasoning that Danny Ainge wasn’t an idiot and surely considered the size question before making the deal.
This raises an interesting question that most fans are constantly dealing with, at least subconsciously. How do you balance the desire to give your favorite General Manager the benefit of the doubt with the need to evaluate the moves of that General Manager in a rational vacuum? At what point does giving your favorite General Manager the benefit of the doubt turn into an appeal to authority? There’s a fine line between arguing that a GM deserves the benefit of the doubt because of the past moves he’s made, and arguing that any given move the GM makes is good because the GM is smart.
As an example, this offseason the Rays signed Kyle Farnsworth. Farnsworth, as we all know, is the wost reliever of all time. Well, not really, but his tenure in New York went poorly and he’s generally regarded as someone with good stuff but inconsistent results, someone who probably doesn’t deserve the highest leverage spots in a game. Now, Dave Cameron pointed out that this might be a bit of a perception issue, given that a difference in repertoire might have led to greater groundballs and improved results. As a result, he goes out of his way to argue that Tampa wasn’t given enough credit for signing Farnsworth. I won’t suggest the opposite of this, but I think it’s at least possible that Tampa’s signing of Farnsworth led more people to consider Farnsworth an underrated commodity, and therefore a good acquisition, simply because it was Tampa doing the signing. In other words, if Kansas City had re-upped with Farnsworth, one has to wonder if they would have received the same level of accolade that Tampa did. To state it even more starkly: when Tampa signed Farnsworth, many assumed that the 100 IP sample of the past two years was the real Farnsworth, assumed that he would be used mostly correctly, and assumed that this was a good signing because Tampa is super-smart and never makes mistakes.
I’m not trying to suggest that any of those things are false. Tampa may very well have made a good signing of a player whose reputation led him to be slightly undervalued. What I would simply draw attention to is the danger of evaluating moves based on the person making the move. If organizational and budgetary needs are identical, one’s reaction to a signing shouldn’t hinge on whether one thinks the GM is smart or stupid.
Yet, this is mostly inevitable, which is why this is a constant tension. It’s natural to look more closely at moves made by stat-friendly teams like Cleveland, Tampa, Toronto, Boston or Oakland. It’s also natural to have the default setting of mockery on whenever Kansas City’s name pops up on MLBTR. It’s because their track records are different, and because we don’t expect Dayton Moore to suddenly see the light, or for Andrew Friedman to suddenly blow 10% of his budget on some middling homer-prone reliever. We’re simply making very rapid subconscious probability calculations.
One of the biggest fallacies people can make is assuming that things will always be like they’ve been in the past. It’s normal to assume that the current state of affairs will continue interrupted and in perpetuity, yet this is never the case. The same holds true in sports. Just because Andrew Friedman has made a bunch of savvy moves in the past doesn’t mean that he’ll always make savvy moves from now until when he retires. It’s possible that at some point he’ll operate under faulty logic or bad assumptions or bad data and make a mistake, and it would be a disservice to continue to call his moves savvy when the opposite is true.
This is the tension that fans have to monitor, then. One has to walk the line between saying, “Because you’ve made smart moves in the past, I will assume that this move is a good one” and “Because you’ve made smart moves in the past, I will give you the benefit of the doubt and see how this plays out before I call you an idiot”. It’s a very fine line, and it’s the line between analysis and homer-dom.