Okay, so where is baseball's Chip Kelly?

Rob Carr

Joe Sheehan's got a lot of strong opinions, and occasionally I disagree with him strongly. But agree or disagree, Joe's always worth reading. From Tuesday's newsletter (sorry, subscriber-only), written in the wake of a) Ned Yost making a bizarre decision in the ninth inning of a game the Royals needed to win, and b) the Eagles winning with a highly innovative offense ...

Where are the MLB Chip Kellys? Forget whether you agree or not that the Blur can work in the NFL and just focus on the fact that he's thinking about how to win with a level of creativity that just doesn't exist in our game. He's borrowing from influences as varied as Paul Westhead and Pop Warner. He's an outlier in his game at the moment, but not by as much as you might think. The NFL has become a league of innovators, with coaches and coordinators aggressively attacking the problem of how to move the 22 pieces around in ways that give their side an advantage. The NBA is actually even more interesting right now, with many teams leveraging statistical research to find the most valuable shots -- ones at the rim and from the deep corners -- and how to move the ball and players around to get them. Erik Spoelstra all but invented a new offense to take advantage of LeBron James' skills.


MLB has nothing like that. The only current area of innovation in MLB is in defensive spacing, with some teams implementing aggressive shifting to put defenders where the ball is most likely to be hit. It is both an effective tactic and one over which there is considerable disagreement from manager to manager as to its effectiveness -- shifting is driven as much by data-heavy front offices making the case for it as anything managers are doing independently. Shifting, though, is pretty much the only part of the game where there is that kind of range. There's no lineup innovation. There's no roster innovation. No one is packing the roster with one type of player or another. No one is introducing new tactics. No one is doing what Kelly or Spoelstra or Art Briles or Mike Brey has done, which is to apply their mind to the question of how to win and come up with a new answer.

I think Joe's about half-right here.

Here's where he's wrong: Baseball isn't football or basketball. Football is an immensely complex affair, with 22 men running around on every play, all of them distinct and specific chores. The more complex, the more room for innovation. Basketball's not as complex as football, but still you've got 10 guys running around creating an infinite number of combinations. And one of those guys -- say, LeBron James -- can play so much better than everyone else on the court that a coach must come up with ways to feature that guy. Or the coach can just get the ball in the player's hands and let him freelance. That happens too, and is the opposite of innovative.

Baseball's not a bunch of guys running around. Generally, it's a bunch of guys standing around, punctuated by brief spells of a few guys running around highly circumscribed places. Runners on first and second, batter hits a fly ball to medium-depth left field ... What is the manager supposed to do? That's just one case, but there are a lot of cases just like it. Essentially, in football and basketball the coach might influence nearly every minute of play, but in baseball the manager can do relatively nothing.

Here's where Joe is right: Baseball managers, more than the coaches in any other sport, are slaves to convention.

And maybe they've got a good excuse. Because baseball has been around the longest, there's been more time for Convention Wisdom to accrue, and Conventional Wisdom is usually pretty smart. The game does seem to find a natural balance. Stealing bases and bunting don't make as much sense as they once did, and so there isn't as much stealing and bunting as there once was. Getting the platoon advantage with your relief pitchers works well, and so managers get the platoon advantage more often than they used to. Nobody's innovating, really, but managers do respond to the sport's changing conditions, even if just subconsciously.

They could respond more quickly, though, and they could innovate. The extreme defensive shifts are a great example, and I don't think Joe's giving managers enough credit for that. Again, though, Joe's basically correct. And I think the "problem" is simple: Baseball managers are actually middle managers. When a football coach is hired, he assumes the weight of his new team's performance. For now, Chip Kelly is the Philadelphia Eagles. If the Eagles win, he'll receive most of the credit. If they lose, he'll be fired and might never work in the NFL again. Bill Parcells used to get hired to turn franchises around. And with that responsibility came freedom. To hire players, to fire players, and to try some unorthodox things. If you win, you earn the right to try more unorthodox things. Just look at Bill Belichik.

Baseball's not like that. In baseball, the front office gets a great deal of the credit when the team wins and the blame when it loses. In football, the front office says to the coach, "We'll give you the players. Now go win." In baseball, the front office says to the manager, "We'll give you the players. Don't lose."

I exaggerate, of course. But baseball managers are hired to change attitudes, not systems. Because there's not much left in the systems that can be changed. Sure, maybe Ned Yost bunts more than he should. But the Royals have bunted just 33 times this season. In 1970, Earl Weaver's Baltimore Orioles were credited with 64 sacrifice bunts.

Ned Yost's problem isn't that he isn't innovative. Ned Yost's problem is that he doesn't understand the principles that some managers understood 20 or 30 years ago. Today the best managers aren't really ahead of the curve. They've just managed to keep up with it.

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