December 1, 2007

Bowdenball

You never get a second chance to make a first impression. That's only important because first impressions can be so difficult to shake. Get labeled or stereotyped and that tag becomes the shorthand for your entire life experience. It happens to everybody at one time or another, but it's guaranteed to happen to celebrities. The media and the public need a hook, a quick handle, the Cliffs Notes version. The trashy starlet, the crooked politician, the gifted, guarded, misunderstood athlete. The patterns are repeated until they achieve archetypal status. Most people have neither the time nor the inclination to fully immerse themselves in the minutia of another person's history and character. It's just isn't practical.

But first impressions can lie. They can occur at uncharacteristic moments. They can capture outdated information and seal it in amber. Or they can be a snapshot of something that just isn't what it appears to be. In these cases the dichotomy between perception and reality creates an information gap. The idea that information gaps can be exploited to create competitive advantages was the central premise of Michael Lewis's Moneyball. The Moneyball philosophy has come to stand for the potential to exploiting undervalued baseball skills like plate discipline and defense. But long before Michael Lewis and Billy Beane, Jim Bowden was busily mining the character gap.

Kevin Mitchell
might be the prototypical Jim Bowden acquisition. Mitchell was one of the first players Bowden acquired when he took over as Reds GM in 1992. Overall, Bowden traded for the talented, troubled slugger not once but twice, and was rewarded with three successful partial seasons from the alleged pet-decapitator, highlighted by his .326/.429/.681 line with 30 HRs and 77 RBI in the strike shortened 1994 season.

Since becoming one of the game's youngest GM's 15 years ago Bowden has functioned as something of a statue of liberty for baseball's head cases, collecting everyone from the plainly misunderstood to the clearly anti-social, almost always at a discount. From supposed clubhouse cancers like Jose Guillen to guys who had one ill-timed brush with scandal like Ronnie Belliard. From Dmitri Young, who would probably have been out of baseball but for Bowden, to his latest acquisition, an "immature", "underachieving" 22-year old outfielder. In all these cases, and many others, perceived character flaws diminished the value of actual talent.

With that said, not every ballplayer is a candidate for Bowden's brand of redemption. By and large he tracks guys with one isolated blemish on their record, or players whose recent misbehavior overshadows an otherwise unobjectionable career. But most importantly, as with any rehab, the players involved have to want that second chance. It would take more than just a change of scenery and a clean slate to rejuvenate an unrepentant Barry Bonds or a recidivist Elijah Dukes.

First impressions can attach to GMs too. When Jim Bowden first arrived in DC he was widely viewed as a leather pants-clad huckster, a track suit wearing, fist-bumping carnival barker. His style of deal-making was considered akin to the obnoxious drunk kid at Spring Break whose idea of trying to score is standing on his balcony hollering at every girl on the beach. This fine publication was not immune to mocking all that seeming sound and fury, signifying nothing. Of course, Bowden brought some of it on himself. He did wear leather pants and track suits, and he was known to remark from time to time that his phone was en fuego. Which just goes to show that even first impressions that contain a grain of truth can be quite misleading.

In the years since taking the helm of the Nationals just before the start of the 2005 season Jim Bowden has made some fine moves, and in the process gotten the better of a few other people who do this GM thing for a living. Have all his moves worked out? No, nobody bats 1.000, or even .800. Nevertheless the scales that measure his relatively brief Washington tenure are slowly but surely tipping decidedly in Jim Bowden's favor. Through a combination of luck, design and necessity he has managed to exploit what appears to be one of the few remaining talent evaluation imbalances in baseball. Kudos, Trader Jim. Keep up the good work.

1 comment:

Dave said...

Look what happens when the three NTP guys get together to discuss the ticket situation and next year?

Even NATE becomes enthusiastic.

Dave