The Allure of Expectation

If you listened to the Josh Byrnes and Mike Dee interviews on yesterday’s Darren Smith show (and if you didn’t you probably should), the sticking point boiled down to expectations. So let’s talk about expectations.

Josh claimed he never oversold this team’s ability to ownership. To paraphrase, based on the projections he saw (the same ones we have access to, by the way) he figured the team could win between 71 (if everything broke wrong) and 91 (if everything went right) games this season. I think fantasizing this group could win 91 games was exactly that – a fantasy – but I have 3 months of mediocre play coloring my view of the past.

Including a margin for error in any projection is sound practice, so the problem perhaps wasn’t in his forecasting.  But there was a disconnect in the way Byrnes went about building this team, and it’s in some of the things he said as well as what he did. When you publicly proclaim Seth Smith could be ‘the final piece’ – as Josh did way back in December – people latch on to that. I’m sure ownership latched onto it. Statements like that cause people to get excited, and expectations to rise. Hey – he’s the final piece!  We’re going to contend!

Teams don’t spend $15M on a set-up man if they don’t think they’re right there for a playoff spot. Teams don’t keep and extend players on a 76-win roster if they don’t think those players are playoff-caliber already, and minor improvements will put them over the top.

It also seems everyone’s conveniently forgotten what many thought heading into spring training.  There was widespread belief the Padres would be a dark horse contender for the playoffs this season. Buster Olney even sent a tweet naming San Diego as his pick for one Wild Card slot. That optimism was based on the Smith trade, the belief that Josh Johnson would front this rotation, that Chase Headley and Carlos Quentin had put their injury-plagued 2013 behind them, and that the rest of the roster would be at least average offensively. I’m sure Josh believed it. I’m sure he talked about it. I’m sure his optimism resonated with and excited ownership.

Things didn’t work out that way.  As we all know now, Seth was not the final piece. He has been very good in 2014, but his prowess at the plate has been drowned by the absolute dearth of offensive production at every infield position. Johnson didn’t survive Peoria. Quentin remains a fixture on the trainer’s table. Will Venable turned back into Will Venable. Yonder Alonso has mostly forgotten how to drive the ball. The list of players not meeting expectations goes on and on. And that’s before we list all the other injured players.

So when Mike Dee says (paraphrasing again) this team hasn’t lived up to expectations he has a point.  Whether the preseason prognostication was unrealistic or not, this team has underachieved. The injuries mounted, as was inevitable given some of these player’s injury histories. The Padres field an offense that would struggle in the Dead Ball Era. San Diego is forced to promote some players before they’re ready, and those guys are struggling at the Major League Level. It’s easy to see why ownership would be pissed off and decide on a change. All that anger and frustration falls on Josh, who put this roster together.

Byrnes will no doubt learn from this experience and put it into his tool-box.  I’m sure he’ll land on his feet, with another position in another baseball front office.  However it’s highly doubtful he’ll ever be a General Manager again.

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  • Cardinal70

    He actually projected between 71 and 91 wins? I mean, every team could come out and say that and be right 95% of the team, right? I’d like to think a front office would be able to narrow that gap down a little bit.

    • That’s what he said. I thought it seemed a pretty wide range too. Seems 80% of teams would fall in there every year.

      • Cardinal70

        Assigning blame is always such a dicey proposition. You know we’ve had those talks in Cardinal Nation–what kind of blame does Mabry get for the hitters this year, etc. That’s baseball, though. Bad luck may get you sympathy, but it doesn’t always get you paid.

    • Jacob Guerriero

      I agree, the 71-91 win projection swing is absurd. Its pretty much saying “well we could be pretty bad, or we might be pretty good, we’ll see how it plays out.” Front office projections have to be better than that.

    • Geoff Young

      This is actually a reasonable projection, albeit one that isn’t very satisfying. People underestimate the amount of variance due to factors other than talent. As Neil Paine recently put it, “Even if we somehow knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that a team had precisely 81-win talent, there would still be a 5 percent chance it would finish with a win total as low as 70 — or one as high as 92 — by pure randomness alone.”

      • Cardinal70

        I guess that makes sense, but it just doesn’t seem to be very useful. Then again, we’ve seen what “the consensus” projections are worth so why should we expect any more!

  • Robby Deming

    Given how the offense fared last year, I don’t think it was unreasonable to expect that they would improve this year. People keep talking about this roster as if they hiring this last season. They didn’t. They hit like competent big leaguers and finished fifth in the NL in OPS+.

    The ownership had to fire Byrnes because they had to do something and the coaches are apparently sacred cows. The pitching is much better thanks to him. It’s too bad the offense couldn’t keep up their end of the bargain.

  • Thjbriggs

    Thank you so much for bringing up Byrnes’ set expectations from earlier in the year. I’ve felt crazy the last few days reading people’s opinions on the matter saying “NOBODY expected the Padres to compete” when the “dark horse” talk was all the rage in spring training. And Byrnes describing Seth Smith as “the final piece” absolutely implies lofty expectations. Whether or not that was just to sell tickets to fans while ownership secretly had lower expectations is an unknown, but Byrnes sounds dishonest when he now claims that he didn’t oversell the team’s chances.

  • Geoff Young

    Interesting stuff, Mike. The phrase “final piece” always suggested to me that Byrnes was done making moves, nothing more, but I can see where folks would assign a greater meaning to it. Maybe part of a GM’s job is to keep such thoughts private (Kevin Towers had trouble with this, too, but was mostly effective in spite of it).

    I also respectfully disagree with your conclusion. I think a less dysfunctional organization will recognize what Byrnes has to offer as a GM and will give him another chance to succeed in that role.

    • Tom Waits

      Well, he traded for Torres and Hahn after Smith, but regardless of what “final” means, it’s unlikely that his public statements got him canned. The fans may feel misled, but the only people who matter are at the top of the org chart, and they undoubtedly got a much more detailed pre-season analysis. We’ll never know if they felt Byrnes oversold this team or if they simply thought he wasn’t good enough. Any of us who’ve been around the block more than once have had the experience of telling a boss A, B, and C and realizing later that they only heard one of those letters. Most of us have also discovered that doing our best isn’t always good enough.

      What’s a fair grade for Byrnes? B or B-minus, a C+ if we’re being tough. Certainly not an A. Some good trades and a few not good ones. A lead touch with extensions. Committing a relatively big chunk of money to late-inning relievers and huge injury risks. Solid but unspectacular drafts. The Padres can’t afford a GM who is anything less than elite.

      I wouldn’t say Byrnes has no chance of landing a GM job again. But I would say that his chances are not that great, well under 25%. There are only so many jobs and there are lots of talented people out there who haven’t been fired twice. His chances would get a lot better if Moorad pulls a Mission:Impossible and infiltrates the top levels of an MLB team under a different identity.

      • Geoff Young

        I’d probably give Byrnes a B-minus. He got good value in trades, and his drafts look decent, which is more than can be said of most Padres drafts. The extensions made sense but backfired in a big way. And yeah, his primary obstacle going forward may prove to be the past association with Moorad, whose name is sure to raise a few eyebrows among those who work with or for the Reinsdorf/Selig cartel.

      • Tom Waits

        I’d divide the extensions into three groups:

        No Complaints: Luebke (suspicious K spike but really not much money), Maybin (coming off a terrific year and arb-close), Hundley (hardly more than average salary).

        Premature Contractulation: Gyorko. Didn’t leverage his pre-arb time to get a discount, he’ll get paid in his arb years about what you’d expect him to get paid as a 3-ish WAR player. All the focus seemed to be on securing a FA year / option but the Pads need to hoarde every dime. His rookie year was good not great, he lost time to injury, and he had babies on the way, which tends to make people focus on security. Was that deal going to be viable this November if Gyorko had played well. Yeah, I think so.

        Bad from the Jump: Quentin. Not hindsight, hated it at the time. You buy low on a guy like that and, if you’re lucky, he’s the actual Final Piece or he rediscovers his health and you pay a little more to be confident he’ll play. Liked how cheap we got him, but the extension was a bad idea.

        Selig Cartel vs Moorad. It’s like choosing between alligators and crocs.

    • I had Paul DePodesta in mind when I wrote that. I thought he did a pretty good job with the Dodgers, but got canned and hasn’t sniffed a GM position since.

      That said you’re probably right, Geoff. Especially given what’s come out since I posted. Seems Byrnes being let go was less about performance and more about ‘other’ factors.

      • Tom Waits

        DePodesta’s an interesting comp. He seems to be considered smarter than Byrnes, in raw intelligence, but also more of a doctrinaire sabremetrician. You didn’t see many (any?) articles from mainstream baseball journalists extolling him as a Good Baseball Man after the Dodgers fired him. Byrnes has more of the sabre/scouting blend.

        Both hitched their wagons to powerful patrons.

        I see the Byrnes firing as almost completely based on performance. If the team was near .500, two or three games out of the WC, no way does he get fired.

      • Geoff Young

        Good point about DePo, I hadn’t considered his case. Either way, any concerns I may have had about Byrnes pale in comparison to concerns I have about the current ownership group.

  • FYI, here’s the link to the Darren Smith D60, including both the Josh Byrnes & Mike Dee interviews: