🐵 Monkey See

The best edges are like Blum’s, where the strength (in this case, prestige) of one business prevents another business from copying it.

The next best edge is one that no one knows about. This was the case for Billy Beane all those years ago when he pioneered the value of walks and it was the case for Russell Martin.

Baseball games have started to experiment with different rules to make it more objective, but unlike Hawkeye in tennis, balls and strikes remain a human judgment. Elite tennis serves whiz at 125mph (and up!) and elite fastballs are right behind that. Enter pitch framing.

With some sleight of hand, catchers can slightly reposition their gloves in such a way to change a borderline ball into a borderline strike. It’s a tweak that can lead to large effects. The initial 2008 study showed a twenty-five game difference between the best framers and the worst. That’s 15% of all games. The study’s author, Dan Turkenkopf wrote, “this is a much larger effect than I expected to see. In fact, it’s so large that I have to think there’s something wrong in the analysis.”

There wasn’t.

There was an edge.

And no one knew about it.

Well, someone did know, Mike Fitzgerald at the Pittsburgh Pirates. Martin was a free agent at the time and signed a two-year, seventeen million dollar deal with the team. Pittsburgh Tribune-Review columnist Dejan Kovacevic wrote, “Let’s not pretend this transaction was anything other than what it was: An over-priced desperation move that’s going to hurt the Pirates in more ways than one.” He had a right to gripe, Martin was not a great hitter, batting .211 the previous year.

To pay for a visible metric (batting average) was expensive and offered a limited edge. However, to find an invisible metric (pitch framing) was inexpensive and the edge was expansive. At the time Fitzgerald said it was the biggest value in the game of baseball.

As the Pirates succeed Kovacevic updated his prior beliefs and noted how well the team was playing. They succeed when they had an edge. They saw an advantage and they took it. However, edges erode.

Tomorrow we’ll finish the classic line, monkey see, monkey do.