What John Henry Can Learn From Belichick’s 4th and 2

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Sure, this is a Red Sox site, not a Patriots one. But, we would be remiss if we ignored the lessons of the greater Boston sports community for lack of a baseball diamond.

Whether or not you agree with Belichick’s 4th and 2 call is irrelevant. The interesting part of the move is not that the Patriots won or lost, but that Belichick actually did it. While some credit goes to Belichick for making a gutsy call – whatever credit is left to go around after the defeat – the majority should go to Robert Kraft. There are very few organizations on this green Earth, let alone sport organizations, that foster a culture where a key decision-maker can take a risk like Belichick did – and not worry about job termination in the event of failure. This rare event is dependent solely upon an extreme level of trust – one which very few organizations practice or cultivate.

Yes, Belichick had to earn that respect from his boss. But this kind of trust is very unique – especially to sports.

Still, despite the loss, the second-guessing, and the media advocating for everything short of an all-out lynching of BIll Belichick, John Henry should use this occasion as an opportunity to learn something from Robert Kraft.

While everyone in the baseball community harps upon creative thinking and unconventional solutions to age-old strategic problems, a major reason why some of the best ideas never come to fruition is because of the fear of repercussions from the higher-ups. When employees and decision-makers have the freedom to make controversial decisions, a general manager, for example, can do what’s best for the team, even if the reiging conventional wisdom says otherwise.

Think back to the 2003 season when the Red Sox tested a bullpen-by-committee approach. Lacking a true closer, the Sox put into practice what every baseball analyst worth his salt has been urging for years – to get rid of the formal “closer” role and go with the team’s best pitcher in the most important situations.

In case you’re lost, I’ll refresh your memory.

In the first months of the season, the team tried all of Chad Fox, Mike Timlin, Brandon Lyon, and Lefty Grove’s resurrected arm  in the ninth inning in an effort to maximize the effectiveness of a weak bullpen. The move failed, and Theo, in his first season, felt the brunt of the Boston media pressure and caved mid-season, bringing in Byung-Hyun Kim to man the final frame. And, though Kim performed well in the role with a 3.18 ERA and 16 saves, it was a powerful display of the strength of the Boston media – that all the voices in New England drown out the trust between owner and general manager, affecting the decision making at every level the Red Sox’ front office.

The failure of that move was a real tragedy for the team and all of baseball – remaining one of the great missed opportunities in the MLB of the last ten years. If that move had caught on in Boston, it would have caught on everywhere – changing how bullpens would have operated league-wide. Instead of being the norm in league, the approach awaits a new champion.

But this was not the only example of the quick-trigger, knee-jerk reactions in the Red Sox organization in the past decade.

Was Grady Little really that bad of a manager? Or, was one costly decision and months of second-guessing enough to smear Grady’s positive record?

Was Edgar Renteria really that bad of a shortstop? Or, was one “poor” season and a spiteful media enough to discourage the front office from bringing him back for a second year? Renteria had a 1.9 WAR for the Sox in 2005, going on to register a 3.8 WAR in 2006 and 4.3 WAR in 2007.

The perils of groupthink are almost impossible to avoid when ensconced in the public eye. Created by the unrivaled passion of their fan base and beat writers, this is simultaneously the team’s biggest strength and biggest weakness. The relentless media and loving fans create the market that keeps them among the wealthiest and most competitive teams in baseball. However, that environment has an ugly side – the organization will never be able to take advantage of their genius until the powers that be become more lenient and open minded.

No one be fooled. A major reason the Oakland Athletics can compete – and excelled in the early 2000s – is because they have one of the most intelligent markets in baseball. To their credit, though Billy Beane may go through dry spells on occasion, Oakland has enough trust in his abilities to allow him the freedom to do his job to the best of his ability, convention be damned.

Unfortunately, Theo Epstein does not seem to have this kind of leash. Though it is difficult to read whether John Henry has the requisite trust in Theo required for some real aggressive deal making, Boston’s old-school writers do not – a powerful lobby that can ruin reputations and terminate budding careers faster than a Jimmy the Greek or Rush Limbaugh interview.

There is absolutely no way the Red Sox would be allowed to make any sort of outside the very narrowly defined conventions of management theory – even if they improve the outlook of the ballclub.

If Papelbon were to leave this team, the front office would have no other choice than to bring on an established closer. While Okajima and a righty reliever should be good enough to split the ninth-inning duties, this is THE Boston Red Sox. They are above any sort of closer-by-committee nonsense. As a corollary, this also rules out ever using Papelbon in the eighth inning when the Yankee’s heart of the order is at bat, where he would be more useful than throwing against the bottom of the order in the ninth.

Forget Jeremy Hermida being anything more than a fourth outfielder next year. Though he could be paired with a $1-$2 million right-handed bat to make a cheap, effective alternative to the Bay-Holliday plan, the front office would be crucified before the tandem ever saw the field. The RED SOX don’t use platoons in left field.

But, before we completely give up hope, there are a signals that things may be changing. The biggest sign in recent years was the acquisition of Brad Penny and John Smoltz to man the 5th starter role. Essentially, the team came in with a fairly risky, uncertain fifth starter situation. By allowing the front office to partake in this kind of maneuver, Theo must have had some level of trust in John Henry, and vice-versa. However, we must consider that this move included the acquisition of a future first-ballot Hall of Famer in John Smoltz, and about 20 young starters waiting in the wings in Triple-A. Therefore, the signal is still a bit difficult to read.

While it’s great to see that Bill Belichick trusts Robert Kraft enough to see through an impending media blitz and allow the coach to keep his job, it’s a bit unfortunate that this does not seem to be the case with the Red Sox.

But, we don’t need to get too down on ourselves. Luckily, our greatest competition, the New York Yankees, are probably the worst in sport in this regard. Every time a member of the Steinbrenner cult threatens to terminate Brian Cashman or Joe Torre/Girardi  for a poor result, it constrains the way the team is operates. Instead of focusing on improving the team in every way possible, the onus is shifted to making the least controversial decision in order to avoid scrutiny.

Though the Patriots lost as a result of Belichick’s failed 4th and 2, it is encouraging in the long run that Belichick had enough trust in his owner to make such a controversial call. If only the Sox had a sign from above that this were the case…

Job stability and the role of the owner may be one of the more underrated characteristics of any sport organization. Maybe the Sox could use a little more.

But, in the end, maybe the more important question to ask is: is Theo deserving of this trust?