Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Earl Weaver: A Man in Full

I grew up with the Orioles of the late 1970s and early 1980s. They were an exceptional team with many great and good players - future Hall of Famers like Eddie Murray, Cal Ripken, and Jim Palmer. But what made them champions was not their stars, but the deep bench of players who, when played in the right situations, could be effective. Setting these ever-changing line-ups was the chess-master, the late Earl Weaver.

He was best known for his frequent altercations with umpires. But this was merely a surface, beneath which his keen strategic intelligence operated. Now, in the era of Moneyball, everyone knows about the applications of statistical analysis to baseball. But time and again, analysts have found truths that Earl Weaver discovered on his own. He famously kept files of statistics of every batter he had against every pitcher they faced and every pitcher he had against every batter they had faced. He carefully designed his line-ups to maximize his advantages - while keeping his options open. Baseball is ultimately a game of percentages. A batter has roughly a 30% chance of doing something effective. Weaver would do everything and anything he could to increase that likelihood because over a 162 game season increasing that chance to 31% would pay off. So he would keep players like Benny Ayala around. Ayala was not a great fielder and wasn't fast, but he could hit a certain class of pitcher. Other managers would focus on what Ayala couldn't do - but Weaver saw what he could do and determine if he needed those particular skills enough to keep him around.

One example, summarized from his terrific Weaver on Strategy gives a sense of how he thought things through (but bear in mind he did this about everything):
In 1981 I wrote Steve Stone into my lineup every day as the designated hitter. Stone is a pitcher, and I naturally did not expect him to hit. In fact, the first time I did it, Stone wasn't even with the club-he had flown ahead to the next city on the road trip... During this season I often platooned Benny Ayala and Terry Crowley as my designated hitters. Let's the Orioles were playing Cleveland and Len Barker was staring for the Indians. I'd have Terry Crowley in the lineup against the right-handed Barker. But suppose the first five hitters get to Barker and knock him out. The Indians bring in Rick Waits, a lefty. I wouldn't want to use Crowley against Waits, so I would have to bat Ayala for Crowley. In the process, I've lost Crowley without him making an appearance. That's wasting a player. Or what if the pitcher takes the mound, throws to a couple of hitters, and the leaves because his arm hurts. It may only happen twice a season, but there is no reason to waste a player if it can be avoided. By listing a pitcher such as Stone as the DH, I have the option of sending up Crowley or Ayala.
People have observed that Weaver won because he had great pitchers. True, but... Besides Palmer, none of the Oriole pitchers were all-time greats and many of them were only great under Weaver. One element was that Weaver combined quantitative and qualitative analysis of baseball - he had a very shrewd eye for baseball talent. He could look at a capable journeyman pitcher and see how much better he would be in Memorial Stadium with Weaver's defense around him (Weaver was big into defense.) Also, Weaver - again long before this was analyzed systematically - had a great sense of when a pitcher had had enough. He stayed with a four-man rotation till the end, when almost everyone else had turned to the five-man rotation. He believed - and it has since been validated - that as long as you don't force a pitcher to throw too many pitches in a game he didn't need the extra day of rest (and if you did push a pitcher's arm past its limit the extra day of rest wouldn't help anyway.) He describes in detail the signs that a pitcher is really tiring and I read somewhere that he was one of the first managers to systematically use radar guns during the game because he knew when a pitcher was losing velocity he was done.

All of this came at a cost. To run a time this way, Weaver had to be tough with the players. He had to be ready to cut them from the team when they weren't useful and he didn't dare get close to them. It was an attitude he forged in the minor leagues when he had to cut hopeful kids and "look every one in the eye and kick their dreams in the [butt] and say, 'Kid, there's no way you can make my ballclub.'"

Weaver continued, "If you say it mean enough, maybe they do themselves a favor and don't waste years learning what you can see in a day. They don't have what it takes to make the majors. Just like I never had it."

In a beautiful column about Weaver after his recent death renowned Washington Post sportswriter Thomas Boswell wrote about the toll this took on Weaver and how exhausting Weaver found it to always be "the grown-up." On Brooks Robinson Day (honoring the beloved Oriole 3rd baseman, Weaver said, "I'd like to be like Brooks, the guy who never said no to nobody, the ones that everybody loves because they deserve to be loved ... those are my heroes."

Weaver knew himself and learned that truth illustrated in novels that shapes our lives, that within each of us, beneath the surface lies the opposite. Nothing exists without its contrary and we must each come to terms with that.

Weaver retired early, he was only 52 (he made a brief, unsuccessful comeback a few years later.) He gardened, walked on the beach, took his wife out to dinner, and went to Hialeah to play the ponies.

Did Earl Weaver, the "sorest loser that every lived," a man who exerted every iota of a rather formidable genius for tiny advantages, find peace at the track knowing full well that, "all horseplayers die broke?"

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Penny for your Thoughts: Mali & COIN Light

Now that France has boots on the ground and is doing real shooting everyone is an expert on Mali. I'm not, I won't claim any familiarity with the dynamics of that corner of the world. But from a superficial standpoint it looks like Afghanistan. There are enormous differences in the specifics (cultural, ethnic, linguistic, geographic, historical - I get it, they are totally different countries.) I also have nothing insightful to say about the terrible - and possibly related - events in Algeria.

The big similarity is that Mali, like Afghanistan, is in a difficult to reach place, is large, poor, and in real danger of being taken over by Islamists. The failed state in danger of being taken over by Islamists is a danger in many other places and the big question is what are realistic policy options.

From the experience of Afghanistan, dropping hundreds of billions of dollars and tens of thousands of troops is problematic. It is very, very expensive, it may have limited efficacy, it will distort local politics and economics, and the intervening power may not be willing to sustain it. The troops and resources needed to intervene in Mali on that scale don't exist anyway so what else is in the playbook?

Plan Colombia as a Counter-Example
In the 1990s the Colombian government was in real trouble. The whole country was insecure and the drug-financed FARC was an existential threat to the state itself. The United States engaged in a long-term capacity building program which provided technical assistance, training, money, and intelligence to the Colombian government. There were limited US personnel involved. Overall, the program was a success. Solving the fundamental social problems of Colombia was probably not in the cards, but the country's economy is growing while the FARC has been pushed to the margins and the security situation has been vastly improved.

Plan Colombia is a model program that required a substantial, but not overwhelming US commitment. Unfortunately, its applicability is limited. There was a lower level counter-terror capacity building program to Mali, but it was tiny, subject to bureaucratic differences, and ultimately de-railed by a coup that was not recognized by the US.

Capacity building won't work well when there is very little initial capacity. At its worst moments the Colombian government and security forces were a model of effectiveness compared to the truly failed states. In particular, the Colombian military was a professional force that needed support to adapt to its internal counter-insurgency role. Colombia also benefitted from exceptional political leadership that had the vision and capability to support the military.

None of these things exist in Mali, Somalia or other likely candidates for failed state status. But this lower level capacity building commitment at least provides a useful counter-point to the massive COIN commitment present in Afghanistan (a yin-yang thing.)

Just Right Policy
First, even weak, inept national governments can be useful. Handling things on the international stage requires an address - otherwise where can you send mail/aid/weapons etc. Waiting until that inept government is overthrown and letting Islamists (or other bad guys) run the country is a much less advantageous position.

Some troops are needed, enough to take out the bad guys and make sure they cannot mass forces. In Mali, it is looking like France's brigade with airpower (and US support) may be able to do the job. Naturally augmenting a core Western force with local or regional forces (ie Malian army and African peace-keepers) is useful. But regardless the forces needed to fully secure the country are not available (and might not succeed in any regard.)

However, if a nation is going to commit to stabilizing a country like Mali it means this kind of force will have to stick around for a long-time. To use that force effectively (and also to deliver economic aid and manage relations with sub-national actors - such as local warlords) will require the slow and painful accumulation of highly specific knowledge about that country. Developing that kind of knowledge means that governments have to be prepared to invest in personnel - effectively guaranteeing a number of people across agencies that they can have careers (ie several decades focusing on one area) as "Mali hands" or "Somalia hands" or whatever other area comes up on the national radar screen. This is not the old British civil service in India with tens of thousands - but rather a few hundred. They will need to be structured so that they work across a swath of agencies and continue to harbor a diversity of opinions.

(Caveat: I am not writing that this is what the French are doing! They probably want to get out ASAP. But this is the sort of thing they should do if they want to take a stab at ensuring they don't have an endless cycle of crises. The US should also look into building these kinds of capabilities to deploy in other dangerous areas of the world.)

This requires a broader institutional capacity to build this capacity. It will also require political patience with very long-term approaches and a tolerance for limited results and - quite frankly - deals with some really awful people.

The situation is not hopeless, these abilities exist in a limited form already.

Still, if failed states are going to continue to viewed as an international security problem than the proper tools are needed to address them.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Surprising Influence? The Age of Biden

The last week with the dramatic fiscal cliff negotiations should have been case study gold for this vice president obsessed PhD candidate.

Biden, as all but those sensible enough to turn off the news, must know negotiated a settlement with Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to avoid going headfirst over the fiscal cliff.

Many, many articles touted Vice President Biden as "the most powerful" or "the most influential" vice president in history (or at least the 2nd most powerful - tough to rival Cheney). This one, in the pretty much hits the tone. There was so much of this sort of thing that in The New Republic, Timothy Noah wrote:
What we can say with some confidence is that the vice presidency has always been worth a good deal more than a bucket of warm piss, and that at least since Harry Truman became president in 1945 it’s been a pretty reliable steppingstone to the presidency. In the modern era vice presidents have tended to be powerful even when they didn’t become president, probably because their selection has been based less on party loyalty or geographic, demographic, or ideological balance and more on perceived aptitude and compatibility with the chief executive....Powerful veeps aren't news. Time to stop pretending that they are.
A few fussy points (if I'm going to be an academic, I have to learn to be fussy.) My dissertation is about the question of influence, when the vice president effectively makes policy. Is that what happened here? Biden managed the negotiations with McConnell and reached an agreement, but was that influential or more a matter of carrying-out a difficult task? This is not to downplay Biden's role, and it is a role other VPs have played in the past. Gore negotiated all kinds of difficult issues with Russia, Ukraine, and South Africa - but he was effectively carrying out policy, not making (there were cases where he pushed for policies within the White House and he was often successful.) Mondale handled sensitive issues with the Senate on Carter's behalf, most notably the Panama Canal Treaty. But the Treaty was Carter's idea, Mondale just helped make it happen.

On many other issues, it appears that Biden has been influential, but as important as his role was, I'm not sure if it is necessarily influence.

Brother or Uncle
I have observed before that age may be an indicator in President-VP relationships. The strongest relationships were between virtual contemporaries. Carter is four years older than Mondale, while Clinton is two years older than Gore. Reagan, on the other hand, was 13 years older than Bush, while Bush was 23 years older than Quayle. I am working on some analytical methods of rating vice presidential influence, but eyeballing it would make it appear that the closer the President and Vice President are in age, the more likely the vice president is to exercise influence. Mondale and Gore were pretty influential, Bush Sr. less so, and Quayle's influence was limited.

But what about a case in which the VP is older? Cheney is five years older than Bush 43 and Biden is 19 years older than Obama. These two figures are also towards the top of the scale in vice presidential influence.

Of course there are other variables. Obama was one of the least experienced President's in modern history. Bush 43 was much more experienced and had very little background in foreign affairs, which quickly became central to his administration. Bush Sr, while younger than Reagan, was extremely experienced but faced internal opposition from Reagan loyalists. There are obviously other factors determining vice presidential influence. But still, the trend is intriging.