Trade strategy: Propaganda and Paul DePodesta’s recent example

In the book The 33 Strategies of War, author Robert Greene says that the three types of deception in warfare are “the gathering of intelligence, the spreading of misinformation, and the use of propaganda.” We’ve talked before about the importance of gathering intelligence and the spreading of counter-intelligence, but we’ve never talked about propaganda. This is mostly because it’s so difficult to pull off in fantasy baseball.

Types of propaganda

The purpose of propaganda is to sway the opinions of your opposing owners or deceive them in some way. In fantasy baseball, though, nearly all contact is direct, and an owner will always be skeptical of what you tell them. After all, you’re looking out for your own interests and doing (and saying) whatever is necessary to win the league. How can what you say be seen as anything other than a means to those ends?

The most effective form of propaganda is third-party propaganda. This is information coming from someone other than you. Since anything you say will always be viewed as having an ulterior motive, things that come from sources other than you will always be more effective. Third-party propaganda can be difficult to arrange, so aside from direct propaganda, there is also indirect propaganda. Indirect propaganda are things that come from you but aren’t said directly to your opponent.

While fantasy managers must rely heavily upon direct propaganda, a real life baseball front office has additional avenues by which to spread messages. Not only do they have direct communication with each other, they can send messages through the media or, in the case of Paul DePodesta and the San Diego Padres, by creating a blog.

By sending messages through the media, the front office can send them under the guise of praise for the actual players or on-field management. By writing to a blog, these messages can be sent under the guise of informing the team’s fan base.

Paul DePodesta’s example

This brings us to today’s topic. I absolutely loved this recent post at Paul DePodesta’s blog. I highly recommend going over there and reading the entire thing, and I’ll pull out the specific excerpts that I liked here. He essentially implies that this post, like the rest of the blog, is a way of communicating with the team’s fans. I believe that the post had another intended use, though, as indirect propaganda.

DePodesta provides a nice cover for this post by first asking the opinion of the fans. He waits a few days, then creates this post, qualifying it as a response to these opinions. He takes the first half of the article to talk about the way the trade and free agent markets intertwine and how this affects a team’s decision making. Only later, after this pretext is out of the way, does he go on to discuss his own players, which he has already established an obligation to discuss by soliciting the fan opinions.

Let’s first note the type of GM that DePodesta is aiming this propaganda towards.

Some of the more intelligent GMs—Billy Beane, Theo Epstein-types—likely figured out immediately what DePodesta is doing. They know DePodesta too well to think that he actually uses the stats he mentions or puts too much emphasis on concepts like “veteran leadership.” Other GMs, maybe a Pat Gillick or Ed Wade-type, might be a little easier to fool. While they might get the gist of what DePodesta is doing, his use of these statistics (that he almost certainly doesn’t use) and concepts definitely could have gone unnoticed.

The first quote I liked comes in regard to Greg Maddux:

There is no doubt, though, that the interest in Greg is strong.

He says something similar later on about Randy Wolf:

Randy is another guy who is on the collective radar of the buyers at this point and for good reason.

As we said, direct propaganda is less effective than indirect propaganda, which is less effective than third-party propaganda. This is a mix of indirect and third-party propaganda. It is coming from DePodesta, but he immediately points out that lots of teams have inquired about Maddux and Wolf. If lots of other teams like them, they must be pretty good, right?

He points out Maddux’s 3.90 ERA as the measure that still makes him an “effective pitcher.” He then picks out another arbitrary stat that shows Maddux in a favorable light, especially in the context of a trade deadline:

In fact, the last time Greg was traded at the deadline to a contender, which was in 2006, he went 6-3 with a 3.30 ERA over 74 innings down the stretch. Previous to the trade he had posted a 4.69 ERA.

Ipso-flipso, Maddux gets better when he gets traded! I do like Maddux as a pitcher, but not for these reasons. These are, however, the types of stats that will catch the eyes that DePodesta is trying to catch.

He doesn’t drop a stat along the lines of LIPS ERA or xFIP because this would have no effect on GMs like Gillick and Wade. He knows his men well and seems to tailor the second-half of the post to them, without them necessarily knowing it. I have a feeling the vast majority of the fans reading Paul DePodesta’s blog know that ERA is a flawed stat.

He also says that Maddux “provides a veteran playoff presence” and that “he’s Greg Maddux, he’s a winner, and every team that he’s on is better because he is there. There is no doubt that the rest of our pitchers have benefited from his counsel.” In the same vein, nearly the entire section on Tony Clark talks about him being a great clubhouse guy.

Now, I do believe that a pitcher like Greg Maddux can share valuable information with his fellow pitchers and can make them better to an extent, but I don’t think he’s as good as all that. He’ll be with whatever team he goes to for two months; he won’t be magically transforming Adam Eaton into a Cy Young candidate. Paul probably feels this way too, to some degree at least, but regardless of his own feelings, he knows his enemy and plays into his beliefs.

Perhaps my favorite quote comes in his discussion of Randy Wolf.

His collective line of 109 innings, 109 hits, 42 walks, and 100 k’s is one of the better lines you’ll find during this deadline, but his line of 101 innings, 95 hits, 33 walks, and 94 k’s (3.48 ERA) without those two starts is even more indicative of the pitcher he has been. In fact, his 12 quality starts ranks 7th in the NL behind Haren, Lincecum, Hudson, Santana, Webb, and Volquez.

The last line is what I really liked. The cherry-picking of stats is a nice touch, but the Quality Start reference was perfect.

Quality Starts is just “nerdy” enough to be something DePodesta could conceivably use, in the eyes of his target GMs, but also a stat that has started to make it’s way into mainstream statistics enough that they likely understand it. It is really a meaningless stat, but it has a cool, official sounding name, and finding that Wolf is in the company of great pitchers like Dan Haren, Tim Lincecum, Tim Hudson, Johan Santana, Brandon Webb, and Edinson Volquez and going as far as to drop their names was, in my opinion, a perfectly executed line.

For the GMs like Beane and Epstein who know exactly what DePodesta is doing, that’s okay. He’s at the same place with these guys that he was before posting this entry. We talked earlier in the year about the advantages of feigning weakness, but this isn’t always the right strategy.

Every sound strategy has it’s place, and for a guy like DePodesta, the time to fly under the radar has long passed in the eyes of these GMs. Beane, Epstein, and Co. know that he is an intelligent exec, so doing something like this doesn’t change their opinion of him at all. They know he’s intelligent, they know he understands outside-the-box concepts like this, and this is just another example of him doing it. It does help him, however, when dealing with a GM who is fooled by his intentions. That’s not to say any will be — there’s a real possibility I’m not giving certain GMs enough credit — but it certainly doesn’t hurt anything.

Of course, this isn’t perfect propaganda. It is still coming from the mouth of San Diego’s front office, but it certainly seems like one of the most effective possible pieces of propaganda that isn’t coming from a third-party source.

Let’s imagine that Paul DePodesta instead went to, let’s say, Phillies GM Pat Gillick and said, “Greg Maddux is Greg Maddux. He’s a very good pitcher, a great veteran leader, makes every team he’s on better, and has made all of our pitchers better.” This would come across as pushy and might receive a response of “If he’s so good, why are you trying so hard to trade him?” Paul could easily respond, “He’s going to be a free agent and we don’t think we’re going to contend,” but Gillick would still be a little suspicious and, depending on his personality, maybe a little put off to dealing with Paul and the Pads.

Instead, his comments in the blog post are unassuming and perfectly veiled by the motive of communicating with the fan base.

And of course, the purpose of DePodesta’s blog (or even this post) isn’t solely as a means of propaganda. I’m not even sure if Paul did this intentionally (although I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he did). The blog has many benefits, but I singled this one out since it can be discussed in the context of fantasy baseball.

Fantasy baseball applications

Unfortunately, in fantasy baseball, we have very few ways of creating non-direct propaganda. Short of striking a deal with another owner to spread it for each other (whereupon we run into some serious ethical considerations), we don’t have many options.

A strategy I tried out in one league last year was that of creating “press releases” for every move my team made. This was a way of talking about my players without addressing any one owner in particular and without seeming pushy (although some owners did consider it arrogant).

I made sure to do it for every single move my team made and some days just to talk about how my players were doing. Some would trash players; some would praise them. Some had no ulterior motives whatsoever, so that when I was going to have one, it was well concealed. I would send them to all owners and post them on the league message board. I would keep notes about which owners I thought were reading them and trying to gain information about my mindset.

To a moderately astute owner, it can be pretty transparent what you’re doing if you don’t choose your words very carefully. I mean, the concept of a press release in fantasy baseball to begin with is a strange, rarely used one and draws immediate attention and suspicion.

Some owners, you might find, are simply befuddled by this and don’t give it a second thought (our intention), some will consider it trash talk (another non-harmful, but not ideal, reaction), others will see through it, and some owners will just think you’re full of yourself. Be careful, because these owners could form a negative opinion about you that could potentially affect trade dealings. Knowing the personalities of the other owners can help you decide whether this is a smart tactic to employ.

Concluding thoughts

Overall, there isn’t an incredibly strong parallel here, but I wanted to bring this all to your attention anyway. It was very well crafted, and it serves as a reminder and an example of the type of thinking we need to be engaging in. If you guys have any thoughts on how we could use propaganda as a tool in fantasy baseball, I’d love to hear them. If I like any, I’ll be sure to post them here.

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