No Childish Player Left Behind

Signing troublemakers is an unscientific—and risky—business. But it won't stop
December 15, 2008

WHEN THESacramento Kings acquired talented but troublesome forward Ron Artest nearlythree years ago, they traded away three-time All-Star Peja Stojakovic and tookon the remaining $14.9 million and two years on Artest's contract. It was amajor risk, both financially and in terms of team chemistry, and its successdepended on Artest's questionable ability to control the temper that had earnedhim a seasonlong suspension for his role in the infamous "Malice at thePalace" player-fan melee in 2004. What persuaded Gavin and Joe Maloof, thebrothers who own the Kings, to take a chance on such a potentially problematicplayer? "We talked to him on the phone," Gavin said, "and he seemedlike a nice guy."

The Maloofs, whoalso own the Palms hotel and casino in Las Vegas, are used to high-stakesgambling, so it's not shocking that they were willing to go all in based onlittle more than a hunch. (This one didn't turn out so well. Artest lasted lessthan the two seasons in Sacramento before things soured and he demanded atrade; the Kings sent him to Houston.) But when it comes to one of the mostimportant personnel decisions any franchise can make—whether to keep or acquirean expensive star with a penchant for outbursts, altercations or simply doggingit—the Maloofs are hardly the only executives who seem willing to go with theirgut and gamble on a talented wild card who might quickly undermine millions ofdollars spent on building well-rounded rosters.

Clearly, a morescientific approach is needed. In an age when every aspect of playerperformance is quantified, when statistics like OPS+ and assist-to-turnoverratio and yards after the catch provide empirical data for owners and G.M.'s,teams need a way to objectively assess the risk-versus-reward issue. If onlyowners and executives had a Bill James for personality traits—someone toformulate a sabermetric system for troublemakers.

Take the case of atemperamental slugger like Manny Ramirez. Imagine if teams could compareRamirez's LEPH (Loafing Episodes Per Homer) percentage to the league average.Then there's this question: Who would be a riskier addition to a team,gun-toting Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress or brawling Cowboys cornerbackAdam (Pacman) Jones? Obviously, whoever has the betterarrest-to-game-changing-play ratio (AGCPR). In addition to knowing a player's40-yard-dash time, how convenient it would be to know his LRA, or Locker RoomAlienation time, i.e., how long it takes him to say enough stupid things forall of his teammates to want to stuff a roll of ankle tape in his mouth. SurelyDallas Stars left wing Sean Avery, who earned a six-game suspension last weekfor using the term "sloppy seconds" in reference to an ex-girlfriendnow dating another NHL player, would lead the league in LRA—and maybe, for awhile, lonely evenings.

Without thosesorts of numbers, teams are mostly reduced to using considerably less reliableresearch—a process that typically includes some calling around, a Google searchand a leap of faith. As Pistons team president Joe Dumars, who traded forRasheed Wallace (known for his on-court volatility) in 2004 and for headstrongAllen Iverson last month, says, "It's really not that deep."

Sometimes teamsguess right, as the Dodgers did last July when they traded for Ramirez, who,fresh off his pouting in Boston, led them to the NL West title. The TexasRangers acquired Josh Hamilton (drug problems) and Milton Bradley (temperproblems); the two jauntily dubbed themselves the Risk Brothers and wound up inlast year's All-Star Game. But just as often management's guess is sospectacularly wrong that the franchise ends up regretting it for years—just askthe Knicks, who in 2004 took on $90 million over 4 1/2 years by bringing inmalcontented point guard Stephon Marbury, a move that cost them on the courtand helped cripple their ability to maneuver under the salary cap.

Someone willsurely take another chance on Marbury when he and the Knicks end theirdysfunctional relationship and on Avery in the event that he has worn out hiswelcome in Dallas. But before another owner or G.M. considers such a gamble, hemight want to consult with some of the folks who do that sort of thing for aliving, like Kimberly Thompson, associate professor of risk analysis anddecision science at Harvard. "If I were advising a team about this kind ofdecision," she says, "I would ask them to tell me their objectives as ateam. Is it winning? Making money? Creating a culture that brings out the bestin all players? Having a good reputation within the community? Keeping theircosts low? In risk management, we ask, How do we value the possible outcomesthat might occur considering all of the things that are important tous?"

In other words, indeciding whether to sign Ramirez, team execs should ask themselves suchquestions as, If Manny goes back to being Manny, and he doesn't help the teamwin the division but does help us increase revenue by some specific amount,would that be an acceptable outcome? If Avery brings even unflatteringattention, and some curious eyeballs, to an NHL team, is that preferable togetting less attention without him and his unseemly expressions? There's farmore to risk analysis theory, of course, including the part that holds that ifa risk is judged to have failed, it's best to correct it quickly—a precept theKnicks clearly did not heed in their handling of Marbury.

Some teams,Thompson suspects, "already excel at risk analysis, although they may notrecognize what they are doing as risk analysis." That may be true. But forother teams, the only analysis appears to be blowing on the dice and takinganother roll.

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Teams need someone to devise a SABERMETRIC SYSTEM FORTHE PROBLEM-PRONE.

ILLUSTRATIONILLUSTRATION BY FRED HARPER

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)