I’ve been thinking about competitive advantages a lot lately, and it’s led me to an odd hypothesis. Before we get into it, I’ll admit that this isn’t a fully formed #take just yet, but there does seem to be some underlying truth here, and I’m interested in exploring it publicly here with you all.
We all know gaining competitive advantages is the name of the game, right? From neuroscience, to virtual reality, to doing whatever you can for a player’s family before signing them in free agency, every single MLB team is in search of the next competitive edge. When you think back 15-20 years, this famously manifested itself as Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill calling up the A’s and telling them that getting on base is pretty cool. More recently, however, you might say that pulling starters extraordinarily early and making FULL use of your best bullpen matchups is the edge du jour.
Of course, there’ve been plenty of competitive advantages along the way – including ground ball pitchers, the launch angle revolution, never striking out, always striking out, whatever – but they all share one thing in common: they all eventually cease to be an “edge,” as more teams jump on that particular bandwagon.
Now that the idea of utilizing advanced analytics – indeed, the entire concept of these kinds of competitive advantages – is widely accepted, secret sauces just don’t say secret very long. Perhaps a really good idea can net your team two or three seasons of an edge before Derek Jeter and the Marlins are out there talking about it, but I suspect most things last much shorter than that – no one wants to be the dinosaur; no one wants to be left behind.
Thinking about this led me to a foundational question about competitive advantages in baseball: Is every new competitive advantage taken by a team necessarily an inherently better practice, OR is at least some of the edge simply about zigging when everyone else is zagging?
Put another way, are you always better off doing that new fangled thing regardless of what everyone else is doing, or is that new fangled thing only beneficial because few opponents are doing it yet?
I tend to think a competitive advantage can take either form, and it might dictate your approach going forward. For example, getting on base (or targeting players that get on base) strikes me as the sort of advantage that’s inherently good no matter what, and will continue to be, regardless of what every other team in the league is doing. But, by contrast, launch angle might not have the same universality and longevity (I’m not saying that’s necessarily true, we’re just thinking out loud – stay with me).
I am a proponent of the launch angle revolution (especially for certain players) and I have no doubt that the benefits thereof have already long, long ago reached the Cubs. HOWEVER, I can envision a day in the near future where the benefits of being a “launch angle team” have not only evaporated because of league-wide adoption, but have actually left other advantages gaping wide open (because perhaps launch angle is one of those competitive advantages that was partially an advantage only because it represented some zigging when others were zagging). Perhaps – for example – some other smart team out there finds a way to successfully target, draft, sign, or cultivate a specific type of extreme pitcher whose style completely neutralizes the benefits gained by trying to hit the ball hard in the air.
So, then, if almost every team out there is going after the same type of player and/or strategy, then that leaves potential advantages for the team(s) that do not jump on that bandwagon.
When a competitive edge becomes mainstream, teams don’t just try to copy it themselves, they also try to find players on the opposite side of the ball who can prevent their opponents from taking that same advantage. In this superficial example, it might look like front offices gravitating towards ground ball and strikeout pitchers.
But even this countermeasure could wind up becoming another one of those short-term competitive advantages, and it leaves a tiny opening for smart teams doesn’t it? Perhaps there are other types of pitchers who are only slightly less adept at countering the fly ball revolution, but they’re much more available/cost-effective than in the past, such that the overall construction of your club improves by going against the grain? Heck, perhaps some of those pitchers who weren’t getting a look could actually surprisingly be more effective against fly-ball-driven swings and simply haven’t gotten the right shot because other front offices are shying away?
Again, this *exact scenario* might not necessarily be true. But hopefully I’m illustrating the point that sometimes simply zigging when everyone else is zagging could be more of an advantage than developing a completely new idea. Perhaps searching for the next competitive edge isn’t even the most efficient way to zig when everyone else is zagging. Instead, perhaps there are certain “outdated” concepts that can be retread in the opposite direction to achieve the same results.
Maybe, in some situations, it’s good to become the dinosaur again? More on that in a separate piece on shifting soon.
Some competitive advantages become competitive advantages because they are simply a better process. Other competitive advantages are much more transient. The organizations that identify that difference more quickly and efficiently than others will have the most success in an information-rich age. And we can say with confidence *that* is a competitive advantage that will always be beneficial.
Brett Taylor contributed to this post.