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Jonathan Martin and Moneyball

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I have some thoughts on a new way to approach Channing Crowder's comments after watching Brad Pitt pretend to worry about a Baseball team that has a lower payroll than Pitt was probably paid to be in the movie about the team. Sorry Fooch!

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Yesterday, we had a long and extensive discussion about Channing Crowder's recent (and hecka dumb) comments pertaining to the Jonathan Martin / Richie Incognito controversy. In fact, at the time of writing this, I noticed that the conversation is still occurring. People are still posting. This is a good thing, I think. This is an important topic and truly worthy of discussion. It needs to be discussed because that's how things get better and cultures get changed.

I did want to offer my two cents, though, and try to push the conversation in a new direction. Yesterday, Leo's Thinwhistle had this to say:

Consider the source.

Channing Crowder played 6 years in the league. In four of those six years his team had a losing record, and he never saw a playoff win. As for his old man, this clown was better known for selling cocaine to a police officer than any on the field success-and like his son, he never sniffed a playoff win. When these idiots suggest that their view of "how a locker room" is is [sic] "normal" they need to clarify that by saying that this is the norm for a loser, piece of crap team that never EVER amounts to anything. Winning teams don't spend time tearing down teammates.

It is hardly a coincidence that this episode occurred in the Miami Dolphins locker room, and not in the Niners' or Patriots' locker room. Weak coach, terrible management, and idiotic and bad players can, yes, combine to create a situation where bullying is the norm. The suggestion that this is how it's supposed to be ignores the fact that winners don't do this.

I think this distinction between certain types of locker rooms fostering different cultures in which bullying is the norm in one and not in the other is a valuable contribution to the discussion. It's probably accurate and, thus, a helpful way for us to think about the 49ers' locker room and their decision to bring Martin into it.

But, I want to move our discussion into the realm of strategy. I get that this is a profoundly moral and ethical controversy, and I understand why a lot of the discussion surrounding this controversy has been held in those terms. It's a valuable, and necessary, way to think about what happened in Miami and its ramifications for the rest of the NFL. By moving toward a more strategy-oriented perspective, I'm not trying to diminish the importance of ethical discussion. But, I think the added strategic element is important for how we try to understand Trent Baalke's decision to make the trade.

A few days ago, I watched Moneyball. For those of you unfamiliar with the movie or the book, it chronicles the Oakland Athletics' attempt to exploit an inefficiency in the MLB free agency market such that the team with less money (i.e. the A's) could sign undervalued players for cheap that other big money teams (i.e. the Yankees) would normally overlook. The strategy proved to be so effective that other teams started using it themselves. Now, Billy Beane (the GM of the A's) is looking - presumably - for other market inefficiencies to exploit.

Such a tactic is really difficult in the NFL. For one thing, Beane had the benefit of advanced statistic analysis that is more readily available in Baseball than in Football because the game is more well-suited for statistical analysis than Football is. But, I do think market inefficiencies do exist in Football. One example might be paying more attention to developing undrafted free agents. Both the Seattle Seahawks and the 49ers, for example, have done really good jobs of this, and both teams have incredibly enviable depth that makes them - probably - the league's two best teams (sorry, Denver!).

One other inefficiency in the NFL might be identifying "locker room trouble" guys who aren't actually causes of trouble in the locker room. If Michael Sam, as an example, turns out to be super good (and I really hope he doesn't) and if he turns out to not be actively causing problems in the locker room by bullying other people, then that will be a huge steal for the Rams. Certain teams might have overlooked Sam's ability because they were afraid of adding a potentially "locker room trouble" kid to the team, even though the kid has no history of actively causing locker room trouble (that I know of - please correct me if I'm wrong).

More than likely, Sam won't be that good because, well, a lot of scouts who know what they are talking about say he won't be that good. But, that's the risk the Rams are taking by trying to exploit this market inefficiency.

Similarly, the 49ers are probably employing a similar logic in picking up Martin. We know he is a good player, probably about borderline starting material on most teams. But, not great. Getting that level of talent for so cheap is a big grab. And, since he hasn't caused any active locker room trouble for the 49ers thus far, I think it's pretty safe to say that the players don't care about what happened in Miami. If I had to hazard a guess, I think most linemen on the team are probably more concerned with trying to figure out a way to dunk over Martin's head than they are trying to figure out how not to bully the soft weakling.

From a strategic standpoint, bringing in players who were in bad positions on bad teams is probably a brilliant move. It's not always going to pan out, of course. Just like hiring every guy with a high walk rate isn't going to make your team win the championship. But, exploiting an NFL culture that devalues certain players because they don't fit the "traditional" mold of a locker room will most certainly work out the majority of the time so long as you have good scouting and player development.

Oh, and would you look at that: the 49ers have proven again and again that they have good scouting and player development.