Lessons From Wally

Wally Joyner’s Donruss Rookie Card From 1986

29 years ago today, Anaheim Angels rookie Wally Joyner hit his 14th and 15th home runs of the season. 15 home runs in 36 games is a significant milestone for any major league baseball player. It’s a particularly impressive debut for a rookie, particularly one who had totaled only 12 home runs in his minor league career.

Joyner was on the kind of epic tear that is usually reserved for fictional ballplayers with names like Roy Hobbs or Benny “The Jet.” The buzz coming out of So Cal was electric. Anaheim stadium was rebranded “Wally World.”

Even though I was a teenager living in Connecticut at the time, I was well aware of Wally World. Not because I was a huge fan or because I cared about the Angels. I was aware because I had the good fortune to have drafted Wally Joyner (in a very late round) on to my Rotisserie Baseball Team.

Rotisserie League Baseball By Glen Waggoner and Robert Sklar

What is Rotisserie Baseball? Invented by New York Times editor, Dan Okrent, Rotisserie Baseball was the precursor to today’s fantasy sports.

By the time Wally Joyner was suiting up for his first MLB game, I was hooked on Rotisserie and had been playing for three or four years. I was pretty good at it, or, at least, I thought I was. No doubt it was this formidable skill that prompted me to draft the rookie Joyner. More likely, it was just dumb luck.

It certainly felt like good luck that day in May when Wally hit his 15th home run, putting him on pace for 67 home runs that season. No doubt I would have done the math and realized that at his current pace, Joyner was good for more than 1,000 career home runs (the record is 762). Wally Joyner, to me, was nothing less than the reincarnation of Lou Gehrig (only with more power).

If you don’t remember the 1986 season, or if you haven’t already guessed, I’ll spoil it for you right now. Wally Joyner did not hit 67 home runs that season. He did not hit 1,000 home runs for his career. And, by the end of the season, I came to realize that May 16 was peak value for Wally Joyner in 1986.

In retrospect, I should have traded him.

It’s not that Wally had a bad season (he finished with 22 home runs). It’s not that Wally had a bad career (he batted .289 and hit 204 total home runs over 16 seasons). It’s just that Wally Joyner succumbed to the immutable laws of mathematics. Wally had run head first into the “regression to the mean” wall and, by extension, I had too.

Back in 1986, I didn’t understand the concept of regression analysis. Each week, I would pencil Wally into my first base spot and expect dingers galore. I never allowed myself to believe that my 23 year old Gehrig was good for only 7 more homers the rest of the season. Those of you who play fantasy sports are well aware of chasing in this way. It can get ugly. Maybe I wasn’t so lucky after all.

But looking back, Wally Joyner gave me something priceless that season. An important lesson in life, mathematics, and business.

I often think of Wally and what I learned that summer. The lessons are particularly relevant to the startup world that I’m a part of. The venture capitalists who evaluate startups are engaged in their own game of Rotisserie — Rotisserie Startup. Investors hope to distinguish between the lasting startup superstar (the Ken Griffey Jr.), those that are over performing but will still return value (Joyner), and the shooting stars who will quickly flame out (Kevin Maas hit 10 home runs in his first 72 at bats and finished his career with 65). It’s probably not difficult to think of startups in each category.

The mobile ecosystem, in particular, is filled with stories of the Kevin Maas variety. There are many mobile apps that enjoy their best success in the first few weeks or months of their life. This is a function of App Store dynamics — where new product feature placement, novelty, and chart algorithms based on recent hours of sales create the instant superstar. But these numbers aren’t sustainable for long — the initial chart spike is inevitably followed by an even more rapid descent. Just as major league pitchers eventually figure out how to pitch to the new guy.

For many startups, the game is to raise money just as that initial spike is reaching its crescendo (imagine if Wally was able to sign a new contract on May 17)? And the VC money often hits the bank around the same time that first slump begins. Not every startup has the fortitude to survive this dip, just as not every player is able to piece his psyche back together when it’s over.

Wally Joyner was able to carry on. In fact, rather than being a cautionary tale, there’s actually quite a bit to learn from him. He went on to play 16 productive years in the Major Leagues (only one fewer than Gehrig). He remains one of the most popular Angels of all time, and he’s currently the hitting coach for the Detroit Tigers. How did he “survive” his descent from orbit, when so many others were unable to? How did he get through “the struggle” or move beyond “the dip.” Wally gave an interview shortly after joining the Tigers that may provide some insight:

“I try to never forget what it was like to play,” Joyner said. “This game is very humbling. This game is very tough. A lot of it is between your ears and you have to have the ability mentally to handle it. It’s about failure. It’s about how you’re going to handle failure.

“As a player, as a coach, especially as a coach, the glass is always half-full if not more,” he continued. “I think more than anything, what I enjoyed from the coaches that I had was their positive outlook, their positive influence, their optimistic remarks.”

Sounds like great startup advice to me.

The author is also an optimist, and a Dodger fan. Which is why he’s fully expecting Joc Pederson to hit 60 home runs this year.