Investing Lessons From the Washington Nationals

I've been watching baseball for over 45 years, and can say without exaggeration that Stephen Strasburg of the Washington Nationals is one of the finest pitchers I've ever seen. He has complete mastery of all of his pitches. When he's in the groove, he's almost unbeatable.

Strasburg is a big reason that the Nationals have the best record in baseball. There hasn't been a World Series in the city of Washington, D.C., since 1933, so it's a pretty exciting time to be a baseball fan in our nation's capital, to say the least.

The Nationals' prospects, alas, are not as bright as one might think. And now everyone knows that the team's road to the World Series will be much, much harder than it needs to be.

Say it ain't so, Mike
The general manager for the Nationals, Mike Rizzo, has decided to "shut down" Stephen Strasburg for the remainder of the season after his next two starts. That means he'll not only miss the final weeks of the season but also the postseason, if the Nationals are lucky enough to make the playoffs in October.

From a scientific perspective, Rizzo's decision makes a lot of sense. Strasburg has never pitched more than 123 innings in a season, and he'll end up having pitched around 170 innings this year. Rizzo has exhaustively studied this subject, and had put together a plan for Strasburg to pitch no more than 160 to 170 innings this year. For a young pitcher like Strasburg coming off serious "Tommy John" surgery, it's always a good idea to be prudent.

That doesn't make it an easy decision. Rizzo recently admitted that he's been "beat up, barbecued, shellacked and shillelaghed." Many fans are disappointed that Washington may miss a chance of a lifetime to win the World Series. And grizzled old baseball hands feel the kid should just "man up" and see the season through. Even Tommy John himself recently said that Strasburg should keep on pitching.

Still, Rizzo's decision is the correct one. Strasburg has the potential to be the best pitcher of his generation, and a healthy Strasburg could possibly lead the team to multiple World Series over the next decade and beyond. He also puts fans in the seats, so future revenue streams for the team may also be a factor here.

A timeless dilemma
The struggle between the short term and long term is one that investors are very familiar with. The great business thinker Clayton Christensen has written a lot about the innovator's dilemma, where "the right decision for the long term makes no sense for the short term." In his recent book, How Will You Measure Your Life?, he writes:

[I]f you study the root causes of business disasters, over and over you'll find a predisposition toward endeavors that offer immediate gratification over endeavors that result in long-term success.

Many companies' decision-making systems are designed to steer investments to initiatives that offer the most tangible and immediate returns, so companies often favor these and shortchange investments in initiatives that are crucial to their long-term strategies.

Christensen considers Unilever (NYS: UL) as an example of short-term thinking. He studied the company extensively, and discovered that its executive training program was designed to reward short-term thinking, thereby "inadvertently undermining the company's goals."

Goldman Sachs (NYS: GS) is perhaps another example of a company that let short-term gains undermine the long-term health of its business. During the financial crisis, it appeared to be smarter and more opportunistic than its competitors. Yet, its reputation has suffered considerably as a result of some of its practices during that time. Were the short-term profits worth the long-term costs in the end?

The best companies tend to have a long-term outlook, and investors can do very well by picking the best of this group. (NAS: AMZN) is an excellent example of a company with a truly long-term outlook. Its CEO, Jeff Bezos, has said that by "lengthening the time horizon, you can engage in endeavors that you could never otherwise pursue." An analyst who follows Amazon recently said that for many investors the long term is a year. But Bezos is "looking at a 10- to 20-year time line."

Facebook (NAS: FB) is another company that is trying to focus on the long term. No doubt it's been very painful for investors to see the share price plunge, but its aim is to build great services that will last.

Companies with long-term visions can be very attractive for investors with equally long-term time horizons. With the average holding period for stocks at around 3.2 months today, a long-term approach might be a considerable edge for some investors who have the luxury of waiting for a business strategy to play out successfully over time. Personally, I look for companies that are run by CEOs who think like Mike Rizzo.

Sounds like a made-for-TV movie
The road ahead won't be easy for the Nationals this year, but all is not lost. The Nationals' best pitcher from last year, John Lannan, will be taking over Strasburg's slot in the rotation. Lannan, sadly, spent most of this season in the minors due to the overall strength of the team's pitching staff. But he'll have a shot at redemption in the coming weeks as he seizes the opportunity to help his team win a World Series. As Mel Allen, the former great Yankees announcer, might have said: "How about that."

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