December 20, 2011
Keeping Up with the Friedmans
Congratulations! For less than the Dodgers are paying Juan Rivera, your favorite team just signed a saber-savvy GM. He walks, he talks, he balks at bad contracts. He considers all perspectives and says all the right things, and he wears well-tailored suits while he’s at it. He cares when a player’s peak years are, and he’s aware that wins are more costly when they come from free agents. He knows how most players’ minor-league statistics translate to the majors, and he has scouts who can tell him what that standard model is missing. Instead of dismissing internet analysts as uninformed outsiders, he quotes Bill James in conversation (if he hasn’t already hired him). Basically, he’s the best possible person for the job—except, maybe, for the guy that other team in your division just signed.
Admire what Theo Epstein and Andrew Friedman have done? Want a GM just like them? I don’t blame you. But I also have some bad news: it’s not 2002 anymore. Epstein and Friedman still have jobs, so your new GM will have to pit his wits against them. Even worse, they aren’t the only competition. A decade ago, if a team had combined its scouting and player development programs with publicly available research of the kind you find on websites like this one, it might have been ahead of the curve. Now, that’s not the case, which explains why no teams hire stat guys and pay them solely to read Baseball Prospectus (much as I’ve tried to convince them to). Plenty of successful front-office types will tell you that the same qualifications that got them their current jobs might not get them hired today. Baseball is big business, and GMs can make or lose millions for their bosses, so this kind of correction makes sense.
In a 1986 essay in Discover Magazine (subsequently reprinted in his book Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville: A Lifelong Passion for Baseball) entitled “Why No One Hits .400 Any More,” Stephen Jay Gould developed a theory (later backed up by Dan Fox) to explain why .400 hitters had died out decades earlier. Counterintuitively, Gould concluded that .400 hitters had disappeared not because players were getting worse, but because they were getting better. I’ll let Fox summarize his argument:
As usual, there’s more to it than that—for one thing, league batting averages have decreased across the board, which drags down the players on the high end—but Gould’s theory largely stands, and it might not apply only to batters. Maybe improved education, information, and competition are producing a similar decrease in variation among major-league GMs.
As a GM, Branch Rickey might have been a .400 batter (or better)—but look how he did it. Rickey gained an enormous edge by developing a strong farm system when no one else was; before long, other teams followed suit, and that advantage was lost. Similarly, he vaulted ahead of the pack by integrating the Dodgers and briefly seizing the potential of a vast talent pool for himself; when the rest of baseball gradually fell into line, he lost that advantage as well. If the Mahatma were around today, he’d find that Allan Roth was out of his statistical depth; approaching player evaluation analytically is another Rickey innovation that has since been widely co-opted. Today’s GMs might still find ways to steal marches on their rivals, but it’s unlikely that low-hanging fruit as juicy as Rickey’s remains unplucked.
Five of the seven GMs who’ve been hired this winter—Jed Hoyer in Chicago, Ben Cherington in Boston, Josh Byrnes in San Diego, Jerry Dipoto in Anaheim, and Jeff Luhnow in Houston—fit the mold of the young, progressive GM who marries an affinity for scouting with an appreciation for statistical analysis. The two over-50 hires are unusual cases: the Orioles seemingly settled for Dan Duquette because they couldn’t find a younger GM who was willing to accept the job (or interview for it), and Terry Ryan got his old job back* on an interim basis because the Twins value continuity above all else (with the possible exception of contact-prone pitchers–and, yes, division titles, of which Ryan won a few).
*Terry Ryan graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a degree in physical education. GM educational backgrounds have changed.
Each of these hirings has met with favorable reactions, ranging from muted optimism from fans of teams that seemed to be working well before to the kinds of celebrations normally reserved for lotto jackpots and stays of execution among fans of teams that haven’t won a World Series in living memory or, well, ever. (I almost wrote “reserved for the death of a dictator” but decided against it.)
Consider a few of the reactions to Luhnow’s hiring on Crawfish Boxes, a popular Astros blog:
So that’s it—Houston hired Jeff Luhnow, putting all the Astros’ struggles in the standings and player development behind them, and the rest of the NL Central capitulated. Right? Hold on—the Cubs just hired three smart guys with six World Series rings between them? The Cardinals won the World Series last year behind 2011 GIBBY Award winner and handsome man-with-BP-on-his-bookshelf John Mozeliak? The Pirates have a GM so enamored of sabermetrics that he once produced a laundry list of all the advanced stats the Pirates looked at in response to an unsuspecting fan’s question about OBP?* And that’s just in the NL Central?
*Seriously, he actually did that.
Okay, so maybe the Astros have a little more work to do.
Let’s talk about Pittsburgh’s resident saber-savvy GM, Neal Huntington. If the list of stats linked above didn’t sell you on his solid saber credentials, maybe his hiring record will. Huntington enlisted both BP’s Dan Fox and the since-departed Joe P. Sheehan, one of the first public PITCHf/x analysts, and he’s currently looking for a data architect and a quantitative analyst with more statistical chops than you can wave a Woolner at. He also served as Assistant Director of Player Development with the Expos and both Assistant Director and Director of Minor League Operations for the Indians before becoming an AGM and later Special Assistant to the GM in Cleveland. In other words, Huntington doesn’t always drink beer, but when he does, he also orders tacos.
There’s nothing a saber-savvy GM likes more than a good process (even when that process leads to Rod Barajas), and for good reason—for a while, at least, a process can be a better indicator of future results than results themselves. Over a sufficiently long period, though, a good process should yield success, assuming success is possible. Maybe Huntington hasn’t yet reached the point at which Pirates fans should expect results, given his market and the talent he had to work with, but in his fourth full season at the helm, the Pirates won four more games than they did the year before he took over. If the Astros win 60 games in 2014, a four-game improvement over their 2011 showing, Houston fans probably won't be pleased with Luhnow.
A GM who approaches player evaluation from multiple perspectives and searches for consensus might be less likely to make a Really Bad Move, which would set him apart from Huntington's precedessors, Cam Bonifay and Dave Littlefield; the Pirates haven’t taken a Great Leap Forward under Huntington, but they also haven’t traded for Matt Morris. Still, Huntington's trades mostly haven't panned out, and he got skunked in his best chance to rebuild, the 2008 Jason Bay trade. The Pirates' drafting has improved dramatically, but only because Pittsburgh has handed out the biggest bonuses in baseball during his tenure. You can credit Huntington for persuading Bob Nutting to spend on amateurs, but Nutting deserves at least some of the credit himself.
For all that draft spending and veteran unloading, though, the Pirates haven't built a player development powerhouse. According to Kevin Goldstein, the organization is stronger than it was when he ranked it 17th before the 2008 season, but it's not elite, and most of its talent is still in the lower levels. Huntington has been around long enough that most of the big club bears his stamp, but that's not necessarily something he should brag about. As Steven Goldman observed last week, youngsters and high-ceiling arms are extremely scarce on the Pirates' pitching staff, almost all of which is composed of Huntington imports.
It's probably not fair to call Huntington a cautionary tale. If he were to quit today, he'd leave the Pirates in better shape than he found them. Still, as Steve wrote last week, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that "the Pirates are no longer building but are simply conducting another holding action," and Huntington will have to hustle if he wants to change that before his current contract expires after 2014. If I could dig up a blog post from when he was hired, I might find traces of happy commenters like the pro-Luhnow crowd above, but by now they probably would've changed their tune. Maybe Huntington would've been the magic bullet in an earlier era, but as it is, his presence hasn't done much more than arrest the Pirates' decline.
If you hire the best scouts, put them in a position to see the player at the right time and get good solid accurate scouting reports, you see the player through a strong traditional scouting lens. If you hire the best analysts, get the most accurate data, make the best adjustments, do the most thorough analysis and you come out with the best available statistical information, that’s another lens to which to view the player. The way to see the player most accurately, to get the truest picture of the player, is to put both those lenses together and look through them simultaneously and you get a pretty darn accurate picture of the player. That’s the approach we used with the Red Sox and I’d like to do that same here with the Cubs.—Theo Epstein
I don’t want to set up a straw man here; even optimistic anonymous internet commenters generally understand that hiring an executive isn’t a reason to start spraying champagne. Nor do I want to rain on anyone's parade—Astros and Cubs fans have earned a little excitement, even if it comes off the field. Still, it's best to keep a few things in mind when your team trots out a shiny new GM to turn around its flagging fortunes:
Some strategies that once worked wonders lose their effectiveness over time. If Cortés landed in Mexico with 500 men and a few horses today, he (probably) couldn’t conquer the country. Hitting someone on the head with a piece of bone is no longer the best way to win a fight—not because getting hit with a bone hurts any less than it used to, but because the guy you’re hitting is liable to have a knife, a gun, or a nuclear bomb. Similarly, you can’t walk into a general manager’s office, announce, “I like OBP!”, and watch your divisional foes fall before you. It’s not that OBP has become less important—getting on base is as vital as it’s ever been. The difference is that everyone knows that now. That doesn’t mean that teams can’t exploit inefficiencies. It just means that they’re smaller and harder to find. It also means that Billy Beane’s team has appeared in more major motion pictures than playoff series since 2006.
*In the process of announcing that the Angels wouldn’t be big spenders this winter (psyyyyche!), Dipoto sounded almost embarrassed about the idea of spending money on an established free agent instead of spiriting one out of the sabermetric ether. He’s probably really embarrassed now:
Other GMs: Hey, Jerry, last time I checked, Albert Pujols wasn’t an inefficiency.
Hiring smarter GMs doesn’t mint more playoff spots (though Bud Selig can be relied upon to do that every 15 years or so), so the same number of teams survive till October regardless of who's in charge. It also doesn’t change the fact that the “average” team will always 81 games—every win gained by one team comes at the expense of another. If the best GM in baseball could be replicated, every team might want one a clone of their own, but the marginal utility of signing him the 27th time wouldn’t be what it was the first.
Small-market teams reeling from the new CBA's draft and international spending restrictions won't be happy to hear this, but the less variation there is among GMs, the stronger the correlation between spending and winning will become, since the effects of market and payroll size will account for an even greater percentage of the difference between teams. We can already see this happening—the Yankees were always rich, but they weren't always smart. Now they're rich and smart, which is very bad news for the Rays, the Jays, and the rest of the American League.
Does any of that mean that the Astros shouldn’t have hired Jeff Luhnow? That a team shouldn’t bother signing someone smart because another team will just hire someone smarter? No, of course not—as nice as it is to get ahead, there’s plenty of value in not falling behind. But as the information at teams’ disposal becomes more complete and hiring practices become more competitive, the days of GMs standing out from the pack enough to be played by Brad Pitt might seem as remote as those of the last .400 hitter.