December 11, 2013
The Lineup Card
Nine of Our First Front Office Hires
1. Gabe Kapler, role TBD
Who in a clubhouse could Gabe Kapler not relate to? He played in over 1,000 big-league games and won a World Series ring, which I assume would earn him credibility with the players. He worked his way up from a 57th-round draft pick in 1995 to USA Today’s Minor League Player of the Year in 1998. He managed for a year, gaining a new perspective with the Single-A Greenville Drive in 2007. His baseball journey has taken him to Japan and back again. He always appears incredibly thoughtful and well spoken, knows a thing or two about conditioning, and is quite handsome.
I’m not sure what role I’d use Kapler in first, to be honest. He could be a minor-league manager again. He could be a major-league bench or outfield coach (or maybe not). He could serve as a special advisor in the front office. He could serve as my team’s color commentary guy. Hell, he could probably serve as the team nutritionist. But it’s hard for me to imagine my organization being worse off because Gabe Kapler is a part of it, and I’d welcome as many people with such a broad skill set as I possibly could. —Ben Carsley
2. Logan White, assistant general manager/director of scouting and player development
Recognizing the importance of prospects, my first move as general manager would be to secure a top-flight assistant GM/scouting and player development type in the mold of Logan White. Prospects are a currency of their own in baseball these days, often worth more than their weight in gold. Give me someone who knows how to put together a scouting department, both domestic and international, can sign top talent, and then develop the players. There’s no way to avoid mistakes (either as a GM, or in the draft), but identifying, acquiring, and developing top talent (on the cheap no less!) allows for more than a few of them. —Craig Goldstein
3. A local celebrity to serve as team ambassador
Maybe I’m too old-fashioned, provincial, or small-time, but when I take over my team, my first impulse will be to let our fans know that the team cares about the city we’re in and that we’re recommitting ourselves to making them proud of their baseball team. I want them to know that they come first, that we’re doing it for them. We’re going to put a good team on the field for them, of course, but if I’m a new GM, that probably means I’m replacing one who wasn’t successful, i.e. didn’t put a good team on the field, so it’s going to take some time. In order to build loyalty as the new guy in town, my first move is to find a beloved local figure and hire him or her as my team ambassador (or whatever you want to call it). It might be a former player who still lives here; it might be an entertainer, or a retired public official. Maybe if I were in New York, I’d hire Rudolph Giuliani (who is probably more beloved than you might think). In Pittsburgh, I might want Franco Harris. In Phoenix, it’s the Meat Puppets (okay, maybe not the Meat Puppets, but you get the idea.) And I have this representative going out and about, all over the place, all the time, drumming up support, representing us, bonding my team to my city,12 months a year—and not just at home, either, but on the road as a spokesperson (who will never, ever know what we’re really doing in the war room, so our ops aren’t revealed).
Then I sign Robinson Cano. —Adam Sobsey
4. Jim Beattie, general manager
My first move would be hiring someone who was a) actually qualified for the gig and b) knew what they were doing. That means a Jim Beattie type. Beattie, the former O's general manager and current Blue Jays scout, is by all accounts a smart guy with an open mind. His experience means he'd know how trade talks should go, who around the league would add value to the staff, and how to handle the external and internal pressures of running a team; aspects that seem easy from the outside but can get sticky for an otherwise inexperienced GM. —R.J. Anderson
5. Bill James, advisor
If I took over a front office—well, first of all, if I took over a front office, that would be a major mistake. Like a Mike-Trout-for-Vernon-Wells-and-pay-Trout’s-salary-too type of mistake. But, getting past that, if such a thing is possible (HUGE MISTAKE!), the first thing I’d do is demand a sandwich. But that isn’t the question. The question is who would be the first person I’d hire. The answer: Bill James. I’d give him whatever it took to leave the Red Sox. Unless I was taking over the Red Sox, in which case I’d give him whatever it took for him to stay with the Red Sox.
So now you’re asking why. Why, of all the people who could be my first hire, would I choose Bill James? Before answering, it should be noted this isn’t the Hall of Fame. Getting in first isn’t a thing here. It shouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame either, but I digress. Point is I can hire lots of people and many of them on the first day so the very first one isn’t special in any particular way.
But that’s not quite true. Bill James is special (I’m sure he’ll be flattered to hear that). He’s the father of modern sabermetrics, but not in a sitting-in-a-comfy-chair-by-the-fire-with-a-pipe-until-death kind of way. He’s still contributing. He played a key role in assembling last season’s World Champions. He’s been with the Red Sox for a long time now, since 2003 says Wikipedia, so we know it wasn’t that. But still, a long time, and he assisted in assembling three World Series winning teams.
More to the point, he’s unlike anyone a front office could add. There isn’t anyone with his combination of experience, big picture knowledge, inquisitiveness, and mastery over baseball minutiae. When assembling a team, he’s the guy I’d have to have on my side. He’s the guy who would set up other hires, and help guide the direction of the team. He’s the front office’s up-the-middle player.
Also, if I hired him, I could over-rule him, so I could say I over-ruled Bill James. Told you I’d be a terrible person to run a front office. —Matthew Kory
6. A cultural anthropologist
It probably won't surprise readers to find out that my first hire would be a member of an analytics team. What might surprise them is what sort of qualifications I would put in the help wanted ad. If I were hired as a GM, I'd want someone with a background in cultural anthropology and field ethnography. The type of person who might go off to an island somewhere and live with a small group of native people for a few years, and then write about their culture. Yeah, eventually I'd need to hire a programmer and some analysts (sorry, Ben Lindbergh, for raiding your cupboard again) and maybe someone on a part-time basis that can tell me about some of the advanced metrics that are out there. But even that just brings you even with what's going on in the rest of the game. It's the anthropologist that would give the real competitive edge.
I would assign this anthropologist to do an ethnographic study within the organization. Follow the team. Work to gain their trust. Interact with them formally and informally. Anywhere there is a group of people, there will be a culture that forms within it, and people may feel strongly or weakly connected to it. How does that culture welcome new members? How does it help them mourn in tough times? How do people within the culture build Barry and Bobby Bonds with one another and with the organization more broadly? All cultures have underlying, unspoken assumptions about what constitutes the good life. What are they within our culture? How well is that culture aligned with the goal of producing and acquiring MLB level talent and winning games? Are players working on the wrong skills because we have sent messages to them, intentionally or unintentionally, that those are valuable? Is there a way that we can alter the culture to make players feel more bonded to it, so perhaps they might give us a hometown discount in free agency? These types of issues are all things that a cultural anthropologist is trained to tease apart.
It's not about some sort of "culture of winning" which is really just a GM buzzword. The goal is to take a look at the way in which the organization is structured, and whether there are consequences of those structures they we didn't even realize. Fish make lousy commentators on water because they swim in it all day. Sometimes, you need an outsider to show you how silly some things are. Consider this for a moment. The OBP "revolution" of ten years ago was not the result of #GoryMath. At least not directly. It started when someone became aware of an unstated assumption and started asking questions about it. Have you ever wondered why batting average doesn't count walks? It's because someone in the early 20th century figured that a batter had nothing to do with the walk, and no one asking the question of whether or not that assumption was true for several decades. The #GoryMath that followed was simply the question "Really?" translated into the language of numbers. The team that will be most successful in analytics isn't the one that has the most powerful computer or the biggest analytics staff. It's the team that asks the most interesting questions, and an anthropologist might just be the best person to get those questions going. So, before we do anything else, let's get that person on board. —Russell A. Carleton
7. Michael Kraus, psychologist
When he was in grad school at Berkeley, Michael Kraus and a couple of classmates ran an experiment about chemistry and success in the NBA. The resulting paper was titled "Tactile communication, cooperation, and performance: An ethological study of the NBA," and it looked at dozens of early season NBA games, counted every time a player touched a teammate, and found that teams that touched more performed better later in the season. I talked about the paper and the study with Kraus (now an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Illinois) when I wrote about the science of clubhouse chemistry for ESPN the Magazine, and I asked whether it could be replicated in baseball, where (unlike the NBA) every player isn't on camera at all times. He said sure, by training cameras on the dugout, counting touches, mapping social networks. I don't know if this would answer anything, but I have the sense that it might answer something, and open the door to answer many things. There was a lot he said that was fascinating, and a lot he said that raised questions, but one thing he said made me think some team should hire him: "There’s a lot of superstition, there’s a lot of rituals in sports. This is not a ritual. This is something that has a scientific basis for improving chemistry and it’s just waiting to be quantified. I just need a huge grant." I'd give him that grant. —Sam Miller
8. A bad manager
Every clueless GM needs a scapegoat to buy him a few extra years. —Daniel Rathman
9. A common sense consultant
We’ve all been betrayed by a favorite TV show. You know how this goes: you’re invested in the narrative, blissfully binging on episodes, when you’re blindsided by a nonsensical storyline or terrible plot twist. Nikki and Paulo, lumberjack Dexter, Landry becoming a killer, the whole third season of Homeland. You can understand how this happens: a small group of people, sworn to secrecy, unable to bounce ideas off of others, and facing enormous pressure and tight time constraints, talks itself into something that doesn’t make sense. And it could have been avoided so easily: heck, you’re no professional writer, but you knew that that scene or story idea was a mistake, or that that plot point wasn’t plausible. If only there had been someone in the writer’s room from outside the circle and with nothing at stake who could’ve spoken for the frustrated fan.
Baseball teams, too, fall prey to this problem. A general manager isn’t too different from a showrunner—his job is to assemble a strong cast of characters and keep the audience interested. And in an effort to get renewed for another season, a GM might make any number of mistakes he’s too close to the situation to see: falling in love with a particular player, turning on another too quickly, fixating on filling one need when the price is too steep and the roster is more easily upgraded elsewhere. Once the news of a signing leaks, the move is praised or panned by an informal focus group of writers and talking heads. But by then, it’s too late to take back the transaction.
Enter the common sense consultant, an informed fan who exists outside the Baseball Ops bubble and can be called in for an instinctive snap judgment before the team makes any major move. The common sense consultant might not know as much as the GM does about baseball, but a fresh, impartial perspective could save the front office from making a costly mistake. Before agreeing in principle to a trade or signing, the GM could call in the common sense consultant, obtain an NDA, and try to pitch the plan. “We’re going to send Scott Kazmir to Tampa for Victor Zambrano. Rick Peterson says he can fix Zambrano in 10 minutes.” “We like what Brandon League did for us down the stretch. We’re going to give him a three-year deal.” Any common sense consultant worth his salt would have seen the downside, and said so. Hiring a common sense consultant is like talking to Frank Costanza before the Jay Buhner trade—your baseball people are saying “Ken Phelps, Ken Phelps,” but now you’ll know better. —Ben Lindbergh