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January 19, 2010

Hot Stove U.

Jack Z's Old School and New School

by Kevin Goldstein

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The Setup

There was a time, earlier in the decade, when the general manager position seemed to be reserved for the young. It was almost like the reverse of the US Presidency, where being under 35 years old makes one ineligible for the position. But at the end of 2008, coming off a 101-loss season, the Mariners went against the grain. They hired Brewers scouting executive Jack Zduriencik, a man in his late 50s, a baseball lifer who made his name by evaluating talent with his eyes as opposed to spreadsheets. Within a year, the Mariners had a winning record, and with even more aggressive moves this offseason, many see them as a long-term player in what has suddenly become a highly competitive American League West that includes the perennial powerhouse Angels and two rapidly improving franchises, via the youth movement, in the Rangers and Athletics. A victory for the scouting side? The end of an era for the whiz kids? As it turns out, it's a victory for neither as much as it says something about those that are willing to adapt and value all information, regardless of source.

The Proof

Zduriencik had already been in baseball for nearly three decades when his name became more of a household one-at least for those who could spell-during the time he led the Brewers' drafts. Over a period of five years, from 2001-05, Zduriencik added a player to the organization through the draft who would not only become a starter in the big leagues but, for the most part, become the kind of young star a non-major market team needs to compete in today's economic environment.

2001: J.J. Hardy (second round)

2002: Prince Fielder (first round)

2003: Rickie Weeks (first round)

2004: Yovani Gallardo (second round)

2005: Ryan Braun (first round)

All were big prizes, but none more impressive than Fielder. Few expected him to hit 50 home runs in the big leagues at 23. In fact, much of the industry was shocked to see Fielder to be drafted seventh overall when most teams saw the high schooler, who was well over 300 pounds for much of his prep career, as a late first-round talent at best.

Still, Zduriencik's scouting acumen as a GM has yet to be really tested. In his first draft with the Mariners, he picked second, and his selection of North Carolina outfielder Dustin Ackley was a bit of a no-brainer. The most important thing Zduriencik did in Seattle was to improve something that no formula can measure and few scouts can quite put their finger on: he improved the team's makeup. The 2008 team that lost 101 games was certainly far better than that on a talent level, but it was a downright morose clubhouse atmosphere that fit the old saying about 25 players and 25 cabs. After bringing in an unproven manager in highly respected Rangers bench coach Don Wakamatsu, veterans Mike Sweeney and Ken Griffey Jr. were signed as a free agents. While bringing Griffey back to Seattle looked like a move designed solely to generate ticket sales from the outside, those inside the clubhouse insist he brought a direction-changing joie de vivre to the team, even bringing the normally reserved Ichiro out of his shell. Chemistry is impossible to prove as a factor, as a team doesn't need 25 good people as much it simply needs 25 players moving in the same direction. One competing team's executive put it best by saying, "Griffey added far more wins to that team than anything that showed up on the stat sheet."

The flurry of player moves made by Zduriencik in his year-plus with Seattle also shows a decision-making process that goes far beyond measuring a player's tools. His first major deal sent a group of spare parts and what was left of closer J.J. Putz away in return for Franklin Gutierrez, arguably the top defensive outfielder in the game. Zduriencik made a big free-agent splash this winter by signing third-baseman Chone Figgins, another defensive stalwart. "If you look at Figgins as a pure scout, he's not a great fit," said one National League executive. "He certainly doesn't fit a classic third-base profile, but guys like him and Gutierrez are both glove guys, and that shows Zduriencik cares about this new school of thinking, as defense is the new market efficiency for many."

Others would argue that the Cliff Lee trade was more of a scouting-heavy move, with one AL executive saying, "Seattle got 80 percent of Roy Halladay for half of what he cost Philadelphia."

Still others see an all-around approach that's bringing Seattle back into contention. "Jack made his mark in scouting, but a lot of these decisions he's making are based on some of the newer kind of information that's out there," said another veteran decision-maker. "He's getting guys who pass both tests now, and that's what all of the smart teams are doing."

That's just part of the new baseball executive, which is modeled by Zduriencik as much as the so-called "whiz kids" like recently-hired GM Jed Hoyer of the Padres. Both sides have something to learn from the other, and those that value any information available are those who are having the most success. Zduriencik leans on his right-hand man Tony Blengino, an experienced statistical analyst who broke form earlier in the decade by getting into scouting, for the new-age thinking to complement his decisions. Again, it goes both ways, as plenty of Ivy League graduates with GM aspirations have been getting dirty themselves, heading out to dusty fields in the middle of nowhere to watch baseball and learning from veteran talent evaluators in order to bring more value to what numbers already bring to the table.

The Conclusion

Baseball is a highly cyclical game, and every time the pendulum swings too far, it always returns to the center. Every team looks at the numbers and employs hordes of scouts. Both provide invaluable information to bring future success. Earlier in the decade, there was much ado with the whole scouts-versus-stats debate, but much more in places like internet message boards than front offices. "The war is over, folks," said one executive. "In fact, there never really was one. Everyone just gets along."

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Be sure to check back Thursday when Baseball Prospectus' David Laurila has a Prospectus Q&A with Jack Zduriencik

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

Related Content:  The Who

17 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

Nick Smith

"Griffey added far more wins to that team than anything that showed up on the stat sheet."

How many wins per year do you think Griffey's pranks, hi-jinx, and general clubhouse-loosening add? And was he also adding those wins in Cincinnati? Or is this a newly discovered talent?

Jan 19, 2010 10:07 AM
rating: 7
 
buddons42

I can't locate the article, but I beleive Clay calculated that Junior was worth 3.2 WARP (Wins Above Replacement Prankster)this season, up from 1.1 in 2008.

Jan 19, 2010 10:34 AM
rating: 13
 
Nick Smith

Many people have problems with the WARP methodology however, as the replacement level is set exceedingly low, at an Albert Belle/Carl Everett level of humorlessness.

Jan 19, 2010 10:43 AM
rating: 20
 
buddons42

Actually, hasn't the formula been adjusted to reflect a higher standard of replacement player? I believe the new level used in last years stats uses a Gerald Laird/Dan Uggla level baseline, which approximates out to "Just a little grumpy".

Jan 19, 2010 10:58 AM
rating: 9
 
ddrezner

No, that's WAR (Wins Above Rapscallion)

Jan 19, 2010 11:08 AM
rating: 3
 
BP staff member Will Carroll
BP staff

I think the key here is the ability of Jack to listen and more importantly, Blengino's social skills. The fact that Blengino has never been a stats attack dog and can speak to both the stats and scouts side is one of his more underrated skills.

Jan 19, 2010 11:09 AM
 
wnalyd

Having seen Jack Z and Blengino appear together twice now, I have to agree with you. Zdurienick is the sort of GM who likes baseball-smart people that work well with others, and Blengino fits that mold. He fits the new post-Moneyball syncretism -- you need both scouts and stats to get a whole picture of a player. In public, Jack Z leans on Blengino to explain the thinking behind a move, and Blengino can explain both sides cogently without being dismissive of either view.

As an M's fan, you don't know how nice it is to go from Bavasi's "you can't evaluate defense statistically" to Jack Z/Blengino using UZR in interviews with the local media. But it's even better when you know the scouts are comparing their qualitative data with the statheads and moves are being made based on what all the data shows.

Jan 19, 2010 12:09 PM
rating: 0
 
Evan
(47)

One thing the article glossed over a bit was Jack's immediate recognition that Safeco is kind of an odd stadium, and the team needs to built to suit it. The park inflates strikeouts. The park just murders right-handed flyball hitters. The park rewards a good outfield defense (especially with a lefty pitcher on the mound).

So now they have one guy on the team with any power to LF, but Jose Lopez only hits line-drives right to the corner (check out HitTracker - all of his home runs are identical). Unless you're Richie Sexson in his prime and everything you hit goes 450 feet, Safeco is a terrible place to hit as a righty flyball hitter. And that gets inside a player's head, making him worse. Nietzsche would have liked it: "As you gaze long into left-centre field, left-centre field gazes into you."

Jan 19, 2010 11:15 AM
rating: 8
 
amazin_mess

I am blown away by how Trader Jack has transformed this team. As a Mets fan, I remember thinking Omar fleeced him last year in the JJ Putz trade. In fact, it was Jack doing the fleecing - on his FIRST trade. And then signing Figgins, the most underrated free agent this winter, in addition to the Lee coup. I am very impressed with this guy. Seattle fans should be stoked.

Jan 19, 2010 11:43 AM
rating: 2
 
Bill N

The trade that brought Ian Snell and Jack Wilson to Seattle doesn't seem so great right now, nor does Morrow for League.

Jan 19, 2010 13:03 PM
rating: 1
 
HeavyHitter

You're nuts if you think trading Clement for Wilson and Snell was a bad trade. Going from Betancourt to Wilson was a huge upgrade, and Snell still has plenty of upside. Morrow for League seems a bit dicey, but I think Trader Jack deserves the benefit of the doubt at this point, don't you?

Jan 19, 2010 19:58 PM
rating: 1
 
JoshC77

I second the thought that the Jack Wilson deal was fine. He is definitely a HUGE defensive upgrade over Betancourt. He fits the mold of what this team is trying to do...as does the acquisition of Figgins and Kotchman this off-season.

If you want to question any move, acquiring Milton Bradley is a definite risk...but maybe, just maybe Jack knows what he is doing here too.

Jan 20, 2010 04:50 AM
rating: 0
 
Randy Brown
(189)

What's the risk? Carlos Silva was already a sunk cost. If Bradley doesn't work out, the Mariners just cut him loose and they are no worse off than they were before the trade.

Jan 20, 2010 05:51 AM
rating: 2
 
hamneggz

This article is rather timely, too, considering that Jack Z signed King Felix to a five-year extension today. Can this decision be placed somewhere along the scout/stat continuum, or does an otherwordly talent like Felix dwell somewhere outside of the dichotomy?

Jan 19, 2010 13:07 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Kevin Goldstein
BP staff

I think obviously, he passes both sniff tests with aplomb.

Jan 19, 2010 13:26 PM
 
R.A.Wagman

Reading this article gives me good vibes for the future of the Jays with AA at the helm. He is an economics man at heart (knows his numbers), but he quickly put his stamp on the organization by hiring as many new scouts as possible, and giving them better than the going-rate in wages, to make ti easier for them to focus on their jobs and provide quality reports.
Maybe the new market inefficiency is holistic baseball

Jan 19, 2010 16:10 PM
rating: 0
 
Fresh Hops

"The most important thing Zduriencik did in Seattle was to improve something that no formula can measure and few scouts can quite put their finger on: he improved the team's makeup."

I question this a lot. I think Jack Z nailed a lot of the club house issues himself in an interview when he accepted the job. He said his goal was to win and to start winning now. "Talent wins games," he said. Pressed about clubhouse issues, he acknowledged that there were some in 2008, and then he said "Winning goes a long way to fix that." Griffey seems like a great guy in the club house and he's my all-time favorite hitter, but if you ask me, the difference between 2008 and 2009 is that in 2008, the team was basically eliminated by the end of May.

Jan 20, 2010 09:41 AM
rating: 2
 
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