August 6, 2013
The Foundation of the Front Office
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Gabe Kapler spent parts of 12 years in the major leagues from 1998-2010, playing for the Tigers (1998-99), Rangers (2000-02), Rockies (2002-03), Red Sox (2003-06 – with a brief interlude in Japan), Brewers (2008) and Rays (2009-10). He also spent a year managing the Red Sox’ Single-A affiliate in Greenville. Follow him on Twitter @gabekapler, and listen to his recent discussion of advanced stats on Effectively Wild with Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller here.
The average manager of an MLB team gets to the ballpark at 1:30 in the afternoon. He’s immediately inundated with media requests, face-to-face meetings with players, and the various concerns of his potentially needy coaching staff. His phone rings, and his seven-year-old daughter scored a goal and wants to tell him all about it. He’s fat and needs to spend some time on the treadmill before batting practice. Bang, it’s 7:05, and game time. Postgame, there’s more media time, meatloaf and green beans at the ballpark, a few beers, and 30 minutes at home with his wife. 2:30am bedtime, up at 10:30am. That’s an average day.
The piles of data necessary for an MLB manager to make informed decisions during the course of the game can overwhelm even the sharpest and most flexible men in baseball. The manager is not one of those men. Surprisingly, neither is the general manager, who might be the smartest person in the organization but who also has the least bandwidth. There are front office personnel capable of relieving this pressure, of course, and they do. (Advil is useful as well.) But those men understand the magnitude of the vast organization they oversee and are forced to delegate responsibility.
Somebody has to be the foundation, the bottom of the pyramid. Enter the intern.
Remove the bias you’ve accumulated from years of watching the coffee-fetching TV caricatures of entry-level workers. Those personalities don’t have the pedigree earned by these squirts. MLB interns can come armed with degrees from Ivy League schools and often have completed additional years at prestigious business institutions like Chicago Booth and the London School of Economics. In most cases, they turned down high-paying job offers from major corporations like Wal-Mart (woo-hoo!) to pursue careers in baseball.
Prerequisite: Although I’m shining a spotlight on interns, I’m weaving in full-time employees whom we don’t regularly hear about. They don’t hold sexy, public positions, but have similar experiences at the collective outset of their careers in baseball. Often local college graduates, they clamor for any sort of association with the teams they grew up rooting for and will gladly set up food tables for meetings, pass out flyers, handle logistics for community events, etc. While thrilled to tell their stories, they’re understandably protective of their opportunities and prefer to be anonymous, which I fully respect. Their passion is undeniable; their reasons for desiring entry to this life inspiring.
In the course of numerous conversations, I asked how folks in entry-level positions in baseball are changing the game. I wanted very much to make the case that new blood can inspire new techniques and impact the way we do things, for the better. I got this extraordinary answer from an intern.
“The only way I can change the game is by constantly questioning what I and others believe to be true. That's not to be confused with having weak beliefs easily swayed by the next great idea, however. It simply means that a great idea can come from anywhere and having an open mind is important in being able to find the next market inefficiency.”
Clearly, his wish was to make an impact, which is pure and refreshing. Others had outlooks more related to an extension of their upbringing. One intern told me, “I played baseball from the time I was five years old in tee-ball through my senior year of college. It has been the one consistent love and passion I have held throughout my entire life, and I see nothing better than creating an opportunity to hopefully make a living in the game.”
Interns don’t care to use their intelligence to make some major retailer rich. No, they desire association with a World Series champion, and want to spend their lives focused on the game that means so much to them.
They are the most passionate, hard-working individuals in the organization. They’re counted on to arrive early, stay late, and find creative ways to analyze the game and the sea of information that it produces.
“Interns in baseball are establishing the footprint for analysis within the game,” another source said. “There is so much data available nowadays within baseball that it is often difficult to sift through and figure out which pieces are relevant and which aren’t, etc. Often times, interns are the ones doing ‘dirty work’; compiling the data into a spreadsheet and passing it up the chain, for example.”
Hey, somebody’s gotta do it, and they love it. Furthermore, with their technical degrees and analytical backgrounds, these individuals are often best suited to handle these high-level, statistically rigorous tasks.
Because getting to the postseason or winning a championship can come down to just a single pitch, the work done by everyone in the organization must be superior. For example, the decision to employ a shift isn’t necessarily decided upon unilaterally. While the manager must make the call the moment David Ortiz walks up to the plate, it may have been a presentation or a suggestion by an employee much further down the totem pole that generated the initial idea.
Interns who hope to succeed had better be standout thinkers and 80s on the scouting scale in the work ethic department, because there is American Idol-like competition for jobs in baseball. After all, who wouldn’t want to play fantasy baseball for a living? Or so it seems from the outside looking in.
However, that’s not the reality. Baseball’s internship programs are put in place partially to weed out the soft or unprepared. It’s similar to the minor leagues for a player. If you can’t handle the bus rides, the competition on and off your team, the fast food or making an adjustment to healthy eating, etc., then somebody will pass you by and step on your neck in the process. For interns trying to make their way up the depth chart in a front office, the competition is fierce and the rewards are, at least immediately, fleeting.
When I was a rookie in 1998 with the Detroit Tigers, Bobby Higginson (who had only four years of service time himself at the time) told me I was too “comfortable.” While I thought this was absurd, I later understood what he meant. Whether or not his statement about my comfort level was accurate, the culture was one where paying your dues was a vital part of the process. According to him and others, I assume, I needed more dirt in my spikes before I was to be heard from outside the white lines.
This anecdote is not dissimilar to the culture of youth and inexperience in baseball organizations. Expectations about putting in one’s time exist for a reason. No matter how successful these “rookies” were at Harvard or Yale, they haven’t lived in this world yet and have boatloads to learn. Developmentally, they are in their infancy. Even the first pick in this year’s amateur player draft, Mark Appel, has to launch his career in A-ball.
If interns get paid, it’s likely minimum wage while working 60-70 hours a week with their fancy degrees in the back pockets of their khakis. In essence, it’s nerdy (I’m a total nerd myself, so I can say that) survival of the fittest. The guy willing to bury himself in his team-issued ThinkPad the longest is the winner, and is offered a full-time position doing much of the same work for negligibly more money.
The flipside is pure romance. It’s about being a part of something bigger. And for a kid who grew up playing sports, it’s a career that is more gratifying than anything outside of, well, actually playing the sport.
“The job satisfaction is off the charts,” an intern gushed. “Even though we work a lot and don’t get paid, we also know that everything we do is to try and help the team win. It’s just a matter of getting the right opportunities.”
The glow at the end of the tunnel is blinding. Chicago Cubs President Theo Epstein started as an 18-year-old intern in the Baltimore Orioles PR department. Josh Byrnes, now the San Diego Padres GM, began his impressive rise as an intern with Cleveland in 1994. Jon Daniels sits atop the baseball ops department as GM of the Texas Rangers long after interning with the Colorado Rockies, who played the role of his springboard—shortly after he’d been bypassed for a Red Sox internship for which he and current Cubs GM Jed Hoyer were the two finalists
And the GM position, while arguably the sexiest, isn’t the only girl at the dance. Interns go on to become advance scouts, farm directors, marketing executives, presidents, public relations gurus and so on. For those who rise to the top, the rewards are immense.
The accessibility of an intern can’t be overvalued. If I could go back to my days as a player, my first order of business might be to cozy up to the first intern who walked by my locker (after busting his balls a bit).
“Can I have your email address?” I’d ask.
Then I’d pepper him with questions, pleading with him to teach me everything he knew and was willing to dig up on my behalf to make me more capable of navigating my ever-treacherous plate appearances. And I promise, knowing what I know now, that I’d apply these insights to find a way to be more serviceable than I was. I reckon somewhere in the baseball universe, the Brandon McCarthys, Max Scherzers, and Sam Fulds of the world may be engaged in similar conversations as we speak.
To be clear, the above is not an outlandish, fabricated fantasy scenario. In fact, we had a brilliant front office executive in Tampa when I played for the Rays who graciously filled this exact role for me. He illustrated that I struck the ball down in the zone much more efficiently than the ball up. He suggested that I hunt the ball below the thigh. Our correspondence was by no means limited to pitch location. He was gracious enough to supply me with data on left-handed pitchers and my past performance against said pitchers well in advance of an upcoming start. The information provided in these reports came in conjunction with the fantastic intel provided to me by Derek Shelton, our hitting coach at the time. The front office executive was far from entry level, but there is a wealth of useful material out there, and the source is less important than the endgame: that the player digests it.
Collectively, as baseball players and uniformed personnel, we tend to get stuck in our thinking. Part of this stems from our lack of rest (understandable given our schedules) and our built-in dogma. But a refreshing, youthful spritzer of knowledge awaits our thirst for applicable statistics. To not take advantage of it is a defiant act of irresponsibility. After all, these eager beavers are at the beck and call of baseball ops and, by extension, players.
Here’s the peripheral bonus, mister snooty third baseman. The top dogs, the decision makers from all over baseball, start at the bottom before ascending through the ranks and becoming the fittest of the survivors. Someday, that intern or brilliant young front office member with whom you developed an intellectual relationship, who cheerily delivered you your daily dose of tailored, useful data with a smile on his face, may be Andrew Friedman. And when you want to be the Gulf Coast League hitting coach after your illustrious career decorated with Gold Gloves and Silver Sluggers, he might remember your kindness and throw you a bone.