We don’t do a lot of point-counterpoint here at Baseball Prospectus, but I wanted to take a view moments to muse on yesterday’s firing of Tim Purpura, because my reaction is generally much less sympathetic that what I’ve seen elsewhere in the independent media, including Joe Sheehan’s column today. The main difference of opinion, I think, stems from the fact that I tend to regard a general manager as guilty until proven innocent. There are 30 general manager jobs throughout baseball, and probably at least two or three times as many executives working in the game today who nominally have the resumes to fill those positions — that is before considering the “outside-the-box” candidates outside the close circle of the industry. However, like the field manager’s job, or perhaps the quarterback position in the NFL, it is generally much easier to eliminate patently unqualified candidates than to determine which of the credentialed lot are really going to add value when they step into the office every day. Under those circumstances – when there are people like David Forst and Chris Antonetti and Kim Ng sitting around waiting for the musical chairs to rotate – you need to perform.
Make no mistake: the general manager’s job is exceptionally difficult. Unless you have an exceptionally strong infrastructure around you, you need to have formidable skills in both player development and performance analysis, a formal and informal aptitude for the economics of the talent market, and the people skills to appeal to a wide diversity of constituents (the media, your manager, your owner, your players, the 29 other general managers, and your junior staff). You need to be exceptionally good at multitasking, and you need to work exceptionally long hours under high-stress conditions, probably for much less compensation than you could make in the business world. I keep repeating this world “exceptional”, but that is exactly what the general manager needs to be; it is extremely unusual to find this set of aptitudes within one person.
Moreover, the general manager’s job is to a large extent a zero-sum position. You can be the 25th best general manager in baseball, and you’re still losing ground relative to your peers, just like the 9th best poker player in the world will lose money if the eight better players are sitting at the table with him. What you want, ideally, is for your general manager to be within the top half of the active GMs in baseball, or to have the potential to join that group with a moderate amount of additional experience. From the available evidence, Tim Purpura was not among the top half of baseball GMs today, and, I don’t know that he has more potential to become so than someone like Antonetti or Ng.
What evidence? I think we can break the general manager’s job into three broad compartments, those being (i) scouting and development; (ii) transactionally-based talent evaluation and analysis, and (iii) interpersonal and intraorganizational skills. And I think Purpura comes up short in each of those departments.
In the scouting realm, the Astros ranked 22nd of 30 teams in PECOTA’s analysis of minor league talent, 28th in Kevin Goldstein’s ranking of the same, and dead last in PECOTA’s rankings of the overall 25-and-under talent stock. The Astros have had a handful of player development successes, but their system is poor enough to be past that tipping point where the option of a quick-turnaround rebuilding effort is largely off the table.
In the talent evaluation realm, Purpura’s highest-stakes transactions – the nine-figure signing of Carlos Lee, and the Jason Jennings deal – grade out badly (indeed, this is not merely perfect hindsight; they were viewed skeptically at the time). The Astros can also be blamed for their inaction in a number of areas, whether it’s failing to offer Roger Clemens arbitration, or allowing run vacuum Brad Ausmus to retain his hold on the catching position.
The intrapersonal skills category is the hardest to evaluate without inside knowledge, and the one where Purpura deserves the most sympathy. Meddling owners like Drayton McLane are almost always counterproductive. It isn’t uncommon to see owners block trades, or to be willing to open up the purse strings for some free agents but not for others, but it’s extremely unusual to see the owner essentially jump two levels down and interfere with the job of the field manager, as McLane looks to have done by mandating that Craig Biggio play every day until he reached 3,000 hits. This is terrible from an organizational culture standpoint; Purpura’s ability to manage Phil Garner was undermined by McLane’s insistence on doing the same.
At the same time, the general manager’s job is not just about managing one’s subordinates, but also managing one’s superiors. If we make the favorable assumption toward Purpura, which is that he was not on board with the decision to play Craig Biggio every day, we also have to assume that he was unable to persuade McLane of his case. Certainly, we cannot know how many general managers would have fared differently, but we nevertheless have to regard this as sort of a “tough love” indictment of Purpura. I happen to think that the battle might have been unwinnable, but the war was not: if Purpura had been able to articulate (literally and figuratively) a better long-term vision for the franchise, then the downside to playing Biggio would have seemed more tangible.
As it stood, however, the Astros looked to be a 77-win team if they played Craig Biggio and 79-win team if they didn’t, and there were no real long-term prospects he was blocking, PECOTA’s affections for Brooks Conrad aside. Under those circumstances, playing Biggio is arguably economically sensible if it brings more people to the ballpark, and the Astros have drawn well this year. The greater blame might indeed lie with McLane, but that doesn’t let Purpura off the hook.