Lee MacPhail IV hails from one of the most storied baseball families in the business. His great grandfather Larry MacPhail was one of the game’s biggest innovators, helping to introduce nighttime baseball, regular game televising and the flying of teams between games while serving as chief executive of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Cincinnati Reds and New York Yankees. His grandfather Lee MacPhail was a front office executive for 45 years, working with the Baltimore Orioles and the Yankees and as chief aide to former Commissioner William Eckert and president of the American League. (Larry and Lee MacPhail Jr. comprise the only father-son duo ever elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame.) His uncle won two World Series titles as general manager of the Minnesota Twins and has served as president of the Chicago Cubs since 1994.
Lee IV has worked in the Orioles, Texas Rangers, Cleveland Indians, Minnesota Twins and Montreal Expos organizations. He now holds the title of Director, Baseball Administration/Special Assignment Scout for the Washington Nationals. MacPhail recently chatted with Baseball Prospectus about his family legacy, the challenges of working under uncertain conditions with the Expos and Nats and other topics.
Baseball Prospectus: You went from spending two years as scouting director for the Indians to four years with the Twins as an area scout. What kind of transition do you need to make to move from behind a desk managing multiple people to being out on the road by yourself?
Lee MacPhail: It was an interesting direction in my career. The office was where I was bred and reared from a baseball standpoint, I was comfortable there. At the same time, it’s an isolated environment. It was definitely a challenge to get out into the field. You don’t have the same access to information, the same accessibility. But at the same time you’re also not chained to a 9-to-5 schedule–or if you’re working with someone like Larry Lucchino, a 9-to-midnight schedule. You set your own hours and your own pace. It’s really a people-oriented job to be out in the field as a scout, you just have to get yourself initiated to the lifestyle. You have to be a self-starter to do it. You communicate all the time, you use the phone to keep in touch, and otherwise you just jump in the car and go to wherever there’s a game going on.
BP: Reading a great baseball scouting book like Dollar Sign on the Muscle and just talking to scouts in general, you hear all these great stories about the old days, when getting to know a prospect’s family and friends and charming them was so central to being a good scout. How much of that element still exists, and how much of it has changed given the draft and the different era we’re in?
MacPhail: It’s changed to some degree, but not as much as you’d think. As an area scout, I didn’t have to sell a player on the Twins until he was property of the Twins. But my job did involve selling the industry–knocking down some of the walls that exist, bridging the gap in terms of knowledge issues. You want to inform them of the process, what roles we might have as area scouts, how the hierarchy works. If you’re able to develop relationships, certain families may reveal more to a scout that others may not.
BP: What might they reveal?
MacPhail: The biggest thing is signability. One player we ended up drafting and signing with the Twins. He told us his dollar figure was going to be less for us than for other clubs. When we came to an agreement, other people were surprised, they thought the dollar figure would be higher. But then there are times when you think you have that relationship, then all of a sudden the player does a 180 and the relationship goes out the window. The thing is, there’s still a place for old-school scouting.
BP: Working for the Expos and then the Nationals for the last few years, it has to have been a huge challenge. You were there when contraction was on the table for the Expos, and even now, no one knows for sure what’s going to happen in D.C., at least as far as ownership is concerned and maybe in other respects too. How does that uncertainty affect how you do your job, if at all?
MacPhail: My title changed in 2005 and then again in 2006. I’ve been a utility guy–because we’re so short-staffed, I have to wear a lot of hats. You want me to do statistical analysis, I can do that, you want me to go out in the field, I can do that, you want me to negotiate a contract, let’s go.
When the Expos hired me (in 2002), I was already working for one club facing contraction–I thought I might become the poor sap who was the answer to a trivia question. I knew the team could be out of business in six months. I knew it would be challenging. There was so little infrastructure when I came on board. We didn’t have instructional manuals, didn’t have player files, didn’t have scouting reports, didn’t have a proper scouting system in place.
BP: So all that stuff about Jeffrey Loria taking everything with him when he went to Florida…?
MacPhail: Some of that was true. We did have access to some leftover Expos reports. But with all the new people that came in, we didn’t know their track record. We had no context by which to evaluate our own evaluators, we didn’t know how strong their reports were. To some degree we started an expansion team. In some cases they left reports behind and we could access them, but they just weren’t usable for us given the circumstances. Tony Siegle, Adam Wogan and Omar (Minaya) did a good job just trying to put something together.
BP: And now the Nationals are wards of the state, owned by the other 29 MLB clubs. Are your resources still limited as a result?
MacPhail: We are short-staffed. But we’re going into our fifth year operating under these kinds of conditions, and we’ve gotten used to it. There’s some degree of bunker mentality. We’re also pretty happy to have jobs at this point. When we all came on board, none of us thought we’d make it to year five. I’ve been through so much here–I like that I’ve been able to play a part in keeping this going.
BP: In Omar Minaya’s case, there was something of a halo effect over him for getting through tough times with the Expos. He was on the cover of Inc. magazine, he became popular with the media…do you see yourself or some of the other people who’s stayed around benefiting from some of that same effect?
MacPhail: We’ve gone through some experiences that the rest of the industry can’t relate to. We’ve been dealing on the margins for so long because each year we might be out of existence, out of a job, or working for new owners. I’m not sure how that’s seen within the industry, actually. There is a halo effect for Omar. For me, I just do the best that I can for Jim Bowden now and let the chips fall where they may. You have to think in those terms. If you dwell on issues like contracts coming in late, the inability to move if we wanted to, you can drive yourself crazy. There aren’t many of us who’ve stayed around: myself, Dana Brown, Tony Siegle, Nick Manno, Frank Robinson.
BP: For a team with limited resources like the Nationals, building a strong farm system is of course extremely important. In the last few years the team seems to have focused on college players who are closer to the majors. Is the strategy to get major league-caliber players to the big leagues as quickly as possible?
MacPhail: A lot of that is something that Dana would need to speak to. But when you look at Billy Bray, Chad Cordero, Ryan Zimmerman, you can see that we tried to narrow the margin for error. We’re finding players a little closer to the big leagues, especially at the top. We haven’t been able to capitalize on rounds 10 through 19 because of our lack of staff. When you don’t have as much crosschecking as you’d like it’s very tough–it’s well known that we don’t have the organizational depth we’d like, and that’s a big reason why.
There are other factors that have come into play too. You can look at it now and say ‘oh my gosh how could you make those deals?’ if you’re talking about the moves Omar made a few years ago. But he didn’t know if he’d be around, if the organization would be around. You’re on the margins, looking short-term.
BP: The Bartolo Colon deal especially. The Expos were in a playoff race at the time, and I even argued that there was some merit to it, given the circumstances. But it was also clear at the time that no other deadline deal had that many top prospects going in one deal. Brandon Phillips was supposed to be the key to that deal, and now Grady Sizemore is a borderline star, and Cliff Lee is one of the better pitchers in the league.
MacPhail: We knew then that if Grady Sizemore would become the player people he had the potential to be, it would be an unbalanced trade. At the time, though, Grady was hitting .240 with a couple of homers, playing a corner outfield position. Later on we see him playing center field, when we had heard he wasn’t great in center. That was another case where Omar didn’t have all the resources he needed at that time, especially the scouting resources.
BP: One way that you can bridge the gap when you lack resources is, as we’ve seen, through the use of statistical analysis. How do you develop statistical analysis in a team’s corporate culture, and how can you make it work for you?
MacPhail: Exposure is a start. I was first exposed to concepts that are now mainstream a while back. That came from working with Eddie Epstein with the Orioles in the early 1990s. With Craig Wright when he was working as a contractor with the Rangers we used some of his services, advance reports, especially for playoff preparation. As a kid I was an avid reader of the Bill James Abstracts, the Elias books in the 80s.
Unless you’re in a front office like in Oakland or Boston, though–where so many people are well entrenched in these concepts and develop them internally–you have to learn them on your own. You acquire materials and do what you can. Because we’re short-staffed, it’s not easy to acquire the tools we need to implement it the way we might like. But we’re trying to increase exposure to analysis as another tool to use in evaluation, like a stopwatch or radar gun.
It’s an emerging force out in the scouting field, that’s for sure. A dear friend of mine likes to say ‘get all sources of information.’ When I was with the Twins we were looked at as old school, having only a toolsy approach. But under the surface that couldn’t be further from the truth. We had secondary data. It didn’t dominate the decision-making, but it did get taken into account and was always considered. Jim Bowden put it best recently. He said it’s like the computer was 10 years ago for scouts. There has to be transition made or you get passed by. If you’re not aware of the value of statistical analysis and don’t get indoctrinated to it, you can get left behind. We want our players to adjust constantly. We too shouldn’t be so set in our ways that we can’t adjust.
BP: How has being part of the MacPhail family affected your career?
MacPhail: People can make certain assumptions based on you, your name. My dad passed away a few months before I was born, in 1969. I wasn’t reared in a baseball environment or incubator. I was just a normal fan, a normal kid who had a passion for it. My uncle Andy was the closest thing to a mentor for me, not only in my family but also in the game. He will impart wisdom as needed, but he doesn’t go overboard–he’s always let me have my share of failures and successes along the way. As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to rely on him more. Neither of us would want to work with the other, because of the undue pressure it would put on us both. In the Cubs’ situation there’s a “no nepotism” rule, so that would eliminate any possibility of that happening anyway. With the Twins, I’m not blind to the fact that part of (getting hired) was based on some of his relationships. Being in this type of family, it can open as many doors as it can close.