John Schuerholz thinks back to his early days as a general manger with the Kansas City Royals and smiles.
“We had a scout named Tom Ferrick, who had pitched for the New York Yankees and was a man I admired greatly,” Schuerholz said recently, sitting in his office at the Atlanta Braves‘ spring training camp at Disney’s Wide World of Sports in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. “And Tom used to always tell me that statistics don’t lie.”
Schuerholz then paused for effect.
“So what did I do every time I was thinking about making a trade or signing a free agent? I called Tom Ferrick,” he said.
Schuerholz is now the ultra-successful GM of the Braves, guiding to the organization to 14 consecutive division titles, a record in American professional sports, until the streak ended last season when the Braves went 79-83 and finished 18 games behind the New York Mets.
According to Schuerholz, the moral of the Tom Ferrick story is this: statistical analysis is great, but understanding the human element of the game is better.
That compelled Schuerholz to write a book with former Orlando Sentinel columnist Larry Guest last year titled Built to Win.
While Schuerholz had jokingly said before its publication that Built to Win was going to be the anti-Moneyball book, it did not attack those who lean toward building teams by the numbers. However, it did make clear that Schuerholz believes that the key to success for an organization is its people.
“I don’t have anything against statistics and they are helpful in some instances,” Schuerholz said. “But there is no magic formula where you just plug in all the numbers and it produces a winning team.
“Baseball is still a business that deals with the human element. Your success or failure relies on the type of people you hire, both in the front office and on the field. The biggest key to our success is we have had great people who have worked extremely hard and have been very loyal to the organization. We’ve been blessed with a number of bright people.
“If you hire the right people and they do the jobs the way they are supposed to, then everything should fall into place. That is what has happened in our organization for a long time.”
The Braves have built their philosophy around scouting and player development ever since Schuerholz arrived following the 1990 season to try and rebuild one of the most moribund franchises in professional sports
That philosophy has become particularly important in recent season since Time Warner has taken over the team and cut the payroll to $80 million. It helped the Braves win the NL East in 2005 despite playing a host of rookies, including Brian McCann, Jeff Francoeur, Wilson Betemit, Kelly Johnson and an extended trial for Adam LaRoche.
“We’ve been blessed to have had one of the biggest payrolls in baseball for many years, and that certainly makes it easier to build a team because you can enter the free-agent market more aggressively and also retain your star players for the long term,” Schuerholz said. “However, I really believe that every club needs to have a productive farm system. There is no team, particularly with the prices in today’s market, which can afford to just completely build their team without having at least some young players who are less expensive.”
In a sense, that is the Moneyball way of thinking. However, Schuerholz prefers to look at it more as Smartball.
“There isn’t a magical mathematical formula that can assure you of which players can help you and which ones can’t,” Schuerholz said. “I think statistics are useful, especially when you have a difference of opinion on a player with your scouts or within the organization.
“In the end, though, I really believe you have to trust the judgment of your scouts, your coaching staff and your minor-league department. They are the ones who know better than anyone which players are the best fit for us.”
The Braves way may not always be sabermetrically friendly. However, it has been successful. After all, the franchise won 14 division titles after Schuerholz stunned the baseball world and left what was then a seemingly stable franchise in Kansas City for one in chaos in Atlanta.
“Now that’s the statistic I like the most,” Schuerholz said with a laugh.