There’s this captivating scene in the movie Moneyball: Over archival footage of Dan Duquette presenting a Red Sox jersey to Johnny Damon at a press-filled event in Fenway Park, a Brad Pitt voiceover explains how the A’s will chart a new direction in player valuation and roster construction. The scene is supposed to poke fun at the Red Sox, Jonah Hill having just delivered a soliloquy about Damon’s true value and how he’ll never be worth $7.5 million. But meanwhile in Boston, a team of analysts, economists, front office folks, and consultants had determined that Damon’s value on and off the field would far exceed his salary.
The dramatized scene lays down the “new way” vs. “old way” narrative playing out over the course of the film. What it really does, though, is underscore the fact that teams value players differently.
This inevitably holds true for general managers, on-field managers, and all other “brainy” baseball talent, too. We acknowledge this briefly each year by handicapping the Manager of the Year award. And Dave Cameron recently wrote about the inherent challenges in attributing value to guys who never pick up a non-fungo bat. Cameron’s article focuses on managers because he’s voting for the NL Manager of the Year this month, but the theory behind it holds true in assessing front office folks as well.
Lewie Pollis came closer than anyone to identifying what brainy baseball talent might be worth, noting the nearly completed trade of Billy Beane for two minor leaguers (link to Lewie’s full thesis here). Pollis elected to focus on the valuation of talent in the trade, leading him to craft an argument about how front office talent is undervalued leaguewide. Pollis noted:
To most teams Youkilis was an unexceptional minor leaguer with an unathletic body and no noteworthy skills, and it is probably fair to say that few in the game outside of Boston and Oakland saw any promise in him. Youkilis ended up developing into a very good player and went on to thrive with the Red Sox for years, but it is striking that the cost of a GM with the ability to identify a hidden gem like Youkilis was two minor league players in whom most of the rest of the league saw little value.
The emphasis above is my own. I’ve ruminated on this concept for some time, and it finally came to a head last Friday when I posed the following question to two fine baseball analysts who also happen to be Arizona Diamondback fans. With Kevin Towers being fired/demoted/reassigned, hope sprung eternal that Arizona would replace him with an inspired choice at general manager. By the time this post goes live they might have announced their decision from the available candidates, but I wanted to know how badly Jeff Wiser and Ryan Morrison would want one of the unavailable candidates:
The conversation took off and had dozens of caveats, but ultimately it became this:
In a perfect world where the new GM had full autonomy, which GMs would you trade your top prospect for?
Ryan mentioned that he would probably trade Archie Bradley, Arizona’s top prospect, for Billy Beane or Andrew Friedman. That’s a small list, but Ryan’s tweet brought up another topic worth mentioning. When a player leaves, all of his production goes with him. There are no residual home runs or clean innings to be had by the team that loses him. On the other hand, a baseball operations executive will leave the bulk of his assembled team in place at his former club. Organizations hire GMs and front office executives who will instill a team-wide philosophy. The value might be in the philosophy, rather than the one guy who runs the whole thing. Ryan posits that the number of value-over-philosophy GMs is pretty small, all things considered.
The one area where I differ from Pollis: I don’t believe we can accurately assess the value of brainy baseball talent in terms of salary. What I mean by that is that there are reasons to believe that the market is far from rational, and is actually pretty inelastic in terms of salary demands. One main reason for this is that the limited nature of GM-type jobs in the world means that guys likely value the non-financial components of the job highly, offsetting concerns about salaries being too low. There are dozens of reasons for this paradigm, including but not limited to: the fact that brain talent has a much longer shelf life than on-field talent, the “post-playing career” prospects for a GM are likely more valuable than those of a middle-relief pitcher, etc. Once that front office talent leaves the role, they could become a team president/CEO, TV host/celebrity, or any other number of jobs that could increase their earning potential. Players, on the other hand, are at the peak of their earning potential now, and have less enticing post-playing career options available to them. As such, it behooves us to look not at GM salaries but at past trades of brain talent for on-field talent to tease out valuation of the guys building the teams.
There are so precious few examples of player-for-GM trades in baseball history from which we can extrapolate what a GM trade should look like. Beane was very nearly traded for Youkilis, a prospect but at the time an undervalued one, as mentioned by Lewie Pollis above. And, after much discussion about the Red Sox acquiring the Cubs’ top prospect Trey McNutt for Epstein, the teams eventually settled on Chris Carpenter (no, not that Chris Carpenter), who is now out of baseball, and Aaron Kurcz (who wasn’t among Boston’s top 60 prospects) for Epstein and Jair Bogaerts (who likewise wasn’t among the Cubs’ top 51 prospects). The returns are, in a word, uninspiring. There are some big caveats here, though. After all, the Beane trade was never completed, and he was essentially negotiating his own trade value. The Red Sox, meanwhile, had no real leverage, as Epstein had already taken the reins in Chicago by the time the trade was completed.
That leads to a natural desire to expand the sample size, something we can do to some degree by including four trades of managerial talent. In 1967 Gil Hodges was acquired by the Mets from the Senators for pitcher Bill Denehy and a stack of Franklins. Denehy was a flop, appearing in 49 games and posting an ERA over 4.50 during his time in MLB.
Ten years later the second managerial trade would send Chuck Tanner from Oakland to Pittsburgh for catcher for catcher Manny Sanguillen. Tanner would lead the Pirates to a World Series title three years later while Sanguillen spent one season in Oakland (posting a slash line of .275/.302/.354) before returning to Pittsburgh a year later.
In 2002, the third managerial trade went down, with Lou Piniella going from Seattle to Tampa Bay and veteran outfielder Randy Winn going the other direction. Winn would post 6.7 WARP as a Mariner over parts of three seasons before being flipped to the Giants for catcher Yorvit Torrealba and minor-league pitcher Jesse Foppert. Winn is, by far, the most productive return for brain talent we have in our sample.
The final move is the Ozzie Guillen trade, with the Chicago White Sox moving the mercurial manager and Ricardo Andres for a pair of minor leaguers: Jhan Mariñez and Osvaldo Martinez. A year later Guillen was released by Miami, while all the players involved have produced -0.4 career WARP and one MLB cup of coffee.
Rephrasing these returns:
· A mid-30s catcher, 16 months removed from an All-Star appearance, on a one-year deal
· A late-20s outfielder with four years of service time coming off a breakout/All-Star season
These moves would lead one to believe that brain talent just isn’t worth as much, in terms of player value, as we might suspect it should. Is that the case though? There are two tangentially related questions that this poses for me. The first: How much different would it be if the A's owner had, unbeknownst to Beane, started shopping him to the other 29 teams to see what he could get? Because there’s not a robust exchange set up for under-contract brain talent, we probably can’t conclude that this was the most that any team would have been willing to pay. Especially with Beane under contract through 2019.
The second question is: Where would Beane and his equivalents in other organizations go in a league-wide draft? Assuming that MLB had a dynasty draft, similar to one you might have in a video game, we can attempt to peg “brainy” baseball talent to on-field talent and potential. The first phase would involve selecting front office talent, coaching staffs, and prospects. All of the potential hires/signees are lumped into one large pool from which each team would select, round robin style. (I know, this is counterintuitive given that most clubs would want a front office in place before selecting prospects, but go with the premise.) Prospects are vital here because they, too, are undervalued from a salary standpoint given their potential contributions to the big league club and the length of team control.
In this scenario,
- Where on BP’s Top 101 prospect list would you put the guy you consider the best GM?
- Where you put the best manager on the same list?
- How many GMs, and how many managers, would appear somewhere on the top 101?
- And, finally are there factors at play in your decision besides the value (relative to prospect value) that you think the best GM and/or the best manager provides?
To answer those questions I’ve provided the player just above and just below my “brainy” baseball talent slotting below. I’ve also included a brief explanation for why they are placed as they are. One important note is that I found it very difficult to differentiate between individual GMs/Managers, and so I’ve used a tiered approach. As a result there are clusters of “brainy” talent amongst the top prospects:
- Lucas Giolito, RHP
- 17. John Mozeliak, FO
- Ben Cherington, FO
- Jon Daniels, FO
- Dave Dombrowski, FO
- Neal Huntington, FO
- Miguel Sano, 3B
- Kris Bryant, 3B
- Brian Sabean, FO
- Jed Hoyer, FO
- Brian Cashman, FO
- Rick Hahn, FO
- Jeff Luhnow, FO
- Mike Rizzo, FO
- Dan Duquette, FO
- Corey Seager, SS
- Jerry Dipoto, FO
- Paul DePodesta, FO
- Joe Maddon, FO
- Chris Antonetti, FO
- Walt Jocketty, FO
- Thad Levine, FO
- AJ Preller, FO
- DeJon Watson, FO
- Logan White, FO
- John Coppolella, FO
- Alex Anthopoulous, FO
- Tony LaCava, FO
- Buck Showalter, FO
- John Farrell, FO
- Bob Melvin, FO
- Terry Francona, FO
- Andrew Heaney
- Jorge Soler, RF
- Tyrone Brooks, FO
- Dan Jennings, FO
- Jason McLeod, FO
- Bruce Bochy, FO
- Mike Matheny, FO
- Mike Scioscia, FO
- Miguel Almonte, RHP
That essentially wraps up my list of players and “brainy” baseball talent that I’d have in my top 101. Of course, some of these prospect rankings were reshuffled by the top 50 that Jason Parks and staff did halfway through the season, so don’t focus on the names too much. My list starts with the top seven or so prospects, all franchise talents. The type of player who would come before the top brain talent would have to be a guy with a chance of becoming a franchise cornerstone.
The first manager to make the list is Joe Maddon at no. 47 (17th among brain talent). Maddon has proven to be an excellent motivator and adept at putting the front office’s principles into practice. There are even some non-GMs in the list above, largely because I personally don’t believe in the philosophies of some current MLB front offices. Those non-GMs who have demonstrated a track record of success in favorable systems are intriguing candidates to me, and have been ranked as such.
Overall my new top 101 includes 37 brain talent guys and 64 actual prospects. Your list would differ. I’ve made a lot of assumptions in constructing my list, largely because we have imperfect knowledge about the impacts of the men and women in MLB front offices. So the final question is: What does your list look like, and would you trade your favorite team’s top prospect for the league’s best GM?