Baseball Ops: Welcome to the Evolution

In Pursuit of PennantsThis is a guest column by two old friends and baseball savants. Mark Armour and Dan Levitt wrote the fine article below to give “Our Game” readers a taste of their forthcoming book, In Pursuit of Pennants–Baseball Operations From Deadball to Moneyball. It will be published this month (March 2015) by the University of Nebraska Press (for more, see: http://goo.gl/QFqb8E). This is Mark and Dan’s second book as a team, following Paths to Glory (Potomac, 2003); each is an award-winning and prolific researcher and writer. Mark (Twitter handle @markarmour04) received SABR’s Henry Chadwick Award–the “Chaddie,” the baseball researcher’s highest honor–in 2014. Dan was a finalist for the Seymour Medal in 2009, for Ed Barrow: The Bulldog Who Built the Yankees’ First Dynasty.

Seven months from now two baseball teams will meet in the 2015 World Series. Pitches will be thrown, balls will be hit, and catches will be made, as the fifty players on the two rosters rightfully take center stage. There may be a distraction or two over a manager’s decision or an umpire’s call, but we can be confident that the skills of the talented players involved will ultimately determine which side will hoist the trophy on that late October night.

Among the millions watching will be two groups of very interested people: the Baseball Operations staffs whose collective efforts to scout, evaluate, draft, develop, sign or acquire these players ultimately determined the composition of the two rosters. All of their decision making will have been analyzed and graded as never before by fans and writers, many of whom feel comfortable second-guessing not just major league trades but also the drafting of high school prospects. While most of us tried to play baseball and gave up our big league dreams as teenagers or earlier, that has not stopped us from imagining that we could be the general manager of our local nine.

There have always been debates in schoolyards and bars about trades that should be made or players who should be signed, but the discourse has become much more complex and detailed in the past generation with the explosion of available data about players and the rise of analytics. Michael Lewis’s Moneyball, released in 2003, was a best-selling book in which the heroes were not players performing wondrous athletic feats, but smart guys arguing about baseball, a demographic which is easier for most of us to imagine fitting into.Moneyballsbn

Moneyball depicts Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane in a David-vs-Goliath story. Faced with a significant revenue disadvantage compared with nearly every other team, Beane prevails over his counterparts by finding ways to outsmart them. How much Beane prevailed and the reasons why will be debated forever, but one thing is clear: Lewis’s book unearthed (or inspired) an increased interest in how baseball teams are run off the field. Baseball fans are no closer to playing like Andrew McCutcheon, but they have no shortage of opinions about who the Twins should be targeting in the upcoming amateur draft.

In particular, Moneyball was about the rise of analytics in baseball front offices, with Beane’s A’s at the forefront. According to Lewis, Beane understood the concept of market inefficiencies and the analogous benefit of finding undervalued players, and he believed that these players could be better identified using statistical and analytical techniques than by traditional scouting. For example, players who had high on-base-percentages without other identifiable strengths were undervalued, as were college players in the amateur draft.

One reason that the book created such a stir is that to many of us, these ideas were not new. Baseball statistical analysis had been evolving and developing for roughly fifty years and had begun to find an audience with the writings of Bill James by the late 1970s. Sabermetrics, a word coined by James, did not prescribe a set of formulas and answers, as its critics might have charged. It prescribes a process, a philosophy that teams should make decisions based on evidence and data. This was not a wholly new concept—scouts had been using radar guns and stopwatches for decades rather than merely trusting their eyes—but sabermetrics suggested that baseball’s vast statistical record could better tell us which players were actually helping their team score or prevent runs, which game strategies would increase the team’s chances of winning, which minor leaguers were likely to be good major leaguers, and more. Much more, in fact. To the analytically inclined fan, Beane became their surrogate in the revolution that was (belatedly) taking place inside of the game.

Billy Beane

Billy Beane

Twelve years later, the debate is mainly over. The specific arguments raised by Moneyball have appropriately been adopted or rejected, the best run teams today are using both traditional scouting and evidence-based analytics, and the two schools are working together. Whatever advantage Beane held over his contemporaries in 2003 he holds no longer. Market inefficiencies last only as long as the market stands still, and baseball teams are constantly searching for a new advantage. Within a few years, Beane needed to think of something else.

For almost a century, the person in charge of bringing players into a team’s organization and constructing the roster has been called the “general manager.” These men have held various titles over the years, but if you were the guy who made the trades people called you the GM. Like any business model, the growing game has caused further departmentalization, resulting in farm directors, scouting directors, assistant GMs, player personnel directors, analysts, video coordinators, medical coordinators, and more. Some teams, like the Cubs, have muddied the waters further by giving Theo Epstein the title “President of Baseball Operations” and making Jed Hoyer the general manager. “Baseball Operations,” a relatively new term in the game, generally encompasses a few dozen people working 52 weeks per year trying to make their organization smarter or stronger.

The overarching job of Baseball Ops is the same as it was decades ago: to find, evaluate, acquire, and develop baseball players for their organization. Each of these four items has become more complicated over the years. Not long ago, players were best found by driving around the country watching games, while now scouts have to travel the world. Player evaluation used to involve a stopwatch and a few sets of eyes, while today computers are reading terabytes of pitch rotation data. How one acquires players (amateur draft, free agency, etc.) has changed many times over the years, of course. Player development and instruction is still evolving as well.

Theo Epstein

Theo Epstein

Building a championship team, 140 years after the start of the first professional league, is more challenging today than ever before. No matter the strengths of any organization, its management is competing against other smart, well-motivated people with significant resources of their own. In a direct competition, where every action draws a reaction, there can be no easy recipe for success. In an industry where people shift between organizations on a regular basis, it is not possible to maintain advantages for more than a short period of time.

Organizations are also dealing with imperfect information when constructing their teams. Which eighteen-year-old draftee will add five miles per hour to his fastball, and which will hit for more power? Which player is ready to be promoted to the majors, which declining player is over the hill and which will rebound, and which free-agent pitcher is least likely to break down due to arm troubles? The list of things one cannot know, at least precisely, is endless. Nevertheless, teams must make decisions.

Most baseball franchises recognize the limitations of their knowledge and spend time and money to improve their analysis and decision-making, some more successfully than others. However, there is still much that can be learned from studying the history of Baseball Ops. Looking carefully, one can often identify differences between teams that have consistently succeeded and teams that struggle.

While the rise of analytics in the game, ten to fifteen years ago, was new, the pattern of its evolution was not. Billy Beane’s “Goliaths”—well-heeled teams—have always been around, have always had an advantage, and have always won more than their share of pennants and championships. But the most successful organizations have also generally been the smartest, in particular the ones that have either fundamentally changed the way baseball teams are built, or have best adapted to changes in the environment in which teams operate.

George Weiss and Joe DiMaggio

George Weiss and Joe DiMaggio

In Only the Paranoid Survive, Andrew S. Grove, a onetime Intel CEO, called these transitions “strategic inflection points,” moments “when the balance of forces shifts, from the old structure, from the old ways of doing business and the old ways of competing, to the new.” Changes within the technology industry, where Grove worked, are usually more dramatic and momentous, but the concept he describes is certainly useful for thinking about changes in baseball.

No man illustrates Grove’s point better than Branch Rickey, the game’s most legendary and successful GM. Among other things, Rickey is largely responsible for the two most important inflection points in the game’s history.

In the 1920s Rickey was running the Cardinals and did not believe that his team could afford the high prices being charged by independent minor league teams for their players. Instead, he proposed that the Cardinals acquire their own teams and develop their own players. Baseball rules prohibited much of Rickey’s plan for a few years, but eventually the Cardinals and Yankees successfully lobbied for the requisite rules changes and both teams immediately set up huge farm systems. Over the next two decades, they were the dominant teams in the game. The clubs that were slow to create farm systems were soon unable to compete.

Branch Rickey (r.) with Larry MacPhail

Branch Rickey (r.) with Larry MacPhail

By 1945 Rickey was running the Dodgers, and that August he signed Jackie Robinson to a contract. In so doing, Rickey opened up, as a practical matter, the largest pool of untapped talent in the history of the game. Within a few years Robinson, Don Newcombe, and Roy Campanella were playing in Brooklyn and winning pennants. Soon other teams followed suit, and now-legendary black players were starring throughout the game and winning championships.

This great story is usually told through a moral lens, through which Rickey had the courage to do the right thing and, thanks to his great players, triumphed. But Rickey and other GMs who subsequently integrated their teams needed more than courage, they needed to hire scouts and direct them to places where black people would be playing, places that they were not currently scouting, like Latin America or small towns in the segregated South.

The lessons of the 1950s have played out many times since, as teams have established advantages in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Japan, and, just recently, Cuba again. It sounds obvious—go where the players are—but pennants have been won or lost due to teams’ willingness to heed this simple commandment. Pat Gillick, a great scout and talent evaluator who became one of history’s best GMs, made inroads into the Dominican Republic that forever changed the game, as one look at today’s All-Star rosters and league leaderboards can attest. His later acquisition of Japanese stars, especially Ichiro Suzuki, ended any misconceptions Americans might have had about the talent there.

In the first half-century or so of the professional game the job of finding players fell to either the owner or field manager. Barney Dreyfuss owned the Pirates for more than 30 years and assumed the responsibility for finding many of the players for his great teams. He studied the baseball periodicals of the day, had connections around the country, and kept detailed notes in a notebook. Branch Rickey once suggested that Dreyfuss, who had never seriously played the game, was the best judge of baseball talent he had ever been around. John McGraw, whose Giants dominated the National League for a quarter century, completely ran his team on and off the field, with little interference from ownership. Both models, in the hands of a man of sufficient talent and genius, could and did work.

Barney Dreyfuss Tip-Top Bread Card, 1910

Barney Dreyfuss Tip-Top Bread Card, 1910

The first innovation, or “inflection point,” in Baseball Ops was the creation of the general manager position. There are many men who could lay claim to being baseball’s first GM, a non-owner non-manager in charge of finding and acquiring players. The best candidate for defining the position is probably Ed Barrow, hired by Yankee owners Jacob Ruppert and Til Huston in late 1920. Barrow’s unqualified success, building a great scouting staff and soon a dynasty, helped make the GM the dominant model in baseball front offices. Rickey held a similar role with the Cardinals, and had comparable success in the National League. The best GMs in later years—the Yankees’ George Weiss in the 1950s, the Reds’ Bob Howsam in the 1970s, the Blue Jays’ Gillick in the 1980s, the Giants’ Brian Sabean in recent years—were known for building top-notch baseball organizations by finding, motivating, and listening to scouts, player-personnel people, and, more recently, analytics and video staffs. Almost all great teams have done this better than their competition.

The evolution of team building also involved an increasing sophistication of front offices. In addition to Rickey, in the mid-1920s the Cardinals front office consisted of owner Sam Breadon (occasionally), treasurer/key assistant Bill DeWitt Sr. (the father of the Cardinals’ current owner), traveling secretary Clarence Lloyd, and two secretaries. Today, the Baseball Pperations side alone of the San Francisco Giants employs 33 executives.

Pat Gillick

Pat Gillick

Some of the biggest challenges faced by Baseball Ops over the years are due to changes to the game off the field. After experimenting with bonus rules for 20 years, in 1965 baseball held its first amateur draft. No longer could teams like the Yankees and Dodgers rely on their advantages in money and prestige. Scouts could still provide an advantage in deciding who to draft, but everyone had the same shot at the same players. The A’s and Dodgers, in particular, had several great early drafts that propelled them to excellence in the 1970s. Fifty years later, even with all of the international inroads that have been made, the draft still provides nearly 70 percent of the talent to the major leagues.

Baseball underwent another major change with the advent of widespread free agency in 1976. From a Baseball Ops standpoint, free agency put an even larger premium on evaluating veteran players—not only their present, but also their future. In an age of one-year contracts, players would hold down a job until they showed they could not, and then the team found someone else. But now most important decisions—signing free agents, signing your own players to keep them from free agency, making trades—had long-range implications. Understanding how players—both generally and specifically—are likely to age is crucial, and analytics have played an increasingly large role in this understanding.

Twelve years ago Moneyball shone a light on analytics, another chapter in the continual evolution of Baseball Operations. But it was not the final chapter. The recent marriage of video technology and high-speed computing, which has led (so far) to increased defensive shifts, a better understanding of swing mechanics, and further advances in pitch selection, was but a dream when Moneyball was published.

What’s next? Imagine a team that figures out how to reduce pitcher injuries—how big of an advantage would that be? You can be certain that the best organizations are working on this problem as you read this. Teams are also using the latest research from neuroscience and other disciplines to try to better understand the mental side of player performance.

The best organizations have always been ones that looked for new solutions, or better ways to implement the old solutions. New challenges will inevitably lead to larger and more complicated Baseball Operations departments, working ever harder in their search for an increasingly valuable extra win.

6 Comments

Hi John: What are your favorite IPhone baseball apps? Ronnie Roubin

None. Not an apps guy.

Pingback: New post at John Thorn’s blog | In Pursuit of Pennants

From what I’ve read in the old baseball guides, after World War I, powerful minor leagues repudiated the Major-Minor Agreement, so that they could protect themselves from drafts from the big leagues. The majors reluctantly went along – and the result was an unbelievable increase in draft prices of minor league players to the majors. But, like the yin and yang, this advantage led to the minor leagues’ own downfall: it became cheaper for major league teams to buy entire minor league teams rather than just buy one player on those teams. Branch Rickey was the first to see the advantage this brought to the majors. So he built the first honest-to-goodness minor league farm system, and built the crummy St. Louis Cardinals into a powerhouse. But other major league teams noticed the Cardinals’ improvement, and developed farm systems of their own. And the minors were independent no longer, and became a tool of the major leagues…

Excellent, Jim. Thanks.

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