Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Moneyball: The Next Generation

I wanted to touch on a topic that is not Nats-oriented on the surface, but bear with me as I'll bring it around to the direction that I could envision an organization like the Nationals go with their player management. Boston Red Sox GM, Theo Epstein, has rejected the team's latest contact offer (3 years, approximately $1.2M/year). As a lifelong fan of the Red Sox, it frustrates me that the Red Sox are trying to shortchange the GM in charge when Boston won their first World Series in 87 years. Why would they want to play Russian Roulette with PR? However, the dynamics between Epstein and the Red Sox got me thinking. I find the method in which GM Billy Beane has shaped the Oakland Athletics to be amazing. This was popularized in Michael Lewis' book, Moneyball. Cliff notes version of the book is Billy Beane took advantage of market inefficiencies (in this case players who had high OBP but were not traditional power/contact hitters were undervalued). Beane crafted the A's lineup on a budget a fraction of the cost of the big budget teams (Red Sox, Yankees, etc) and still won 90+ games year in, year out. One of the areas discussed in Lewis' book was the role of the manager. Beane viewed the manager as nothing more than a button pusher who in essence stands on the top step of the dugout looking managerial. It was Beane's belief that the GM put the pieces together and the manager was a figurehead who moved the pieces according to Beane's blueprint. This was epitomized by his conflict with of then manager Art Howe who was jettisoned in place of Ken Macha, who was hired to enact Beane's gameplan. Spinning this figurehead role forward, I can see the current Epstein/Red Sox conflict as the next iteration of that thought process. In this case, Larry Lucchino, President/CEO of the Red Sox, views Epstein as the public face for a blueprint crafted by a group of individuals. People like Josh Byrnes, Bill Lajoie, Craig Shipley, Bill James, Peter Woodfork, Ben Cherington, and Jason McLeod, who all serve on a sort of Council of Elders who along with Epstein developed a blueprint for the team. It's then Epstein's job to serve as the role of spokesperson for what the group has decided. In essence, he is nothing more than a button pusher to the Council's organizational plan. In this case, the Red Sox could then view Epstein as expendable. Who's to say that another person could not be inserted into Epstein's position with the mandate to keep things moving according to plan? And at a cheaper price. What bearing does this have on the Nationals? Nothing directly (other than perhaps Epstein's availability as a GM candidate in DC). Indirectly, however, I could see this as a manner in which to design the future direction of the Nationals.
  1. Select an owner who ideally will defer all baseball decisions to a team president/CEO (Stan Kasten?)
  2. Allow that individual to assemble a group of individuals who share the same philosophy of player valuation. This is important with regards to player development and scouting.
  3. Assign one person to speak for the group. On the surface, this person will serve in the traditional General Manager's role, but their ultimate responsibility is to act as a sort of press secretary for the team's roster moves.

Could this work? In theory, it's possible. While identifying a person willing to serve as a figurehead GM would be difficult given the disposable nature of the role, the greatest challenge would putting together a group of individuals willing to put ego aside and allow things to operate without the spotlight on them.


DM said...

Very interesting thoughts here, and you're probably onto something. In fact, the "blueprint" approach makes more sense with GMs than managers, because the GM doesn't have to be good at managing player personalities -- a manager can always offer real value there. Youre post has started me thinking "What value can a GM really add?"

Brian said...

DM - I believe there are plenty of GMs that provide value. I don't want to sell the role short. Many GMs are the ones with the blueprint.

A huge role the GM has is the interpersonal skills inside the GM fraternity. An effective and capable GM will be able to pick up the telephone and get a fellow GM on the line. And moreover, have that GM take them seriously.

Nate said...

It seems to me that there's an accountability problem with this approach. Presumably the Red Sox know who's contributing to the team's success and who is more of a figurehead, but that's hard to evaluate from the outside looking in. If the Sox don't value Theo Epstein enough to retain him, does that make him less valuable as a more traditional GM?

Brian said...

Accountability problems? I would imagine that there is a grapevine within MLB where who is capable and who isn't. I know there often time appears to be a system of retreads but I would see that as more a function of people (GMs or managers) developing contacts that will look out for them.

If you were to institute a Council of Elders, the individual in the GM role would clearly know what he/she was getting themselves into (a la Macha in Oakland as a manager).

The more I think about it, an additional hurdle would be respect for that GM within the GM fraternity. Would Epstein have any cache if it was known that he was simply the mouthpiece for the men behind the curtain?

This is entirely conjecture on my part. Just trying to see what could potentially be around the next corner as the next hip thing

DM said...


Absolutely right, and I thought of that after my post. There is also skills as a negotiator in a close-knit community which are critical. However, you could see that many owners might (out of hubris alone) think they could succeed in that role, too.

Note that Billy Beane obtained an ownership stake in the A's this year. Is that a market signal about the truth of your analysis, in that he predicts that a "salary" route for GMs will be a diminishing market?