#11 — Billy Beane

This post is part of a series in which we count down the 25 best GMs in history.  For an explanation, please see this post.

Billy Beane

Michael Lewis’s 2003 book Moneyball depicted Billy Beane as the leading figure in the spread of analytics (more broadly: the use of data and evidence) in baseball management.  Twelve years later all front offices combine analytics and scouting, and the dwindling number of people who decry this revolution have tended to blame Beane and like-minded GMs, while those who applaud it have treated Beane like their heroic surrogate.  His ranking here would indicate that we believe the introduction of analytics has advanced front office decision making, which we do, but we also believe his impressive record fully justifies his standing.

A former first round draft pick of the Mets, Beane spent parts of six seasons in the big leagues without earning regular playing time.  In 1990 Beane finally gave up and took a job as an advanced scout with the A’s.  Beane spent the next seven years working with Sandy Alderson in Oakland, learning to view the game the way his boss did — using sabermetric principals to find undervalued players.  After the 1997 season Alderson resigned, and Beane took over.  The A’s had been going through a rough patch — new ownership had ordered Alderson to slash expenses, and the team has been on the low end of baseball payrolls ever since.  After a great five-year run, the club had been under .500 since 1992.

The rise of the A’s is the early Beane years is due primarily to their great use of the amateur draft throughout the 1990s, when they selected Jason Giambi, Eric Chavez, Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, and Barry Zito, and the signing of Miguel Tejada from the Dominican Republic in 1993.  When Beane took over the big league team was struggling but this help was just around the corner.

But Beane also made several low-cost deals that had short term dividends, dramatically enhancing this core.  Among these acquisitions were Gil Heredia (28 wins in two years), Kenny Rogers (16-8 in 1998), John Jaha (35 home runs in 1999), Jason Isringhausen, Randy Valarde, Terrence Long, Kevin Appier (15-11 in 2000), Cory Lidle, Johnny Damon, Jermaine Dye, Scott Hatteberg, David Justice, and Billy Koch.   Most of these players were bought cheaply and moved on if they attained free agency or got expensive.  Beane was one of the first to believe that closers were fungible assets, and he was quick to move players like Isringhausen and Koch if he found a buyer who overvalued their save totals.

Armed with his emerging core and his shrewd short-term patches, the A’s won 91 games and the division in 2000, and followed that up with 102, 103, 96, and 91 the next four years.  They made the playoffs four times and lost in the division series (in the full five games) all four seasons.

In 2003, when the A’s were coming off their two best seasons, Moneyball was released, and a debate ensued as to why the A’s were successful.  The principal premise of the book– that Beane was winning with low payrolls at last partly by finding market inefficiencies, players undervalued by other clubs–was undeniable.   In 2001 the A’s had the second lowest payroll in baseball and won 102 games, and did basically did the same thing the next year.  Yes, Beane was fortunate to have inherited a young core, but Brian Cashman inherited a great core in the same year (1998), had more than three times the payroll, and won fewer games in these two seasons. Beane was clearly doing something better than everyone else.

The controversy surrounding the book arose because Lewis depicted Beane as being at war with the scouts, who were often mocked as out-of-touch and unable to recognize good players who did not have obvious “tools”.  As Lewis wrote: “[Beane] flirted with the idea of firing all the scouts and just drafting kids straight from [assistant GM Paul DePodesta’s] laptop.”  Many baseball people were appalled — particularly because it should have been obvious that Beane’s A’s were a reflection of great scouting.  His long-time scouting director Grady Fuson, who deserves much of the credit for their drafts and signings, left the club in 2001 to take a promotion with the Texas Rangers before the book came out depicting him and his scouts as dinosaurs.  (In the movie Beane is shown firing a clueless Fuson, which did not happen.) Pat Gillick, whose Mariners competed with Beane in these years, also took offense at the book’s depiction of scouts, suggesting that Beane was going to have a tough time competing unless he paid his young players when they became free agents.

And in fact this is what happened.  In the ensuing years the A’s lost all of their great players one by one and gradually slipped out of contention, with only one playoff appearance the rest of the 2000s and no more than eighty-one wins between 2007 and 2011.  Much of the fall off can be attributed to the lack of success from Oakland’s college-centric drafting philosophy. From 2002 (the year after Fuson left) to 2009 the A’s drafts produced only three players who have turned in more than 10 career WAR, and no stars.  Moreover, due to their small market size and intelligent use of expiring contracts to land compensatory picks, Beane had amassed a total of twenty-one first round picks (including supplemental choices).

In 2010 Fuson returned to the A’s as a special consultant to Beane, surprising many observers, at least partly because he was persuaded that Beane had begun to blend analytics and scouting as many successful teams had been doing.

In 2012 the Athletics returned to the top with back-to-back division titles and posted their best two records since the year Moneyball came out. It was a team filled with players Beane had acquired cheaply in trades (Josh Reddick, Josh Donaldson, Jarrod Parker) or in free agent signings (Coco Crisp, Brandon Moss, Bartolo Colon), a testament to the A’s ability to discover under-appreciated talent.  Beane occasionally spent money, like on Yoenis Cespedes and Scott Kazmir, but their 2014 payroll was twenty-fifth of thirty teams in baseball.

Unlike the team from the early 2000s, the recent A’s have not have the benefit of a great core of developed talent.  But the drafting of AJ Griffin and Sonny Gray early in the 2010s suggests that the A’s are again receiving value from the draft.   Overall, their recent success, including a 2014 wild card appearance, testifies to Beane, his scouting organization, and his analytical staff, all working together.  Seventeen years after taking over, Beane was still playing with less money, and he was still winning.

— Mark

(We invite your comments below.)

To read more about the history of baseball operations and the GM, please buy our new book In Pursuit of Pennants–Baseball Operations from Deadball to Moneyball via the publisher or at your favorite on-line store.

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#12 — Sandy Alderson

This post is part of a series in which we count down the 25 best GMs in history.  For an explanation, please see this post.

Sandy Alderson

Sandy Alderson’s three pennants and one World Series championship, while a first-rate achievement, may not be quite enough to justify his ranking at number twelve.  But Alderson’s place in history is enhanced by two considerations: he was the first modern GM to actively introduce analytics, though rudimentary by current standards, into a team’s decision making, and he was the first young executive of the modern era hired to run a major league team’s baseball operations without coming from a baseball background.

After Alderson had his success in Oakland baseball front offices would never again be the same.  Before Alderson, general managers had been hired after a long apprenticeship in the game (unless they were related to the owners).  Alderson was different: he was Ivy League educated and an attorney.  The Haas family saw Alderson’s potential and put him in charge of the teams as a 35 year old after only two years in baseball.  His success changed the conventional wisdom of what was considered necessary in a general manager. Today there are many young, top-level front office executives sprinkled throughout the game with high-test degrees and little previous baseball experience.

Alderson went to Dartmouth, served in Vietnam as a Marine infantry officer, and graduated from Harvard Law School.  He was working at a law firm where he got to know Roy Eisenhardt, Walter Haas’s son-in-law, who became team president when the Haas family bought the Oakland Athletics in 1980.  A year later Eisenhardt brought Alderson aboard as general counsel.  In September 1983 the team gave Alderson the general manager’s duties.

At the time, after the penurious final years of Charles Finley’s ownership and the manic administration of Billy Martin (who served as both manager and GM), the A’s organization was in disarray.   Alderson quickly set about rebuilding the scouting and minor league organizations.  For personnel decisions he not only relied on experienced baseball men such as Bill Rigney, but also canvassed the growing body of objective baseball research, predominantly that by Bill James, that was generally scorned within the game.  As an outsider Alderson was not burdened with baseball’s traditional biases and used James’s ideas to his advantage, particularly by understanding the importance of on-base percentage and power.

When manager Tony LaRussa was fired by the White Sox in mid-1986, Alderson snapped him up.  LaRussa was, and remains, decidedly old school. Alderson, though, was not afraid to have strong subordinates, and would often “defer to success” when his alternative ideas may not have meshed with LaRussa’s.

In the meantime, Alderson slowly assembled a true powerhouse.  From the farm system the A’s introduced Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, and Walt Weiss, who won consecutive Rookie of the Year Awards from 1986 through 1988, plus Terry Steinbach.  Astute trades brought in Dennis Eckersley, Bob Welch, and Storm Davis. Dave Stewart and Dave Henderson were both shrewd free agent signings.  After a .500 finish in 1987, the A’s won 104 games and breezed through the ALCS before being stunned in the World Series by the Dodgers. The fine tuning continued throughout 1989, as Alderson added free agent hurler Mike Moore and dealt for speedy on-base machine Rickey Henderson (whom he had traded five years earlier) at the trading deadline.  This time the A’s rolled through the postseason, sweeping the earthquake interrupted World Series over the Giants.  The team dominated the AL again in 1990 before being upset in the World Series.

For a little while it looked like it might go on forever.  The A’s drew close to three million fans in 1990, second in the league, and in 1991 they had the AL’s highest payroll.  Alderson used the team’s prosperity to lock up Canseco for a record contract and drafted phenom pitcher Todd Van Poppel when other clubs shied away from his record contact demands.  Alderson had also masterfully acquired a number of extra early draft picks that he used on high-profile hurlers.  In 1992 the team won 96 games before losing in the ALCS.

But then it all came to a crashing halt.  In 1993 the team fell to last place as the star pitchers aged with little to fill in behind them; McGwire was injured much of the year; and Ruben Sierra, the centerpiece of a Canseco trade in 1992, failed to live up to expectations, as did the ballyhooed pitching prospects. As the team bottomed out in the standings, attendance plummeted as well.  Maintaining a multi-year run is surprisingly difficult–injuries, bad drafts, and just bad luck can quickly derail an apparent juggernaut.  Nevertheless, as sudden as its end might have been, the A’s 1988 to 1992 run remains highly impressive.

Walter Haas died in 1995, and the new owners were less willing to aggressively spend on players, necessitating Alderson trading McGwire in 1997.  He finally moved on after the 1998 season, joining the commissioner’s office, leaving behind Billy Beane to run the front office and a decent nucleus of youngsters, such as Jason Giambi, Ben Grieve, Scott Speizio, Eric Chavez, Tim Hudson, and Mark Mulder.

After six years as the number three man at MLB, battling with umpires, overseeing the administration of major league rules and draft-pick bonuses, and exploring international issues, Alderson joined San Diego as team president in 2005. Owner John Moores wanted an improved approach in the Dominican Republic and the draft, the latter flaw highlighted by the disastrous selection of Matt Bush as the first overall pick in 2004.

Alderson did not clean house, leaving general manager Kevin Towers and his team in place.  But he was not satisfied.  He implemented a more systematic approach to management and bolstered the front office by bringing in Grady Fuson, a colleague from his Oakland days, and Paul DePodesta, the analytically inclined, recently deposed GM of the Dodgers, who reported directly to Alderson.  Under Alderson the team began to operate more analytically, and in first draft under his regime the team selected college players through the first 14 rounds, a notorious Moneyball strategy. For the first few years things went well.  The team won a division title in 2005 (albeit at 82-80) and then won at least 88 games the next two seasons.  The team fell back to only 63 wins in 2008 amid reports of dysfunction in the front office. In early 2009 Moores sold a controlling interest in the Padres to Jeff Moorad, who let Alderson go.

After spending some time back in the commissioner’s office, in October 2010 the Mets gave Alderson another shot running a team, but once again he would be operating with limited resources.  The team’s owners, battered financially in the Bernie Madoff scandal, hired Alderson to build a winner on a reduced budget.  The club he inherited was coming off two sub-.500 seasons despite a $134 million payroll, the fifth highest in baseball.  By 2013, the payroll was cut in half to $69 million, 25th highest. As of 2014 the club had inched up to 79 wins, and the future seemed to include several good young pitchers and position players. Still, Alderson is yet to get the Mets back to .500.  Several years into his tenure Alderson described his mission: “One is stockpiling talent.  The second is clearing payroll, and the third has been to be as competitive as possible—without compromising one and two.”

So far the jury is out on number one; he succeeded on number two; and has fallen short on number three.  But Alderson recently had his contract extended through 2017 and will go on trying.  “The beauty of this game is that there are no absolutes,” Alderson once said.  “It’s all nuances and anticipation, not like football which is all force and vectors.  The one thing I’ve learned is that you get in trouble if you don’t have a healthy respect for the subtleties, for the things you can’t control.”  When he had full control and a competitive budget Alderson built a great team in Oakland.  Both the fact of his successes and the nature of his methods forever changed baseball front offices.

— Dan

(We invite your comments below.)

To read more about the history of baseball operations and the GM, please buy our new book In Pursuit of Pennants–Baseball Operations from Deadball to Moneyball via the publisher or at your favorite on-line store.

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#13 — Al Campanis

This post is part of a series in which we count down the 25 best GMs in history.  For an explanation, please see this post.

allen-press-conference
Al Campanis, Dick Allen, Walter Alston

Were we to give Al Campanis credit for all his accomplishments in baseball operations, he would rank much higher than this, perhaps in the top five.  Among other things, he was a legendary scout, a brilliant scouting director, and one of baseball’s most influential instructors.  He did this over a two decade career with the Dodgers before assuming control of the baseball team in late 1968.  For this exercise, we will ignore all of that and consider his years as GM (1969-1987) when he won four NL pennants, and the 1981 World Series.

Campanis had a brief major league career (seven games for the 1943 Dodgers) and a minor league career most interesting for his role in helping Jackie Robinson break in with the 1946 Montreal Royals.  In fact, Dodger GM Branch Rickey requested the Campanis go to Montreal to work with Robinson on infield play (the two men formed the double play combination).  Campanis spent a few more years playing and managing in the system before beginning work full time for the major league club.

Once Walter O’Malley took control of the Dodgers in late 1950 he put Buzzy Bavasi in charge of the big league team and Fresco Thompson in charge of the farm system.  For the next eighteen years the two men remained at their posts, and Campanis worked with them doing seemingly everything that needed to be done.  Starting as a scout, he created the first tryout camps in Puerto Rico and Cuba (he was fluent in Spanish, along with French, Greek and Italian), opening a pipeline to Latin America for the Dodgers (which other teams followed); signed Roberto Clemente and Sandy Koufax, among many others; and devised a 60-to-80 scouting scale (which was later expanded to 20-to-80).

He ran “Dodgertown” at Vero Beach, a first-of-its-kind camp the Dodgers used for their minor leaguers and for spring training.  He turned his course material (derived from the teaching of Rickey) into the book The Dodgers’ Way to Play Baseball, an influential instructional used across the country and world for 25 years.  The Dodgers earned a reputation as the best organization in baseball beginning in the 1950s, and Campanis was the living embodiment of the “Dodger Way,” a term he coined.

He was named scouting director (a role he was already performing) once the team moved to LA in 1958, and he developed a system-wide manual for scouts that was far head of its time.  The Dodgers were leaders in amateur talent acquisition before the draft (leading to four pennants and two Series victories between 1959 and 1966), and masters once the draft was in place. In 1968 Bavasi left to become president of the expansion Padres and O’Malley promoted Thompson to GM.  A few months later, Thompson died, and O’Malley turned to Campanis.

After a long run of success, the Dodgers dropped well below .500 in both 1967 and 1968, having lost Sandy Koufax, Maury Wills, and many of the key players from their mid-1960s run.  The team rebounded back over .500 in 1969 and stayed there for a decade, a run of success with two primary causes.

First, with the onset of amateur draft in 1965, Campanis continued the Dodgers’ great run of amateur talent acquisition, overseeing several great drafts including the greatest draft year in history in 1968, when the Dodgers selected 234 future bWAR.  After selecting Bill Russell, Charlie Hough and Steve Yeager in the previous two years, in 1968 Campanis landed Ron Cey, Dave Lopes, Steve Garvey, Doyle Alexander, Joe Ferguson, Geoff Zahn, and Bill Buckner.  Since the average draft traditionally yields about 28-30 WAR, the Dodgers got nearly eight years’ worth of value in one year.

Second, from 1970 through 1976 Campanis made a remarkable series of trades, one excellent deal after another without really making a bad one.

In October 1970 he traded two role players for Dick Allen.  After one great season, Campanis turned around and traded Allen for Tommy John, who had several excellent seasons in Los Angeles.  Campanis traded for Al Downing (getting a 20-win season in return).  He acquired Frank Robinson (surrendering Doyle Alexander, who had a fine career ahead of him), and (as he did with Allen) traded Robinson a year later in a package that included Andy Messersmith, who had three great seasons pitching in Dodger blue.

In December 1973 Campanis made two great trades.  First he dealt longtime centerfielder Willie Davis to the Expos for relief pitcher Mike Marshall.  The next day he traded pitcher Claude Osteen for centerfielder Jimmie Wynn.  In 1974 Marshall pitched a record 102 games and 210 innings in relief, winning the NL Cy Young Award, while Wynn hit 32 home runs with a 151 OPS+.  The 1974 Dodgers broke through with 102 wins and the NL pennant.  After getting one more All-Star season out of Wynn, Campanis flipped him to Atlanta for Dusty Baker — Wynn was finished, while Baker gave the Dodgers eight years of solid play.

Campanis also acquired Burt Hooton for nothing in 1975, Pedro Guerrero in a minor league trade the same year, and then Reggie Smith in 1976.  All three gave multiple years of star play for Los Angeles.

Between 1970 and 1976, the Dodgers finished second six times (five times to the Reds) and won the pennant in the other season.  The Big Red Machine was a tough mountain to get over, but the Dodgers finally did so by winning back-to-back pennants in 1977 and 1978.  Those star-filled clubs were primarily led by Campanis draft choices (Garvey, Lopes, Russell, Cey) and trade acquisitions (Baker, Smith, Hooton, John).  They were an excellent team, though they lost both World Series to the Yankees.

The Dodgers finally won the Series in 1981, with a team heavily fortified with the additions of Guerrero, Jerry Reuss (acquired in a 1979 deal) and Fernando Valenzuela, signed in 1979.  The Dodgers system was still churning out prospects, winning the Rookie of the Year award four years in a row beginning in 1979.  After a near miss in 1982, the Dodgers won the division in both 1983 and 1985, losing the NLCS both times.

In early 1987, Campanis appeared on the ABC news program Nightline, to mark the 40th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s debut in the major leagues.  Unfortunately, Campanis made some incendiary comments about the qualifications of African-Americans to serve in baseball management.  Though he apologized and many friends came to his defense, his quotes were disturbing enough that the Dodgers let him go a day or two later.  His career in baseball was over.  It was a sad way to end another wise great career in the game.  (The year after he left, his team won the World Series again, their last at this writing.)

In 18 seasons, Campanis’s Dodgers won six division titles and finished second in eight seasons, three times by a single game.  After years of working in the organization to help develop major league players, Al Campanis did a fine job once given control of the big league team.

— Mark

(We invite your comments below.)

To read more about the history of baseball operations and the GM, please buy our new book In Pursuit of Pennants–Baseball Operations from Deadball to Moneyball via the publisher or at your favorite on-line store.

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#14 — Brian Sabean

This post is part of a series in which we count down the 25 best GMs in history.  For an explanation, please see this post.

NLCS - St Louis Cardinals v San Francisco Giants - Game Five

In his 18-year tenure at the Giants helm—the longest of any active general manager—Brian Sabean has witnessed the evolution of the very nature of team building.  Sabean has the mindset of a scout but eventually became open to new perspectives, even when they seemed to conflict with a scout’s approach.  As analytics began to make inroads in the game’s front offices, Sabean’s methods and practices adapted to meet these new challenges.  Sabean won his first pennant by building around an aging but still potent Barry Bonds and then three World Series championships by restructuring his team around a young core with undervalued pickups.  As much as any modern GM, he represents a successful bridge between the old and new approaches.

After several years coaching college baseball, Sabean jumped to the professional ranks, joining the Yankees as a scout. From 1986 to 1992 Sabean played a key role in the Yankees scouting and drafting, a period in which the team landed many of the players that would make up the great Yankees squads of the late 1990s.  He also observed first hand well-respected general managers Bob Quinn and Gene Michael in action. When Quinn got the general manager’s job in San Francisco in 1993 he hired Sabean as a key assistant.  In 1996, after two last place finishes, principal owner Peter Magowan promoted Sabean to general manager.

Other smart, aggressive front office personnel and scouts had also recently joined the Giants, and Sabean judiciously delegated authority, creating a team of trusted lieutenants.  Assistant GM Ned Colletti remained with Sabean for nine years before starting his own successful run as general manager of the Dodgers.  Dick Tidrow and Bobby Evans are still with Sabean 19 years later.

Despite inheriting a last place club, Sabean had one huge advantage to work with: Barry Bonds, still in the prime of his career.  Sabean revamped the team around Bonds using both free agent signings and trades, most notably swapping popular third baseman Matt Williams for infielders Jeff Kent and Jose Vizcaino.  A couple of young, previously lightly utilized starting pitchers (Shawn Estes and Kirk Rueter) were given a chance, both had good years, and the Giants won the division.

The farm system Sabean inherited remained relatively fallow, and over the next several seasons he filled in around Bonds and Kent, who had developed into a great hitter in his own right, with short-term veteran solutions.  Overall, these mid-market players (J.T. Snow, Ellis Burks, and others) delivered impressive returns, and San Francisco remained consistently competitive.  The Giants opened their new privately financed stadium in 2000 and attendance boomed, freeing up additional revenues for player signings.

In 2002 the team came within one game of winning the World Series before falling to the Anaheim Angels.  As a consequence of the Giants fill-in-with-veterans strategy, they were an exceedingly old team.  For the next several years, Sabean continued to use veteran free agents to plug holes and try to win before his stars could no longer contribute. Bonds’s tremendous late-career peak essentially delayed Sabean from rebuilding. In 2003 the team won 100 games and in 2004 they won 91, capping an outstanding eight year run in which they averaged just over 92 wins a season.

Inevitably, however, a win-now strategy with a veteran team can only work for only a limited time and eventually comes with a cost. Without the necessary influx of young players, the Giants lost at least 85 eighty-five games from 2005 to 2008. On top of the disappointing seasons on the field, Sabean and Magowan did not come off well in the Mitchell Report, devoted to the prevalence of steroids in baseball. Sabean also made some baseball moves that backfired: signing free-agent pitcher Barry Zito to a record-breaking contract; overspending on free agent Aaron Rowand; and surrendering a couple of future all-stars to the Twins for A.J. Pierzynski.

Sabean had nearly run out of chances.  Bill Neukom, named managing general partner in 2008, spent the 2009 season evaluating the organization–another sub-.500 season and Neukom might very well have brought in a new GM.  Fortunately, Sabean and his staff had been effective in rebuilding the farm system, the team rebounded to 88 wins, and Sabean received a contract extension.  And over the next five years the Giants won the World Series three times.

Much of the turnaround could be attributed to a stellar collection of pitching prospects from the Giants farm system: Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez, Tim Lincecum, and Madison Bumgarner.  But there is more to great pitching than simply drafting youngsters with live arms. Sabean put an organization-wide emphasis on the health of his players, particularly pitchers, and it paid off.  In 2010 their top-four starting pitchers all started at least 33 games, and in 2012 the team’s top five starting pitchers started 160 of the 162 games.  (Matt Cain’s 2014 injury shows that no emphasis is fool-proof.)

Sabean and manager Bruce Bochy (hired in 2007) were also willing to integrate young positon players into the team. Venezuelan signee Pablo Sandoval broke out in 2009 as a 22-year-old and anchored third base for the next six years. Catcher Buster Posey spent just over a year in the minor leagues before he became the club’s starter and franchise player and captured the 2010 Rookie of the Year award.  The Giants lacked the top prospects to rebuild the rest of the offense, however, and Sabean once again needed to rely on his staff’s savvy to fill holes cheaply and efficiently without surrendering any key contributors.

Before the 2009 season, Sabean signed Juan Uribe and Triple-A outfielder Andres Torres, and in mid-summer he traded for Freddy Sanchez.  For 2010 he signed Aubrey Huff, Pat Burrell (after his release in May), and claimed Cody Ross off waivers in August.  All these undervalued players contributed to the 2010 World Series victory.  But because most were temporary solutions, Sabean had to repeat this strategy, and for the team’s next championship he landed Melky Cabrera, Hunter Pence, and Marco Scutaro.  Similarly, he always seemed to have pieced together an effective bullpen.

To find this underappreciated talent during the Giants’ stretch of World Series victories, Sabean was both receptive and innovative when it came to the evolving tools for player evaluation.  For a man who spent his formative front office years in scouting and player development, and would naturally have resented the way Michael Lewis portrayed scouts in Moneyball, statistical analysis eventually assumed a meaningful part of the evaluation process.  At least as important, Sabean recognized that the Giants needed to take advantage of their location in the heart of the technology industry and were at the forefront marrying video downloads with high-powered computing. As the USA Today put it, the Giants “applied a mixture of tech and baseball savvy that helped the baseball and business side. . . . You might call it Techball.”

Over Sabean’s tenure the Giants have won four pennants and three World Series, an enviable record.  The team has produced some high-end talent, Sabean has proved adept at finding key contributors at low cost, and he and Bochy have kept the team winning and free of drama.

— Dan

(We invite your comments below.)

To read more about the history of baseball operations and the GM, please buy our new book In Pursuit of Pennants–Baseball Operations from Deadball to Moneyball via the publisher or at your favorite on-line store.

Pursuit

#15 — Walt Jocketty

This post is part of a series in which we count down the 25 best GMs in history.  For an explanation, please see this post

JockettyWalt

After more than 15 years paying his dues in baseball operations at both the major and minor league levels, Walt Jocketty wanted to become a general manager.  He came close four times before finally landing the job in October 1994 with the Cardinals, a club that hadn’t made the postseason since 1987.  In his thirteen years in St. Louis Jocketty’s Cardinals made it to the NLCS six times, winning two pennants and one World Series championship. After moving on to Cincinnati in 2008, Jocketty brought the Reds multiple postseason appearances, their first since 1995.

With a player’s strike in full swing when he was first hired, Jocketty could not immediately begin reconstructing his team, but he was used to operating under hardship.  With the penurious A’s in 1980, during Charlie Finley’s final year of ownership, Jocketty ran the amateur draft without scouts–he relied on the major league scouting bureau for player information, and on his wife and a visiting clubhouse man for help keeping him on track.  Despite the bizarre working conditions in Oakland, Jocketty long considered manager Billy Martin a mentor.

Jocketty remained ambivalent towards the influx of analytics despite spending many years in the Oakland front office with Sandy Alderson.  His style combined the best of a commitment to scouting and an aggressive approach to team building. He was a master when it came to bolstering his team with a midseason trade, landing Mark McGwire (1997), Will Clark (2000), Mike Timlin (2000), Woody Williams (2001), Chuck Finley (2002), Scott Rolen (2002 and 2009), Sterling Hitchcock (2003), Larry Walker (2004), and Jeff Weaver (2006).  He was not afraid to use his prospects in trade—generally receiving more value than the prospects turned out to be worth—and successfully restocked teams by acquiring mid-level free agents and trade targets on a regular basis.  One of the very few GMs to make this latter strategy work, Jocketty possessed a knack for sensing which players still had something left and not getting stuck with bad contracts in trades.

When St. Louis started slowly in 1995, Jocketty fired manager Joe Torre 47 games into the season.  For 1996 he brought in Tony LaRussa, his longtime friend from their years in Oakland.  In addition, he delivered to LaRussa a number of offseason acquisitions that worked out surprisingly well.  Jocketty secured closer Dennis Eckersley and starter Todd Stottlemyre from his old colleagues in Oakland, and signed Andy Benes as a free agent to strengthen his pitching corps.  Two free agents, Ron Gant and an aging Gary Gaetti, proved valuable additions, and starting shortstop Royce Clayton came over in a trade.  The Cardinals won 88 games before eventually losing in the NLCS.

Despite picking up Mark McGwire at the trade deadline in 1997, the Cardinals fell back over the next few years.  But once again Jocketty struck it rich: in 1999/2000 he boasted one of the greatest offseason hauls of all time.  In trades he obtained 2000 20-game winner Darryl Kile, 15-game winner Pat Hentgen, closer Dave Veres, center fielder Jim Edmonds, second baseman Fernando Vina, and shortstop Edgar Renteria.  Jocketty also signed catcher Mike Matheny as a free agent. The Cardinals once again made it back to the NLCS before falling to the Mets.

The Cardinals returned to the postseason in 2001 and 2002, augmented with 1999 draftee Albert Pujols and the emergence of 1995 draftee Matt Morris, but still couldn’t get past the LCS.  After missing the playoffs in 2003, Jocketty again went to work.  He strengthened the pitching staff by swapping J.D. Drew for Jason Marquis and Adam Wainwright, signing free agent Jeff Suppan, and enjoying the recovery of Chris Carpenter, signed as a free agent a year earlier.  Free agent signee Reggie Sanders and trade acquisition Tony Womack both won starting jobs and performed capably. The team won 105 games, their most since World War II, and finally captured the pennant before being swept by the Red Sox in the World Series.  For his wheeling and dealing Jocketty was named the Sporting News Executive of the Year for the second time, having also won in 2000.

After winning 100 games the next year and again losing in the NLCS, the Cardinals fell to 83-78 in 2006, but it was enough to win a weak NL Central.  Somewhat surprisingly, this team went on to win the World Series with the lowest winning percentage in history to win it.  After falling short with some great teams, Jocketty had his world championship with one of his least accomplished ones.

The team missed the postseason in 2007 for only the second time since 2000, but owner Bill DeWitt was growing concerned over the tension within the front office.  A year earlier he had promoted Jeff Luhnow–hired in the aftermath of Moneyball to bring a more analytical mind set to the Cardinals and beef up the team’s international presence and amateur drafting–to run the farm system in addition to the draft.  Jocketty was clearly unhappy with this internal reorganization and his loss of authority, and DeWitt decided the team should move on without him.

Jocketty didn’t have to wait long for his next opportunity.  Cincinnati owner Bob Castellini knew and respected Jocketty from his days as a minority investor with DeWitt in St. Louis.  In January 2008 he brought in Jocketty as a special advisor and in April made him general manager.  Jocketty inherited a team that had not finished above .500 since 2000, but was not without talent, including Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, Jay Bruce, Johnny Cueto, and Bronson Arroyo.  Jocketty spent most of 2008 evaluating his club, which was close to competing.  Over the next couple of years Jocketty added Jonny Gomes, Ramon Hernandez, Orlando Cabrera, and Scott Rolen via trade or free agency, flame throwing Aroldis Chapman from Cuba, and Mike Leake, drafted in 2009 as major league-ready hurler. In 2010 the team won the division title for the first time since 1995 but lost in the NLDS.   Jocketty won the Sporting News Executive of the Year for the third time (joining Branch Rickey and George Weiss as the only executives to have won it at least three times).

Jocketty continued to fine-tune his squad, adding free agent Ryan Ludwick and trade acquisition Mat Latos (at the cost of two first round draftees) for 2012 and Shin-Soo Choo for 2013. The Reds qualified for the postseason both years.  They had become overly dependent on their stars for offense, however.  When Choo left as a free agent and Votto, Phillips, and Bruce suffered through injury marred seasons in 2014, the Reds fell back to 76 wins.

Jocketty has always relied on his ability to identify still productive, moderately-priced, mid-career major leaguers, and he is one of the very few GMs to have successfully pulled this strategy off.  It helps of course to have one’s farm system deliver an Albert Pujols, but the Reds have a farm system deep in pitching and there is no reason to think that if the high-priced Reds core returns healthy in 2015, Jocketty won’t again be able to find quality short term solutions to keep the team competitive.

— Dan

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To read more about the history of baseball operations and the GM, please buy our new book In Pursuit of Pennants–Baseball Operations from Deadball to Moneyball via the publisher or at your favorite on-line store.

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#16 — Theo Epstein

This post is part of a series in which we count down the 25 best GMs in history.  For an explanation, please see this post.

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There is an ongoing debate in Boston as to how to divvy up credit between Theo Epstein and Dan Duquette for the 2004 World Series title.  Duquette ran the team through 2001, so of course many of the better players on the 2004 club joined the team on his watch.  This is all true, but undersells the difficulty of turning a good team into a great team.

Epstein became the general manager of the Red Sox in November 2002, after the team was spurned by Billy Beane.  In fact, Beane’s strong recommendation of Epstein helped him get the job.  Owner John Henry had made his fortune as a commodities trader, developing a system that took the emotional element out of trading decisions.  To run his team he naturally wanted someone with an analytical mindset, someone who made decisions based on data and evidence.

The 2002 Red Sox had won 93 games, and featured Pedro Martinez, Nomar Garciaparra, Manny Ramirez, Derek Lowe, Tim Wakefield, Johnny Damon, Jason Varitek and Trot Nixon.   It was a great core, though the team also had obvious holes and they were competing against a team — the Yankees — who had won 103 games and seemed primed to continue doing so.  To fill these holes, Epstein, like Beane, would rely on a modern understanding of how to value players, and how players were likely to develop.

Epstein had a very busy and productive first few months, landing David Ortiz, Bill Muellar, Kevin Millar, Mike Timlin, Bronson Arroyo and Todd Walker in low-cost deals.  Several incumbents regressed in 2003, but Epstein’s tremendous haul got them up to 95 wins and, ultimately, a devastating seventh game loss to the Yankees in the ALCS.  Epstein went after bigger fish the next winter, and landed Curt Schilling, Keith Foulke, and Mark Belhorn, along with manager Terry Francona.  This got them to 98 wins, and (after finally slaying the Yankees in an epic ALCS) their first World Series title in 86 years.

After Epstein got the job he repeatedly said that he wanted to build a “$100 million player development machine” to provide (a) young talent for the Red Sox, (b) depth to deal with injuries or poor performance, and (c) assets to deal to fill in holes. It all started with the amateur draft and young international free agents. The 2003-2004 teams had their success before Epstein’s machine had been built, but he did not lose sight of the future, the team he wanted to create.

In the two off-seasons following their 2004 championship, the Red Sox lost several high-priced free agents, including Martinez, Lowe, and Damon, while cashing in the additional draft picks they received as compensation.  Meanwhile, the organization was developing the next generation of stars. The Red Sox drafted Kevin Youkilis in 2001, Jon Lester in 2002, Jonathan Papelbon in 2003, Dustin Pedroia in 2004, and Clay Buchholz and Jacoby Ellsbury in 2005 — extraordinary production, and all of them were largely developed in Epstein’s system.  By 2007 all six had reached the big leagues and, along with a few trade acquisitions and free-agent signings, helped the Red Sox win another World Series.  As sweet as the first title was, it was the second that validated Epstein’s approach.

The Red Sox won 95 games in both 2008 (resulting in an oh-so-close seven-game ALCS loss to the Rays) and 2009 (a first round sweep to the Angels).  The latter playoff exit, coupled with the hated Yankees World Series triumph, made Epstein conclude that it was time to wait for the next team to develop. Although he believed the team could continue to compete with a few low-cost patches, “we all don’t want to sacrifice our competitiveness during the bridge just for the future. So we’re just trying to balance both those issues.” These comments were skewered in the press (“It’s nice that Theo has a passion for player development,” wrote Dan Shaughnessy in the Globe, “but asking fans to take a year off is outrageous. Henry is a billionaire and the Sox are making bundles of money.”)  At least partly as a result of the backlash from fans and the media, Epstein’s bosses told him to double down and spend more money.

Within a few weeks the Red Sox signed John Lackey, Adrian Beltre, Mike Cameron, and Marco Scutaro.  After the Red Sox, with the second-highest payroll in baseball, failed to make the postseason in 2010, the team opened the vault even more, signing Carl Crawford (seven years, $142 million) and trading for Adrian Gonzalez and extending his contract (seven years, $154 million). Several of the signings cost the team draft choices, and the Gonzalez deal cost them three of the best players in their system.

The Red Sox were hailed as a super-team heading into the 2011 season, and they played like it for five months. At the end of August they had an 83-52 record, the best record in the American League. Thanks mainly to dreadful pitching, they crashed to 7-20 in September, losing the division race and, on the final day of the season, the wild card as well. After this stunning collapse and multiple stories concerning turmoil in the clubhouse, Francona, sensing ownership had lost faith in him, resigned. A couple of weeks later Epstein followed suit, taking a job with the Cubs as President of Baseball Operations.

“It was my fault,” Epstein lamented later. “I fucked up by giving in to [the trades and signings]. I think [baseball ops] was really good at being true to our approach in the early and middle years, then toward the end—and I blame myself for this—we sort of gave in to it.”

With the Cubs Epstein has a better title and more rope but essentially the same job.  He hired Jed Hoyer as the GM, but in reality Hoyer fills a role much like a traditional assistant GM.  A modern baseball ops group has a lot to do and requires much broader array of talent than it did a generation ago.  If things go well a lot of people will deserve and receive credit for it.

Importantly, Epstein resolved to build his machine and fight for it.  Unlike in Boston, he took over a team with little talent so his patient approach offered little immediate relief for the faithful — the club finished 61-101, 66-96, and 73-89 his first three years.

But there is hope.  We hate to get ahead of the story here, but Epstein appears to have executed the first part of his plan wonderfully.  There is a lot of young or mid-career talent and the farm system is loaded.    Epstein signed Jon Lester, and traded for catcher Miguel Montero and outfielder Dexter Fowler, suggesting he feels the team is getting close.  The team could contend for the post-season this year, and will be expected to do so starting in 2016. If Epstein pulls this off, if he wins in Chicago after winning in Boston, he will deserve a much higher ranking than this, well into the top ten and talk of Cooperstown.  But for now we will leave him here, and follow along with the rest of you.

— Mark

(We invite your comments below.)

To read more about the history of baseball operations and the GM, please buy our new book In Pursuit of Pennants–Baseball Operations from Deadball to Moneyball via the publisher or at your favorite on-line store.

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Honorable Mention — Larry MacPhail

Along with our countdown of the greatest 25 GMs in history, we plan to write about people who did not make our list (as well as other topics related to baseball operations and front offices). 

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It might seem strange that Larry MacPhail does not make our list of the top 25 general managers.  He is in the Hall of Fame, after all, one of very few GMs so honored.  Some consider that there are only five GM honorees — Branch Rickey, Ed Barrow, George Weiss, Pat Gillick and MacPhail.  Two others in the Hall, Lee MacPhail and Warren Giles, served as GMs longer than Larry MacPhail, before long terms as league presidents.  Either way, there aren’t many.

Larry MacPhail ran three ballclubs (Cincinnati 1933-36, Brooklyn 1937-42, Yankees 1945-47). In all three cases he acted more as a team president, making decisions outside the scope of baseball operations.  He is most famous today for installing lights at all three of his ballparks, bringing night games to the majors in Cincinnati and then following suit in Brooklyn and New York.  He also hired Red Barber to broadcast games for the Reds and later brought him to Brooklyn, breaking an agreement the Dodgers, Giants and Yankees had made not to broadcast games.  MacPhail was a brilliant promoter, and in both Cincinnati and Brooklyn improved his team’s finances considerably.   When considering MacPhail for this list, we tried to separate MacPhail the president from MacPhail to team builder.  He could easily have made this list anyway and was on the first version we considered, but ultimately we decided his career was a little short.

MacPhail was a bright fellow — he had a law degree from Georgetown, served as an artillery captain in World War I, and had worked in law and business for a decade before beginning his baseball career in 1931 running the Columbus Redbirds, part of the large Cardinals farm system. When he was asked to run the Reds in late 1933 the club was nearly bankrupt — he was hired because of his business skills, and MacPhail’s ballpark improvements, innovations, and drive helped make the club profitable within a couple of years. He was also instrumental in luring industrialist  Powel Crosley to buy the team, which helped considerably.

On the field, the Reds slowly progressed.  They won just 52 games MacPhail’s first year (last place) and he got them up to 74-80 in 1936.  Most of the improvement came because MacPhail convinced Crosley to spend money, and MacPhail purchased Kiki Cuyler and a few others.  But along with his frenetic business genius, MacPhail could be abusive when he drank, which was rather often.  After the 1936 season Crosley decided the overall package was not worth it and fired his GM.  The aging club regressed the next season before new general manager Warren Giles made a few astute trades and won the 1939 pennant and 1940 World Series.

After a year off, MacPhail was offered control of the Brooklyn Dodgers, another club was that losing games and bleeding money.  The 1925 deaths of both Charles Ebbets and Ed McKeever, who between them owned 75 percent of the team, had left club ownership in the hands of squabbling heirs and, once the Depression hit, impatient bankers. By late 1937 the Dodgers were $700,000 in debt and losing more than $100,000 a year. MacPhail’s transformation of the Dodger finances was rapid, starting with his convincing the banks to let him spend more money in order to improve the operation. He began by cleaning, repairing, and repainting Ebbets Field, again installing lights. He brought Barber from Cincinnati. Home attendance increased from 482,000 in 1937 to a league-leading 976,000 in 1940 and then to a franchise record 1.215 million in 1941. By 1940 the Dodgers were turning a profit and by 1941 were out of debt.

MacPhail also greatly improved the product on the field, mainly by buying veteran players — Dolph Camilli, Whitlow Wyatt, Curt Davis, Joe Medwick, Kirby Higbe, Arky Vaughan — over a three year period. In 1939 MacPhail promoted shortstop Leo Durocher to player-manager.  He extracted two young stars — Pete Reiser and Pee Wee Reese — from other clubs and claimed Dixie Walker off waivers.  The 1941 Dodgers, made up mainly of men MacPhail had brought into the organization over the previous three years, broke through and won 100 games and Brooklyn’s first NL pennant since 1920. The 1942 Dodgers won a franchise record 104 games but were overtaken by a Cardinal club that won 38 of its final 44 contests.

Despite his success, after five years MacPhail had again worn out his welcome due to his personality and his spending. In September 1942 MacPhail, sensing that his time was up, entered military service. During his five years at the helm, the Dodgers had evolved from a pathetic franchise to one of the better teams in baseball. As his successor the Dodgers hired Cardinals GM Branch Rickey, who was starting to chafe after many years working for Sam Breadon.  The Dodgers were quite old, not Rickey’s kind of team, but the team was profitable enough to allow Rickey to build a farm system and develop his own star players.

MacPhail spent two years in the War Department, before putting together a partnership — with construction tycoon Del Webb and sportsman playboy Dan Topping — to buy the Yankees from the estate of Jacob Ruppert.  Like in Brooklyn, MacPhail was in complete control.

Unlike the Dodgers, the Yankees had a long tradition of success.  The war scrambled everyone’s rosters and left little for MacPhail to do beyond playing the players he had, but he interfered with manager Joe McCarthy enough that the skipper took a short sabbatical, nominally for health reasons, in the middle of the season.  While he was gone and with the team in the pennant race, MacPhail sold his best pitcher — Hank Borowy — to the Cubs, helping Chicago win the NL flag.

In 1946, with the war over, MacPhail installed lights in Yankee Stadium, added a new Stadium club, reinstalled 15.000 seats, and added lots of promotional events.  The Yankees had never felt the need to promote their ballclub, but the 1946 team played before an all-time record 2,265,512 customers. All of baseball experienced an attendance boom that year, but the Yankees were easily the biggest draw.

More importantly,  everyone got their real players back, which for the Yankees meant Joe DiMaggio, Phil Rizzuto, Joe Gordon, Tommy Henrich, Charlie Keller, and more.  The Yankees finished well back of Boston in 1946, and MacPhail’s meddling finally caused McCarthy to quit — he again claimed health problems, but the main cause was his increased drinking. Bill Dickey took over the club in May but he quit in September when MacPhail appeared unwilling to extend his contract.  Johnny Neun finished out the year but left after the season to join the Reds.

In the following off-season MacPhail traded Gordon for pitcher Allie Reynolds, a deal which worked out well over the long  haul, and acquired veteran George McQuinn the play first base. Somewhat surprisingly, the 1947 Yankees won ninety-seven games and a fairly easy pennant. After their dramatic World Series victory over the Dodgers, MacPhail went on a drunken tirade at the team’s celebration dinner, berating players, his fellow owners, and longtime farm director George Weiss.  The next day Topping and Webb announced they had bought MacPhail out.  Just 57, he never worked in baseball again.

As a general manager, MacPhail’s resume is complicated.  His most impressive team building took place in Brooklyn, where he spent a lot of money to buy players.  He never built a sustainable organization, perhaps because he didn’t think he’d be around long.  He looked for the quick fix, and he proved adept at finding available players to push his team forward.  But his principal skill as a baseball man was his brilliant business sense, his ability to make a team profitable.  This he did spectacularly well.

— Mark

(We invite your comments below.)

To read more about the history of baseball operations and the GM, please buy our new book In Pursuit of Pennants–Baseball Operations from Deadball to Moneyball via the publisher or at your favorite on-line store.

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