Bavasi and the Feed
As you’ve almost certainly heard by now, Mariners GM Bill Bavasi spent two hours on Saturday before the game answering questions from the BP/USSM readers in attendance. His candor was remarkable, and he got high marks from everyone in attendance for his ability to simultaneously be insightful, strong, funny, and articulate. For almost everyone there, I’m sure it will be a highlight from a season that hasn’t had many.
As we’ve also mentioned, Bavasi was extremely honest with his opinion of a large amount of players, speaking his mind openly about their strengths, weaknesses, and the organizations take on their abilities. Those comments were made with the understanding that they wouldn’t be published on the site, and we have no problem honoring that commitment, even though we realize this may be a bit frustrating to many of you were not able to attend. We’re sorry about that, but we feel that is the right course of action in this case.
However, Bill was also very forthcoming with regards to the questions he received on baseball theory, player development philosophies, the roles of scouting and statistical analysis, and his methods of player valuation. What follows is both a recap of Bavasi’s responses to his philosophies as well as a look at how our assessment of the organization’s direction has gone since he was hired.
There are qualities that make up a good general manager that we simply have no possible way of knowing about Bill Bavasi right now that devoid us of any ability to make a strong stance either way on this issue.
— me, 11/08/2003
That was my stance on the hiring of Bill Bavasi when it was announced. After a disastrous first offseason, however, the fans took a pretty strong stance against Bavasi, and we were extremely critical of the new administration.
We’ve been asked several times lately to expound on our current opinions of the Mariner front office. We’ve held off, until now, partly because I knew the feed was coming. Combined with the recap from Saturday’s event, this seems like a perfect dovetail to launch a discussion on the Mariner front office.
So, let’s do it question and answer style. These aren’t the exact questions that were asked on Saturday, but the relevant answers will find their way into the post.
Are the M’s a traditional or ‘Moneyball‘ organization when it comes to evaluating players?
Neither. Bill certainly knows about Moneyball, respects what Billy Beane and company have done in Oakland, and believes in the value of statistical analysis. He also grew up as the son of a GM and is a firm believer in the value of scouting. On Saturday, he said that the Mariners have, by far, the largest scouting and player development budget of any team in baseball. The M’s make an effort to see every player they are interested in drafting two or three times, even the players selected in the 40th round. That takes a lot of money, and is part of the commitment the club has made to developing players from within.
The M’s draft approach, essentially, is take the best talent, no matter his age. Bavasi has given full reign of the draft to Bob Fontaine. When it comes to drafting, Bavasi’s opinion is simply a suggestion. Fontaine has a history of leaning towards college players, but not to an extreme degree. Bavasi and Fontaine trust their scouts, but also understand that two good scouts can grade differently. They adjust reports for a player depending on who turns in the grade, knowing that some guys grade higher than others do. A 50 on one scouts card may be the same as a 60 on anothers. Bavasi feels it is his responsibility to scout his scouts and adjust accordingly.
The M’s do have a “statgeek” on the payroll in Mat Olkin. Mat doesn’t have the influence in the organization that Bill James may have in Boston or their counterparts have in cities like Oakland or Toronto, but Mat provides consultation mostly in regards to pro scouting. Bavasi believes in the value of statistical analysis primarily at the upper professional levels and leans more towards scouting reports than performance as you get down to A-ball and the amateur ranks. The M’s do believe that there is a huge gap from Triple-A to the majors, which we feel may be a bit smaller than they do.
Overall, however, the M’s are essentially run by people who will use any means they can to make the correct decision. They’re not Ivy League graduates running algorithms to decide between Player A and Player B, but they are certainly open to new ways of evaluating players and are attempting to apply both scouting and statistical analysis to their decisions.
Is the team more interested in putting out a competitive product with nice guys than winning a championship?
This is probably the main criticism fans have of the organization, and its one that gets repeated a lot. It may have been true at one time, but from the perspective of the GM, it isn’t now. The days of bringing back players for sentimental reasons ended when the team lost 99 games last year. Bavasi’s mandate is to win ballgames, and if he has to trade a nice local kid for a guy who won’t be as popular with the media to improve the club, he’ll do it.
However, he did acknowledge that being a local icon will carry some weight in decision making processes. He understood why the team wanted to do whatever it took to make sure Edgar retired as a Mariner. Certain players earn the right to end their careers when they want to, in the uniform that they want to. Edgar was one of those guys.
What happened to the M’s vaunted young pitching surplus?
This was asked in a variety of forms. Bavasi felt like there was actually less pitching than he thought there would be when he took the job, but that they’ve also suffered some bad luck with the amount of injuries to hit their top pitchers. Having Nageotte, Blackley, and Soriano all lose a lot of development to injuries took its toll on the organization’s depth.
However, they do not feel that they have overworked their young arms. They hired Dr. Jobe and his team to work on studies to discover if there were any better ways to prevent arm injuries, and they were unable to find anything better than limiting innings. The organization will not let a pitcher throw more than 10 innings for every year he is old, including spring training, and no pitcher under 24 can throw more than 200 innings.
Also, interestingly, Bavasi pointed out that while they are always looking for clean mechanics, they realize its not always in a players best interest to be “fixed”. Some guys have great stuff with bad mechanics, but if you correct their mechanics, you also eliminate their stuff.
Finally, when asked about performance enhancing drugs and the need to account for them in evaluating players, Bavasi made a point that I’ve been pushing for quite a while as well; we’ve seen huge drops in velocity this year, and while everyone was talking about the sluggers taking steroids, people haven’t realized how many pitchers have been using. Velocity loss is one of the indicators that the M’s will look at when evaluating a pitcher, and you probably won’t see the M’s going after too many guys who used to throw 94 and are now hitting 88.
Why do the M’s keep acquiring shortstops?
With Morse, Betancourt, and Tuiasasopo, the M’s have brought three prominant shortstops into the organization in the past 12 months despite already having Adam Jones, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Oswaldo Navarro in the fold. The lower levels of the system are nearly overloaded with middle infielders.
The philosophy here is simple and yet complex; acquire the best possible players and challenge them to develop at all times. The best athletes often play shortstop at young ages (Gary Sheffield was a shortstop in the minors, for instance), then grow into other positions. The M’s certainly have a couple of guys playing SS in the minors who profile as corner guys, either on the infield or the outfield. However, they will not move them until they have to or they feel it will stunt their growth offensively to leave them where they are.
The second part of that answer is something that isn’t often considered, but the challenges of playing a demanding defensive position can hinder development of a hitter’s skills. Brandon Inge is a great example of a guy who improved by leaps and bounds once moved from behind the plate to third base, and the club wants to make sure that they aren’t harming a potential contributor with the bat by asking him to play a premium position. So, while we all expect Tui and Jones to end up at positions other than shortstop and have been mentioning them as outfielders in the major leagues, you likely won’t see those moves being made until there is simply not a roster spot for them at the level of play they need to be at or they’re offensive progress seems to have derailed. In other words, not this year.
What is the biggest focus for the team heading forward?
Starting pitching. The team feels that the rotation is the issue that needs addressing the most, and with a thin crop of free agent pitchers and the insane market for mid-tier arms that developed last year, you should expect the team to really press for starting pitchers when acquiring players. They would like another left-handed bat to hit with power in the line-up, but the priority is the rotation.
Also, there had been some talk about moving a couple of guys currently relieving into the rotation, but it can be very hard to convince a player who is comfortable in a certain role to accept a different role.
What do you guys think about the front office now?
When Pat Gillick retired, we wanted the team to bring in a GM who would remove a lot of the entrenched Gillick philosophies that we didn’t agree with (no star players, lack of value of the draft, emphasis on veterans), would blend traditional scouting with statistical analysis, understood the influences of Safeco Field on the performance of the team’s players, and would reshape the roster into a younger club with potential for improvement rather than hanging onto veterans til the very end.
Realistically, Bill Bavasi meets almost all of that criteria. The M’s have been terrible since he took over, and he’s certainly made some mistakes—when discussing the Carlos Guillen trade, he said “we can’t do that again”—but he’s also made some solid moves and laid a framework for developing an organization that is headed in a better direction than it was when he took over.
We don’t think Bill Bavasi is the best GM in baseball, and we’re not going to stop criticizing questionable moves simply because he was gracious enough to give us several hours of his time. However, Bavasi is certainly more enlightened and educated than we gave him credit for after the miserable first offseason. As weird as this will sound coming off 10 months of bad baseball in Safeco Field, I’m certainly happier today with the state of the organization than I was 20 months ago when Bavasi replaced Gillick as the team’s general manager.
There are things that we will disagree about with the front office and places we feel they could improve. But, overall, the club is headed in the right direction, though perhaps not as quickly as we would all like.