Atlanta as an example of youth over experience

DMZ · September 4, 2007 at 5:15 pm · Filed Under General baseball 

Atlanta’s long run of contention offers one of the best examples of continuous team building in modern baseball. While fielding contending teams (for purposes of this post, 1991-2005, when they won or placed second in their division every year), they also made choices to work young players they thought were ready into the lineup and pitching staff, sometimes letting veterans go and frequently breaking spring training with one or more rookies set to take starting jobs.

As just one indicator, I offer this: Braves players who placed in Rookie of the Year voting from 1991-2005.
Year, Name (Rank)
1991: Brian Hunter (4), Mike Stanton (8)
1992: Mark Wohlers (7)
1993: Greg McMichael (2)
1994: Ryan Klesko (3), Javy Lopez (10)
1995: Chipper Jones (2)
1996: Jermaine Dye (6)
1997: Andruw Jones (5)
1998: Kerry Ligtenberg (4)
1999: Kevin McGlinchy (6) (this one’s kind of a joke, though, he got 1 point)
2000: Rafael Furcal (1)
2001: no one
2002: Damian Moss (5)
2003: no one
2004: no one
2005: Jeff Francoeur (3)

Even taking out the relievers, that’s an astonishing run. Even arguing that the Rookie of the Year awards aren’t a particularly good indicator of talent, you can look at that list and see the names, and many of them provide examples of cases where they made a choice of talent over experience.

For instance, in 1996, their center fielder was Marquis Grissom, 29. Andruw Jones only played in 12 games, and didn’t hit. Then they had Kenny Lofton take the bulk of playing time in center in 1997 while they managed to get Jones in a 153 games between center and right (still didn’t hit much, played stellar defense) and that was the start of his career.

In the same year, they were starting to work Kevin Millwood in, and gave him a rotation slot in 1998 (and John Rocker debuted in the bullpen!). You can pretty much pick any year in that stretch, look for some young players age-wise, and hey – it’s Marcus Giles, who played about half time for two years and then in his first full season replaced veteran Keith Lockhart and went on to finish 18th in MVP voting and went to the All Star Game.

It’s not easy to run a youth movement while contending, and not everyone has a GM as good as the Braves do making those decisions. But the notion that contending teams should rely on veterans is belied by the long record of success of the Braves, who regularly chose youth and skill over experience and certainty, and found those young players pushing them towards division and league championships year after year.


21 Responses to “Atlanta as an example of youth over experience”

  1. dw on September 4th, 2007 5:40 pm

    I remember watching a Braves game a couple of years ago and there was some kid fresh from Richmond in the OF. One of their announcers (Sutton?) pointed out that whenever the Braves called a kid up, even if it was just for a cup of coffee, Bobby Cox always made sure the guy got playing time in and always tried to give the kid at least one start.

    It makes me sad when I think about how Hargrove and McLaren have underutilized Jones. With Cox, Jones would probably be playing 80% of the games and starting 40% of the time, vs. 10/5 with McLaren.

  2. Nick on September 4th, 2007 6:42 pm

    I, too, wish Adam Jones was in left field at least semi-regularly, but don’t forget that the Mariners run Betancourt and Lopez out there every day, and they aren’t exactly grizzled veterans. Also Felix, Morrow, O’Flaherty, Rowland-Smith and Feierabend are just pups.

  3. theraven on September 4th, 2007 7:06 pm

    #2 Yeah, but they only have Felix starting because they’ve really had to the past couple years. If they would’ve had some somewhat decent starters the last couple years I’m sure they wouldn’t have brought him up so soon.

  4. gwangung on September 4th, 2007 7:32 pm

    I, too, wish Adam Jones was in left field at least semi-regularly, but don’t forget that the Mariners run Betancourt and Lopez out there every day, and they aren’t exactly grizzled veterans.

    There weren’t exactly any other choices, either…

    I think what people are saying is that when given a choice between a talented rookie and a competent veteran, they’ll take the vet every time, even if the ceiling for the rookie is vastly higher than what the vet can give you.

  5. gk91 on September 4th, 2007 7:48 pm

    How much is this because the team wants to market the veterans to the casual fan?

  6. jimbob on September 4th, 2007 8:23 pm

    #5 — Exactly — As many have pointed out, Mariner marketing targets the casual fan. The Yankees have leveraged this approach, with great success financially, over the years even trotting out a 45 year old icon whose arm was falling off yesterday. Wholesale disposal of established veterans like Cleveland’s purge a few years ago risks demoralizing casual fans. Oakland just whacks ’em at All Star break if they don’t produce although this year is a mystery — maybe nobody’s left.

  7. DMZ on September 4th, 2007 8:47 pm

    There has never, ever been a case where a team cut an established veteran or multiple veterans, kept winning, and seen attendance go down.

    There are many cases where teams have kept veterans too long, started losing, and lost fans.

    Winning = more fans

    It’s that easy.

  8. jlc on September 4th, 2007 8:51 pm

    DMZ, thanks for taking the time to put this out. It’s seemed to me through the season that at the beginning of the year, the M’s management made their goal to have a better record than last year. Then when the guys played over their heads and somehow played their way into contention, the management had no clue how to take advantage of it.

    So they screwed up this year, and did a disservice to young players by not giving them experience in the bigs, putting us at a disadvantage next year. Not sure why somebody in the office didn’t look around a little at the Braves in particular, and some other teams that have managed to balance grizzle with peachfuzz.

  9. HamNasty on September 4th, 2007 8:59 pm

    A smaller and worse, but semi valid example would be when the Dodgers had 5 straight ROY winners. First two years they finished 6th and 4th, but then 1st(strike year) 1st and 2nd. Rookies don’t get coaches fired as much as bad talent gets coaches fired. Age and MLB service time should be about the 20th thing managers look at when it comes to playing time.

  10. Carson on September 4th, 2007 10:04 pm

    Winning makes everything else happen in baseball (and sports as a whole)?

    Team chemistry? See: April-June Yankees; then see: July-August Yankees.

    Attendance? Mariners in 01 and 02 = Best in baseball; 03 = 2nd best in baseball. Take a wild stab at 04-06. Yep, steady decline. 10th, 12th, 15th. And while they remain at 15th this year (takes a while for fans to buy into a product really being back), attendance is up 3k/g. If they somehow pull off a Wild Card berth, win some games, make some key additions in the off season, you will see attendance rise. There is no magic behind this.

    Fans not wanting to wield torches and chase John McLaren out of town? Win.

  11. strong silence on September 4th, 2007 10:06 pm

    There are many cases where teams have kept veterans too long, started losing, and lost fans

    2003, 2004, 2005 Mariners

    I think the Yankees of 1995 to present are another good example of promoting young players and having good success.

  12. Carson on September 4th, 2007 10:21 pm

    11 – Yes, but they have certainly made their fair share of big signings and trades instead of promoting. Usually for quality players though.

  13. Gomez on September 4th, 2007 10:44 pm

    Having Smoltz, Glavine and some dude named Maddux holding down most of the rotation sure helped.

    But it rings true: you can easily slide talented kids into various extensive roles, and they can help your team not just stay competitive, but contend. Some of the biggest stars in the NL East alone, Utley, Miggy Cabrera, David Wright… were once kids whose teams went ahead and gave their talented selves a chance to contribute. Who is to say the Mariners don’t have an impact talent like that on their 40 man right now? We’ll never know if they insist on playing Ibañez in LF everyday and only using the kids in blowouts.

    And the 1991 Braves ROY vote reminds me… did Dave ever get an answer on why Brian Hunter never tried to steal 1st base?

  14. DMZ on September 4th, 2007 11:11 pm

    Glavine’s 1988 seizure of a starting role in 1988 came at the cost of a couple of veterans in their 30s, and Smoltz in 1989.

    Maddux, awesomely, is a fine example of both: the Braves picked him up for 1993 during that long run, and at 27 Maddux replaced Charlie Leibrandt, who was 35 in 1993 and had a fine enough year.

  15. gwangung on September 4th, 2007 11:59 pm

    Having Smoltz, Glavine and some dude named Maddux holding down most of the rotation sure helped.
    But it rings true: you can easily slide talented kids into various extensive roles, and they can help your team not just stay competitive, but contend.

    Having the former allows you to do the latter.

    And doing the latter helps you create the former.

    Repeat. Lather. Rinse. Ring up those playoff games….

    (Hm. You’d think that more than a few baseball teams would figure that out. ).

  16. Mr. Egaas on September 5th, 2007 7:46 am

    Even to a lesser degree they do it all the time.

    They rocked Kelly Johnson this year instead of paying Marcus Giles the 4 million or so that he would have earned. Johnson was quite servicable.

  17. 1000N on September 5th, 2007 8:48 am

    Branch Rickey once pointed out that “it’s better to trade a player one year too early than one year too late,” so it’s clear that the notion of clearing out veterans to make room for younger players with higher ceilings is an old, well-established, successful tactic.

    For whatever reason, some franchises (e.g. Cubs, Orioles, and Mariners) seem perpetually to struggle with the concept. Edgar Martinez had been labeled a “can’t miss prospect” by Baseball America three years before the M’s actually gave him a chance.

    Sigh. . . .

  18. JMHawkins on September 5th, 2007 2:24 pm

    This is something I’ve been wanting to do for the league as a whole, but in the interests of time I did a quick “Mariners Only, Startes Only” version to prototype the idea.

    From 2000 to 2006, the M’s had 26 “starters” (as defined by Baseball-Reference) among position players. (these are the guys Baseball-Reference lists as “SS” or “C” etc for the year. Not perfect, but I was just looking to get a good sample, so I think it still works). Of those 26 players, 10 are now retired (Dan Wilson, John Olerud, Mark McLemore, David Bell, Rickey Henderson, Jay Buhner, Edgar Martinez, Brett Boone, Al Martin, Carl Everett – note, I’m not entirely sure of David Bell’s status, but he hasn’t played a game in 2007, so I’m counting him as retired).

    I then looked at B-R’s HOF Monitor number for the 10 retirees. Anything > 100 is a HOF caliber player. Of the ten, two (Rickey Henderson and Edgar Martinez) are HOF caliber. Two more (Olerud and Boom) are >50, which I semi-arbitrarily declare “star caliber”. Three more (Wilson, Buhner and Everett) are >20, which I’ll (again semi-arbitrarily) declare “regular caliber” (regular in the sense Dave uses it in the Future Forty).

    So, in a span of seven years, seven “regular starter or better” players retired from the M’s. That’s one per year. Every other year a “Star” caliber player retires. Every three or four years, a HOF caliber player retires.

    What’s all this have to do with the post? Well, when guys retire, they have to be replaced. An individual team can replace them via trade or FA, but the league as a whole is a closed system and needs to replace them by promoting “unproven rookies.” As Derek points out, teams like the Braves figure out how to do that. Signing FAs (top quality ones anyway) means you give up draft picks, so you’re essentially just outsourcing the “find a rookie” job to the teams you’re signing the FAs from, and getting charged a premium.

    If this holds for other team (and I suspect it does, at least within spitting distance), that means on average, a team needs to convert one “unproven rookie” into a “regular starter” per year, and every other year into a star caliber player. Every few years, a rookie needs to turn into a new HOFer. That’s just among the position players. Pitchers are another data set.

    And the thing is, that happens. All the time. Every year. Every HOF player was a rookie once. Every All Star was a rookie. Every “proven veteran” McClaren and Bavasi dote over (use whichever definition you prefer) was an unproven kid with no track record of Major League success once.

    I think the “oursourcing” analogy is the right one. They don’t know how to evaluate talent, so they outsource the job to others. Problem is, their outsourcing their talent evaluation to their competition.

  19. JMHawkins on September 5th, 2007 2:29 pm

    Argh, that’s (Olerud and Boone) among the “star caliber” guys, not (Olerud and Boom).

    And it should be “they’re” instead of “their” in the last sentence.

    I’ll gladly click on a “buy the site a comment editor” button.

  20. gwangung on September 5th, 2007 3:19 pm

    You know, that makes prima facie sense. You just CAN’T keep rolling out a team forever–time takes its toll. Always. And a new regular a year doesn’t seem to be a bad starting point for player development. If you don’t have one, that’s fine, but if you can”t find replacements for three, four years in a row, then I really think you’re in trouble…

  21. BobbyRoberto on September 5th, 2007 5:38 pm

    Just to show the contrast, here’s the same chart for the Mariners:

    Year, Name (Rank)
    1991: Rich DeLucia (5)
    1992: Dave Fleming (3)
    1993: Rich Amaral (5)
    1994: Bill Risley (T4)
    1995: no one
    1996: no one
    1997: no one
    1998: no one
    1999: Freddy Garcia (2)
    2000: Kazu Sasaki (1)
    2001: Ichiro (1)
    2002: no one
    2003: no one
    2004: no one
    2005: no one

    Considering Sasaki and Ichiro aren’t really rookies in the player-development sense, and Freddy Garcia didn’t come through the M’s system, they’re really going on a 12-year stretch of jack squat coming up through the minor leagues.

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