The Seeds of Success

Dave · October 9, 2007 at 2:34 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

The four teams in the League Championship Series have been set – Cleveland vs Boston, Arizona vs Colorado. If every postseason tells a story, then so far, the story of 2007 is the dominance of the new school of baseball executives.

Theo Epstein is 33 years old. Josh Byrnes is 37 years old. Mark Shapiro is 39 years old. Dan O’Dowd is the old man in the room, coming in at 47 years old. All of them are running the team that gave them their first chance to be a general manager. None of them played an inning of major league baseball. And they all came from the same tree.

In 1998, John Hart was the General Manager of the Cleveland Indians, who were winning another division title in the middle of a mini-dynasty. His Assistant General Manger was a man named Dan O’Dowd, who had worked his way up through the ranks beginning in 1988. The Assistant Director of Scouting was Josh Byrnes. And the current Cleveland GM, Mark Shapiro, was the Director of Minor League Operations that year.

John Hart had three of the four GMs in the 2007 LCS working for him in the same front office that year. It gets better. When Dan O’Dowd was hired by the Colorado Rockies in 2000 to be their GM, he took Josh Byrnes with him, giving him an Assistant General Manager role. Byrnes stayed in that job for three years before taking an Asst. GM job with the Boston Red Sox, working for Theo Epstein – the GM of the other team alive in the 2007 LCS. After several years in Boston, the Arizona Diamondbacks handed him the reins of their organization.

Byrnes worked with Shapiro and O’Dowd, then for O’Dowd, and then for Epstein. These four organizations are all intertwined by the people who they have put in charge in the last decade. And they all have one singular goal in common – to gather as much information as possible and put it to use in the best possible ways in order to win baseball games. Cleveland, Arizona, Colorado, and Boston aren’t true “Moneyball” organizations – they’re Moneyball 2.0 clubs, the ones who have successfully integrated both scouting and statistical analysis into a cohesive organization and are leveraging every good piece of information they can find into a competitive advantage.

These are the organizations who won’t settle for time honored traditions. They won’t settle for doing things the way they’ve always been done. They question conventional wisdom and they look for empirical answers. They hire the smartest people they can find and let experience take a back seat to talent.

And they win baseball games.

This isn’t stats vs scouts – this is stats and scouts working together, building an organization that blends the best of both worlds. This is the blueprint for how a baseball organization should be run. And, whether the baseball men of the 20th century like it or not, this is where baseball is going. The John Hart family tree has branched out even beyond the Billy Beane family tree – the Pirates just hired Neil Huntington from the Indians, and Shapiro’s right hand man, Chris Antonetti, can essentially pick whatever job he wants whenever he decides to run a franchise. With Andrew Friedman as something of a second cousin down in Tampa along with Kevin Towers and Doug Melvin as the crazy uncles over in San Diego and Milwaukee, this is no longer a cute theory about how the Oakland A’s are winning with a small payroll. This is the 21st century of baseball management.

If you’re rooting for an organization that isn’t adapting to the changing face of how baseball teams are run (and if you’re reading this blog, you probably are), expect 2007 to be the norm. The good organizations are going to win a lot of baseball games, and the people who rely on analysis that was handed down to them from 1970s will sit at home in October, wondering which free agent pitcher they can overpay to try to save their jobs.


124 Responses to “The Seeds of Success”

  1. Donald P. on October 10th, 2007 3:52 pm

    Great article… That is amazing at how young all these guys are… Its because the old ones like Steinbrenner are outta touch with reality. Imagine if they hired me at 24, we would be a dynasty until I got old…er 40.

  2. Dayve on October 10th, 2007 4:11 pm

    Depressing. Sad, true and depressing. Even more depressing will be watching Asdrubal Cabrerra through the rest of the playoffs.

  3. Doc Baseball on October 10th, 2007 4:27 pm

    WOW — if Peter Gammons is getting it (or at least is plagiarizing Dave), can Lincoln, Armstrong, Bavasi be far behind? Perhaps there is hope…

    [long link]

  4. galaxieboi on October 10th, 2007 5:01 pm

    I apologize for this comment not contributing substantially to the discussion, but [deleted, does not contribute substantially to the discussion]

  5. Oly Rainiers Fan on October 10th, 2007 6:53 pm

    93: results-based? skewed by strength of division given unbalanced schedule? skewed by payroll $. skewed by number of critical injuries encountered by a roster over a given year?

    don’t get me wrong; i think it would be a fascinating exploration, but one that would require more than 1 years’ worth of data and perhaps, following a team or two’s transformations from one type of organization into another in order to more accurately isolate what’s really happening before attributing credit. Also, if the organization can be categorized at the major league level, does it also follow that it’s the same approach used in their minor leagues and so, would that have any relationship on number of home-grown prospects etc. Just speculating, and no, no plans to do any real work. (got enough on my plate)

    94: I loved Asdrubal Cabrera as well, and thought of him often this season while being tormented by having to watch Oswaldo Navarro instead.

  6. joser on October 10th, 2007 7:03 pm

    ESPN weighs in today with “Asdrubal Cabrera, 21, has been a key figure in the Indians’ resurgence. ”

    Tim Kurkjian just loves him.

    Choice quote:

    Cabrera is absolutely terrific making the double play, just another way the Indians have upgraded their defense. He is a natural shortstop playing second base. One scout said Cabrera reminded him of Detroit’s Carlos Guillen “with more range. He’s a very calm player.”

    Wow, so can you imagine an infield with both Carols Guillen and Asdrubal Cabrera? How great would that be? But it would be really expensive to acquire players of that caliber — and no team would be lucky enough to grow both of them. Of course, if you did (because, I don’t know, the goose laid the golden egg and puppies and rainbows fell from the sky), you certainly would hang onto at least one of them.


  7. jlc on October 10th, 2007 7:42 pm

    The Mariners have shown this season that they aren’t paying attention to what people are writing/analyzing about the M’s. Everybody knows the gory details. Personally, I appreciate the continuing excellent writing/analysis that comes through USSM, but we all know it won’t change the M’s management’s mind.

    The wider national media (and baseball people behind the scenes) are picking up on the shocking ideas that youth can serve and that information is your friend. Hopefully, Bavasi, Lincoln, Armstrong–even one of their wives–will start reading and listening and connect the dots. I’m afraid that we’ll be here, frustrated, until all the self-evident and stat/scout backed facts become baseball’s new conventional wisdom. And then we’ll still be rebuilding, which is even more expensive when you’re among the last to the hardware store.

  8. eponymous coward on October 10th, 2007 10:01 pm

    It’s not about maximizing profit, that’s not what I said… it’s about having a goal of being profitable “every year”, which mandates, in his mind, spending the magic amount that keeps people in the seats.

    Er, so isn’t the best way to be profitable every year to pursue a strategy that maximizes profits? Also, I’d like to point this out if we’re going to go by Lincoln’s public statements that his goal ALWAYS is to run a profit, every year:

    Q: Speaking of perceptions, you’ve always been a strong advocate of a balanced budget. Why are you willing now to take an operations loss in 2005?

    A: There is a perception that we have some kind of static business model that never changes regardless of circumstances. That’s not the case. If we’re going to achieve the objective, there are times when we have to consider taking a loss. It’s not something we look forward to, and we’ve had seasons where we’ve made a profit and maintained a high payroll. Every season is different. We don’t operate with a model that never changes.

    I’ll agree with you on INEFFICIENT ownership, though. That’s plainly obvious.

    Yes, they want to run a profit. However, they’re willing to spend within reasonable limits- and to be blunt, it’s NOT the money that’s the problem; it never really has been. I can point to umpteen playoff teams the last 5 years who’ve spent less than the M’s in a particular year, and if it was all about the Benjamins, we’d be discussing the umpteenth Yankee World Championship in a row in a few weeks. It’s the organizational mindset that shapes HOW they spend the money that’s the problem. They could easily have the exact same goals as you ascribe (“we’d like to turn a profit every year and get as many regular season wins as we can while doing it, and we’ll let the playoffs take care of themselves”), but if the decision-making process was, oh, based in something other than near complete contempt at the last 20 years of sabremetrics and worship of tired old baseball nostrums (veteran leadership, chemistry, intangibles), we’d be just fine.

  9. Mat on October 11th, 2007 12:41 am

    I can point to umpteen playoff teams the last 5 years who’ve spent less than the M’s in a particular year, and if it was all about the Benjamins, we’d be discussing the umpteenth Yankee World Championship in a row in a few weeks.

    We could be talking about how this is the 13th straight season that the Yankees have made the playoffs, though. Going by runs scored and runs allowed, you can make a pretty good case for the Red Sox and Yankees being the two best teams in baseball this year.

    I agree with your point that the Mariners could be doing more with the money that they have, but we shouldn’t marginalize the advantage that a smart team with a large payroll has over a smart team with a low payroll. (Or that a dumb team with a large payroll has over a dumb team with a low payroll.)

  10. John in L.A. on October 11th, 2007 2:00 am

    108 – “Er, so isn’t the best way to be profitable every year to pursue a strategy that maximizes profits?”

    You’d think. But you’re engineering it the right direction. If you go the other way around, it is not.

    Why is “year” important? Why isn’t “maximize profits” enough? What do you gain by putting your profit-loss in the confines of one year segments?

    It’s a very limiting and inefficient way to run an organization.

    “Also, I’d like to point this out if we’re going to go by Lincoln’s public statements that his goal ALWAYS is to run a profit, every year:”

    Ah yes, Guess he didn’t like the reaction to his earlier frankness.

    Which is a pretty funny itself. The infamous first interview, I believe, was with Forbes. Those are his boys, that’s his environment. It probably never even occurred to him that what he said wouldn’t appeal to those of us who look at baseball as more than a business.

    Which is a bigger conversation on whether or not baseball is more than a business?

    I say yes. Lincoln would probably say… “I’m sorry, I don’t understand the question. What’s more than a business? Two businesses?”

    “and to be blunt, it’s NOT the money that’s the problem;”

    Who said it was? It plainly is not. That was never my point.

    And yes, they absolutely could be a good team with the bad management styles of L and A… the same you can say that they could still be a good team even with (fill in the blank). But why play with a handicap?

    But I think we agree on the ways they mishandled things, and I agree with you that those problems are largely independent of the stuff I’m talking about.

  11. feingarden on October 11th, 2007 7:37 am

    I’ve been wanting to make this post for a while now, and maybe this is the right thread for it.

    While I’m a firm believer in the stats approach to building a winning team and share the general frustration shown around here with the Mariners’ general disdain for obvious statistical trends, I also think that there is a disconnect between the way we see the team and the way that the M’s see the team. It all comes down to one word that has already been mentioned in this thread: “Business”

    It seems logical that the best way to make money with a baseball team would be to win games, and there’s abundant evidence that a statistical approach to the game can help you win. But I think that the M’s are proving the assumption incorrect. I think that you can make a baseball team a successful business, and even (as generally agreed) more than just a business without taking the statistical approach.

    The reason for this, I think, is because the people who pay for tickets are not as influenced by winning as we (the stats-oriented people) are. They’re after that “more than a business” part, that intangible feeling of a good time at the ballpark and they’re able to get that feeling from other aspects than just the win-loss record. A case in point would be Willie Frickin’ Bloomquist and the love-on that the city seems to have with him. Local boy makes good. Great press, and the fans who clamor to have him play will pay to see him. Doesn’t matter if he’s the worst utility player in the league or not, or that the manager uses him in the worst statistical way possible, or that he costs the M’s 5 wins a year. Joe Lunchpail, swayed by the local media, doesn’t know, doesn’t care, and can’t be convinced by mere numbers when he knows that Willie is a good guy who tries hard.

    It takes thinking to make sense of the stats (yes, even when they’re as obvious as Sexson’s batting average) and Joe Lunchpail doesn’t have time to think about baseball, he just wants to watch it and have a good time. Grit, hustle, and (gasp!) team chemistry are meaningful quantities to him, things that he understands and can identify with. It’s easier to explain “Willie always tries hard” to his kids than it is to drag them through park-adjusted OPS. Humans are a lazy bunch, and Joe just wants to relax, enjoy the game, and have a nice cold beer (Mmmm…. beeeeer), not tax his neurons with number crunching.

    And his ticket money counts just as much as yours and mine. (Well, more than mine, actually, since I’m 1700 miles away, but you get my point.)

    While I hate the way the team is being run, I find that I’m forced to grudgingly admit that the FO is not entirely stupid and may in fact be quite good at what they are paid to do, which is to keep the business profitable. Yes, they spend more money than they should and get fewer wins, but every time they bring in an expensive free-agent with a well-known name and a strong probability of underachieving they’re playing to Joe Lunchpail and his buddies and irritating the hell out of those of us who like math and wins. I don’t have access to their marketing data (I used to work for a marketing company but I got better), but I’d suspect that the vast majority of paying customers think Richie will work through his slump and that Willie’s attitude is a huge benefit to the team, and that the M’s are good entertainment.

    And there’s the point. The M’s are entertainers. More than a baseball team, the Seattle Mariners are an entertainment business and a fairly successful one so far. Even for those of us who aren’t afraid of math and have some notion of what xFIP is all about, they’re still entertaining to watch, bitch about, and commiserate with each other over. Even for those of us who don’t like the results, as long as we’re talking about them, generating buzz, and buying the occasional Ichiro! jersey or team hat, they have succeeded in entertaining us.

  12. Pete Livengood on October 11th, 2007 9:03 am

    feingarden – You’ve made some good arguments, and this has been a good discussion, but I’m not sure I can go along with everything you’ve said here. While your comments about the average fan, “Joe Lunchpail” may well be true, that doesn’t mean it is true for those who run the team. It isn’t an either/or proposition, and just because a sizeable portion of their market – even a large majority – choose to ignore the more advanced statistical side of the game doesn’t mean the team should or does.

    Now, this team does ignore advanced statistical analyses for the most part . . . but I think it does so for reasons other than business. Or at least, to the extent that business is responsible for that, it is because that side of the team is so much stronger than the baseball operations side that the wants and needs of the business side overwhelm those on the baseball side who might want to employ advanced metrics to the detriment of business-side faveorites like Willie, Raul, etc.

  13. msb on October 11th, 2007 9:31 am

    Schuerholz is stepping down

  14. lokiforever on October 11th, 2007 11:23 am

    Maximizing profits over the long term versus ensuring a profit (however small /large) every year are two different strategies. The latter is for the risk averse. Some would rather see a $1 million every year for 5 years than a $10 Million profit only in year 5.

  15. Rusty on October 11th, 2007 11:40 am

    I cry “FOUL”!

    Jerry Crasnick was out of ideas to write about on ESPN so he scavenged USSM for this storyline.

    Click: HERE for vultured column.

    But they say, imitation is the highest form of flattery, or something like that.

  16. gwangung on October 11th, 2007 11:54 am

    re 114

    You know….I don’t think we’re disagreeing much on the broad strokes….only on the very fine details….

    And it strikes me that the two strategies described, one is for corporate managers, and the other is for entrepreneurs and VCs.

    It’s not a coincidence that the past two Mariner CEOs (Ellis and Lincoln) strike me as more managers than entrepreneurs….

  17. todda70 on October 11th, 2007 11:54 am

    From Jason Stark’s ESPN column today – – Let’s hope the M’s front office reads this.

    “Everything you used to think you knew about October was wrong.


    Defunct. Inapplicable. Flat out misguided.


    Think about the three fundamental rules of October as we used to know them:

    * The team with the most postseason experience usually wins.
    * The manager with the most postseason experience usually wins.
    * The team with the biggest payroll usually wins.”

    Pretty cool stuff.

  18. msb on October 11th, 2007 12:12 pm

    #115– obviously it’s the story of the moment– there is anopther link to a different take in #99

  19. unkrusty on October 11th, 2007 12:23 pm

    One of my favorite images of the post-season so far was game 2 in Cleveland, Mark Shapiro in the stands, patiently explaining, one would assume, some finer baseball point to his adorable son. Hire that kid!!

  20. eponymous coward on October 11th, 2007 1:37 pm

    Again: the Seattle Mariners have made less in terms of operating income over the last few years than the Cleveland Indians.

    So I think even the propositions that

    – they manage the team PRIMARILY with an eye towards annual profit and
    – they’re pretty good at this

    don’t really hold up. I think it’s reasonable to take Lincoln et. al. at their word: their TWIN goals are competitiveness and profit, and they like to demonstrate the former by making sure the payroll is in the top 10, while not abandoning the latter unless dire circumstances ensue (see: 2004). They just suck at understanding what makes a team truly competitive, and have a bit better idea on how to run a balance sheet.

    You have to remember the history current ownership is a successor to: 15 years under mownership that was either undercapitalized and looking towards the door pretty quickly after becoming owners (the Danny Kaye or Jeff Smulyan days) or just plain cheap and out to extract maximum profit for minimal investment in payroll (Argyros), and even during the mid-90’s, salary considerations were part of how the team was run- the Tino+Nellie trade, for instance (which, in retrospect, was a trainwreck- we traded two good players for two ones nowhere near as good- Tino actually compares decently to some guys in the HOF, though he doesn’t belong in there any more than George Kelly does).

    Armstrong certainly remembers those days- he’s a holdover from the Argyros years. So I think part of what informs and guides management philsophy is remembering crowds of 7,000 in a cavernous concrete dome, and thus their desire to be “competitive” is quite sincere, from both a business and personal perspective. Baseball isn’t much fun in an empty stadium with a team where you KNOW the ownership is basically giving up on the season in April in order to make sure they get fat checks from MLB’s TV contracts and revenue sharing, and it’s rather sad when you know your boss can’t wait to cash in the good young players in trade for some more kids once they get expensive.

    This also might help explain why the M’s keep guys who are “faces of the franchise” around- they had to TRADE Langston, Moore, Hendu, Owen, Cruz, and even Tino- not for talent reasons, but because they couldn’t afford them. I imagine a feeling of “Gee, we can keep guys like Edgar, Wilson, Willie and Raul around now- isn’t that nice?” underlies some things too.

  21. John in L.A. on October 11th, 2007 3:20 pm

    121 – EC, I don’t think you get my point, you keep arguing past it. None of what you are saying addresses the distinction I’m making.

    And I agree that the team is generously bankrolled and poorly run.

  22. scottg02 on October 12th, 2007 1:47 am

    Excellent post Dave. I am a huge fan of the Indians, especially for their implementation and use of DiamondView. They’ve stepped it up and its proven to work now, I wish the Mariners would develop a similar system. Clearly, one does not need to be a genius to know its the way to go.

  23. scottg02 on October 12th, 2007 1:53 am

    By the way, on the subject of the Indians, Antonetti, and Diamondview, this is old but an absolutely excellent read.

    This if from 2003, but it is why they are where they are now.

  24. joser on October 30th, 2007 4:27 pm

    You may be able to make a losing team a successful business (as several teams have shown), but I think there’s abundant evidence that that isn’t the strategy the team is following: they’ve spent far more than they needed to the past few years given that they could’ve achieved a losing team with more profits if they hadn’t spent so much on Sexson, Beltre, etc. Simply tearing down and rebuilding with a bunch of kids (which they can market just as effectively as any veteran player) would’ve earned them more profits if winning didn’t factor into it. As I pointed out in a comment in a previous thread Cleveland is spending far less in payroll for each fan who is attending games — and the M’s, who almost certainly have a better cost structure thanks to the stadium and concession contracts, would make more money if they had rebuilt with kids like Cleveland has. And, incidentally, they might still be playing games in October too (sometimes you can have your cake and eat it too).

    It’s also not at all clear that the Mariners are going to remain profitable (or as profitable) if they continue with their “not necessarily winning” strategy (if indeed that’s what it is): attendance has gone from #1 in baseball five years ago to #16 in 2007, and that plunge looks to continue. Cleveland plunged further during their rebuilding process, and remains lower, but they’re spending far less… and now they’re winning, too, which is bound to help attendance next year.

    No, I’d say the M’s want to win games and the division, and their “lunchpail” fans do too, and when they don’t the fans stay away and the team spends a lot more money, both of which impact their bottom line.

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