The Elephants in the Neighborhood
I haven’t been following the M’s as much for the past few weeks. As most of you know, the M’s next-door neighbors won a championship with one of the most dominating Super Bowl performances in memory (and Super Bowl history is littered with dominating performances). For years, the Seahawks success – hell, even their mediocre 7-9 seasons – has highlighted just how bad the M’s have been, and how two different M’s GMs have tried and failed to right the ship. Those fans that still care about the M’s despairingly list just how *different* everything feels at the Clink, and how Seahawks GM John Schneider seems like Billy Beane supplied with a league-wide salary cap and actual clairvoyance.
Everyone’s weighing in on what “lessons” the Hawks have to teach the M’s, and so I thought I’d stop high fiving random people in the supermarket and see if there’s anything to glean from Schneider’s rapid rise to the top. Beware, there be tenuous analogies in these parts.
The Seahawks absolutely dominating defense is their calling card. Several teams in recent memory, from the Rays in 2008, the Giants in their 2 World Series years and the Tigers of last year seem like decent comps, but a closer look at each team shows that they just don’t fit. The Rays turnaround was led by Evan Longoria, who was not only an offensive factor, but a 3rd overall pick. The team transformed itself in part by trading disgruntled prospect Delmon Young for help at SS and SP Matt Garza. The Hawks, frankly, didn’t need an overhaul. The Giants won with great defense and pitching, led by Tim Lincecum, Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain and Buster Posey, so the home-grownness looks similar, but again, the closer you look, the more the analogy falls apart. Each of those Giants stars was a first-round pick; the team did a marvelous job of developing them, but it’s not like they came out of nowhere. The team was fortunate to hit on some big bets, and it paid off for a GM previously known more for his nearly pathological love of veteran grit than his draft acumen. The Tigers pitching staff put up the kind of stats that make a comparison to the Seahawks seem appropriate, but again, the way the Tigers were assembled is quite different. Verlander was homegrown, but Scherzer and Fister came in trade. Anibal Sanchez was first acquired in trade (a deal that also netted the Tigers their 2B), then kept on a free agent deal. The offense was headlined by perhaps the biggest trade haul in a generation and the roundest player to ever command a $200m free agent deal. None of this is to say that the Tigers bought their way to the pennant or got lucky – their trades are now the stuff of legend, and it’s the only thing that makes me hesitate before slamming the return they got on Doug Fister this off-season. It’s just not a great parallel to the Seahawks.
The Hawks built their secondary and linebacker core largely through the draft, and spent in free agency on edge rushers on the line. It’s an interesting strategy, almost the inverse of what I might expect given the admittedly little I know about advanced football analysis. But while the Hawks have one legitimate first-round guy that many teams coveted in Earl Thomas, the team is famously peppered with back-of-the-draft flyers and questionable reaches. NFL Draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. famously panned several of the draft classes that produced the Seahawks starting QB, a starting LB and more. Richard Sherman was a 5th round pick, Malcolm Smith a 5th rounder, and fellow LB KJ Wright was a 4th round selection. Sure, Marshawn Lynch was a highly-touted ex-first rounder when the Hawks acquired him, but he’d largely failed to live up to expectations in Buffalo, and honestly looked a step slow in his first season in Seattle (until a certain playoff game). The key to the Seahawks isn’t just that they’re largely home-grown, it’s that the guys they appeared to have signed/drafted for depth simply took over, and in the process helped cover what would’ve been high-priced errors.
So who in the baseball world does that sound like? To me it sounds like the St. Louis Cardinals, a team that played in the World Series in 2006* and 2013 (whoa), and whose recent success has been driven in large part by big contributions from unheralded young players. Allen Craig and Matt Carpenter went in the 8th and 13th rounds, respectively. Yadier Molina was a 4th round pick. The pitching staff had more of a draft pedigree, but Lance Lynn and Michael Wacha, while first-rounders, certainly never seemed like difference makers – they just seemed like safe, boring, back-of-the-round selections. Shelby Miller was a legitimate phenom (although he went 19th overall; we’ll comp him to Earl Thomas, who went 14th overall), but their vaunted bullpen was another collection of late-round flyers (Trevor Rosenthal somehow lasted to the 21st round of the 2009 draft. Kevin Siegrist went in the *41st* round).
It all looks sort of familiar, er, at least to me. But the problem comes when trying to extrapolate these lessons to out-of-sample teams. You can’t discern a concrete “lesson” here, other than something easy and circular like “draft awesome players that no one else thinks are awesome.” I’m not Gladwellian enough to distill this into a meme-ready soundbite, and I’m not sure what there is to distill. Be better than your competitors! Hidden talent is out there somewhere! At this point, we’re really just looking at two very different front offices that just seem to function a bit better than others. It’s not that they’re never wrong, but their depth is such that any errors can be quickly covered over.
This is the sports version of the “great man” theory of history – with powerful visionaries as shapers of national and international events, whose singular genius trumps the power of culture, economics, technology and the like. It’s a pretty out-of-date theory, but it seems to work here. I’m sorry, M’s, but there doesn’t seem to be much to learn from the Seahawks other than the importance of player development. That’s nice, but it’s essentially a truism, and there seems to be so little to glean from football player development – where it’s sometimes possible to be a prospect despite never having seen an actual football before in your life. So take heart in the fact that Seattle’s completely sports crazy right now. Be inspired by the Seahawks rise from team in disarray to presumptive favorites to champions in about four years. There aren’t any specific strategies to take back to Safeco, but it’s helpful to remember how quickly things can change.