It’s finally happened: Nick Piecoro has reported that Diamondbacks General Manager Kevin Towers is General Manager no more. While the move could usher in a better future for the organization, its next moves will be even more critical than the firing itself.
It wasn’t all bad with Towers; his front office made a number of excellent minor moves, like the Paul Goldschmidt extension (which is not minor in hindsight), like the Josh Collmenter extension, and like the deal worked out with Matt Reynolds last offseason. AGM Billy Ryan may have had something to do with putting those kinds of deals together, and so I don’t think the evidence suggests that Ryan was part of the problem. But an organization’s fate is not made or destroyed on minor moves, and it was the major ones that Towers bungled. Bungled not just because the results turned out to be poor, but bungled because the method (of targeting player types instead of being more flexible) was poor.
As Piecoro put it in his piece: “Towers’ tenure has been marked by a slew of trades and player personnel moves that left many in the game scratching their heads.” That qualifies Piecoro for the Understatement of the Year Award, as we found earlier this season in an alternate-universe exercise that if all of the Towers trades were simply reversed, the roster would look a whole lot better. Had good moves have been made, the team could be in a totally different position.
As Jeff Wiser wrote two weeks ago, however, it’s not like Towers is solely to blame. In the wake of a report that managing general partner Ken Kendrick mandated the signings of Cody Ross and Brandon McCarthy, we’re left to wonder just how much of the damage done in the last three-plus years can be laid at the feet of Towers. From Jeff:
If Kendrick ordered the delivery of Ross and McCarthy, then backed the team into a corner of having to sell low on pieces like Upton and Bauer, what else has he had his hand in? To what level is he consulted with when deals are looking to be made? Is he qualified to be part of these conversations?
We may always wonder just how involved Kendrick was, but the hiring of Tony La Russa as Chief Baseball Officer seemed to be an effort to pull in someone who could actually play the role of policeman. That is why, in a site editorial just after the La Russa hiring, we praised the move. It seemed to us that CEO Derrick Hall may not have been equipped to supervise Towers and his staff — now we know that Kendrick needed a buffer, as well. But even at that time, we noted that the La Russa hiring could not be the last move if the D-backs ship was to be put back on a proper course.
The firing of Kevin Towers also cannot be the last move. Kendrick, Hall and La Russa now have before them the single most important decision for the D-backs in the short- and medium-term: the hiring of the next General Manager.
We strive to be a data-driven voice in D-backs discourse, but a swing all the way in the direction of the Houston Astros front office is not something for which I’ll advocate, and it’s not in the cards anyway. If Kendrick has anything to do with it, the D-backs will most likely aim for the middle; and in Kendrick’s world, the middle is somewhere between former GM Josh Byrnes (who relied on data too much, in Kendrick’s estimation) and now-former GM Kevin Towers (too little).
But here’s the thing: D-backs management doesn’t need to pick one or the other.
Different GM styles can be successful, but that’s partly a reflection of different realities for different clubs; teams like the Dodgers, Red Sox and Yankees can afford to make high-risk, high-reward moves not so much because they have the money to pay for them, but because they have the money to pay for the next move if they don’t pay off. The Diamondbacks are far from MLB’s basement in terms of payroll, but if they try to compete with a large-market mindset, they will fail because not all of their moves will succeed.
What’s left to a club like the D-backs, then, is really three types of moves. One is low-risk, high-reward; easier said then done, but those moves include inexpensive signings like David Peralta and international free agents, and in traditional free agency, it tends to mean only signing players who are up-the-middle guys (C, SS, 2B, CF) or starting pitchers, rather than corner guys or relief pitchers.
The second type of move is actually something that the D-backs have shown signs of being able to do well: not frittering away value on the margins. It means that if a Gerardo Parra emerges, he gets played; it means not getting stuck with relievers who can’t be sent to the minors, because they were signed to veteran deals; it means making sure that backup players actually have something to offer. It also means limiting plate appearances for backups altogether, if an alternative time-share opportunity emerges; this is something the D-backs are reportedly considering in having four players combine to handle the non-first base infield spots next season.
The third type of move: things that put an organization in a position to get lucky by design. That’s making sure that in the event of injuries, you have a player who can not only fill in, but use the opportunity to show definitively whether he can be more than a fill-in. It’s gambling on players who have a single (but perhaps serious) flaw, rather than one who is average or fringy in every aspect of his game. It’s being open to things like trying a pitcher out in relief with a lower arm angle to see if he can be an effective matchups reliever, instead of kicking him out of the organization entirely.
In other words, the D-backs don’t need to pick between old school and new school. They need to pick smart, and with all of the information available now, no one as immune to analytics as Towers should be considered “smart.”
Hey, I would love it if the D-backs hired someone like Paul DePodesta, who was ahead of his time as GM of the Dodgers, and who has made an impressive resume even more impressive by working in player development with the Mets. It would be great to hire anyone like DePodesta who already knows just how powerful data-driven analysis can be in the baseball arena. But that’s not necessary.
If the D-backs aren’t going to hire someone already convinced that analytics can breed more and more advantages as the years march on, they need to hire someone who can be convinced, and they need to hire someone who can do the convincing.
An analytics department can and should have the burden of persuasion; that was the premise of a piece I wrote a few months ago in favor of an in-house analytics department for the D-backs. As I explained then, analytics professionals themselves represent a high return on investment, because that investment is so small. Hiring a group instead of individuals means you’re able to hire people with different strengths, broadening the possible benefits and creating an opportunity for the sum of the analysts to be greater than their parts. But most of all, formalizing a department formalizes that burden of persuasion. I firmly believe that most good saber-ists police themselves, and are aware and up front about what they do and don’t know. But the bottom line is, if they can’t convince baseball ops decision makers, then maybe whatever they’re pushing shouldn’t be adopted anyway.
Analytics is only part of the picture of course, but it is part of the picture. And so my advice to Kendrick, Hall and La Russa as they contemplate the next step for the D-backs organization is this: be smart. And in this context, being smart means being open. Having a CEO and a CBO involved in macro baseball ops decisions, in addition to a GM and a GM’s staff, already makes for a committee approach to decision making. It’s OK to stock that committee with multiple kinds of experts. There is no limit to what a diverse group of smart, knowledgeable baseball folks can accomplish.
The Diamondbacks are taking an important step with the firing of Kevin Towers, but it’s what they do next that could determine the fate of the franchise.
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