Last Wednesday, Nick Piecoro posted an excellent, excellent piece on where the D-backs are headed in terms of incorporating analytics into their baseball operations department. And as much as we’d like to reserve judgment on where the club is headed in building its new front office, it may be that the writing is already on the wall.
From Piecoro’s piece:
On a conference call Friday, La Russa talked about how he wanted the club to do more with metrics but then added that might come in the form of an entry-level hire, which, in the eyes of rival executives, suggested he doesn’t truly appreciate the impact a strong analytics department can have.
“If they put a kid or two in the back room, they’re going to be like a gerbil on a wheel — running but going nowhere,” one executive said.
I’m sorry, what? Entry level hire? An entry level hire?
Piecoro’s analysis of this issue is spot on, in my opinion. As Piecoro writes, “it’s not that being a cutting-edge organization is an absolute necessity, although it’s fair to wonder why a team would want to ignore huge swaths of information.” Is there a reasonable way to say “no, we think that information will make us worse” or “no, we think that information is misleading?” There shouldn’t be. So I really only have one thing to add to Piecoro’s analysis.
That is: even if sabermetrics will not be incorporated in a top-down fashion in the new front office, the team does need to hire an advocate for sabermetrics principles. To avoid the gerbil wheel, you need to give someone the power, the authority, and the opportunity to engage with front office decision makers. That should be part of it; otherwise, what’s the point of hiring anyone?
Earlier this year, I wrote a piece about why the D-backs should hire an analytics department. It’s all still valid, although it’s mostly about why the D-backs should hire a team, as opposed to one or two individuals. Boy, would I like it if the D-backs would engage with my reasoning there. But if I had a single wish for the organization, it would be to impress on Tony La Russa and Derrick Hall that hiring an advocate for analytics can’t hurt, but could help. La Russa is an incredible baseball man, but that doesn’t mean he knows everything knowable about baseball; nobody does (yet?).
In that piece, with reference to Towers comments about analytics:
When Towers says that the D-backs “look at that end of it as well,” who is he referring to? Is he saying that they farm out some work on some obvious projects, and they look dispassionately at an emailed document’s worth of results? What kind of help does Towers have for interpreting that information, for distinguishing between the vaguely useful and the truly compelling? Is it really Towers’s fault for not listening if the person doing the talking just wasn’t very persuasive?
The answer is yes, but only because hiring someone appropriately persuasive may have been Towers’s responsibility in the first place. It’s not just that the current front office may not really be listening, but it’s also not just that there’s nothing to hear. It’s that, in addition, you need the right person doing the talking, because an analytics department would always have the burden of persuasion. Which is as it should be.
It’s not hard. Decide that you might not know everything about how analytics can help a baseball team, and then decide to get someone who could convince you when convincing is called for. Just like La Russa is in place to help Ken Kendrick with questions like “how do I baseball,” a sabermetrics sherpa can only help the impending front-office-by-committee, regardless of who the next GM is.
I feel really shaky about the GM hiring process now, though. The only candidate from last week’s list that seemed to have any background in analytics was Yankees AGM Billy Eppler, but despite permission from the Yankees, Eppler declined an interview. That’s not great news.
But throw that news in the pot with the great mass of La Russa comments of late, and it seems like he and Derrick Hall aren’t even necessarily looking to be persuaded in this interview process. I’m really speaking out of school now, and I realize and apologize for that, but doesn’t is seem like they’re looking to fill a mold, rather than letting a specific person knock their socks off? With the possible exception of possible GM candidate Dave Stewart, there isn’t a lot of diversity in the types of men being interviewed.
Let’s try putting it differently. If you were a candidate for the GM position, and you had access to all of the information we have access to — including La Russa’s comments about sabermetrics — is that something you’d stress in the interview process? I mean if getting hired was your primary objective. People are only human, after all. I’m just not thrilled with this setup that has the hiring process looking like “have your eyes open to this, and we’ll have other people look at that.” It’s about having one’s own eyes open to everything, isn’t it? And the good thing about sabermetrics is, it measures itself. You can know with mathematical certainty just how certain you are.
Meanwhile, back on the ranch, the D-backs are 61-88. The funny thing is, this team did play a half-season of decent baseball; from May 1 to the end of July, it went 39-39. It seemed for a long time this season like the D-backs had a horrendous start to the season, and then regressed to their average level of play: average. But with Paul Goldschmidt on the shelf, the team has gone just 13-27 since August 1, the type of pace that even the worst teams find hard to maintain for an entire season.
Winning less than a third of its games since the beginning of August puts Arizona in a precarious position for the rest of the season. Should the team finish on a similar 4-9 pace, it will finish 65-97, tying the second-worst record in franchise history. Not great. The roster is not desolate, but the team does face a position more daunting than the one it faced in 2010.
Here’s another weird one: the team’s games played leader is Aaron Hill, with 129 (after he played just 87 last year). But the only other player with more games than Goldy’s 109? Miguel Montero, at 126. When was the last time you remember a catcher leading his team in games played? That’s just bizarre.
On to the links:
- READ THIS! Ok, just wanted to make sure I directed your attention to this link for the Best Coast Baseball podcast, featuring: Jeff Wiser! Jeff weighed in on how the D-backs could right the ship and the waves of prospects just arrived and on the way. After listening, I left thinking that no self-respecting D-backs fan could justify not reading some site called Inside the ‘Zona…
- Great interview from Zach Buchanan at AZ Central of Tony La Russa and Derrick Hall. Three really important tidbits there. One: regardless of the new GM’s strengths, the D-backs do plan to make sure analytics is incorporated into the front office (but that won’t result in a restructuring). Two: it’s not the next GM who will decide the fate of manager Kirk Gibson, but Tony La Russa. This comports with what Jeff and I have been thinking; they held onto Towers until it was the month in which a GM is least useful (September), and it only makes sense that they’d hold onto Gibson until the month in which a manager is least useful (well, a D-backs manager, anyway). Three: the D-backs plan to have a 2015 payroll of around $100M next year — which is a drop from the $112M Opening Day payroll in 2014. This has enormous implications on the 2015 season, because that effectively prices them out of any marquee free agent this offseason. We’ll return to this, as it changes a lot; the club divesting itself of Martin Prado looks a lot less like clearing space for a run at one of the top free agent starting pitchers, and more like getting the team back to its expected level. This will be a fun job for the new GM, won’t it?
- So Rangers AGM Thad Levine is also on the “let’s interview these guys” list in the GM sweepstakes, reports Nick Piecoro. Hey, if Levine will consider the job, I’ll be impressed, and if he takes it, I’ll be cautiously optimistic. As Piecoro notes, Levine isn’t exactly a sabermetrics partisan, but in the crowd the D-backs have assembled, he starts to look that way (is he the replacement for Eppler, along those lines?). When I first heard this, though, I was pretty confused. Not too long ago, we heard that the Rangers were thinking about moving President/GM Jon Daniels up the ladder, in part to make sure they could hold onto Levine by giving him the GM title. That could make the Rangers like one of the two Chicago teams: either the White Sox, who moved Kenny Williams to President and installed Rick Hahn as GM, or the Cubs, who hired Theo Epstein to head the club despite a fair amount of involvement in baseball operations with GM Jed Hoyer. My question is this: is working for La Russa really all that different? If Levine wouldn’t stay in Texas to adopt a “supervised GM” role, why would he take one in Arizona? It seems like we’re missing information here, because that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Either that’s not actually what’s happening in Texas, or maybe Levine isn’t really putting himself in the mix (hey, interviewing gives him some leverage with the Rangers).
- From this Buchanan piece, an update on Brad Ziegler’s successful surgery. Although as we noted on Friday, microfracture doesn’t actually grow cartilage. It grows some weird fake bone stuff that doesn’t work much like cartilage, but is still a lot better than bone-on-bone. Not only will Ziegler be behind a regular schedule in the spring, but if knee pain was responsible for his recent struggles, we could be looking at more struggles.
- Nice to hear about Patrick Corbin and David Hernandez in this Piecoro piece. A June prognosis is kind of too bad for Corbin, but let’s be realistic: he wasn’t going to throw 200 innings next year anyway.
- Just before press time, Bob Nightengale tweeted that Dave Stewart is the favorite in the GM race. Ken Rosenthal tweeted yesterday that Stewart would interview. Comports with everything else we’ve heard. Reading between the lines: Stewart must have felt pretty good about his chances to risk sending mixed messages to his clients. Probably, he called his clients and explained the special situation of working with La Russa, etc. But taking the interview probably does mean Stewart won’t be picking up more clients any time soon.
- Fox Sports Arizona’s Jack Magruder writes about the mystery wrapped in an enigma named Aaron Hill. Hill’s career has been so up and down, but the fact that we can’t tie the extended slumps and surges to anything concrete means we have no idea who Hill might be next year. This year, he wasn’t a very good player. I like the idea of a four-man, three-position time share in the infield next year (with Didi Gregorius, Chris Owings, and Jake Lamb), but one wonders not only what Hill will be, but what he’ll be if he doesn’t get more than semi-regular playing time. For his career, Hill has been above-average against lefties (106 wRC+) and slightly below average against righties (96 wRC+). Most often, he’s been a fair bit higher or lower than that on a year-to-year basis. But without a strong platoon split, there’s no reason that his rate stats would end up substantially better if he entered a time share.
- I love baseball, and you probably do too. If you’re struggling to remember why you’re still watching D-backs games, though, I encourage you to check out Jim McLennan’s excellent piece at AZ Snake Pit on why he still watches the D-backs. No editorializing; just go read it.
- Lastly, a very different kind of plug. At Beyond the Box Score, we ran an expansion draft simulation over the last couple of months (rosters locked in on July 28), and I was lucky enough to act as nominal GM of one of the two new teams (we’re based in Charlotte). I had a blast working on this, and we finally published our results last week. There’s a workup of the simulation and all of our picks in the draft, and my front office published a piece just on our team, the Charlotte Divide. You might recognize some of my pet issues and personal preferences there, but I think we did a great job in the land grab that expansion drafts are, drafting some pieces to make us competitive in the short term while setting us up for free agency and (especially) trades. Oh, and while Jeff Wiser’s Portland Beavers snagged Gerardo Parra (denying us Randall Delgado), the Divide snuck away with Daniel Hudson, who we plan to have throw about three innings about every third or fourth game. All of it baseball nerdery at its finest. And what made it all so fun was working with so many bright, engaging, outright talented people.
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