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Data from the 2015 season indicates that the major league organizations most committed to sabermetrics are also the most successful between the baselines. The contrast between clubs that are believers and those that are nonbelievers is so dramatic it’s hard to conclude the correlation is a coincidence.

But if you don’t trust the numbers, believe the stampede.

With the standings and common sense staring them in the face, organizations that have been sabermetric skeptics are ditching their doubts and joining the analytics party. That trampling you hear is the sound of major league clubs rushing as fast as they can toward young, analytic-minded front offices.

Every day, the white-collar fast break away from antiquated baseball is in the news:

  • Atlanta hired John Coppolella (37) as GM;
  • Boston hired Mike Hazen (39) as GM;
  • Cleveland restructured its organization to make Chris Antonetti (41) president of baseball operations, Mike Chernoff (34) general manager and Derek Falvey (32) assistant general manager;
  • The LA Angels hired Billy Eppler (40) as GM;
  • Milwaukee hired David Stearns (30), now the youngest GM in baseball;
  • Oakland promoted David Forst (39) to the role of GM;
  • The Phillies are still looking, but owner John Middleton has made clear his desire for an analytical GM;
  • Seattle hired Jerry Dipoto (47), a strong advocate of analytics and the role they play in roster building; and
  • Toronto hired Mark Shapiro (48) as their president of baseball operations

The lesson is loud and clear.

And it’s delivered by gigaflops and teraflops, not gramophones. With one or two exceptions, major league organizations are abandoning dated strategies of the past. Nostalgia for 2005 isn’t a successful operating principle.

When it comes to the front office, intellectual firepower is the currency of winning baseball. It’s a new field on which to compete. Baseball organizations, like other businesses, are searching for young, driven, credentialed hot shots to make sense of the oceans of new data that have become available to every team in the past couple years.

Improving an organization through a stronger analytics department is inexpensive compared to signing free agent players. For example, each of the 10.2 innings that Kevin Gregg pitched for the Reds cost the club $147,000. Enough to pay salary and benefits for a raw data rock star. If instead, the club had hired 10 high-powered, full-time analysts – and listened to them – surely it would have paid for itself by avoided misspending that particular $1.5 million.

The Houston Astros front office has been described as resembling a consulting firm - full of bright, eager, young, Ivy Leaguers. General manager Jeff Luhnow has surrounded himself not only with baseball experts, but also engineers, consultants, data scientists and a physicist.

The Los Angeles Dodgers recently advertised for a Research & Development Data Scientist. Among the qualifications: A PhD in Computer Science (Machine Learning), Statistics, Operations Research or related field from a top-tier university; minimum of five years work experience in mathematical, statistical and predictive modeling (optimization, statistics and machine learning); expertise in mathematical and statistical programming.

In addition to skewing young and analytical as fast as possible, major league teams are strengthening their brainpower by hiring additional baseball executives. For example, several organizations have added the title of President of Baseball Operations or Senior Vice President of Baseball Operations.

Instead of one person, a general manager, running the entire baseball operation, front offices often now have two or three people leading the club. The Chicago Cubs hired Theo Epstein (41 today) as President of Baseball Operations and Jed Hoyer (41) as Executive Vice President and General Manager. The Red Sox have a President of Baseball Operations, Senior Vice President of Baseball Operations and a General Manager.

“If you look back over the last 10 years, the role and responsibilities in baseball operations have changed,” said Chris Antonetti, Cleveland’s President of Baseball Operations and former GM. “The job has become a little bit more complicated. There are more people to manage, more systems to manage, a lot more information to work through.”

The Dodgers rebooted their front office last October by hiring Andrew Friedman (39), formerly of Tampa Bay, to be their new President of Baseball Operations. They brought on Farhan Zaidi (38, PhD in Economics from Berkeley) from Oakland to be General Manager and former GM Josh Byrnes (45) to be Senior Vice President of Baseball Operations.

“In addition to keeping track of all your players, coaches and scouts, there’s all this new information for every single one of them,” says Dodgers President and CEO Stan Kasten. “So there’s a need for more specialization and division of labor than there’s ever been. There’s clearly a need for more people and systems and hardware and analysts. Even if you don’t like it, your competitors are using it and you’re going to fall behind if you don’t.”

“Employing three de-facto general managers has allowed the Dodgers to push creative boundaries this season,” wrote Alex Reimer for Forbes. “It’s unlikely they would’ve been able to pull off a three-team, 13-player trade at the deadline if they didn’t have three decorated executives working the phones.”

How about the Reds? You may be surprised to learn they also have a President of Baseball Operations and a General Manager.

Both positions are held by Walt Jocketty (64).

23 Responses

  1. WVRedlegs

    WJ is too busy holding down both positions. Wasn’t it about this time last year that WJ said he had put at the top of his list of things to do, was to go out and obtain higher OBP hitters for the Reds. Since that infamous declaration, WJ has brought in Marlon Byrd, Chris Dominguez, Brennan Boesch, and Adam Duvall. He did hit on Suarez though. He is doing too much of President of Baseball Operations and not enough of General Managing. By doing both jobs, he is treating each one as a part-time job. The Reds need better than this.

  2. jamesgarrett

    Walt is clueless on how to build a roster.Using data to do most of the work would be too hard for him to comprehend.I am sure he is a good guy and has had success along the way but come on resistance to change is killing the Reds.Good grief Bob get with it and show you are willing to do whatever it takes to rebuild this club.

  3. redslam

    I do worry a little bit that people start to think of “older” executives as simply NOT being stat-savvy, similarly to how the tech/silicon valley people look at people over 30 (i.e., impossibly out of date and non-technical).

    However, there simply is no question about being data intelligence committed – what is more stunning really is the fact that baseball, the PINNACLE of sports and statistics, took so long with so much money at stake.

    • Victor Vollhardt

      Young is fine and it should carry a lot of weight in hiring practice—IF it comes with previous experience in the field that your are hiring for. Many that are being hired are short in that qualification. Before we sign off on all these hires —lets see where we are at in two or three years.. Also it would be fun right now if somebody listed the baseball jobs that these hires have held as opposed to where they went to school and degrees earned. A very qualified person Kim Ng continues to sit on the sidelines She is young and held just about every baseball job (club and league level) that there is.

    • Victor Vollhardt

      For all of those on this site who comment on age,front office, manager’s ability and analytics—Please go to the LATimes website and put in the search feature “Bill Plaschke” (he is the Times leading sports writer) and read his 10/16/15 column. One of his points (but read the whole piece to be fair) “the two guys in the front office are considered to be some of the smartest in baseball–but can they put together a team?” Coming after a tough loss and after spending 300 mil. it may be sour grapes—but it is an ongoing story in LA and has been for a while.

  4. Peter Pond

    Some more data left out:

    Boston just fired their Pro-analytics GM after finishing dead last 2 years in a row even though their payroll is one of the top 5 in MLB. He was replaced by 59 years-old and very old-school Dave Dombrowsky. Talk about wasting money.

    Super SABR SD GM AJ Preller, once called a “Rock Star” at the beginning of 2015 for his trades and analytics, finished the season with a 74-88 record, 18 games behind. Perhaps some lessons on trading from Uncle Walt are due.

    The Astros, a total media embarrasment last season with the kids drafted and later with the Hackers. Perhaps Luhnow missed on the “change your password class”. 🙂

    All and all, none of these fine young men carry a ring as a GM other than the ones given by their spouses or their graduation rings. Jocketty has 2 world series and settle the table for the 2011 Cards.

    • Nick Carrington

      Peter loves him some straw-man arguments. No one here has ever said that analytics are the only part of the winning equation. There are clearly other factors. I wouldn’t call Preller an analytics darling either. Most of his moves were panned by the analytics community.

      • Nick Carrington

        You are reading something from 2010. When he got the job, he made big moves that got mixed reviews at best in the analytical community and weren’t really in line with analytical thinking. Adding big salaries and guys that can’t play defense isn’t exactly the calling card of saber guys.

  5. Chuck Schick

    If the Reds created the best analytics department in sports would it help them? Perhaps…but as long as they take a ” year by year, fill in the gaps with what we can afford” approach then it doesn’t matter.

    Proprietary data, mixed with an unwavering commitment to create an organization that consistently produces MLB caliber players is their only realistic path to sustained success. Signing guys off the scrap heap so you can win 76 games instead of 64 isn’t going to beat the Cardinals or Cubs.

    The approximate 6 million spent on Marquis, Gregg and Byrd added no value…..that money could’ve been spent on additional minor league instructors, nutritionist, etc. and saved them millions in the future. Until they alter the focus from caring only about today to building a player development machine nothing will change

  6. ncmountie1

    Can someone provide the “general” duties, understanding it can change from club to club, for these 3 titles– President of Baseball Operations, Senior Vice President of Baseball Operations and a General Manager?

    • Victor Vollhardt

      like most school districts–“-we need better teachers (and more of them) ” but most continue to make administrative staffs larger and larger. This ,of course, makes it harder to pin the blame on someone when something goes wrong—-same for baseball organizations.

  7. jamesgarrett

    Facts are numerous about Walt’s strengths and weaknesses.My question is would you want the guy that’s responsible for creating this mess to continue being in charge?If you think so then why do you think he can fix it?Please lets not talk about money constraints and injuries as excuses.He knows about the money and injuries happen to every team.Bottom line Walt failed or we wouldn’t hit rock bottom with 98 losses this year.Even the best get fired because its a what have you done for me lately business.Time for him to go.

  8. ArtWayne

    Crucial to dysfunctional status at the present is our dumb approach to the game of baseball during the early years of this century. Looking to Griffey Jr as the savior of the franchise when ownership and management should have known he was trouble because of his age, injuries and attitude. Number two, drafting another Griffey in Bruce. We could have drafted Stanton in the ’07 draft but outfield was not our big need because we had Bruce tearing up the minors. Third, hiring an unknown general manager in Krivsky and a known loser in Dusty. What does this say for our present collapse? Any organization pays if there is lack of leadership. The opposite could be said for the construction of the Big Red Machine in the ’70s. We were thin on talent in the ’60s but managed to develop a trio of good ball-players in Nolan, Rose and Perez, picked up a great management team in Howsam and Sparkey in ’70. We were headed for the “Age of Aquarious”. Traded and developed Tolan, Billingham, Foster, the Hawk, Geronimo, Griffey, Sr, Norman, Gullett, Conception, Helms, May, Morgan, etc. ’75 and 76 were unbelievable.
    Then we started doing dumb stuff like trading Perez, Hiring Wagner as General Manager and firing Sparkey as manager. We put up a great year in ’90 but after that dumb stuff returned with a vengeance and here we are today with only seven major-league, proven players in Mesaraco, Votto, Phillips, Cozart, Frazier, Chapman, and Suarez.

    Our management team is weak at the moment. We have drafted guys who can hit the ball out of sight and throw 95 mph but have trouble relating to what it takes to be a major leaguer. WJ is only batting 50% on trades and Brian doesn’t have what it takes, yet, to be a successful manager.

    • Chuck Schick

      1. Bashing the Griffey trade is the ultimate in revisionist history.

      2, When Jay Bruce was one of the best, if not the best, prospect in baseball in 2007,the Reds somehow should have known that Stanton would be better? No one in 2007 would have known that.

      3.Krivsky was unknown,…..so was Sparky Anderson. Krivsky put most of the pieces together for the 2010-2013 Era of Good Feeling.

      4. Dusty took the Giants to Game 7 of World Series and the Cubs farther than they had gone in 60 years. If he’s a known loser then who do you consider a winner?

      5. Bob Howsam made some great moves……he’s an all time great….but, after 1970, he also drafted poorly and despite being one of the highest revenue teams at the time he refused to participate in the first year of free agency….. and their player development fell off a cliff after the early 1970’s.

      6. Dick Wagner was a disaster…in his defense, he inherited an aging team, made the Seaver trade, inherited a poor farm system and worked for owners who refused to participate in free agency…despite having amongst the highest revenue streams in baseball.

      7.The guy who replaced Sparky won the division the next year and had the best record in baseball in 1981.

      8.I have no idea what the phrase “trouble relating to what it takes to be a major leaguer” means……the Reds are bad because they have several bad players and are horribly constructed.

      9. How many GM’s bat over 50% on trades? The other teams are trying as well.

      10. Given the team he inherited, how could any objective person know that Price doesn’t have what it takes? Who does have what it takes to win with this team?

      • Victor Vollhardt

        All of your ten points are very valid–In all of the talk about youth—you must be old enough to remember the above history and that ability does make a difference. I would urge all to read :Game Six” by Frost to see how the Reds management –owner— Sparky—Howsam—treated and handled their players and won in spite of the way they did things.

  9. TR

    It’s hard to know what the principal owner and Walt Jocketty have in mind because they keep everything close to their vests in contrast to past owners and gm’s such as Warren Giles and Gabe Paul among others, although that was in the day when newspapers and sports writers were front and center. But as a long-time fan who is more familiar with the standard statistics of baseball rather than sabermetrics, I don’t want the Reds to be left behind. So it’s vital the Red’s administration get centered on analytics and strengthen the farm system with prospects. It’s the future.

  10. GeorgeFoster

    Criticism of Jocketty’s abilities or approach is fair game, but the ageism on display here is not only inappropriate, it’s bad business. I’d be quite happy if the Reds were to retain Bill James (66) or Pete Palmer (77), for example, to head the analytics department.

    While it’s uncontroversial to suggest that additional analysis would benefit the Reds, I don’t think your conclusion about the current success of sabermetrically-inclined teams is statistically supportable. If you had performed a similar ranking of teams a few years ago, the Reds, Phillies and Giants would have been at or near the bottom of the analytics list, but near the top in performance. The current year results are at least partially an artifact of the cyclical nature of team performance. Note that I’m not disagreeing with your general view, I just don’t think the data is sufficient to support your conclusion.

  11. lost11found

    Steve,

    Thanks for taking the time to put this together (and also the series on elbows too!)

    I think it is a little early to be judging outcomes on 2015 alone (or even in concert with other years). It is really difficult to say if any teams success lies is the roster money they spent or their analytics. Truth is somewhere in the middle perhaps but where matters a great deal to the question being posed.

    Adv statistics have really been a great addition to world of baseball, for fans and organizations alike. They allow us to discuss baseball in different ways.

    Their use in ‘prediction’ is somewhat fuzzy since for something that is based on past results to be predictive it has to given a prescision range to judge against upfront, not after the fact. One cannot say my prediction was close to fangraphs or bbref (or some combination) and say it was a correct prediction. Hopefully, you will cover this aspect in the next sections.

    On one level, I think this topic and the elbow one could be related. With the emphasis on OBP growing around the league, does this lead to more pitching out of the strech? And how that may be impacting arm fatigue and injury? (sorry for the off-topic tangent).

  12. Michael E

    There is little secret that the Cubs, Mets, Astros and Royals all got really good because they sucked for so long. Its hard to continue sucking if you get two of the top 45 players each draft and 1 of the top 5 every other year for 10 years. Sooner or later you hit on a couple of franchise players that come cheaply for 4 or 5 full MLB seasons (Astros and Cubs especially).

    The drafting of Bryant, Correa and many other upper draft studs has almost nothing to do with SABR. They were consensus top picks. Even a hobo off the street could pull up a baseball site or two and draft those guys. The ONLY reason the Cubs and Astros and other past sucky teams got some studs like that was because they sucked, not because of “SABR” or young GMs.

    While SABR (stats) has its place (and always has), lets not pretend it was the biggest reason for recent success of teams still playing. I’d argue the manager and coaches social skills have more impact than all the spent SABR money combined.

    • Michael E

      So the single best move the Reds can make when all the young players are up in 2017 and beyond is to bring in a positive attitude manager and staff that have an open door policy, give encouragement and don’t put up with lazy veterans and their “automatic” starting job. A firm, fair and benevolent guiding hand on the field will be worth more than a whole department of stat crunchers filling up a dozen 3 TB hard drives with mostly senseless data.