Brains vs. Brawn in Baseball
October 15, 2014 11:12 AM   Subscribe

The Economist examines the cult of the genius GM.
In sports, just like the rest of life, the rich keep getting richer. Anyone who saw or read Moneyball knows that the deck is stacked against small-market Major League Baseball (MLB) teams. Their only hope of competing, Michael Lewis’s story goes, is to acquire brilliant, innovative general managers (GMs) like his protagonist Billy Beane, who have mastered the “art of winning an unfair game” by outmaneuvering wealthier clubs. The problem with this narrative is that there is nothing to stop the sport’s plutocrats from hiring the finest minds money can buy, just as they sign the best athletes.
The deep-pocketed Dodgers have lured away small market Tampa Bay's heralded GM Andrew Friedman to find out what happens when a man who consistently builds winners with one of the smallest revenue streams in the game can do with a payroll in excess of $200 million.
posted by DirtyOldTown (32 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
The problem with this narrative is that there is nothing to stop the sport’s plutocrats from hiring the finest minds money can buy, just as they sign the best athletes.

And then shooting themselves in the foot by making the games BORING. No one wants to watch blow-outs.

A football league system model is superior in that it at least pits teams of relatively equal skill level (and so presumably funding) against each other.
posted by leotrotsky at 11:29 AM on October 15, 2014 [1 favorite]


And serving as the control group, Ruben Amaro Junior, who inexplicably keeps his job while pissing away a $150 million payroll every year.
posted by tonycpsu at 11:35 AM on October 15, 2014 [8 favorites]


Or, you know, a salary cap. Like every other professional sports league. I don't know why the rest of the MLB owners let the fucking Yankees lead them around by the scrotum on this.
posted by leotrotsky at 11:37 AM on October 15, 2014 [8 favorites]


This is kind of over-egging what happened to the Dodgers this year. They stumbled in the final lap, they weren't dragging along at the bottom all season. If they make it through next year the new GM will have achieved a modest, if important, improvement, not some magical quantum leap. And the "brains vs brawn" title is kind of silly anyway; baseball is much more a game of brains than of brawn.

Meanwhile, Go Giants! (Whatever they pay Bochy, it isn't enough.)
posted by chavenet at 11:39 AM on October 15, 2014 [5 favorites]


Isn't the entire point of this theoretical "magic" GM that they maximize the return that they get from players within a set budget? Instead of hiring players who are "the best" you hire the ones who are consistently good at certain tasks and maximize the opportunities for those tasks.

Giving one of them a supersize budget defeats the purpose, they'll just shell out the simoleons for the best all-around guys because that's the wisest decision to make when budget is no longer a concern.
posted by The Pluto Gangsta at 11:43 AM on October 15, 2014 [3 favorites]


Leotrotsky: The UK experience with football league tells a different story. There are a cadre of top teams and they tend to stay at the top. One at the top they have the most money so buy the best players and bigger squads and thus tend to stay at the top. This only changes if another team can access funds from an external provider, a convenient oligarch or sheikh who can throw money in as a hobby. Other teams may have a good season or two but typically cannot compete for even a full season. The Spanish system is if anything more locked in and there hasn't been a lot of variety at the top of Serie A in Italy either.
posted by biffa at 11:44 AM on October 15, 2014 [1 favorite]


The reason GMs make less money than players do isn’t because owners are blind to the contributions of an elite executive. It’s because there are far more people capable of running an MLB team at a high level than there are people capable of playing for one, and less scarcity leads to less value.

Whether this is a momentary aberration or actually a wedge issue pushing the Economist to the left (!), either way, this is hilarious to read. And the cultural politics behind it is really interesting; it's like sports somehow isn't serious enough business that the CEO class's designated defenders even notice what they're actually saying.
posted by RogerB at 11:51 AM on October 15, 2014 [1 favorite]


the "brains vs brawn" title is kind of silly anyway; baseball is much more a game of brains than of brawn.

The title didn't refer to the game on the field. It's referring to the "game" of general managing, in which comparison "brawn" refers to financial power.

Giving one of them a supersize budget defeats the purpose, they'll just shell out the simoleons for the best all-around guys because that's the wisest decision to make when budget is no longer a concern.

Signing the best available players with budget hardly being a concern is the MO of the 84-78 Yankees, who are watching the postseason from their well-appointed homes. The trick is correctly identifying who are really the best players, and even harder than that, understanding where said players are on the performance/value/salary curves, then negotiating deals that hopefully don't bite you in the ass later.

Otherwise, it's a short road to owing $70MM+ a year to guys like Teixiera, Rodriguez, and Sabathia, with nothing to show for it. Because even a payroll that is seemingly limitless still has its limits.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 11:58 AM on October 15, 2014


Ironically, maybe the very best thing Friedman could do would be to get some sap to take on the albatross contracts of Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, so as to create some payroll flexibility.

But I uh... doubt that's going to happen again.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 12:00 PM on October 15, 2014 [1 favorite]


Four of this season's ten playoff teams might count as small-market teams (not sure on the exact definition there). The Pittsburgh Pirates ranked 27th in payroll out of 30 teams, the Oakland A's 25th, the Kansas City Royals 19th, and the Baltimore Orioles 15th. The Seattle Mariners (18th) were one game away from a playoff spot, and the Cleveland Indians (26th) were three games away from the postseason. Meanwhile, five of the top ten teams in payroll missed the playoffs entirely.

The Kansas City Royals (who are currently one win away from seeing the World Series) definitely do not have anything close to a "Genius GM." Considering his career with Kansas City, Dayton Moore has been considered one of the worst and most ineffective GMs in baseball. But things worked out for him and his team this year. Sometimes they do in baseball. It's a weird game, where success owes as much to the strange luck of the universe as it does to brain or brawn (of any kind).
posted by banal retentive at 12:06 PM on October 15, 2014


I don't know why the rest of the MLB owners let the fucking Yankees lead them around by the scrotum on this.

Well, because small city teams keep winning. The AL Wild Cards this year were Oakland (the canonical small team) and KC (small) The NL wildcards were SF (middle) and Pittsburgh (middle.)

The ALCS was KC vs. LAA (Large) and Detroit (mid) vs. Baltimore (mid). The NLDS was SF vs. the Nationals (mid) and Cards (small) vs. LAD (large.)

And you know what? The teams from the smaller cities haven't done bad at all. KC is on the verge of a sweep for the AL pennant, and St. Louis is up 2-1 in the NLCS. There is a not small chance that the World Series will be played in its entirety in Missouri.

Yes, over the history of the game, the Yankees are in the largest market, and have won the most championships. But #2 on that list is St. Louis, a market smaller than most. Indeed, while the Yanks had that streak around the turn of the century (96,98,99,00), they've won one since (2009) and the one before 1996 was 1978. This is not domination by any stretch, despite the money Steinbrenner drops on that team.

In the last 20 years, we've had Boston, SF, St. Louis, the Yanks, Philly, the White Sox, Miami, The Angels, Arizona, and Atlanta win the title. Yes, NYY has bagged a few, but so has St. Louis and Boston. We've also had Texas, Tampa Bay, Colorado, Detroit, The Mets, Houston, San Diego and Cleveland in the World Series as well in that period. There are 30 teams in MLB, and 18 of them have been to the finals in the last two decades -- and 7 different teams in the last five years, when the max number possible would be 10.

The reason there's not a lot of worry about competitiveness is that many teams win. It is in fact a competitive league. The Yanks use to be far more competitive that they are now. Right now, Boston and St. Louis have had the most success in the last decade. A not big city and a distinctly small one.

If there was a problem, we would want to fix it, but there isn't. MLB is very competitive. Teams tends to be good for a while and great for a few years, then fall off and hide in the basement awhile.
posted by eriko at 12:06 PM on October 15, 2014


Moneyball/Sabermetrics has pretty much already taken over MLB. Just switching from BA/RBI to OPS to measure hitting was half the battle, and pretty much every team playing today has much better knowledge of who the good players and bad players are -- that is, what players *actually win games* for them.

The real art of the GM now is evaluating potential players and thus building a farm system that can feed your major league club for years. The reason the Cubs rebuild is in year 5 was that the Cubs farm system was complete crap, and Theo Epstein has spent the last five years getting rid of bad contracts and rebuilding the farm league. It's now one of the best in the game and I actually have hope for the Cubbies in the next few years.* The reason the goddamn Cardinals keep making the post season is that Walt Jokketty built a killer farm system, and John Mozeliak has keep the farm system going.


* Next year, I think the Cubs play .500 ball, and the year after make a real run for the playoffs -- and then generally stay in the race for the next few years. History says I'll be wrong. We'll see. Wait until next year!
posted by eriko at 12:12 PM on October 15, 2014 [1 favorite]


eriko: "Right now, Boston and St. Louis have had the most success in the last decade. A not big city and a distinctly small one. "

I would posit, however, that StL has an extra player on the field - the fans. I've gone from a weekend-season-ticket holder to strictly "meh, know enough to get by in guy conversations a la the IT crowd" in recent years. I don't buy into all that self-aggrandizing "Cardinal Way" bullshit. But damn if the *idea* of some mystical specialness doesn't seem to take the wind out of opponents' sails.
posted by notsnot at 12:13 PM on October 15, 2014


Correction: the Giants are up 2-1 on the Cards, although I wouldn't necessarily rule out a Show-Me Series.
posted by mayhap at 12:16 PM on October 15, 2014 [2 favorites]


Boston is considered a "big-market" city. It's not the size of the city, it's the size of the market.
posted by Melismata at 12:17 PM on October 15, 2014


I actually would give Dayton Moore some credit for the Royals' success. He is somewhere between average-ish and subpar at acquisitions, with hits like Ervin Santana, Omar Infante, the ridiculously cheap Perez extension ...but also stupid stuff like Jeff Francoeur and... oh hell, that's a solid enough example on its own.

However, acquisitions at the major league level are only part of his job, with the other parts being stocking the farm teams, and setting up a system for developing players. He's been hit and miss at the latter, but frigging outstanding at the former. And it's more than just high draft picks. They've hit on plenty of guys from the lower rounds, too.

In a perfect world, Moore would run someone's farm system and someone else would take the keys to the 25 man roster. But he's still not all bad. And in at least one of his three main job functions, he's pretty awesome.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 12:24 PM on October 15, 2014 [1 favorite]


Next year, I think the Cubs play .500 ball, and the year after make a real run for the playoffs -- and then generally stay in the race for the next few years. History says I'll be wrong. We'll see. Wait until next year!

Oh gods yeah. Wags love to point out that "Most prospects don't pan out" whenever Cub fans brag on their deep prospect lists. Entirely true. But the Cubs are so absurdly well-stocked with star-caliber position level prospects that if even a third of them work out, they're going to have an embarrassment of riches.

And don't forget they're going to have rapid growth in stadium revenue as they expand/renovate between now and 2016. Then there's that probably record-shattering tv deal a few years away.

By 2017, the Cubs may well have one of the best major league rosters, one of the very best minor league systems, and one of the handful of the very highest payrolls. I just wish my dad could've lived to see it.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 12:27 PM on October 15, 2014


"Right now, Boston and St. Louis have had the most success in the last decade. A not big city and a distinctly small one. "

The Cardinals also get an extra draft pick between the first and second rounds that the Red Sox don't get.
posted by drezdn at 12:42 PM on October 15, 2014


In a perfect world, Moore would run someone's farm system and someone else would take the keys to the 25 man roster. But he's still not all bad.

I agree with almost all of what you said apart from "not at all bad," but still, you're kind of soft-pedaling the importance of the major-league-roster and organizational stuff that better GMs than DM do. GMDM reminds me a lot of Omar Minaya, in that he's a case of the Peter Principle at work: both are skilled talent evaluators in some ways — guys who can and do succeed in the "superscout" kind of position — but who are terribly miscast when promoted to GM, as people who have to put together a whole organization or a major-league team, because they just don't understand how to quantitatively value players or look for marginal upgrades. They can sometimes spot a talented guy when others can't, but then they just go ahead and slot him in, and end up living and dying with a roster of Their Guys. It's an approach that can hit the jackpot once in a while (go Royals!), but also very predictably ends up going bust a lot of the time, when the talent doesn't develop, or the tools scout better than they play (dear old Frenchy being pretty much the textbook case), or the roster has no depth beyond The Guy in a given role.
posted by RogerB at 12:46 PM on October 15, 2014


I'm not proposing that Dayton Moore is a good GM on the whole. I'm saying that the fact that he does plenty of things that feel like "stupidest GM in baseball" stuff does not negate his skills at stockpiling young talent. Add that in and he's only below average, not actually a serious contender for worst in the game.

Compare him, for example, to the aforementioned Ruben Amaro, Jr. who would probably be outperformed by a random number generator.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 12:59 PM on October 15, 2014 [1 favorite]


Sidebar:

The Ryan Howard contract is the worst contract in baseball. On April 26, 2010, the Phillies signed Howard to a five year, $125 million extension. He still had two years left on his old contract. He was already 30. So this new contract started with his age 32 season, a point at which virtually all players of his profile (defensively limited, no speed, huge power and strikeouts) begin to decline precipitously. The contract guaranteed him--for these decline years--an average annual value of $25 million. This, despite the fact that only once, in his career year of 2006 was he worth even $20 million in a season (according to Fangraphs, his value that was $21.3MM). The Phillies felt like they "had" to sign him, they said. This, despite the fact that had they allowed Howard to hit free agency, he would have done so in the same season as Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, so the Phils would have had several big name fallback options.

So far, Howard has been paid $65MM on that extension. He has been worth negative $51.MM, accpoding to Fangraphs. He has two years left, with $60MM of salaries and buyout still to be paid.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 1:19 PM on October 15, 2014 [4 favorites]


Yeah, this is where I feel ashamed that I'm a Phillies fan. After years of mediocrity, the Phillies started spending money and made a tremendous run from 2007-2011, winning one World Series in the process (2008). And then fell off a cliff, because Amaro kept trying to sign "one more guy" to push the team over the edge into a second World Series victory.

It's amazing how quickly things have changed. During that run, it felt like everybody was in on the Phils in a big way. And the "next guy" was always the big damn hero in town. We had one year of Hunter Pence (now on the Giants) and he was quickly embraced, and quickly forgotten. But it's very much over. People don't watch the Phillies. You'd be forgiven for thinking that Philadelphia only has two professional sports teams right now, and the Eagles are 5-1 and the Flyers haven't won yet this season. The Sixers are a punchline. But the Phillies have gone back to only being followed by die-hards.

And the kicker is that Amaro is not going to be fired. You won't be able to pay people to go to games next year, less than 3 years after a 257 game sellout streak.
posted by graymouser at 1:23 PM on October 15, 2014


If only he'd have been canned, someone new could have come in and dealt Utley, Rollins, Hamel, and Lee for parts.

A friend who roots for the the Phillies still won't allow me to even mention the rumor that before the Dodgers dealt for Gonzalez, Crawford, and Beckett, they offered a similar package for Howard and Lee but were rebuffed.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 1:30 PM on October 15, 2014 [1 favorite]


graymouser: Yeah, this is where I feel ashamed that I'm a Phillies fan.

Meh. Flags fly forever. Obviously you'd like more than one flag for the money that was put in, but there's no reason to be ashamed of being a fan. The team won, and they made a great run in '09. A GM who knew his head from his ass could have probably made that a dynasty, but I'd rather have what we got than the Ed Wade style of contending but never getting over the hump.
posted by tonycpsu at 1:34 PM on October 15, 2014


And then shooting themselves in the foot by making the games BORING. No one wants to watch blow-outs.

I could go for a few years of Dodger blowouts, if nothing else to make sure these assholes stop coming to my games.
posted by sideshow at 1:43 PM on October 15, 2014 [2 favorites]


it's baseball, there are no brains present, just the statistically predictable success of several members in a large random pool.
posted by bruce at 2:10 PM on October 15, 2014


I think it is great that baseball has shown that GMs canmatter. My Texas Rangers never won a playoff game for decades until they got wunderkid Jon Daniels, then they built the best farm system in baseball and went to 2 World Series. It's a nice contrast to my football team (the Cowboys) who have no GM and only an Owner calling the shots, and my basketball team (the Mavericks) where there is also only a figurehead GM for the owner. That being said, a genius GM isn't a requirement as the Royals showed this year. And certainly isn't a requirement in other sports where my Mavs won the Finals and will again this year, and Jerry is about to return the Cowboys to SB glory this year.
posted by dios at 3:49 PM on October 15, 2014


Or, you know, a salary cap. Like every other professional sports league. I don't know why the rest of the MLB owners let the fucking Yankees lead them around by the scrotum on this.

My friend, you have been sold a bill of goods. Salary caps serve one purpose and one purpose only: to make team owners richer. If you think the Yankees are profitable know, just fathom for a second how much money they would make if they only had to pay their players within a pre-set limit.

MLB has been wildly wildly successful in the last decade with no salary cap. Oh and it has had a work stoppage in more than two decades. And this year's playoffs have demonstrated that any team can be successful with shrewd drafting, free agent signing, and player development. The beauty of baseball is that there are several was to skin a cat.
posted by dry white toast at 10:02 PM on October 15, 2014 [4 favorites]


Also, the reason players make more than GMs is patently obvious: no matter how good a GM might be, no one will pay to watch them do their job.
posted by dry white toast at 10:04 PM on October 15, 2014 [2 favorites]


Or, you know, a salary cap. Like every other professional sports league. I don't know why the rest of the MLB owners let the fucking Yankees lead them around by the scrotum on this.

Salary caps are one of those things that sound great on paper but in practice never work out the way as intended. In the US sports that have a salary cap, ticket prices have risen just as quickly or quicker than they have in MLB. And it hasn't created parity within the leagues, either. Just as before, teams with the best management (Steelers, Patriots, Lakers, Blackhawks) have continued to dominate while teams with horrible mis-management (Rangers, Knicks, Cavaliers, Bengals, Lions, Maple Leafs) no longer have that option to spend their way out of their horrible decisions. Not every team is going to attract a Doc Rivers like the Clippers did. It might save the Wilbons to institute a salary cap in baseball, but if you think the Mets are bad now...

Besides, as George Steinbrenner once said, "If I wanted to own a team with the same value as the Kansas City Royals, I'd have bought the Kansas City Royals."
posted by dances with hamsters at 6:34 AM on October 16, 2014


As a Rays fan, when this new broke it put me in a blind panic. With Andrew Friedman gone I feel like that in my lifetime I will never see my teams win it all. This is right up there with the 94 strike, and the Expos ceasing to exist, CEASING TO EXIST.
posted by nulledge at 6:53 AM on October 16, 2014


As a Pirates fan whose favorite AL team is the Rays, this is pretty depressing. Also, this all but guarantees Russell Martin will be back in Dodger blue next year, which is really depressing.
posted by dirigibleman at 8:44 AM on October 16, 2014


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