MLB GM’s: A Tale of Three SoCal Cities

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The big news of the morning and afternoon on Wednesday was the resignation of Angels General Manager Jerry Dipoto, but for all intents and purposes he was basically deposed from office after some issues that he had with manager Mike Scioscia had boiled over and were made public.  Evidently, Dipoto grew very frustrated with Scioscia’s, as well as the coaching staff’s, unwillingness to utilize and present analytical data that he put together regarding defensive shifts among other things.  So it was the new school and more progressive analytical mind of Dipoto versus the old school grit of Scioscia. Ultimately, Scioscia and his 10-year/$50 million contract that runs through 2018 prevailed.

If the reports are true and Scioscia has been neglecting the information that Dipoto was preparing for him, then that is a shame that Scioscia is not making the adjustments to a game that is evolving every year with more and more types of different information.  The game has progressed so much in the new millennium beginning with the Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane and the “moneyball” concept that utilizes sabermetric tools and analytical information to assemble a competitive team with a mid-low market budget.

Then the game took another big step forward in recent years with the onslaught of extreme defensive shifts (the number of shifts used in all of MLB increased 500 percent from 2010 to 2014). Defensive shifts were first made very popular within organizations such as the Pittsburgh Pirates and Tampa Bay Rays who both have made great strides in the recent seasons.  Their recent success can be attributed to the way that they established a certain more analytical philosophy beginning in the front office, implemented it throughout the organization (Minor Leagues included), and executed it in games.

The new analytical approach and philosophy that was instilled and executed for these two organizations have turned them from perennial losers into legitimate contenders.  The Rays had 8 straight losing seasons to begin its franchise’s existence before Andrew Friedman was promoted to Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations and General Manager after the 2005 season.  He hired ex-Angels bench coach Joe Maddon on as manager, who shared the same approach that Friedman wanted to bring in.  The Rays would go on to add on 2 more losing seasons to that streak for a total of 10, but then things really began to flourish as they had 6 winning seasons in a row with 4 post-season appearances, which included 1 appearance in the World Series.  The Pirates hired Neal Huntington as General Manager after the 2007 season and he instilled a new, more analytical philosophy with the organization as well, and although it took a little longer for the Pirates to see successful results, there was gradual improvement and they were finally able to end a 20-year losing season streak in 2013 and have made 2 straight post-season appearances.

With all this forward thinking analytical information that is so readily available to Major League teams, it would be a bit foolish to disregard it.  But the information is only good if it is being used and used correctly.  Scioscia says that he and the Angels use analytics to make decisions in every game in various scenarios, and he acknowledges that Dipoto brought a lot of that to the organization in a successful way.  But clearly there still was some sort of struggle, and ultimately it was Scioscia who stayed on.

***Dipoto accomplished his fair share of both nice moves and questionable ones, which can be seen here as documented by Pedro Moura of The Orange County Register.

Upon Dipoto’s resignation, the Angels have named Bill Stoneman as the interim General Manager through the remainder of the season, which at that point it is assumed the Angels will search for someone for more of a long term role.  Stoneman had been serving as a Senior Advisor for the Angels, but he also was the club’s General Manager from 1999-2007 before stepping down. Stoneman’s tenure as the GM was largely successful from a results standpoint as the Angels made 4 playoff appearances in his 8 seasons, one of which included the franchise’s first World Series title in 2002.  However, he was widely considered as a GM that stood pat with his hands in his pockets when it came to needing to make a big trade, or any trade at that.  He was responsible for two free agent signings that yielded an American League MVP, Vladimir Guerrero (2004), and an American League Cy Young, Bartolo Colon (2005), but those free agents were believed to have fell right into his lap.

So in some sense, bringing back Stoneman as an interim GM could work out for the remainder of the year because of Stoneman and Scioscia’s good rapport of working together since Stoneman was the one who hired Scioscia right after he was appointed as the GM in 1999.  But the Angels are in a position right now where they may need to make some moves before the trade deadline to improve their roster as they currently sit in 2nd place in the AL West, 5 games back of the Houston Astros.  No disrespect to Kole Calhoun who is a solid player, but the Angels are missing the presence of an impact, power left-handed bat in their lineup, and Calhoun may not be suited for the middle of the order where he has moved to several weeks ago.  So when it comes down to it, will Stoneman be able to swing a deal to improve the team, but also a deal that doesn’t further deplete the organization’s prospect depth?  His old school ways may not bring much to the table for the Angels, but we have about 4 weeks till the trade deadline to find out.

So with the clash between Dipoto and Scioscia seemingly over analytics and the usage of the information, and having already discussed how the Rays and Pirates have succeeded with that approach, let’s now look at how a couple of teams’ new GM’s for 2015 have done so far in their first full years with their new clubs.  We will first look at the San Diego Padres and new general manager A.J. Preller and his poorly planned moves, and then the Dodgers new look with Andrew Friedman as Executive President of Baseball Operations and Farhan Zaidi as General Manager and their tactical approach.

Preller, who was hired as the GM in August of 2014, decided to take on the task of attempting to infuse some offense to a Padres team that was very lackluster with the bats playing their home games in one of the most extreme and spacious pitcher parks in the league. So Preller went out and added Matt KempJustin UptonWil Myers, Derek Norris, and Will Middlebrooks all via trades.  All of these players have been known to wield some powerful sticks, so more offense was sure to come and indeed it has.  The Padres, who were dead last in runs scored in 2014, currently have the 14th most runs in the Majors.  However, what seemed to not be taken into account with the newly constructed lineup was how it would affect the defense and the pitchers who pitch in front of them.

With a whole brand new outfield in Upton, Myers, and Kemp from left to right field, all of who profiled to be below average defenders (and Myers had never handled center field at the Major League level before), they have collectively contributed to the Padres having the absolute worst outfield defense according to a UZR of -27.3.  And after receiving above average defensive output from every infield position except shortstop last year, the Padres are also getting sub-par defensive performances out of every infield position due to the addition of Middlebrooks who is a hack at the hot corner, and due to not adding any other quality defenders to help out.

The result has been a nightmare for the Padres pitching staff, in particular Tyson RossAndrew Cashner, and James Shields who rank 5th, 13th, and 15th in highest BABIP in the Majors.  This in turn has had residual effects on their overall performances as they are forced to pitch in higher pressured situations with runners on base much more often, and for Ross it is a major issue because he is so poor at preventing stolen bases with his slow delivery to the plate.  Ross has already allowed a Major League leading 24 stolen bases in 31 attempts.  For Cashner, the result has not only been more taxing innings that go on forever with all these hits getting through, but the defense has also committed a lot of errors when he’s been on the mound, which has led to an astonishing Major League leading 19 unearned runs in half a season of play.

So while Preller may have constructed a stronger offense, he did so at the expense of the defense which has left the Padres with a pretty unhappy starting rotation.  If Preller had thought this through a bit further from an analytical standpoint using defensive metrics, he could have foreseen this coming.  Instead, the Padres are producing similar results to last year in the standings with an $18 million increase in payroll and are not meeting the lofty expectations that were set upon them after the Preller’s flurry of trades.  Last season there were no expectations placed on them, so it was kind of an “oh well” when they had their 4th losing season in a row.

This past off-season, the Dodgers were able to lure away Friedman from a Rays team that came to be his figurative baby that grew into a wise young adult who blossomed into an Ivy league school graduate.  He has proven to be one of the most brilliant front office minds in the game with his vast knowledge and usage of analytics in not just building a Major League team, but a whole organization.  Friedman signed on with the Dodgers as the Executive President of Baseball Operations and hired a new General Manager, Fahan Zaidi, who also comes from the sabermetric/analytical school of thought.  But this most certainly is Friedman’s show to run.

So after joining the boys in blue, Friedman and Zaidi appeared to have a very particular direction that they wanted to take the franchise to turn them into the most feared organization in baseball, and it didn’t hurt that they had the deep pockets of the Dodgers ownership to dip into.  The new dodgers combo made a myriad of off-season moves that included:

  • Trading Matt KempTim Federowicz, and $32 million to the Padres for Yasmani GrandalJoe Wieland, and Zach Elfin
  • Trading Zach Elfin and Jimmy Windle to the Phillies for Jimmy Rollins
  • Trading Dan HarenDee Gordon, Miguel Rojas, and $10 million to the Marlins for Andrew HeaneyEnrique Hernandez, Chris Hatcher, and Austin Barnes
  • Trading Andrew Heaney to the Angels for Howie Kendrick
  • Trading Jose Dominguez and Greg Harris to the Rays for Joel Peralta and Adam Liberatore
  • Signing Brandon McCarthy to a 4-year/$48 million contract
  • Signing Brett Anderson to a 1-year/$10 million contract
  • Signing Brandon Beachy to a 1-year/$2.75 million contract
  • Signing Juan Nicasio to a 1-year/$2.3 million contract
  • Signing Chris Heisey to a 1-year/$2.16 million contract

Some moves were clearly more significant than others, but the overall approach seemed to be apparent.  First and foremost, Friedman and Zaidi wanted to make this team their own.  They wanted to move out players that they didn’t like or didn’t see fit, whether it was due to team chemistry issues or disdain for a player because of analytical statistics, and they wanted to bring in new blood to be able to help put their regime’s philosophy in motion.

Trading away Kemp was not a popular move among the Dodgers faithful as they saw it as their beloved star with the pretty eyes…errr, I mean powerful bat being exchanged for a couple of prospects and a catcher with a career .245 AVG who was previously suspended for testosterone use.  But what Friedman and Zaidi saw it as was trading away a poor defensive center fielder with a high salary to make way for the league minimum salary of top prospect Joc Pederson who is an on-base machine with power, speed, and excellent defensive prowess in center field.  And in addition to opening up a spot in the lineup for Pederson, they saw that they would be receiving a Major League catcher, Grandal, with emerging power who is also very skilled at getting on base.

So by making room for Pederson, shoring up the defense surely looked to be a major goal.  In 2014, the Dodgers had one of the worst middle infield defensive combos with Dee Gordon at second base and Hanley Ramirez at shortstop.  So Friedman and Zaidi wanted to instill a solid foundation up the middle that would help to prevent a lot of hits and runs for their pitching staff.  There appeared to be not even a thought of re-signing Ramirez because of this, and especially due to his high price tag.  So in a trade with the Phillies, the Dodgers targeted veteran Jimmy Rollins and his 4 Gold Glove Awards. Despite being in the twilight of his career and declining on offense, his defense still rated well as the 6th ranked shortstop in the Majors in 2014.

When the Dodgers traded with the Marlins, and then subsequently flipped the main piece that they received in return, Andrew Heaney, to the Angels, they were doing a couple of things.  First, they were trading away the negative defensive value of Gordon and adding the positive defensive value of Howie Kendrick.  They probably perceived Gordon’s trade value to be as the highest that it would get, though it’s probably higher now since he is having a great 2015 season so far.  However, that deal has kind of backfired because Gordon is currently the highest rated second baseman by UZR and DEF ratings this season, while Kendrick ranks near the bottom.  But the move coincided with Friedman and Zaidi’s apparent philosophy, and they couldn’t have known that Gordon would develop so well defensively. The next thing about the trade that they were wanting to accomplish was moving Haren and his diminishing skills and extreme fly ball tendencies as he just didn’t fit with the direction that they wanted to go in.  If the plan was to create a strong defense, especially up the middle infield, then it also made sense to get rid of the fly ball pitcher and add pitchers with strong ground ball tendencies.

Trading Haren left the Dodgers with three mainstays in the starting rotation — Clayton KershawZack Greinke, and Hyun-Jin Ryu — and all three have shown the ability to induce a good amount of more ground balls than fly balls throughout their careers.  So the next move that Friedman and Zaidi made was to sign two starting pitchers that also shared the same type of ground ball tendencies, and those two players were Brandon McCarthy and Brett Anderson.

McCarthy transformed himself from more of fly ball pitcher into a ground ball pitcher back in 2011 with the A’s when he added a cutter to his pitch arsenal.  But with the Diamondbacks in 2014, they forbade him from using the cutter, which led to a very unsuccessful time for him until he was traded to the Yankees and was permitted to throw the cutter once again, at which point he dominated with the Yankees.  So Friedman and Zaidi saw a lot that they liked about McCarthy and his ability to pitch with a strong defense behind him.  Then Anderson was a bit of a weird signing for the guaranteed dollar amount due to his long injury history, but he also fit the bill of a ground ball heavy pitcher who would benefit from a nice infield defense.

Up to this point, the Dodgers have gotten very little production from Ryu and free-agent signing McCarthy due to season-ending injuries, but Anderson has been exactly as they hoped for.  But more significantly, the Dodgers brass of Friedman and Zaidi came into town with a well thought out plan that was surely aided by sabermetrics and analytical standpoints. And that plan can be considered an early success despite a couple of things not falling their way.  Overall, they have shown the baseball world one way to run an organization and so far so good.  Preller and other GM’s could certainly take notice, and as an Angels fan, here’s to hoping that the Angels can be as lucky to land an amazing baseball mind like Friedman — but then of course he/she would have to see eye to eye with Scioscia, which would be no guarantee.

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