Thoughts about the baseball world.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Renegade Podesta, Poster Child for the Sabermetric Witch-Hunt

Enter Theo, Sabermetric Wunderkind. Enter Theo, World Series Architect. Exit Theo, and go home to play with your numbers.

And this is how logical reasoning begins to crumble in a wave of hysteria, mob-mentality and lash-back at liberal, technological intellectualism.

Ian O'Connor, of USA Today

It's not simply the criticism of Epstein. Granted, his exit was abrupt, but it's not as if his leaving the team is any worse than the multitude of teams who seasonally dump managers and players on the floor, with nothing (as Epstein is accused of doing to the Red Sox). Nor is it about internal strife within the Red Sox organization - an issue which is to be blamed on Red Sox President Larry Lucchino as much as it is to be blamed on Epstein. No, no, the problem occurs when he attempts to blast Epstein's ability, and what's he's done for the team (First World Series win, and three straight postseasons, which they've never done in the hsitory of the franchise). And when he attempts to pull the entire group of statistics-minded general managers into the same boat as Podesta.

Ahh, yes. Podesta. In the view of the general public, he is lumped in with that group. True, Podesta probably did pay more attention to statistics than the typical general manager, but he was a radical who should have never been given a shot at that GM's position in the first place, and he made idiotic and baseless moves that no competent GM, whether scout or statistician, would have made. He screwed up, and got fired. And now, the rest of the GM world is facing a firestorm because of it.

The truth is that GMs, as in any occupation, requires simple competence more than anything. One cannot write off all sabermaticians based on one radical whacko, anymore than I can write off all traditional General Managers based on the performance of guys like Cashman, Towers, the Beattie-Flanagan duo, Sabean, Garigiola in recent years. Surely, there are traditional general managers who are making it work. John Schuerholz of the Atlanta Braves is one, and Bill Stoneman of the Anaheim Angels is another. Ken Williams of the White Sox, and Jim Hendry of the Cubs, have also manuevered well in recent years, although their track records aren't as proven. But, taken as a whole, those GM's rooted into the old and conventional style of simple scouting, and clinging to traditional statistics like homeruns, steals, or batting average, aren't faring nearly as well as the newer general managers. Billy Beane, of course, has been the leader in the field. Year after year he's put the Athletics at the top of the division, and only in recent years have the Anaheim Angels, with a much-expanded payroll under Arte Moreno, been able to overtake them. J.P. Ricciardi is building a good young team up in Toronto, and after finally clearing out stalwarts of the old franchise, like Carlos Delgado, the Blue Jays are ready to be finally molded into the team that Ricciardi can build.

The element that's holding these general managers back from completely dominating the field, however, has been the conditions under which they operate. Billy Beane has been dogged for years by a payroll in the $40 or 50 million range. The Blue Jays had been downsized to a payroll of $45 million for the 2005 season. In Arizona, where Josh Byrnes has just been hired after a disastrous run by Gargiola, they have a $60 million payroll, which is only that high after last offseason's rampant spending on guys like Shawn Green and Russ Ortiz. Even during Podesta's job in Los Angeles, the payroll was taking a hit from being one of the top 4 teams, at over $100 million, to the $80 million it was this season, over a span of just two years. The only instances in which upper management have "experimented" with statistical analysis are those run-down organizations that lack payroll, and who haven't had success anyway.

Epstein, thus, was the first general manager who was given a genuine shot with an already succesful team, with payroll flexibility. And he did perform. Three straight years with a playoff berth, which only two other general managers, Schuerholz of the Braves and Brian Cashman of the Yankees and , can claim (with the latter team's success attributed more to raw payroll than any semblance of competency on the general manager's part.) He's brought in guys like David Ortiz, half of Boston's powerhouse tandem, who he's paying only $5 million a year. He is, over the past three years, one of the most succesful general managers, along with John Schuerholz, and an assett to any team. But Podesta started it off by ruining the credibility of any statistician, just as they were getting established in the larger markets like Boston and Los Angeles. And now Epstein, for whatever reason, has forfeited the only significant the position that statistics have ever held.

So with public image destroyed, status set back like it's 2001, statistics are on the defensive. And all for what? A single, radical manager who didn't know what he was doing, and baseless accusations and associations by the media and fans.


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