10 November 2011

Evaluating the front office: Channel your inner Rumsfeld

"[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know we know.
We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some
things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don't know we don't know. ”

— Former United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld

As Andy MacPhail ends his tenure as President of Baseball Operations in Baltimore, and Dan Duqette takes over the front office reigns, a poll of the dwindling Orioles fanbase would reveal no shortage of opinions on both MacPhail's performance and the pros and cons of Duqette's selection as his replacement. Skim through an Orioles message board and you are sure to find a laundry list of misteps taken by MacPhail in his shaping of the organization and declarations as to what steps Duquette will be taking to point the O's in the right direction. This should not be a surprise, as the bloggers and message boarders have been vocal for the last month with strong opinions on "the right man for the job", despite the fact that 99% of these bloviators are not even sure what differentiates the various candidates (or current GMs, for that matter). The critiques do not stop at the top.

Scouting directors? Your draft classes are lambasted by fans before the second day of selections has been completed, and you can expect numerous blogs to explain just how good or bad a job you did by the end of the week (after reading-up on the draftees from the same three or four sources). Also, MLBDraftExperts.wordpress.com will explain to you why you never pick a high school pitcher between picks 6 and 22, and why you just "don't get it" when it comes to overslot spending.

Minor League development staff? God help you if your team's prospects do not show up on the right internet rankings (and there are a lot of them these days). Such a shortcoming will make it clear to all that you do not know how to do your job, and are incapable of developing true impact Major League talent.

Managers? Ignore the horde of Twitter users wring their collective hands over a stolen base attempt, pitching change or (gasp!) a post game comment that Player B was "clutch" for you this evening. Yes, apparently you are one of the least informed baseball minds around and have no business discussing baseball, let alone managing a Major League team. But that doesn't mean you should have to have that pointed out to you by @FutureGM, @MLBProspectGuru or @KingofDaBronx.

Players? You should not ignore Twitter. If you check-in during the game you will be instantly informed as to what is wrong with your swing/pitching mechanics by numerous experts who have all been studying the finer points of swing and pitching mechanics for several years via YouTube, MiLB.tv, fuzzy animated GIFs and some "scouting" articles from various internet hotspots. In fact, after striking out, your first move probably should not be a convo with your hitting coach or teammates, or a trip to the video equipment in the office just down the tunnel. It should be to your smart phone -- consider downloading the TweetDeck app.

The reverse is true as well. Get the right endorsement from the right sportswriter (usually someone who uses "WAR" and "xFIP" -- though not necessarily providing the proper context while doing so) and you will have an army of internet experts championing you on their blogs and podcasts. Once hired, you will be showered with the sort of whole-hearted adulation that can only sprout from a place of naivety. Is it important that Sportswriter's endorsement came, at least in part, because, well, you were one of the nice front office folk who would chat regularly with him and occasionally swap some info? Shrug.

It is commonly accepted that there is more information available to the public today than ever before. As a result, each year fans are presented with new statistical metrics for evaluating player performance, opinion pieces from internet sportswriters ranging from one-person shops to mega-corporations like MLB or ESPN, and more video and photographs than any one person could possibly know what to do with. Formerly-niche outfits such as Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus have ramped-up their coverage of Minor League prospects and stat-heavy analysis, respectively, which in turn has continued to spur more focused interest among the most zealous of baseball fans -- not coincidentally, these are the fans most likely to be Tweeting, blogging, message boarding and otherwise opining on baseball matters out there in the ether.

So what? More information is always a good thing, right? Maybe si; maybe no. You can never have too much GOOD information. But without a proper filter, you run the risk of too much static in your data pool for it to be of any practical utility. Further, the presence of "information" across the web-scape has given the illusion to many that they have the evidence they need to reach conclusions about nearly every aspect of professional baseball. This includes in-game management, prospect rankings, player critiques at the Major League and Minor League (and even college/high school) levels, front office administration, draft strategy and execution, and the like. The reality is that most writers/message boarders do not have the RIGHT information to form strong opinions about many of these things -- this is particularly true when it comes to the front office.

Mr. MacPhail and Mr. Jordan were dinged left and right by bloggers by the end of their tenure in Baltimore. That can of worms need not be opened again, but it may be useful to look at the first week under Mr. Duquette to try and get a point across. The comments most frequently circulating the web regarding Mr. Duquette indicate that the internet experts consider him to be the right man to rejuvenate Baltimore's efforts in Latin America and to fix the player development system in order to provide a steady flow of Minor League talent to the Major League club. The evidence? Well, he signed a number of international free agents with Montreal back in the early-90s (including Vlad Guerrero) and there are a number of draft picks made under his watch in Boston that turned into Major Leaguers with some value (including Kevin Youkilis, Freddy Sanchez, David Eckstein, Justin Duchscherer, Carl Pavano, Adam Everett and Kelly Shoppach -- list compiled by "FrobbY", a message board poster at Orioles Hangout).

Setting aside the fact that the list is not as impressive as it is made out to be in the message board convos, what is known about this list? Channeling your inner-Rumsfeld you can quickly determine what this list tells you, and what it does not tell you. Then, you can figure out whether the info tells enough to act as a foundation for an opinion on the matter as a whole.

Things we know: These are players Boston brought into their system during Dan Duqette's term as General Manager. There is positive "WAR" value with this collection that is comparable or better than certain other GMs during that same time span. Baltimore has not been as successful (measured by WAR) in graduating Minor League talent to their Major League club over the last 14 years. The players listed had to be developed in some form in order to make the jump from draft day to their Major League careers.

Known unknowns (things that we know we do not know): What was Boston's process for identifying amateur talent at the time (division of responsibilities between area scouts, bird dogs, regional supervisors, cross-checkers, scouting director, general manager)? What role did Mr. Duquette (as general manager) play in creating the process used by Boston? To what extent did Mr. Duquette drive the decision to draft players in lower round (for example, one organization in particular operates such that the scouting director is the driving force in player selection, and he gives a lot of weight to the opinion of area scouts when it comes to lower round picks, as those scouts have seen more of the players in question than has the cross-checkers or scouting director)? Would Boston's process under Mr. Duquette still be effective in today's game? Would the Minor League player development process still be effective in today's game? What has changed? Of the "newer" philosophies relating to player (and particularly pitcher) maintenance, does Mr. Duquette subscribe to certain innings limits, pitch counts, focus on one defensive position versus two, and the like? Heck, what are ANY of Mr. Duquette's detailed thoughts on these issues? Who will his scouting director be? Who will his Head of Minor League Development be?

Unknown unknowns (things we do not know we do not know): Did you know that different organizations use different scout sheets and place different weight on different player attributes? Did you know some organizations literally chart every pitch of every game at large showcases/tournaments at the high school level? Did you know some organizations go out of their way to get specific video of players they are sitting on? Did you know some organizations have no formal process for charting games and no policy for recording video of players? Did you know that many, if not most, of the draft boards (preference lists) for Major League clubs do not look exactly like Baseball America's or Keith Law's? Did you know the approach to developing players varies across organizations to an incredible degree? Did you know that some organizations do not even have a uniform approach across levels for teaching the game?

If you are a savvy baseball fan you may know most or all of the "Unknown unknowns" listed above. Believe that the list of things the typical, or even knowledgeable, fan does not know is pages longer.

Taking your knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns into account, what does the list of drafted players tell you about Mr. Duquette and his prospects for success in restoring Baltimore's draft/sign/develop system? If you are honest, it does not tell you much. In fact, anyone extrapolating any significant positive or negative vibes from the hiring at this point is likely doing so to fit a narrative they have already subscribed to. Maybe it is a desire to be optimistic about their team, particularly in a dark time in the franchise's history. Maybe it's a desire to be pessimistic about an organization that has jaded a majority of its fanbase. Maybe a prospect hound loves the idea of having an exciting system and wants to believe Mr. Duquette is potentially the key to creating such a system in Baltimore. And probably the most common impetus for many bloggers and message boarders, maybe an internet "expert" just likes to have a strong opinion and to appear in the know, regardless of topic.

This blog entry (self aware) is not intended to be a lash out against other bloggers, message boarders, sports writers or, more generally, sports fans. It is simply a call for all of us to take a step back and think about what evidence we really have when we decide to shoot out our opinions over the internet. Think about what you know, think about what you know you do not know, consider the existence of other info you might not know exists, and proceed with some thought and responsibility. Sports are meant to be fun, to spark conversations -- to excite. Drying up all sports talk because the participants are not 100% certain of their views is not the goal. You do not have to be 100% certain of anything before you share a thought.

When your thought involves mudslinging against front office execs, such as Mr. MacPhail, Mr. Jordan, and maybe even Mr. Duquette a year or two from now, however, you may want to get as close to that 100% as possible before hurling your insults. That, or curb the vitriol just a bit. At some point the internet put fans under the impression that running a baseball team is easy. It isn't, and the "fixes" for a troubled organization such as Baltimore are not nearly as obvious as they appear.


Anonymous said...

This article really spoke to me. I find the tone that bloggers use typically comes from an area of overstating conclusions to substantiated themselves. It is all rather absurd to see how sure people pretend to be so that others listen. We know next to nothing about these teams. Now, we can have informed opinions, but we have to know that there are limits to how well founded an idea actually is.

Andrew G said...

I read this earlier today at work and had to keep myself from saying "Yes, this is exactly right!" too loudly. I've been trying to articulate this exact thought throughout the entire Orioles GM search (and ensuing John Stockstill reputation lynching), but now I don't have to. Thanks Nick.