You are here

3. When Stathead Teams Fail

February 6, 2013

It seems that every day, some team is hiring a baseball writer with analytic chops to work for them. Dan Turkenkopf is the latest, hired away from Prospectus by the Tampa Bay Rays. The line goes back years, with Prospectus alone losing nearly a dozen people to the industry since Keith Law took a job with the Blue Jays in 2002. We tend to praise these moves, even as they become common, as a sign that teams get the value of both performance analysis and hiring people who didn't come up through the baseball industry. A simple calculus -- stathead teams good, non-stathead teams bad -- can become awfully tempting.

Unfortunately, it doesn't always work that way. There's one franchise, in fact, that has been at the forefront of applying new ideas to its work, while having less and less success on the field. They were one of the first teams to raid the Prospectus talent pool, one of the first teams to invest heavily in a proprietary information management system, one of the first teams to openly acknowledge the value of blending statistics and scouting. They hired a manager, Manny Acta, who spoke of reading Baseball Between the Numbers -- and buying into its tenets.

They haven't finished above .500 in five years. They've made the postseason once since hiring Keith Woolner, and that appearance happened the year he arrived -- before he could have had a significant impact on roster construction. Acta's teams went 214-266 before he was let go with a week left in the 2012 season. Whatever advantages garnered by the Indians' significant investment in their DiamondView system, created by Matt Tagliaferri, which was next-generation when I had a chance to see it in 2007, they rarely showed up in the standings. That type of system is now in place in many front offices; the league has closed the gap.

I'm quick to point out teams that operate absent, and sometimes in seeming opposition to, the knowledge set that has been developed from outside the industry over the past quarter-century. When the Phillies sign Delmon Young, or the Royals trade Wil Myers, or the Dodgers throw money at Brandon League, I trace those decisions to front offices unable or unwilling to embrace modern concepts. It's only fair, then, to look at the Indians, who have seemingly done everything right in hiring and approach, and question whether there is something missing in that approach.

The Indians were a mini-dynasty in the 1990s, winning five straight AL Central titles and six in seven years, taking two AL pennants, but never getting over the top in the World Series. Those teams were largely homegrown, and kept together in part because of John Hart's aggressive strategy of signing young players to long-term deals that offered cost certainty to the team and guaranteed security to the players. As that team aged out of Cleveland, the generation of prospects that would have replaced them never quite developed -- Russell Branyan, Brandon Phillips, Danys Baez and others didn't measure up, and the team missed the postseason for five seasons, only contending in one of them. In 2001, Hart gave way to Mark Shapiro, one of the first of the new breed of GMs to come into the game with advanced degrees, and while Shapiro was regarded as a talented executive, he presided over just three contending teams in ten years.

In looking at where things went wrong for the Indians, it seems to come down to four players, and the decisions made on each:

  • In 2006, with Grady Sizemore coming off a first full season in which he'd hit .289/.348/.484, the Indians signed him to a five-year contract worth $23.45 million. The Indians would make a substantial profit on Sizemore's talents through 2008, but when Sizemore began making more money in the later years of the deal, his body betrayed him. He played in just 210 games in the last three years of his deal, batting .234/.314/.413 with a wretched 17-for-29 performance stealing bases. The years that should have been his peak seasons turned into a nightmare. The Indians, having built their team around Sizemore, were left paying for a shell of the former star, and while the absolute cost wasn't high -- less than $18 million for the three years -- the impact on the organization was significant.
  • In the summer of 2007, Travis Hafner was coming off a three-year stretch in which he'd been one of the best hitters alive: .308/.419/.611, with top-ten MVP finishes in 2005 and 2006. The Indians, identifying Hafner as a core player and wanting to avoid a confrontation in his walk year -- Hafner had a $4.75 million club option for 2008 -- signed Hafner to a four-year extension that locked him to the Indians through 2012. Hafner, whose "old player's skills" should have been evident, was in decline on the day he signed the deal. For the four years covered by the extension, for which Hafner was paid $49 million, he produced an acceptable .268/.361/.453 line, but played in just 93 games a year in that stretch.
  • CC Sabathia was the best of the players produced by the post-dynasty Indians, a lefty starter who, managed wonderfully by the organization, developed into one of the top power pitchers in the game. Sabathia won the AL Cy Young Award in 2007 and, after four brutal starts to open 2008, was on his way to another strong season. The Indians, believing they would be unable to sign Sabathia -- a free agent at the end of '08 -- shopped him around and eventually traded him to the Brewers for Matt LaPorta, Zack Jackson, Michael Brantley and Rob Bryson. Sabathia helped the Brewers to the postseason, signed a seven-year deal with the Yankees after the season and has continued to pitch at his established level. For two months of Sabathia, the Indians got…not much. Bryson has yet to reach Triple-A; Jackson had a 6.11 ERA in a dozen appearances for the Indians and hasn't appeared in the majors since 2009; LaPorta, the centerpiece of the deal, is a .238/.301/.393 career hitter in 1068 PA, and got just 60 trips the plate in the majors last year. Brantley, a player to be named at the time, has been the one success story: .274/.329/.376 career, with a .288/.348/.402 line last year in his first full season as a regular. Brantley, 26 in May, was a three-win player last year and may well continue at that level through his peak. Is that enough to save the trade? The Indians essentially got nothing for three years, but now have a three-win player controlled through his peak in exchange for two months of Sabathia.
  • Then there was Cliff Lee. Lee won the AL Cy Young Award in 2008, as Sabathia was being traded away. By midsummer '09, the Indians were looking to deal their lefty to avoid the situation that had developed with Sabathia, where their hand was forced and their return lessened by waiting until the player's walk year. At the '09 trade deadline, the Indians sent Lee (and fourth outfielder Ben Francisco) to Philadelphia for Carlos Carrasco, Jason Donald, Lou Marson and Jason Knapp. Knapp and Carrasco have been injured for most of the time since the trade: neither threw a professional inning last year. Donald and Marson have been useful backups, worth about a win apiece since the deal. Donald was sent to Cincinnati along with Shin-Soo Choo as part of the deal that brought back Trevor Bauer, which may be his legacy in Cleveland. Carrasco is expected to return to the team's rotation this spring. Whereas you can cling to Michael Brantley in the other deal, this one is clearly a disaster for the Indians; they gave away 48 Lee starts and got virtually nothing in return.

Four players, four transactions, and all of them went wrong to one degree or another. One, Sizemore, was just an injury case, and there's no blame to be assigned to the team. Two were clearly mistakes by the front office. They did not get enough in trade for Lee, a pitcher who -- unlike Sabathia -- did not have to be dealt in that moment. (I was wrong about the trade at the time.) They got a reasonable return for Sabathia, although it's taken years for them to get it. They made far too large an investment in the post-peak years of a player, Hafner, with no defensive value.

The lesson is that you can do the small things well, but if you don't do the big things well -- especially as a low-revenue team -- you're going to fail. The Indians did four big things fairly poorly, and for that, they've become one of the least attractive franchises in the game. Shapiro, Woolner, Tagliaferri, Chris Antonetti…smart men all, men I would pick today to run my favorite team, but on the whole, they've done a poor job over the past five years. Being a sabermetrics-friendly team doesn't make you immune to failure, and it certainly shouldn't make you immune to criticism when you fail. You can add a fifth big move here that was an effect of the first four -- the Ublado Jimenez trade, which hasn't made the Indians any better, was necessitated by the lack of pitching acquired in the Sabathia and Lee deals and the amount of money invested in Sizemore and Hafner.

If the Royals had a track record like this, they'd get more attention. It's only fair to point out that the Indians have become the counterexample to the Rays, the proof that embracing performance analysis and hiring smart people and blending stats and scouting doesn't always lead to the promised land. The Indians show that stathead teams sometimes fail, too.