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:
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.