Figures of Attendance, Part III—the Genius Can’t Conjure Fans to Come to the Park

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When discussing attendance and its connectivity or lack of connectivity to publicity and results, how can we ignore the Athletics? They’re still pining for a new park in San Jose with the Giants an example of how a new, fan friendly park can help attendance. Would a new ballpark in Oakland help the A’s replicate what the Giants have done? No. The A’s have rarely drawn fans when they were on top of the world and not; when they were the subject of creative non-fiction like Moneyball to turn their GM Billy Beane into a deity or when they were awful for years and living off their GM’s reputation of being “smarter than the average bear”. A new ballpark in Oakland isn’t going to fix that. It’s a football town and the current population doesn’t have the money to pay for the seats no matter how reasonably priced some of them are. The A’s of the late-1980s were an anomaly because they were the highest-paid team in baseball despite not having the resources to be that if the owner ran the club as a business. The Haas family saw the team as a local and public trust; they were willing to take a loss financially to win on the field and they did. When the landscape changed, so did the attendance and payroll. When the Beane-A’s were in their heyday and winning 100 games in 2003, they still wound up 8th in attendance. The 2012 A’s have a good, young team and are 12th in the AL in attendance. That won’t change unless they get the new park in San Jose, something the Giants are understandably resisting.

The Giants did it right for their market. They build around Barry Bonds when he was the home run king and putting up cartoon numbers to go along with his cartoon muscles; they let it decline to 90 losses when they were making the transition from “build around Barry” to “build around pitching” and they’re drawing near the top of the NL again.

Much like the simplistic nature of the argument from stat people who suggest that every team should be run a certain way, it’s a logistical impossibility for the Yankees or Red Sox to allow their clubs to degenerate to 100+ losses and maintain fan attendance, advertising, concession sales and other ancillary moneymakers as the Rays, Astros and Athletics have. Phillies’ GM Ruben Amaro Jr. tried to maintain a winning club while preparing for the future with a deep farm system when he basically exchanged Cliff Lee for Roy Halladay and prospects in a frenzied series of deals. But it didn’t work and fan anger was palpable enough, team struggles so evident that the plan was abandoned in the middle of the 2010 season when he traded for Roy Oswalt and re-signed Lee as a free agent after the 2010 season. He signed his veteran players like Ryan Howard to ludicrous contracts; imported Jonathan Papelbon; ignored the draft and gutted the system. The team has come apart and the Phillies’ oft-mentioned sellout streak has ended.

No kidding.

The Phillies’ fans are quick to jump on and off the bandwagon and boo everything that goes by while on it. The team is 10 games under .500 and has conceded the season with their trades of Hunter Pence, Shane Victorino, and by again listening to offers on Lee. Of course the fans are going to find other things to do.

With these clubs, it’s win and they’ll come back. Simple.

The Rays are allowed to run their team as they do because of the lack of interest on the part of the fans; because the media isn’t hounding them to do something; because they’re not maintaining attendance—there’s no attendance to begin with.

The Astros are in total flux right now and are tantamount to an expansion team preparing to play in the American League in 2013; they’re on the way to losing 110 games and GM Jeff Luhnow has cleared the decks of every veteran on his roster. He’s getting a pass because the team was so rancid when he arrived and there’s a new owner in place and they’re as bad as a team gets right now. He’s new and there’s nowhere to go but up.

Read Part II here.

Read Part I here.

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Myers to the Bullpen and Luhnow’s Betrayal

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It must’ve been a kick to the gut of the hard core stat people who felt that they finally had one of their own running a club in the way they would run a team if given the opportunity when the GM of the Astros, Jeff Luhnow, okayed the move of Brett Myers from starter to closer.

The reactions ranged from anger to bewildered to non-answer answers in trying to “protect” Luhnow because they don’t want to put forth the impression of infighting in the mostly monolithic “this is how to do it” world of hardline stat-based theory.

Luhnow doesn’t need your protection and obviously, he’s not going to follow a specific set in stone blueprint in running his club.

The underlying sense I got from the responses I saw on Twitter were indicative of righteous indignation and the feeling of betrayal as if a spouse had cheated on them.

(Insert your stat guy/spouse joke here.)

“But, but, but…you’re one of us!!!”

In truth, the shifting of Myers to the bullpen can be argued both ways.

He was a good closer with the Phillies in 2007 and enjoyed the role, the adrenaline rush and the game-on-the-line aspect of doing to the job.

He’s a durable starter who can give a club 200 innings and, at times, pitch well.

The Astros need a closer because they don’t trust Brandon Lyon and the other candidates—David Carpenter and Juan Abreu—are inexperienced.

What you have to do in trying to understand the Astros’ thinking is examine what the long-term strategy is.

They’re not going to be a good team either way and when they are, Myers is not going to be on the roster in any capacity, so how would having Myers for 2012 best help expedite their rebuilding project?

Myers’s contract pays him a guaranteed $14 million with $11 million for 2012, a $10 million club option for 2013 and a $3 million buyout.

Teams have frequently overpaid for good relievers as opposed to mediocre starters in trades in recent years. The Nationals got Wilson Ramos for Matt Capps; the Rangers gave up young talent for Koji Uehara, Mike Gonzalez and Mike Adams; the Rangers got Mike Napoli for Frank Francisco and got David Murphy for Eric Gagne.

What would be the most lucrative return on Myers at mid-season? It depends on whether he’s pitching as he did last season as a starter or as he did in 2010; either way, he probably wouldn’t be a contributor in the post-season for a team that gets him in that role. But as a reliever he would be more attractive to teams with their eyes on post-season help.

It’s cold reasoning not in the Astros using Myers for themselves on the field, but using him to get a few pieces to make themselves better in the future.

Moving Myers to the bullpen could end up being seen as a smart move.

At least there’s an argument for it.

But stat people are reacting as if Luhnow has betrayed them and it displays the lack of in-the-trenches understanding of how to run a team that led them to relying on stats rather than intuitive, subjective interpretations of circumstances to begin with.

They’re a crutch.

Crunching numbers, reading and regurgitating lines off a stat sheet and steering an organization by rote is not how a successful team can and should be run.

Jeff Luhnow knows that.

Do you?

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Jeff Luhnow’s Petri Dish and The Sporting News Misogynist

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Apart from getting webhits for saying something stupidly controversial and drawing the ire of, well, everyone, I’m not sure as to the purpose of this Stan McNeal Sporting News piece about new Astros GM Jeff Luhnow filling out his front office with like-minded people who adhere to stats above all else.

Whether Luhnow’s way is going to work or not is a matter of conjecture. It’s a petri dish of statistical thought and implementation that hasn’t truly been tried before.

J.P. Ricciardi took Moneyball to its logical conclusion by mostly following the book’s tenets to the letter and his results were up-and-down; Paul DePodesta used stats and a total disregard for humanity to destroy the Dodgers and was fired after 20 months; the Rays altered the plot and used a load of high draft picks, fearlessness, intelligence in both old and new school techniques to build a team that made the playoffs in three of the past four years without any money and a rotten ballpark, but no one has done what Luhnow is clearly going to do and has had the time to see if it can succeed.

The posting linked is intentionally offensive and I don’t understand why someone who believes differently would attack his opponent like that. But it’s his column and the Sporting News that has to answer for one of their writers posting it; it’ll resolve itself.

As for the Astros hirings, are you now starting to see why Walt Jocketty and Tony LaRussa viewed Luhnow with jaundiced eyes and were threatened by his presence when he joined the Cardinals? He had the ear of the owner and was coming at baseball decisions from a foreign train of thought diametrically opposed to what they were accustomed to; add in that Jocketty and LaRussa were men with credentials being forced to adhere to a new blueprint and it wasn’t because what they were doing wasn’t working—they’d won doing it their way. Both men could’ve left the Cardinals and would’ve had their choices of jobs immediately.

It’s no wonder the situation got so messy that Jocketty was fired and LaRussa had to resort to sharp-elbowed infighting to get his way.

Is this Luhnow’s fault?

No.

The situation was difficult and the Cardinals fought through the dysfunctional factions and still won.

Now Luhnow’s off on his own and is receiving free rein from the Astros new owner Jim Crane.

“Director of Decision Sciences” is a pompous and ridiculous title for a job anywhere—not just in baseball—but Sig Mejdal fits into what Luhnow wants to create. McNeal calling Stephanie Wilka a “cheerleader” as the lead to her impressive resume and education is idiotic, plain and simple.

If the Astros become a success, the overwhelming probability is that it won’t specifically be because of Luhnow’s stat based theories nor the people he’s hired, but because they’re going to have the number 1 pick in the draft in 2012; they’ll probably have the number 1, 2 or 3 pick in 2013; and are a good bet to be picking that high in 2014 as well.

High draft picks are an equalizer to lots of mistakes as long as Luhnow and his people don’t get too clever.

And they might.

We don’t know.

This is actually a circumstance where I’d dearly love to see draft picks available for trade. What would Luhnow do? Would he pull a Jimmy Johnson NFL move and package the top pick for a series of lower round choices and try to re-stock the organization? Is there a consensus number one pick a la Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper in 2012? MLB is missing a golden opportunity to make the draft irresistibly attractive for something other than hype and manufactured stories about players we’ve never heard of and will likely never see in the big leagues.

Luhnow’s ridiculed predecessor as Astros’ GM, Ed Wade, also gave the club a few pieces upon which to build with Brett Wallace, Jonathan Singleton and J.A. Happ. It’s not much for what’s essentially an expansion team, but it’s something.

The problem the Astros and Luhnow have is that everyone is looking for undervalued talent and using the same numbers to find it. How can you find undervalued talent if there’s nothing left to undervalue?

You can’t.

In the coming years, we’re going to see the end result of the stat-based building of a team from scratch by a front office comprised of baseball outsiders crunching numbers. Doing what McNeal did and issuing misogynistic and ignorant proclamations in the guise of “news” and “analysis” is not forwarding the argument for those who, like me, don’t believe that Luhnow’s way is going to work.

McNeal’s not making a case based on anything. He wanted attention and he got it. It’s not a good way to go about getting it and presumably, he’ll pay the price for being a fool. And he’ll deserve it.

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The Objective Truth About Luhnow

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Simultaneously searching for a greater understanding through objective analysis, the stat people have taken to using subjectivity to bolster the resumes of the like-minded whether it’s accurate or not.

In this NY Times article by Tyler Kepner, the new Astros GM Jeff Luhnow has his work glossed over in such a way to bypass how he got into the game; the issues that surrounded him with the Cardinals; and that he’s doled credit without full details nor the assignation of blame.

Luhnow was hired by the Cardinals in the heady days following the publication of Moneyball—before the story was proven to be a skillfully written fabrication. The specific purpose of the book was to prop up the supposed “genius” of Billy Beane and designed to document the antiquated nature of those who hadn’t been educated at an Ivy League school, didn’t use numbers as the end-all of existence and trusted their in-the-trenches experience and their eyes to assess players.

Immediately Luhnow became seen as a threat to veteran GM Walt Jocketty and manager Tony LaRussa. He had the ear of owner Bill DeWitt and the organization set about altering the draft strategy. In addition to that, the organizational pitching philosophy, which had been designed by pitching coach Dave Duncan, was scrapped much to the chagrin of Duncan, LaRussa and Jocketty.

The front office had broken into factions with the old-schoolers battling the new age thinkers who, like Luhnow, were imported from other industries and whose presence was viewed as interloping on what they’d always done; what had been successful.

Kepner is sort of accurate (albeit with the count slightly off) when, in describing Luhnow’s first three drafts, he writes:

In those same years, St. Louis drafted 24 future major leaguers, the most of any team.

But is it spiritually accurate?

The list of big league players that Luhnow drafted from 2005-2007 are as follows:

2005: Colby Rasmus; Tyler Greene; Bryan Anderson; Mitchell Boggs; Nick Stavinoha; Daniel McCutchen; Ryan Rohlinger (did not sign); and Jaime Garcia.

2006: Adam Ottavino; Chris Perez; Jon Jay; Mark Hamilton; Shane Robinson; Allen Craig; P.J. Walters; David Carpenter; and Luke Gregerson.

2007: Pete Kozma; Clayton Mortensen; Jess Todd; Daniel Descalso; Michael Stutes (didn’t sign); Steven Hill; Andrew Brown; Brian Broderick; Tony Cruz; and Adron Chambers.

Apart from Garcia, is there one player that jumps out so you can say, “Wow, what a great pick that was!”?

The drafts were pedestrian. Because 24 of the players drafted in those three years made it to the majors, it doesn’t imply “success”.

A player simply making it to the big leagues is contingent on a myriad of factors—some of those for Luhnow are that the players were traded away for veteran help; such veteran help generally only comes from a team that is in need of young talent because they don’t have the money to keep the veteran players they’re dealing away, so they’ll be more open to giving prospects a chance in the big leagues.

Just as wins and losses have become a borderline irrelevant barometer in determining how well or poorly a pitcher has pitched in a given season, the number of big leaguers produced in a draft is rendered meaningless as well.

There’s little-to-no correlation between a draft being judged as “good” and the players making it to the majors for a token appearance.

Succeeding Jocketty, Mozeliak was placed in a position where he had to assuage his cantankerous veteran manager LaRussa (sometimes “yes-ing” him to death to keep him quiet) while fulfilling the mandate of ownership that became clear when they hired Luhnow in the first place.

This was a subtle and underappreciated accomplishment by Mozeliak.

Were the late round players who made it to the big leagues—some of which became star-caliber like Garcia—the result of change in philosophy spurred by Luhnow’s presence? Or was it typical luck that has to be present as it was when Jocketty’s operation picked Albert Pujols in the 13th round of the 1999 draft?

The trades that Kepner brings up came as a result of LaRussa’s sharp-elbowed infighting to get what he wanted due to his stature and accumulated credibility from years of winning his way. They had nothing to do with Luhnow in a concrete sense.

The perception of a star player like Matt Holliday being available via trade is connected to his contract status; he was not re-signing with the Athletics and the 2009 A’s were playing poorly, so they traded him for some players that had been drafted under Luhnow.

One thing doesn’t justify the other.

Luhnow is in a less contentious position with the Astros than he was when he entered baseball as an outsider in 2003. With a new owner; a barren farm system; and essentially an expansion roster, he’s free to do whatever he wants from top-to-bottom and hire people who are of similar mind and will implement what he believes.

But it’s got nothing to do with what he did as a Cardinals executive because his contribution was secondary to having a Hall of Fame manager and a GM who was adept at placating those with differing philosophies that were trying to push him in one direction or another.

If anyone deserves the credit for the Cardinals ability to navigate these issues and still win, it’s Mozeliak.

Will Luhnow be a Paul DePodesta? Someone with the knowledge of numbers and solid resume but was unable to deal with the ancillary aspects of the big job? Or will he be a Jon Daniels? One who overcame a rocky start and muddled ownership/managerial situation, but has become one of the best, if not the best GM in baseball?

We won’t know until we know.

Luhnow’s getting his chance now. He’s the boss of the Astros. For better. Or worse.

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