Why Is Ned Colletti’s Work With The Dodgers Forgotten?

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It’s to be expected that because Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti doesn’t fit today’s profile of what a GM is “supposed” to be, he won’t get any credit for the Dodgers’ blazing hot streak that has them suddenly declared World Series favorites. This is the same team that was on the verge of firing manager Don Mattingly in June and were hurtling toward a financial and on-field disaster. The easiest thing to do is to point to the club’s $220+ million payroll as a reason why they’re now in first place. Although the club’s turnaround has been due in part to their high-priced players Hanley Ramirez, Zack Greinke, Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, they’ve really been helped along by homegrown or found talent Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen, Hyun-jin Ryu and Yasiel Puig.

Puig is the big one because it was his recall that was seen as the catalyst and it was the decried decisions to pay big money for Ryu and Puig that are now paying significant dividends. Yet Colletti is an afterthought. If it was Billy Beane making these decisions, he would’ve been touted as a forward-thinking “genius” even while the team was struggling. Where are Colletti’s accolades?

The Puig signing was considered “puzzling.” The Ryu signing “foolish.” The Dodgers were torched for absorbing all those salaries from the Red Sox; for trading for Ramirez and moving him back to shortstop; for keeping Mattingly. Yet no one looks at the facts surrounding Colletti’s regime and that he’s dealt with circumstances that were nearly impossible to manage without the flexibility that comes from having spent a life in baseball in a variety of jobs and working his way up from public relations to the GM’s chair.

Having dealt with Frank McCourt’s circus and making the playoffs three times was enough to think that maybe he has an idea of how to run an organization. Now, amid all the talk of money, the fact is that the Dodgers turnaround was based on not blaming the manager for things he couldn’t control and a group of  players that Colletti’s staff selected.

With all the trades the Dodgers have made for veterans over the Colletti years, how many young players have they given up that are eliciting regret? Carlos Santana? He’s a good hitter, weak defensive catcher and not someone who’s missed. Rubby De La Rosa? He has a great arm and is wild. It’s going to take time to harness his control and then time to work on his command. Allen Webster? He’s a back-of-the-rotation starter, maybe. Where are these players the Dodgers should still have? The ones Colletti’s overaggressiveness cost them?

The convenient storyline is that Colletti doesn’t use the numbers as a be-all, end-all and therefore is a dinosaur that has to be euthanized through critical analysis from armchair experts. It’s when the team starts playing well that qualifications and silence are the responses. Coincidentally, Colletti was hired by the Dodgers after serving as an assistant to Giants GM Brian Sabean. Sabean saw his stellar work as the Giants’ GM diminished by the discovery of the “brains” behind the operation, Yeshayah Goldfarb. Also conveniently, few even knew who Goldfarb was before it became abundantly clear that the Giants two championships contradicted the narrative of stats, stats and more stats, so a “reason” was found for an old-schooler like Sabean to succeed. Except it doesn’t fit. It’s a plot device that fails. I’m expecting a similar type of clumsy, collateral attack against Colletti because the frontal attack is no longer working. Unfortunately, some people will buy it as the “truth.”

The Dodgers are lighting up the world and the person who should be given credit for it is the GM, but that’s not going to happen as long as there are these shrieking voices sitting in darkened rooms declaring how things “should” be and running away rather than admit they’re wrong and blow their cover.

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Lusting For Luhnow, Part II

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The narrative of Jeff Luhnow having been the scouting director who drafted the most players who opened the 2013 season on a Major League roster is taken far out of context in the effort to create a pithy and simple-minded conclusion that he was the mastermind behind the Cardinals and is a guarantee to rebuild the Astros in a similar manner.

Is it technically true that Luhnow has the most draftees on big league rosters in 2013?

Yes.

Is it accurate in its basest sense?

No.

The drafting of players is such a random thing and their making it or not making it is based on so many factors that have nothing to do with talent that it’s a meaningless assertion to make to credit any one person for it. How many high draft picks have flamed out and not made it to the degree they were supposed to? How many late-rounders became stars? Albert Pujols was with the Cardinals club that Luhnow supposedly built and was a 13th round draft pick. Chris Carpenter was a first round draft pick of the Blue Jays who was a combination of bad and injury-prone before he came under the tutelage of Dave Duncan and Tony LaRussa and was completely rebuilt into one of the best pitchers in baseball over the past decade.

No one in their right mind is going to try and take credit for Pujols as a 13th round pick and say they “knew” what he was. His selection was a combination of a late-bloomer, luck and who knows what else? The scouting director is the one who receives the credit, but in reality it’s the cross-checkers and in-the-trenches scouts who find the players to begin with and recommend them to the front office who decide which player they want. Much of it is innate talent, happenstance, teaching, and opportunity. To think that any club believes a player drafted from the 8th round and beyond will do anything significant in the majors is absurd. The ones who do are an anomaly, the product of a trick pitch, late growth spurts or PEDs.

Yet here we are. No matter what Luhnow does, it’s treated as if he’s reinventing the game and receiving undue credit for his new thinking. But we can’t avoid the reality that his current club is going to lose somewhere between 105 and 115 games in 2013. Does that not matter?

The fervent and evangelical support he’s receiving is akin to George W. Bush abandoning the pretense of Constitutional separation between church and state and holding up a Bible saying he answers to a higher authority while mega-churches prayed for his election and turned out en masse to make it happen. Instead of the New Testament, Luhnow is metaphorically holding up a copy of Baseball Prospectus and answering to that “higher authority” and plucking people from its staff to function as his assistants.

It’s sort of like Mitt Romney’s binder of women only it’s Luhnow’s paperback of stat geeks.

They have their impressive degrees, theories and worship from the masses who see them as examples of what they believe as if that’s the final word on what’s right. This is a conceit that is growing prevalent as its supporters are emboldened by increased validation, accurate or not. The congregation—the like-minded media, bloggers, and social media “experts”—spread the gospel and make ham-handed and pompous fumblings with “conversion.” It maintains the undertone of an insecure, “we don’t really believe it” desperation and whininess asking why others don’t see the “truth.”

Because Luhnow is adhering to his beliefs and has the support of the likes of Keith Law, he’s receiving a pass for this monstrosity into which he’s crafted the Astros as they play, not to compete, but to accumulate draft picks. The teams that have had success in recent years but have done it in a decidedly old-school manner and told the outside “experts” to take a hike, namely the Giants and their GM Brian Sabean, are not credited for what they’ve created with the GM failing to get the accolades he deserves. Instead, before the champagne in the carpet of the Giants’ clubhouse had even dried, the media made it a point to search for someone, anyone in the Giants organization who would bolster them and render meaningless the argument that Sabean’s old-school methods worked. What they found was Yeshayah Goldfarb who is the Giants “Moneyball” guy in a Moneyballless organization. Goldfarb, who few even knew existed before he was dragged into the spotlight, was the behind the scenes wizard who pulled Sabean’s strings and “really” crafted the Giants into a World Series winner in two of the past three years.

At least that’s how the story was framed.

So how’s it work? If the GM fits the aesthetic as Luhnow does, he’s a hero and if he doesn’t (like Sabean), he got help from a guy in a darkened room recommending the team sign Juan Uribe? If the storyline doesn’t translate neatly into some singular person being a “genius,” by believing what the baseball revolutionaries believe, a Goldfarb has to be found somewhere?

The Luhnow rhetoric stems from what “we’d” do with the “we” being the aforementioned bloggers, media and people on Twitter. But because the “we” agrees with what someone is doing doesn’t make it right; it doesn’t make it unassailable; and it doesn’t make someone a “genius” before they’ve accomplished anything at all other than accumulate a load of worshipful hype, driven payroll down as low as it can possibly go and put together one of the worst clubs in history.

Let’s wait on the smiling bust of Luhnow to be placed in the room of every would-be GM who’s memorized the latest edition of Baseball Prospectus and thinks that somehow qualifies him or her to be a GM and tell experienced baseball players, coaches, managers, and executives how to do their jobs. He’s done nothing up to now other than demolish what was admittedly a crumbled infrastructure. But anyone with a wrecking ball and sufficient motivation could’ve done that. So far he’s a media creation and nothing more.

Paul Lebowitz’s 2013 Baseball Guide is now available on Amazon.com, Smashwords, BN and Lulu. Check it out and read a sample.

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The Astros Experiment In Baseball Engineering

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When the Astros offered Tim Bogar a job to be their new bench coach, Bogar turned it down because the deal included a clause that he couldn’t interview for managerial jobs elsewhere. When discussing this somewhat odd demand, Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow said he didn’t comment on “human resource issues”.

Never before have I heard the words “human resources” referenced in a baseball context, especially by the GM.

This exemplifies the different tack the Astros are taking in rebuilding their club from what amounts to a moribund and barren expansion team. It’s an experiment in baseball engineering that continues from the hiring of Luhnow to the naming of a Baseball Prospectus writer Kevin Goldstein as their pro scouting coordinator, to the unique title they anointed on Sig Mejdal as “Director of Decision Sciences”. Yesterday, they continued the trend of loading their front office with the highly educated when they hired Harvard graduate David Stearns as assistant GM. Whether or not it works will be known only in retrospect, but it strikes me as a reinvention of the wheel. Because Luhnow is so immersed in data crunching, is beloved by stat people for his supposed success in building the Cardinals minor league system into the pipeline for talent, and is running such a horrific and mostly talentless organization, he’s receive carte blanche from owner Jim Crane to do what he wants.

The credit for the Cardinals is a shaky premise at best. Luhnow’s entry into baseball was rocky and stemmed from Bill DeWitt’s desire to recreate the club in the Moneyball image. The insertion of a total outsider who’d come from the corporate world was not taken well by the old-school baseball men in the Cardinals organization and eventually sowed the seeds for Walt Jocketty’s firing and Tony LaRussa’s sharp-elbowed infighting in which the future Hall of Fame manager won the power struggle. It’s easily glossed over that Luhnow was stripped of his power after the 2010 season. I wrote of Luhnow’s drafts in this posting immediately after he got the Astros job. The truth about anyone’s drafts is that there are so many factors that go into a player’s development that blaming Luhnow for Colby Rasmus or crediting him for Allen Craig is a partisan attempt on the part of the analyst depending on his beliefs. Supporters will say that Rasmus is a talent who was mishandled by LaRussa, critics will say that Rasmus is badly overrated. The credit/blame game can go on forever. But now Luhnow’s in charge of the Astros and he’s implementing what he believes. It’s admirable, but admiration doesn’t mean it’s going to succeed.

Does Goldstein have the qualifications to do the job for which he was hired? Is there a joint appraisal process in effect and if the scouts disagree with what the numbers say, who breaks the tie and how does he do it? Goldstein comes from Baseball Prospectus which, like the Ivy League, has become a mill for baseball front offices and in the media. BP has a tendency (if you read the back of their annuals) to relentlessly promote what they got right. “Look, we nailed this, that and the other thing” is a selling point without mentioning what they got wrong as if it was a matter of circumstance and if the players, managers, or front office people had done what they were expected to do, the numbers would’ve played out as correct. It’s a wonderful world to live in in which there’s no possibility of being defined wrong due to a constant shifting of the goalposts after the fact to make oneself right.

I’ve had people credit me for being right about the Red Sox pending disaster (I had them at 81-81; no one could’ve predicted 69-93) with Bobby Valentine and am quick to point out that I also picked the 98-loss Colorado Rockies to the win the NL West. To me, it gives more credibility to embrace the negative and understand why it happened and learn from it to be more accurate the next time.

There is no “way” to build a team nor to make accurate projections in a sport. Nate Silver has had his reputation launched into the stratosphere because of his brilliant and right-on-the-money work with predicting the Presidential election on Fivethirtyeight.com. Inexplicably, that has morphed into a validation of his PECOTA baseball system of predictions, but it’s comparing the Earth to Neptune. There’s no connection. Baseball is not politics and in spite of the different algorithms used to come to the results, it’s easier to calculate a voting bloc than it is to determine how Bryce Harper or Mike Trout are going to function as big leaguers; how the Red Sox players would react to Valentine.

Keeping on the political theme, what we’ve seen recently is baseball’s extreme left wing and extreme right wing grapple for a proximate cause as to why the Giants have won two of the past three World Series. Questions and assertions are popping up as to whether Giants GM Brian Sabean’s old-school sensibility and management style signaled the “end” of Moneyball or if Moneyball is still the “way”. Both premises are ridiculous. Assuming that the Giants’ championships discredit Moneyball is presuming that Moneyball was a solidly researched and accurate foundation to begin with instead of a fictionalized and twisted story that was crafted by a skillful and self-indulgent mythmaker, Michael Lewis.

Moneyball was never an actual “thing,” therefore it’s not something that had to be proven wrong because it wasn’t right in the first place.

On the other side, this piece on HardballTalk discusses a stat guy in the Giants’ front office named Yeshayah Goldfarb. The posting lavishes praise on Goldfarb and doubles as an apparent repudiation of anyone who dare question the value of Moneyball and numbers. It’s written that Goldfarb influenced the Giants acquiring and keeping the likes of Javier Lopez and Juan Uribe for the 2010 club.

Lopez? They needed a stat guy to suggest they trade for a sidearming lefty? They got Lopez from the Pirates who was only a Pirate because, in 2009, he was horrendous for another stat based club with the Red Sox and allowed to leave as a free agent where no team other than the Pirates made him a decent offer.

But the stat guy knew!!

Um…no.

The truth is it had nothing to do with numbers. It had to do with Lopez being a breathing left-handed pitcher. Nothing more. If Tony Fossas at 55(?) years old chose to make a comeback, there would be a team to have a look at him because he’s lefty. Period. And Uribe? Really? So the Giants had a brilliant group of numbers people who advised them to keep Uribe in 2010 and he became a post-season hero, but the non-stat based Dodgers signed Uribe after that season, he’s been a disaster, and Ned Colletti’s an idiot? Goldfarb also gets credit for Tim Lincecum and Buster Posey, yet no one other than a Jewish weekly knew who he was. Amazing. Is that how it works?

No. It’s not how it works in any manner other than looking back at what occurred and finding “reasons” to bolster one’s position. The “Yeah, we’re in!!!” aspect of Moneyball still lives as the front offices are infested with people who didn’t play baseball, but have calculations and college degrees to get them in and become the new age hires. But much like Moneyball and the Giants, there’s a clutching at credit for floating principles that can’t be quantified. If the Astros are in the playoffs in 2-3 years, there will be an explanation for it, but the bickering factions will use their own methodology to determine what it is—both might be right, both might be wrong and neither side will admit it.

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