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Saturday, February 28, 2004

Mortar and Trowel: Thoughts On Team Building

I was working on a tiling project in my bathroom Thursday night. It's taken me a lot longer than I thought it would, and I made at least one key discovery along the way: never use three-hour-old thinset mortar still in the bucket from before lunch. Throw it out and start over. (The tiles have a tendency to fall off if you don't.) But, be that as it may, my tiling project got me thinking about building other things, in particular, baseball teams, and how to go about it. In the span of five years, the Florida Marlins showed two very different approaches to this job.

The first pass came in the 1990's after Wayne Huizenga, the garbage magnate, bought the expansion Marlins. (Huizenga's involvement in the garbage industry, notorious for its mob connections, and subsequent creation of Blockbuster Video, an all-cash business, has never sit well with me. You can find an anti-Horatio Alger bio of him here if you're interested.) He decided he wanted to buy a title -- and proceeded to boost payroll buying players like Kevin Brown, Moises Alou, Gary Sheffield, Bobby Bonilla, and Alex Fernandez. The team's collective salary was $47 million, an incredible figure at the time for a small market team. In fact, here's a breakdown of 1997 final standings with payroll rankings:

TeamDivisionFinishPayrollDiv. PR
Rank
BaltimoreAL East1st$54.9M2nd
NYAL East2nd (WC)$59.1M1st
ClevelandAL Central1st$54.1M2nd
SeattleAL West1st$39.7M2nd
AtlantaNL East1st$50.5M1st
FloridaNL East2nd (WC)$47.8M2nd
HoustonNL Central1st$32.9M3rd
San FranciscoNL West1st$33.5M3rd

For the most part, you had to be first or second in spending to win your division. The anomalous Giants (behind the Dodgers and, unbelievably, Padres) and Astros (trailing the Cards and Cubs) provided the exceptions to the rule, but since both were erased in the playoffs, attentive GM's learned a lesson that was about to get expensive for everybody. The path to the postseason was clear: purchase the services of free agents, and lots of them. But those free agents were about to get a lot more expensive.

Of course, the next year, Huizenga had a fire sale, his team unable to support the payroll level he had established. In 1998, the Marlins finished 54-108, dead last in the NL East and the worst record in baseball. The next year, in exchange for their awfulness, they acquired Josh Beckett in the first round, the second overall pick of the 1999 amateur draft. And thus began the recapitulation of a story about how winning might be possible: through the farm.

Push The Button, My Friend, Take Me Back Into Time

It's easy now to wax trite about the vices of free agency and the virtues of the farm, especially after the 2002 and 2003 World Series. But the evidence of the farm's long-term benefit was present even when Kevin Malone was drawing exactly the wrong conclusion from the 1997 postseason. Before I indulge myself, let's take a look at that year's postseason teams and ask a hopefully useful question: how many of their core starting players, defined by 300 or more at bats or listed as a starter (pitcher or player) on Baseball-Reference.com, were brought up from the farm?

TeamEligible
Players
Former
Farmhands
Notes
Orioles153
Yankees163Posada was on the team but contributed few AB's this year.
Indians147
Mariners145
Braves148Smoltz came up with the Braves but was not drafted by them. I count him as a farmhand.
Marlins155The Fish were an expansion team, which explains the large number of farmhands.
Astros125The Astros used a four-man rotation in 1997.
Giants153Shawn Estes came up with the Giants, so I count him as a farmhand. Wilson Alvarez and Osvaldo Hernandez, while counting as farmhands, both pitched so few innings as starters (66 1/3 and 56 1/3, respectively) that they have been dropped.

Clearly, the Braves had the most productive farm system, followed by the Indians, Marlins, Astros, and Mariners, and then the rest. And while the Marlins won the pennant that year, the Braves won their division, as they have continued to do to this day. Cleveland, in the Central, was in the midst of a surge that had them winning six division titles and two pennants. In a thread on the Angels' fan forum about Moneyball, Stephen Smith of Future Angels had this to say about the relationship between the Braves, the farm system, and solid teams:

... keep in mind that teams with poorer win-loss records in the prior year get higher draft picks. Given the natural cycle over time, the idea behind the draft was to at least provide all teams with an opportunity to improve themselves. It may take ten years or more for this cycle to play out.

The A's are the classic example. They had mini-dynasties in the early 1970s, the late 1980s-early 1990s, and then started upward again in the late 1990s. Inbetween, they had some horrific teams -- which meant they were drafting higher than other teams for several years in a row.

Last winter I began to research this "circle of life," to see if since the draft began what was the relationship between a parent club's win-loss record over time and the cumulative win-loss record each year of its minor league teams. Given the theory being tested, if correct we should see something like a helix, or put another way a "bubble" in the minors preceding a later "bubble" in the majors.

Sure enough, I saw that pattern with the A's.

It was less apparent in other organizations. Some organizations like the Angels were quite peripatetic, because player development philosophy constantly changed based on the whim of the owner. The Braves, certainly the most consistantly dominant team in the last decade, actually had a lot of losing years in the minors even though they were regularly pumping out minor league talent, because they signed more players than everyone else. While most teams carried five or six minor league teams, the Braves had seven or eight until Major League Baseball standardized the minor league structure with the 1997 Basic Agreement. So the Braves did it with volume. [emphasis mine]

So the Braves' large number of homegrown players should come as no surprise given their operations during that era. But even allowing for that, Smith's research -- which he unfortunately didn't present in more detail -- provides an interesting glimpse into forecasting major league teams' success on the field by looking at their minor league stats. And while it's a statement he would later amend, Atlanta's steady dominance of their division versus Florida's 1997 Wild Card supernova would seem to make the Braves the authors of "how to win" textbooks.

The Necessity Of Farmhands

Among those not reading from that textbook, however, was Kevin Malone, whose notorious squandering of club resources has been well-documented and lamented elsewhere. Most infamously, he neglected the team's once legendary farm system, leaving new GM Dan Evans to replenish a desert. Since Evans brought in Logan White to run the Dodgers' vast scouting department, the club has had two highly regarded drafts. Highly regarded by who, though? So far, it's two groups: Baseball America, and other GMs. Josh Boyd, now gone on to work as a scout for the Padres, said in his Dodgers system chat that the system is the best in the NL West. Jim Callis ranked the Dodgers system fourth in the majors overall. And, GMs all over baseball were hot for our top pitching prospects Greg Miller and Edwin Jackson, guys like Kenny Williams of the Chisox (for Magglio Ordoñez), Theo Epstein ( for Nomar), Doug Melvin (for Richie Sexson), and Dave Littlefield (last year, for Brian Giles).

While such speculation makes for good for watercooler fodder, whether it translates to wins on the field later is another story, a point Jon and Mariners Wheelhouse made earlier. The farm is great, the farm is good, but only the games at the major league level count. Trouble is, a strong farm is a requirement; few teams can afford to consistently (that word is important) buy their way to a pennant. It's commonly said that the exception to this rule is the Yankees... or is it? The 80's-era Yanks tried to buy their way to glory, to no avail; so have others tried in vain. This week in Baseball Prospectus, Steven Goldman discusses the Peter Angelos of his day: Thomas Yawkey. Yawkey tried to buy a championship in the 30's, an era when "rival teams [were] 'freely' giving away talent". But of course, we all know that it didn't work. Goldman says this is for two reasons:

[It's] almost impossible to buy enough [players] to staff an entire ballclub. Not only will the pool of available talent, at its deepest, be unequal to the demand (note that even this year's Yankees, who have acquired a number of big-ticket items from more conservative clubs, have not been able to buy certainty for their starting rotation) but buying off the rack forces a team to be overly dependent on making the right selections--that is, on luck. A team that chooses to bank on stars rather than on depth faces a greater risk of having no fallback should their star prove to be infirm, unreliable, or simply on the way down. The large influx of talent that comes with developing a strong minor league system gives a team the depth to survive its own misjudgments.
Even assuming those questioning the quality of the recent Dodger drafts have valid points, the fact that these players were established when the team had relatively low first-round picks is impressive. Maybe White got lucky, but based on baseball's reaction, he got awfully lucky, awfully fast, and frequently. More so with pitching than hitting -- this is a subject for another day -- but pitching can be traded for hitting. While the Dodgers aren't yet in a position to be able to do that, they soon will be. Even though there's a lot of variables -- McCourt's lack of scratch is a big one -- at least we can say the Dodgers have a strong farm system. That's one thing out of the way.

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