Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Non-players in charge

One of the lowlights of Monday's Derek Falvey-Thad Levine presser -- as expected -- was Sid Hartman -- specifically his rambling demand that the duo "account for" the rise of front office bosses who didn't play pro ball.

(And one of the highlights was Levine's deadpan assurance that “I’m as offended as you are that this is happening.”)

In point of fact, there have always been people without on-field backgrounds running teams. The other day I discussed the Twins history of what we mean when we say "general manager" (the titles haven't always matched): Calvin Griffith, Howard Fox, Andy MacPhail, Terry Ryan, Bill Smith, Ryan again. One of those five men (Ryan) played minor league ball; none played in the majors.

But this is true: It is becoming increasingly rare for a former player to rise into a key front office job. There are many reasons, but one -- clearly in play in the specific example of the Twins new hires -- is the rise of analytics.

Major league baseball organizations are a bigger business than ever before. More revenue, more spending, more on the line. They are, typically, owned by people who have been highly successful in corporate America. These are people who are not only comfortable with the idea of drilling into the data about their businesses, they expect it from their underlings.

And they are increasingly unwilling to accept the magical romanticism that old-school baseball men frequently espouse. Twenty years ago, they didn't have much choice in the matter, but they have alternatives now.

Compare Torii Hunter's background to Falvey's. One signed a pro contract out of high school and spent his late teens, 20s and 30s playing baseball. The other spent those same years going to college and developing an intellectual skill set while climbing his way up the front office ladder.

Falvey is completely comfortable dissecting the torrent of data available in baseball today. Hunter, in the final few years of his career, was actively threatened by the defensive analytics that suggested that his on-field value was negligible. Hunter has said he is more interested in being a general manager than a field manager, but there is no way any team is going to go there.

There are diversity ramifications in this. The young men increasingly being tapped to run baseball operations are typically from elite universities and able to get started with unpaid internships. They are universially white and well-heeled. The age of analytics is creating a glass ceiling in baseball management. It's also rather similar to some of the economic barriers limiting African American youth from playing baseball -- the expense of travel teams, the lack of full athletic scholarships for college baseball.

Diversity on and off the field is, I believe, is a bigger problem for baseball than not having ex-players running the business. They are tangentially related; the only minority GMs I can think of off-hand were ex-players (Bob Watson, Kenny Williams, Ruben Amaro Jr., Dave Stewart), But it's connected to the specific skill set owners demand of their baseball ops bosses and the barriers that keep minorities from getting those skills.

But as the current crop of players become ever more comfortable with the analytics, that may change. One of the signficant developments in recent years has been the funnelling of distilled data from front offices to dugouts -- usable data that players can take advantage of on the field. It's not a foreign language anymore to these guys.

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