Given the competitive nature of the baseball industry, teams don’t go around spilling their secrets. If a team had a perfect formula for predicting injuries, it wouldn’t be in their interest to give that jewel away to the teams they are trying to beat on the field. The same is true, to a lesser extent, with player evaluations. If a team thinks the league is overrating one of its prospects because the league doesn’t have complete information, it doesn’t benefit the team to tell the league why it’s wrong.
As a result of this dynamic, we always have to take public comments from clubs with a grain of salt. Comments from team officials are designed to serve the team’s interest and that means they don’t always reveal the complete truth. We accept this as part of life, but generally expect teams to be somewhat constrained by things that sound true. For example, if the Braves had discovered some type of flaw with Shelby Miller, they wouldn’t have told everyone they were shopping him because he was due to break down. They would say they were shopping him because he’s a valuable player and they’re looking to rebuild. The latter isn’t totally untrue, it’s just not the full truth.
Teams know things they don’t want to share and we assume they only share things that serve their interest. Sometimes it’s about public relations, sometimes it’s strategy, and sometimes it’s to build good will with the media. There are lots of reasons that teams might choose to share information, but in most cases they’re not forced to say anything at all. Most of the time, teams say what we expect them to say. A lot of the time it’s largely the truth, but sometimes it isn’t.
Setting aside the routine manager press conferences and player interviews, most of the messages we get from major league teams are unremarkable. The Tigers said positive things about Justin Wilson when they traded for him. The Mariners said they’re looking for another free agent reliever. It’s all very run-of-the-mill.
Yet occasionally someone makes a comment that stands out for its wisdom or lack thereof. We latch onto those because we’re baseball junkies and want to dissect everything that happens in the game. High-level team executives are knowledgeable and experienced and we want to listen to them when they’re sharing wisdom and we enjoy poking fun at them when they seem to misstep.
There’s an entire genre of blog posts devoted to critiquing people who make anti-analytical and anti-modern comments regarding the game. If a GM cites RBI after a trade, we mock them. When Ruben Amaro brought up how many wins Kyle Kendrick had in comparison to Matt Garza a couple years back, we had a good laugh. We think of these comments as moments when generally smart people are showing their gaps in knowledge. If they’re relatively minor lapses, it’s a fun moment on Twitter. If they’re more substantial, it might be frustrating for the fan base.
But one organization, and one GM in particular, has steered into the skid regarding strange public comments. There’s obviously variation in the quality of front offices, but most organizations’ public comments sound similar. Except the Diamondbacks’ — and Dave Stewart’s, in particular.
Stewart has made a series of comments during his first year with Arizona that sound far outside what you would expect a GM to think and say. Let’s review!
“I think James is a throwback guy by the way he goes about his business and the innings he pitches. I think the fact that Tony (La Russa) is here and that we have more baseball people — he probably sees us as a true baseball team vs. some of the other teams out here that are geared more toward analytics and those type of things.”
Not only was Stewart suggesting that non-analytics teams are “true” teams, he actually suggested a player would take less money to play for that kind of team:
“Sometimes, there are concessions the player will make to be here. It’s the case that he likes what we’re doing with our organization from our end, all we can hope is that there will be concessions enough that he can be here.”
The idea that stat-friendly teams aren’t playing the right brand of baseball is a popular enough opinion. It’s a little silly to suggest that teams that use statistical analysis to make decisions aren’t true teams given that basically every team embraces that kind of analysis in some way, but it’s not like Stewart opened with anything preposterous. The kicker is that Stewart proposed the idea that a player would take less money to be around “true” baseball people.
This is the kind of comment that sounds a little detached from the reality of the market. Players typically go with the team that offers the most money and when soft factors come into play, they are often focused on location and other quality of life issues. It’s not impossible that Shields would have preferred a more old-school team, but it’s a very unusual thing to use as a reason for taking less money.
So this statement is probably not true, but it could easily be read as an honest belief about the best way to run a team and a little defensive tribalism. We made fun of this comment, but this alone wouldn’t earn anyone a reputation.
In June, Stewart and the Diamondbacks traded Touki Toussaint to the Braves for $10 million. It wasn’t a straight swap, but the other players involved essentially made the deal a Toussaint-for-cash sale. The trade itself drew criticism because the general perception was that Toussaint’s value was higher than $10 million and the Diamondbacks could have gotten a larger return.
Presumably, the team could have known something that made them want to unload Toussaint in June, but people didn’t generally think the Diamondbacks got a very good deal even if we accept that making a deal was a smart move in general. And that’s fine, teams make bad decisions all the time. What made it weird was Stewart’s public defense.
“The truth is we did not know what Touki’s value would be if we shopped him. There is a lot of speculation on that. People are assuming it would have been better, but we don’t know.”
“There was an opportunity to make a deal that gave us more flexibility today as well as next year. We took that opportunity. It’s tough to say we could have gotten more. He was drafted at No. 16, given ($2.7) million. In my opinion, that’s his value.
“To this point, he has pitched OK, he has pitched well. But guys are mentioning that he throws 96 mph. He hasn’t thrown 96 mph since he’s been here. We haven’t seen 96 once. There is some inflation of what people think Touki is.
“We think he’ll be a major-league pitcher. We don’t see it happening in the next three or four years. Maybe five or six years down the road, he’ll show up and be a major-league pitcher. But that is a long ways down the road.”
The last two paragraphs provide a justification for why the Diamondbacks wanted to deal him. I won’t argue if that was their honest assessment of him as a player. The second paragraph, however, is worth noting. Stewart suggested that Toussaint’s value was equal to his salary (technically his bonus). This is comically wrong. Even if you don’t like Toussaint as a prospect, there is no argument to be made that he is worth exactly his slot value in a trade.
For one, that supposes that a player’s value is defined by an arbitrary financial structure that has nothing to do with the individual involved. The slot values are set by the league and aren’t tied to the players who are drafted there. If a Mike Trout-caliber prospect was taken 1-1 this year and a Trevor Bauer-caliber prospect was taken 1-1 the next year, no one would suggest those players are equally valuable just because they would have similar slot values.
Second, Stewart’s comments suggest a lack of understanding of the economics of the game. Young players’ compensation is artificially held down by the CBA. They are limited in what they can make prior to free agency but their ability to produce on the field is not constrained. Kris Bryant was better than Mike Napoli last year but Bryant was paid far less because he hasn’t earned service time. His value is his production minus his cost, not simply his cost.
These comments would have been fine if Stewart had said he was worth about $10 million because that’s about what he got for him. If Stewart was suggesting he didn’t get a bad deal, that’s a matter of interpretation he could pitch based on his perception of Toussaint and the market. But hanging the $2.7 million figure on him makes no sense. It defies logic that he would think or say it. It’s reasonable to defend the deal you made, but the way he defended it was clearly not in line with reality.
Remember at the trade deadline when the Padres were shopping everyone? The Diamondbacks reportedly asked about picking up Craig Kimbrel. The idea of trading for him may have seemed a bit odd to us, but you could justify it as a baseball move if you tried. The weird part was what Stewart said about the negotiations with A.J. Preller. From Nick Piecoro’s story on the events:
“I don’t know if it was not wanting to trade in the division,” Stewart said, “but I can tell you the quality of players that they asked for, including our first baseman, Goldschmidt—”
Stewart was interrupted by one of the hosts, who asked if he was saying what it sounded like he was saying – that the Padres wanted Goldschmidt for Kimbrel.
“Now you get it,” Stewart said. “I’ve had some dealings with their club during the winter meetings. You can’t fault a club for asking. You never know. On a given day, maybe I was injected with some kind of drug that would make me say yes.”
But when speaking with reporters at Minute Maid Park, Stewart was somewhat less definitive as to just how serious the Padres were being in their request.
“I don’t know if it was realistic or if it was play,” Stewart said, “but we don’t talk about Goldy in any deals and no team has approached me in the almost year that I’ve been here about Goldy, so I was kind of shocked to hear that.
“Like I said, I don’t know if there was sincerity in it, but, yeah, the name did come up.”
A Padres source was adamant that the mention of Goldschmidt was not serious.
Both sides admitted that Preller asked for Goldschmidt, but Stewart spoke like he perceived it as a somewhat earnest request. There are a lot of moving parts here, so let’s review some options.
First, maybe the Padres were dead serious and Stewart had the right reaction. Second, maybe the Padres were joking, Stewart knew it, and Stewart wanted to embarrass them for some reason. Third, perhaps the Padres were joking and Stewart didn’t realize it.
It strikes me as odd that Stewart brought it up as if the Padres made a serious offer. To embarrass the Padres, Stewart would seemingly have had to open by calling out Preller for not being serious. But Stewart gives the idea that it was serious some credence, which is strange.
Stewart’s actual reaction, to reject the premise of the deal, is correct, so we can’t fault him too much. But this was a strange instance in which a GM talked openly about another GM’s (possibly) outlandish proposal. This doesn’t necessarily speak to Stewart as foolish, but it does place him outside the mainstream of GM comments.
Earlier this week, Stewart and the Diamonbacks traded three pretty valuable pieces for Shelby Miller. The trade was widely panned as an overpay, with Ender Inciarte, Aaron Blair, and Dansby Swanson heading to Atlanta. Leaving the merits of the trade aside, Stewart’s comments in the aftermath were the stuff of legend. From Tim Brown’s summary:
Reminded – or, perhaps, informed – that he gave an excessive amount to acquire Miller, Stewart, stone-faced, responded, “I would say that is incorrect. That’s three players. And, believe me, they’re very highly regarded players, but three players do not make our future.”
Besides, he said, a year ago Miller was traded for outfielder Jason Heyward, “And right now Jason Heyward is looking for $200 million. So we got a guy, quite frankly, if you value it that way, we got great value.”
The first paragraph is a little strange, but he slides head first into first in the second one. His defense of the trade is that Miller is really valuable because he was traded for a guy that is about to make $200 million. If you are trying to give him the benefit of the doubt, maybe he’s saying that “we think Miller is great. I mean, just look at who he was traded for last year. You don’t trade bad players for superstars!” But that requires a really generous interpretation. It sounds a lot like he’s equating Heyward to Miller without recognizing the influence either of team control or salary.
On its own, you could call it clunky phrasing, but in concert with the Toussaint comments, it reads like he doesn’t know how to value players and also doesn’t know that he doesn’t know how to value players, given that he talks so openly about it.
To recap, in the last eleven months, Stewart has said:
- A player might take less money to play for a non-stat head team.
- Prospects’ values are equal to their signing bonuses.
- Preller was seriously trying to get Goldschmidt for Kimbrel.
- Miller is valuable because Heyward is about to be rich.
I think there are three basic ways to view this. First, Stewart doesn’t really know what he’s doing and his comments reflect that truth. If you take all of these at face value, Stewart does not come across as qualified for his position. If that’s true, it is a bit odd that La Russa continues to allow him to play such a prominent role publicly. Maybe it’s too early to admit he made a bad hire, but it seems odd to continue to allow someone you know isn’t capable of doing the job to get in front of reporters.
Second, maybe Stewart isn’t a good extemporaneous speaker and when he’s asked questions he just sort of riffs. If you ask him why he made a bad trade, maybe he isn’t good at walking through his reasoning on the spot and just chooses to offer silly defenses. Perhaps he doesn’t really think Toussaint is worth $2.7 million, but he didn’t really know how to articulate the decision very clearly and it just sort of came out. We all know people who are much better communicators if you give them some time to collect their thoughts.
Finally, I do kind of wonder if some of this is an act. I recognize that the Diamondbacks have made some weird trades and we want to cast them as a fool, but I also have a hard time believing anyone would actually think Toussaint’s value is equal to his bonus or that Miller is valuable because he was traded for a good player last year. I just don’t believe that Stewart could think those things and have a high-ranking job in baseball. Maybe I’m giving him too much credit, but I wonder if he’s saying some of this tongue-in-cheek and we just don’t get his sense of humor.
It’s not a huge stretch to think he’s someone who likes rocking the boat and these comments are part of some sort of persona he’s cultivating purposely. They don’t have to be mutually exclusive explanations. He could be a little lost, not super good on his feet, and also playing it up for the cameras all at once.
I’m not sure I’d want Dave Stewart at the helm of my favorite team, but I find him to be a fascinating part of the current game. He seems totally unaffected by ridicule. Even if he believes the strange things he says, it shouldn’t be that hard to avoid making comments that will invite harsh criticism. And most people want to avoid situations in which they’re the focus of that kind of joke. That makes Stewart compelling. As more and more front offices are starting to think, talk, and look the same, having someone like Stewart who is willing to push the boundaries of the ridiculous keeps things interesting.
Neil Weinberg is the Site Educator at FanGraphs and can be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44.