Executive Viewpoints: Structural Change with Regime Change

What happens when a team hires a new general manager or president of baseball operations? In most cases, a lot more than meets the eye. Behind the scenes, a number of structural changes take place. A smattering of them are less subtle in nature, and thus deemed newsworthy. The majority of changes go virtually unnoticed, sometimes because they’re known only within the inner workings of the organization.

In hopes of better understanding the dynamic, I queried multiple front office executives, all of whom requested anonymity. This article is comprised of their feedback, and is presented in blocks of interwoven quotes. With continuity in mind, the executive being quoted will often change from one paragraph to the next.

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“One thing we’ve seen over the years is a decrease in the number of longtime GMs. Twenty or thirty years ago a GM came on board and could count on staying in place for several years. That model no longer exists. There’s more turnover now, so any new group has to hit the ground running. Most groups try to shorten the learning curve by hiring people they know and trust to implement their philosophy. They try to put people in place to make a positive impact as quickly as possible.

“When J.P. Ricciardi became the GM in Toronto, there was a massive overhaul of the scouting staff. This past year saw the Dodgers make drastic changes in both international scouting and player development. Why were those changes made? I can’t speak for either group directly, but from a management perspective you need people you can trust to implement and execute your philosophy, whatever it might be.

“You can see the differences in Boston since Dave Dombrowski replaced Ben Cherington. Dave has clearly taken a different approach in building their roster. For instance, I don’t think the earlier group would have been as aggressive on David Price. The job of the support staff Dave retained in Boston remains the same. They are there to help him implement his philosophy, even if it differs from what they might have done under Ben.

“Why there is more turnover in general managers is something you probably need to ask an owner, because they decide when to hire or replace a GM. But if I were to speculate, I’d say some of it is due to the fact baseball has become such big business, and the decisions a GM makes has a lot more ramifications. There’s more pressure now to make smart decisions and make them quickly.

“In the most basic sense, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. If there was only one way to run a winning team, everyone would do it. As it is, every club has a slightly different philosophy for identifying and/or developing players. Sometimes it’s the front office and the traits they value. Sometimes it’s the manager or coaches and the way they feel players should be used. Sometimes it’s ballpark specific. In most cases it’s a combination of all those things and more.

“Speaking hypothetically, let’s say a team’s GM changed from Billy Beane to Dave Stewart. Each has publicly expressed different philosophies toward building a club. The staff supporting them would then have to adjust the way they gather information, because that information will be used differently by the new person at the top. The job of scouts and coaches in the field is to gather, interpret and present information in the way their department heads want. Ultimately, that’s what support staff are paid to do.

“Advance scouting is an area where we see this dynamic. Every GM/manager combination has their own take on the information needed to prepare for and manage a game. It’s the responsibility of the advance scouting staff – whether video or live look – to make sure that information is presented in a format the new GM and manager can use.

“I think what is maybe going to change in Toronto is that Alex Anthopoulos was extremely analytical, but also very creative. Not to say that the new group, under Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins, won’t be creative, but I think they’ll be a little more measured and deliberate. I’m not saying there wasn’t a set plan with Alex, but at the same time, he was in on everything.

“The Phillies still have Andy MacPhail, and he’s more of an old-school guy. You’ve got Pat Gillick there. Matt Klentak has worked with Andy in the past, so there’s some history. In Milwaukee, you have Doug Melvin involved, but not to the same extent as in other places. With David Stearns, that’s probably more of an old-school-to-new-school change.

“Al Avila goes back a long time with Dave Dombrowski — all the way back to the Marlins — so they’re going to think alike in many ways. That said, in his introductory press conference Al clearly articulated some things he felt the Tigers would do differently going forward, including expanding their analytics. Even though he worked with Dave all those years, and a lot of the same people are still there, Detroit will naturally do some things differently because Al is now steering the ship. He’s not Dave.

“I’m not sure what happened in Anaheim. But say it’s a GM firing a manager, and then he fires a second manager and a third manager. At some point, if you keep firing guys, maybe the problem isn’t the managers. It’s the GM. You can flip that. If you have a manager who has run through a couple of GMs — same with an owner who’s run through a few GMs —- then you have to ask if maybe it’s not the general manager. It’s the manager or maybe it’s the owner.

“Billy Eppler was a finalist for that job before, so I think he has a feel for that situation. He has a history with the people there, so I think he’ll be fine. I expect it to be a little different than what Jerry Dipoto stepped into.

“I can’t make a blanket statement, but I don’t think anybody has carte blanche to do whatever they want. There is a plan that has to be presented to ownership, whether it’s a plan to win now, or to build for the future. Ownership plays a huge role in that. Take John Henry and Dave Dombrowski in Boston. They’ve known each other for a long time, and if Dave wants to do something that might be deemed radical, they’ll talk about it and Dave will explain why he wants to make this move. Dave is one of the best out there right now — he has a great track record — and there’s usually a method that goes along with madness. As long as you share it with your owner, and he has respect for you, there’s usually going to be a way to work things out.

“I think the types of players teams show interest in can be cyclical and a function of new information. Is there a lot of value being placed on defense? If so, does that make it overvalued, and we should place our emphasis elsewhere? It’s all about trying to find different market inefficiencies, and maybe defense has become a market efficiency, and we should put our focus somewhere else.

“When you step back and take a broader view, the purpose of scouting is to identify winning players. The job of development is to develop winning players. Many of the differences between clubs comes down to their definition of ‘winning player.’ Every club is a little bit different in how they go about it.

“At the top of the draft, you almost always take the best player available. Even if it appears you already have some depth at that position, you’ll find a spot for a premium talent in your system. The more subtle differences in draft philosophy often come when clubs have to choose between players with similar talent. For instance, a club with a major league stadium that suppresses power might prefer a speedster to a slugger when considering players with similar ceilings because speed better fits their ballpark. Or a team with a stronger track record developing hitters might favor a position player over a pitcher to break a tie. But in general, clubs won’t walk past a more talented player to take a less talented player just because he has an attribute that better fits their philosophy.

“These tie-breakers can be defined differently by new management. A new front office might prioritize different skills than the old group. These underlying philosophies often show up in the teams being put on the field. For a long time, the Twins have been known for players who play hard and smart. Tampa Bay has been very successful with pitching — identifying pitchers seems to be their tie-breaker. Over in Seattle, Jerry Dipoto is on record as saying he wants his team to be more athletic, and I think we’re seeing that with some of his moves. Kansas City, under Dayton Moore, got some criticism for not having obvious power or on-base skills, but contact and defense helped them win a World Series. Teams identify those skill sets they feel fit their philosophies.

“From a scouting and development standpoint, you have to adjust your operation to fit management’s philosophy. I think that’s the case in any business, not just baseball. Your typical management change naturally leads to differences in the way you do things. A new CEO might want a new staff structure or different financial reports or a different budget allocation between departments. Those same things apply in baseball.

“Every time I’ve seen a change in management, the report form that scouts and coaches fill out has been changed. Some GMs like longer reports with more detail. Others like shorter reports with less detail. Some prefer to use the report as kind of a Cliff’s Notes, then pick up the phone and call if they want more information. Others want every piece of information in the report itself and might burn the midnight oil poring over them. But almost every time a GM or a scouting director changes, there is at least a subtle tweak to the forms or information being provided.

“The same thing happens in development. The daily game reports minor league managers file vary from club to club. Likewise, the progress reports roving instructors fill out might be tweaked if a new management group wants information tracked differently. Some teams might want to keep track of hard-hit balls. Others might want to keep track of swings-and-misses. Yet another might want to track first-pitch strikes or strike percentage for each pitch. It all depends on what teams value the most in measuring or predicting a player’s progress.

“What gets lost in the shuffle sometimes is just how complex this industry can be. It’s a large infrastructure that branches out quickly. It’s almost like an iceberg with the GM on top. When you get below the water line, there is a lot going on and a lot of people involved. When you consider all the different facets of an organization – scouting, development, the business side, the major league club – there are a lot of moving parts. It’s not surprising different teams can take different approaches to making those parts fit and interact as smoothly as possible.”





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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James G
6 years ago

I think you meant Doug Melvin….