Are today’s analytically inclined players the next generation of top-level front-office executives? According to several baseball insiders, there’s a chance that could happen. While some to whom I spoke expressed skepticism, it does make a certain amount of sense.
A common criticism of your stereotypical Ivy League GM has been, “He didn’t play the game at a high level.” Conversely, former players in decision-making positions have often been accused (sometimes for good reason) of being behind the times. They have on-field experience, but they aren’t critical thinkers who embrace analytics.
A former player who thinks much like an “Ivy League GM” would offer the best of both worlds. He would know what it’s like to go through the grind of a 162-game schedule, and he’d also place a high value on objective analysis while showing a willingness to think outside the box.
I asked a cross section of players, coaches, managers, and front-office executives if they think such a trend is forthcoming.
Manny Acta, Seattle Mariners third-base coach: “Eventually it’s going to happen, but it will take a little while. The percentage of players that believe and think like the new generation of GMs is still very low. It’s a transition that even coaches are going through right now: how to explain to players what is valued today by front offices and to convince them that they are not being valued as much by the old traditional stats.”
Ruben Amaro, Boston Red Sox first-base coach: “There’s a growth to the game. Players are getting exposed to it early and have a much better understanding of what WHIP is all about, and what FIP is all about. There’s a different level of education, and I would think they’re interested in knowing that information, so that they can understand it and apply it.
“As players become more knowledgeable about larger data and analytics, you may end up seeing more players who have this information moving into front offices. But there are different guys who are interested in different sorts of things, so it’s also a matter of whether they’d have interest in being in a front office.”
Brett Anderson, Toronto Blue Jays pitcher: “I can see it trending in that direction. Guys are getting brought up in organizations where they’re taught that way — they’re learning about analytics and statistics — so I think it will come full circle to where it’s players going into front offices. It will be that combination of having played, plus having been brought up on the analytics side. I came up with the A’s right at the beginning of the super-sabermetrics, a little past the Moneyball, era.
“There are a bunch of guys who know the ins and outs of baseball, but you don’t necessarily know how they would fit into a front office. I played with Brandon McCarthy, and he’s got both sides of it. Zack Greinke does, too, but he’s kind of shy. Those two come to mind as far as having a feel for the game and knowing the numbers side, as well. Is it something I’d do? I think so, although I don’t know that I’d necessarily like to sit around and look at a computer all day. It would have to be the right fit.”
Rocco Baldelli, Tampa Bay Rays first-base coach: “With all of the objective information coming into the game, I think we’ll see a lot of teams bringing in people with field experience to basically balance some of the decision-making. People in front offices search out those types of opinions when they can. When a decision is being made, you don’t want it to lean completely on either objective information or completely on subjective information. When you can balance those nicely, you’ll come to the best possible conclusion.
“I don’t know that I see a definite trend in the direction you mentioned, but I do think you might see more people with that background working at higher levels of the front office. But regardless of who is making the decisions, we’ve seen that it can go very well whether the person in charge has on-field experience or not. I’ve met several people along the way who have no field experience that I would put all of my stock in. There are others who have tremendous field experience who I’d put tremendous stock in. It can work very well both ways.”
Zach Britton, Baltimore Orioles pitcher: “You kind of think about what you’ll do after you’re done playing, and it would be cool to be in [a front office]. I do think you need to be able to remove yourself from the clubhouse aspect of it. That’s why sometimes it’s good to have guys who didn’t play; they’re going to be more subjective.
“At the same time, a former player may better understand what a guy brings to the clubhouse. I know that clubhouse chemistry is only so important, but if you’re going to invest a lot of money in a guy, does he set a good example to the other players? How is he going to represent his team? Understanding those things is valuable. It’s an important dynamic.”
Gerrit Cole, Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher: “I’ve never really thought about it, but that’s a really interesting point. Everybody is always trying to find a balance between statistics and baseball instincts. There are guys out there who could do it; they’ve gone to school and can capitalize on that education.
“Would I want to do it? That would be way down the road, but I don’t think I’ll ever be working for a club. It’s something that’s very interesting to me, but once I’m done with the game, I’ll probably be done with the game.”
Craig Counsell, Milwaukee Brewers manager: “I don’t know where the next generation is going to come from. I don’t think anybody expected the Ivy League generation that came along to come along. Maybe it’s the guys who are doing all the coding in front offices now? That would mean the pendulum has swung even further away from former players. We’re probably another generation of GMs away from that happening.
“I was [in the front office], and I think it was a tremendous learning experience. It helped me do this job, for sure. But did having played help me make decisions when I was in the front office? I would say yes, but probably not as much as I thought.”
Dave Dombrowski, Boston Red Sox president of baseball operations: “That’s a good question, and I don’t think you really ever know that. When I first started in the game, I was told we’re going to go through cycles of people in the front office. There will be an ex-players cycle, people who have more of a background in scouting, some in player development. I’ve seen all of that.
“The non-player cycle in the front office… I’ve seen some of that in recent years, more so, but it started years ago. I do think it’s extremely important to have people who played the game in your front office. I’ve never sat in a dugout during a game. You want to supplement yourself as much as you can with people who can cover every aspect of the game.
“As you get into the analytical aspect of it — analytics, statistics, contemporary methods for evaluation… it wouldn’t surprise me. There are players who are very intelligent, and there are ex-players learning that stuff. Some of them will move into the front office, because they’ll bring in another area of expertise.”
John Farrell, Boston Red Sox manager: “The more rounded a person’s experiences are, and if they’ve had firsthand experience to understand what it takes to go through a full season — any kind of insights — that will help them make personnel decisions. Ultimately, regardless of what vein you come from — what path you’ve traveled to get to that spot — you’re ultimately betting on people. If you’ve got firsthand knowledge and experience of the traits it takes to be a successful big leaguer… at some point it helps.
“The learning curve is extremely steep. You’re going from a playing career — and, in some cases, a coaching career — to a front-office executive spot where you’ve got a lot of executive work you might not have been trained to do. Some of your peers may have gone through internships, and all of a sudden you’re here, in your mid- to late 30s, jumping into that for the first time.”
A.J. Hinch, Houston Astros manager: “The competitive advantage you can get from bringing different experiences into different roles is paramount. Players are always intrigued by the front-office moves and possibilities, and that’s why people stay involved in organizations. There are a lot of special assistants around the league that stay closely connected to front offices. To have some of those guys turn into future GMs and future presidents… it wouldn’t surprise me.
“The first thing I always hear from ex-players who get into the front office is how much they learn about a different way of seeing the game. A lot of times that’s revolved around analytics and learning about the numbers, learning about why decisions are made, the value of players. I think the entire sport is becoming a little more well-rounded, where people with playing experience are becoming more analytically savvy, and people who are maybe Ivy League educated, or come into the game a different way, are learning a little bit about the intricacies of being on the field.”
Dallas Keuchel, Houston Astros pitcher: “I think you might see a fair share of that. A lot of the guys in here were hesitant at first with some of the new-age information, but as you want to keep performing to a certain level… certain guys have grown accustomed to the idea of thinking like that. A lot of guys, myself included, do that now. I think we’ll continue to see players kind of transform themselves from old-school thinking to new-school thinking.
“There is always respect for guys who want to help better the players and show the data, show the homework that they do. The only thing is, there’s always going to be somewhat of a disconnect between guys who have played and guys who haven’t played.”
Jed Lowrie, Oakland A’s infielder: “Incorporating as many experiences as possible is going to make you a better manager, no matter your walk of life. That includes baseball. If you have the experience of a quality education, and you have the experience of having played some pro baseball… and that doesn’t necessarily mean major-league experience. Even in the minor leagues, you get the part about the grind; you understand what guys go through. I think that makes a difference.
“No matter how technical this game gets, it’s still going to be a people business. Players, at least in the foreseeable future, aren’t going to be robots.”
Jeff Luhnow, Houston Astros GM: “The reality is, players who have had a lot of success, and have made a lot of money, aren’t typically the ones who are looking to get into full-time working roles. But guys who have had success — even in the big leagues — and are bright… of course. It’s the best of all worlds if you can get someone with experience who also has the intellect and the knowledge.
“If you look at the generation of players today, you have guys like Trevor Bauer who are almost pushing front offices to go faster, because they’re utilizing information and technology in ways that players never have before. A lot of them are still playing, but as they leave the game, I’m sure there will be a lot of interest in keeping them in organizations.”
Bob Melvin, Oakland A’s manager: “It’s difficult for me to say where the front office is going, because we do certain things down here, and the front office has their own challenges. But I do think that, based on the knowledge of the players who are now getting out of the game, you might see a few more of them in front offices. They have the experience, plus understand analytics.
“For instance, Scott Hatteberg is with us, and he was obviously part of the whole Moneyball era. He has a pretty good understanding of both sides of it. Sam Fuld comes to mind; I think he’ll end up in a front office somewhere. After he’s done playing, Jed Lowrie could potentially do it. Guys like that, who have been part of the new era of analytics, may very well come to the forefront.”
David Price, Boston Red Sox pitcher: “The analytics side — especially in the front offices — is really taking off. But I feel that you’d like to have somebody in the front office who has a feel for the game, and not just the sabermetrics of it. Here, Brian Bannister has a good education, and he played the game.
“I think it helps to have guys who went through what we go through on an everyday basis. When they speak, it’s not, ‘Oh, he’s just talking about numbers.’ They can use their experiences. That goes a long way with players.”
David Stearns, Milwaukee Brewers GM: “I think it’s certainly a possibility. We’ve already had examples of that. Jerry Dipoto is a former player who has clearly become very learned in newer elements of player evaluation. You’ve had other former players in front offices, whether it’s someone like Craig [Counsell] or someone like A.J. Hinch… both of them are obviously managers right now.
“There’s no reason why that trend can’t continue. I think it takes a unique former major-league player who still has the desire to continue, on that path, to learn about the game from a little bit of a different perspective. But there are plenty of curious guys out there, plenty of very intelligent players who certainly have the capability of doing that.”
Chris Young, Boston Red Sox outfielder: “There’s definitely a happy medium. You have to mix both. The game has changed — there’s no denying that — so you can’t be close-minded to the fact that there are numbers and stats that back up reasoning, for playing certain guys, for positioning players a certain way. At the same time, you need baseball-wired personnel who can go off their experiences in understanding players and personalities, and how that translates into game play. I definitely think there is a need for both types of people in front-office positions.
“Would I consider [working in a front office]? Absolutely. I think I could bring something to the table. There are a lot of players who could, especially players who have been around for awhile and have learned what’s needed to make a winning ball club. There are definitely ways that former players can apply their experience to the business side of it.”
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.