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Thinking About GMs

In the interest of full disclosure, today I was supposed to write a post about what we look for in GMs for the execs wing of the Hall of Miller and Eric. I’d love to write that post right now, but I can’t.

It turns out that when it comes to objective information about GMs, there’s precious little to be had. Oh, there’s stuff like team won-loss records, of course, and here at the HoME, we developed win expectations for each team in each season when we looked at managers, and those are part of the package with GMs. In fact, managerial performance is something that we will likely include for GMs because field managers serve at the whim of the general manager (and/or owner).

But mostly, it’s about players. It’s about talent coming in and talent going out. Did a GM bring in enough to win? That’s where the problem is. We haven’t been able to unearth any information that objectively looks at the talent flow for a GM. So, as we’re wont to do, we’re improvising and creating that information ourselves. Which, as it happens, is quite time consuming. Teams make dozens of transactions a year, usually involving nearly 1.5 or two times that number of players. Logging those transactions for later analysis is slow work. So for now, I’ll take a quick moment to describe what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, and what we hope to glean from it.

At the macro level, we’re creating transaction logs for a small number of GMs. Basically those we see as important candidates as well as a few really awful execs who will serve as comparators. For each transaction, we’re noting this information:

  • The date
  • The type (trade, released, waivers, etc…)
  • A unique identifier
  • Name of player coming (if appropriate)
  • WAR the player produced for the team during this stint with them
  • Name of player going (if appropriate)
  • WAR the player produced after he left.

Now there’s something a little hazy about that last item. It goes like this:

Before free agency, when a GM moved a player off the roster (by any of the usual or unusual ways), it was a Pontius Pilate moment. He washed his hands of all rights to the player, essentially in perpetuity. But once free agency came along, that was no longer true. A player would soon be available once again by free agency, provided he was good enough to stay in the big leagues. To put some names to this, when Harry Frazee sold Babe Ruth, he could have no predictable expectation that the Bambino’s rights could again be acquired. Note the qualifier predictable. On the other hand, when Woody Williams traded Randy Johnson to the Astros, the deal netted the Mariners three good young players for about three months of Randy Johnson’s career. Immediately after the season, the Big Unit became a free agent, at which point, the Mariners could bid for his services in the open market if they wished to. Williams knew with a high degree of certainty exactly when Johnson would be available (RJ could have signed an extension with Houston, of course).

So we’re trying to model a decision process. On one hand, Frazee is deciding to risk trading away the rights to an entire career, whereas the Mariners dealt away the rights to just three months.

What this means as we log transactions is that for the era prior to free agency, we have to assume that the player is gone forever, unless the GM’s team reacquires him later (which is not predictable for the GM). On the other hand, in the free agency era, we must assume that the market is pricing in the length of time remaining before free agency. Which means, further, that we have to know when the departing player will reach free agency. That’s where the rub is.

The threshold for free agency is six years of MLB service time. It isn’t always such a simple calculation. The hoohah over the Cubs’ monkeying with Kris Bryant’s service time last spring suggests why. Or consider the player who spends a lot of his first three  years in MLB shuttling back and forth to AAA. The hard part of all this is that service time levels are not available for nearly all of baseball’s history. If so, we could just track that by year. Complicating all of this is that sometimes a player signs an extension that buys out a year or two of his free agency. If he signs before departing the team of the GM in question that’s different than if it’s after. And the transaction logs for each player don’t note information about extensions!

So we have to estimate. It sucks, but it’s the best we can do. We try to be conservative. For players like, say, Bobby Grich, we guesstimate 1977 or 1978 since he’d probably have been eligible for free agency right away. For a Buddy Bell, who appears to have signed an extension, we try to figure out when those six years would be up. As best we’re able, that is. For cuppa-coffee players who might appear a few times over several years, however, it’s clear they would never reach the six-year threshold, and we just ascribe all their value as a cost of the transaction. In the end, there’s no great way to do this, and we hope that we get a reasonable estimate of how much value a GM brings in and how much he sends out.

Of course, this is only part of the picture for a GM! In the case of someone like Al Campanis, we have to account for the base of talent he inherited. His entire infield and Don Sutton and Willie Davis and Steve Yeager and Joe Ferguson were all in the organization before he took over as GM. (Well, technically, he was the Scouting Director and signed or drafted them all, but let’s leave that matter alone for the moment.) As a result, the Dodgers in any given year had a base of talent that was acquired by Campanis’ predecessor and that Al needed to build around. The amount of value he could acquire in the market was somewhat circumscribed. So we have to analyze his transactions differently than we might Andy MacPhail who had to completely rebuild the Yankees in the 1960s and early 1970s. Campanis acquired about 410 WAR and send about 230 WAR away, per our estimates. If MacPhail did the same, his Yankee teams wouldn’t have been very good since they started from a lower baseline of talent. Well, we’re still working on MacPhail, but keep this comparison in mind for when we present information on him.

We can do lots of other interesting things with this information we’re gathering. We can see what the relative strengths and weaknesses of each GM are. Were they better at trading or drafting? Amateur signings or waiver trolling? Of course, we can then compare them to one another in this same regard. One other interesting thing we can do is assess the legacies they left their teams. For how long after their departure was their influence felt? How strong was that influence? In the 1940s, Branch Rickey’s influence on the Cardinals was tremendous even after he left. The teams that won all those wartime World Series and the 1946 Fall Classic were stuffed with his guys. When Rickey left Brooklyn, he left behind Jackie, Campy, Duke, Hodges, and a mess of others that he had brought into the organization. Dem Bums won and won and won deep into the 1950s. On the other hand, the influence of Phil Seghi on the Indians’ fortunes dissipated fast. A candidate for worst GM ever (in a career of substantial length), Swapper Phil left behind the 1987 Sports-Illustrated-cover Indians that crashed before they ever got off the ground. Five years after his departure, only six Seghi tribesmen remained, representing 24% of the team’s WAR. New leadership cleaned house, setting the stage for the 1990s Indians powerhouses. By comparison, seven years after Campanis left, 32% of the Dodgers’ WAR was from his guys. For a really extreme example, take the 1969 Braves division winner. John Quinn had left the Braves before 1959 to take the Phillies’ GM job. A decade later, 38% of the WAR on the NL West winners belonged to players Quinn had acquired (Hank Aaron and Phil Niekro).

There’s a lot that we’ll be able to tell you about some of the best GMs ever to wield a telephone and a fountain pen…just not yet. So bear with us. We’re scrambling to get the info to you as fast as we can, but it takes time. A lot of time…. Thank you for your patience.



3 thoughts on “Thinking About GMs

  1. One thing I didn’t notice you mention above is obtaining young talent before it reaches the big leagues. Some of it turns out to be really good. I mean drafting, scouting (although you do touch on scouting when dealing with the Dodgers), and trades that pick up minor leaguers who become stars (like Willie McGee for example). Because I know you guys are good at what you do, I presume you’ve factored that in somewhere.

    Posted by verdun2 | March 16, 2016, 8:27 am
    • Precisely. As we talk about the talent coming into an organization, we’re talking about all sources of it. Al Campanis gets full credit for Pedro Guerrero’s value with LA even though Guerrero came via a trade several years before he ever made the big league roster…a trade with Phil Seghi’s Indians no less!

      Posted by eric | March 16, 2016, 9:12 am


  1. Pingback: What Do Bad GMs Look Like? | the Hall of Miller and Eric - March 21, 2016

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