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Do Some Teams Hire More Great GMs than Others?

Think about your workplace. About the management team. Are they successful? Do they propel the organization forward? Do they harm it? Or are they stuck in the same old patterns? Has your workplace always hired the same kind of leadership? Do they change leaders and management styles capriciously? Do they have orderly succession and rear up internal managers to take over and continue what works?

Now think about your favorite baseball team. How has their front office looked over time? Are they consistently well run? Awfully run? Predictably inconsistent? Do some clubs just know how to choose a good front office leader?

Here’s a quick-and-dirty way to look at the question. Mark Armour and Daniel Levitt literally wrote the book on teambuilding in baseball. Actually, they wrote two: Paths to Glory and In Pursuit of Pennants. As a side project for the latter, they did a long blog series on history’s top 25 GMs (with a few honorable mentions). What we’ll do here is take that list and see whether certain teams hired more or fewer of these guys. Here’s the list, including honorable mentions, and including a couple guys I’m adding as honorable mentions:

  1. Branch Rickey
  2. Pat Gillick
  3. Ed Barrow
  4. Bob Howsam
  5. George Weiss
  6. John Schuerholz
  7. Buzzie Bavasi
  8. Harry Dalton
  9. Dave Dombrowski
  10. Frank Cashen
  11. Billy Beane
  12. Sandy Alderson
  13. Al Campanis
  14. Brian Sabean
  15. Walt Jocketty
  16. Theo Epstein
  17. Dan Duquette
  18. Joe L. Brown
  19. Lee MacPhail
  20. Cedric Tallis
  21. Brianc Cashman
  22. Jim Campbell
  23. John Hart
  24. John Quinn
  25. Andy MacPhail
  26. Gabe Paul
  27. Larry MacPhail
  28. John Mozeliak
  29. Neil Huntington

You want the flip side, too? Jonah Keri has written a little bit on the subject of terrible baseball GMs, and we can add a few other names from our researches. In alphabetical order:

  • Ruben Amaro, Jr. (I get to have my fun on this site…)
  • Sal Bando
  • Bill Bavasi
  • Jim Beattie
  • Cam Bonifay
  • John Holland
  • Frank Lane
  • Dave Littlefield
  • Dan O’Dowd
  • Herk Robinson
  • Phil Seghi
  • Randy Smith
  • Ed Wade
  • Woody Woodward

Since the role of GM has really only been around since roughly 1920, we’ll look at what percentage of a team’s seasons since then (or since their inception) are represented by one of these excellent GMs, and which are represented by any of the, uh, not excellent GMs.

76% excellent GMs: Ed Barrow (24 years), Brian Cashman (18), George Weiss (15), Lee MacPhail (7), Gabe Paul (4), Larry MacPhail (3), Cedric Tallis (2)
1% crappy GMs: Woody Woodward (1)

52% excellent GMs: Buzzie Bavasi (18), Al Campanis (18), Branch Rickey (8), Larry MacPhail (6)
0% crappy GMs

50% excellent GMs: Branch Rickey (25), Walt Jockety (13), John Mozeliak (8), Bob Howsam (2.25)
2% crappy GMs: Frank Lane (2)

Notice something about these top three organizations? If you said longevity, then take a bow. Other than brief periods of time in the history of each, these teams have made stability, longevity, and succession a part of their philosophy. It’s clearly paid off handsomely. The moral of the story: Great organizations identify what they do greatly and go to great lengths to keep doing it.

44% excellent GMs: Pat Gillick (17)
0% crappy GMs
Well, Gord Ash wasn’t exactly not crappy….

39% excellent GMs: Frank Cashen (12), George Weiss (5), Sandy Alderson (4)
0% crappy GMs
Now that’s not quite fair because the Mets’ team president was a plantation-minded person named M. Donald Grant who was a meddler and instrumental in such insightful moves as trading Tom Seaver. Grant was President from 1962 through 1978.

39% excellent GMs: Dave Dombrowski (9)
0% crappy GMs
We could say something similar here about Marlins’ ownerships.

36% excellent GMs: Joe L. Brown (22), Neil Huntington (8), Branch Rickey (5)
14% crappy GMs: Cam Bonifay (8), Dave Littlefield (5.25)
For extra crappy credit, the Buccos can claim three years of Larry Doughty and the worst five years of The Mahatma’s long career (though he did get them Dick Groat and Roberto Clemente). On the other hand, before 1920, Barney Dreyfuss, their owner, was probably also one of the shrewdest teambuilders in the game.

35% excellent GMs: Billy Beane (18), Sandy Alderson (16)
1% crappy GMs: Frank Lane (0.75)
Let’s say for this purpose that Connie Mack is a net zero. He built the amazing Jimmie Foxx juggernauts, and then he got old so things fell apart.

35% excellent GMs: Jim Campbell (21), Dave Dombrowski (13)
6% crappy GMs: Randy Smith (6)
Somehow sticking with people is a Tigers thing, right? Sparky, Trammell, Whitaker, Kaline. Good thing they didn’t stick with Buddy Bell….

34% excellent GMs: Bob Howsam (12), Gabe Paul (10), Walt Jocketty (7), Larry MacPhail (4)
0% crappy GMs
As with many things, the Reds are kind of boring.

33% excellent GMs: Lee MacPhail (7), Harry Dalton (6), Andy MacPhail (4.5), Dan Duquette (4), Frank Cashen (4), Pat Gillick (3), Branch Rickey (3)
3% crappy GMs: Jim Beattie (3)
The kicker here is the sheer number of great GMs the Birds and Brown Hose employed. Yet none stays long, and that’s not just a Peter Angelos thing.

32% excellent GMs: John Schuerholz (17), John Quinn (13), John Hart (1)
0% crappy GMs
This might undersell the Braves since Bobby Cox did a fine job for a few years before Schuerholz came aboard

31% excellent GMs: John Schuerholz (9), Cedric Tallis (5.5)
20% crappy GMs: Herk Robinson (9.5)
And this might oversell the Royals who also let Allard Baird loose on their roster for several years.

30% excellent GMs: Harry Dalton (14)
21% crappy GMs: Sal Bando (7.75), Frank Lane (2)
Dean Taylor was pretty crappy, too.

23% excellent GMs: Buzzie Bavasi (6.75), Harry Dalton (6)
11% crappy GMs: Bill Bavasi (6)
Paging Tony Riggins to the crappy courtesy phone…. Actually Dick Walsh was pretty dreadful as well, but neither was around long enough to be a truly awful GM. Although each of them was around long enough to do serious damage. Reagins acquired Vernon Wells (though that may be Arte Moreno’s interference), Walsh acquired Alex Johnson—if you know what I mean.

21% excellent GMs: Gabe Paul (10), John Hart (10)
17% crappy GMs: Phil Seghi (13), Frank Lane (3)
Improbably, the Tribe employed both Swapper Phil Seghi and his sort-of namesake Trader Frank Lane. Neither of whom did them any good.

20% excellent GMs: Brian Sabean (19)
0% crappy GMs
But the G’nts have had a number of average or above average GMs as well.

19% excellent GMs: Buzzie Bavasi (9)
5% crappy GMs: Randy Smith (2.5)
I suspect that Padres fans don’t look too fondly on Bavasi’s tenure; the team didn’t break through until well after his departure. As for Randy Smith, well, the less said about him the better.

18% excellent GMs: Theo Epstein (9), Dan Duquette (8)
0% crappy GMs
I think Sox fans would probably argue, with good reason, that Dick O’Connell and Lou Gorman were good or very good GMs. We’re only taking a rough look here at the extremes, and they haven’t employed the best of the best very often. In 2016, they get Dave Dombrowski.

17% excellent GMs: John Quinn (14), Pat Gillick (3)
16% crappy GMs: Ed Wade (8), Ruben Amaro, Jr. (7), Woody Woodward (0.5)
I added Amaro despite his teams’ records. Those were mostly Pat Gillick’s collected talent, and Amaro did things with them that one should never do. Phils fans would probably like to see Paul Owens on the list of excellent GMs, and I have a great deal of sympathy for that, but he’s more like Dick O’Connell to me than he is like Harry Dalton.

12% excellent GMs: Dave Dombrowski (3.5), Dan Duquette (2)
13% crappy GMs: Jim Beattie (6)
Our first upside down team! I strongly suspect that Mike Rizzo will not be seen as an excellent GM by future Nats fans.

10% excellent GMs: Andy MacPhail (9.25)
0% crappy GMs
This one deserves a note as well. Clark Griffith ran the franchise for half of forever, and did a pretty good job until the mid-1930s. But once rich guys and especially corporate owners came along, he was out of his league. So he died and left the team’s charge to his son, Calvin, who ran it as a family business. Like his father, he had an initial burst of success in the 1960s before the pressures of better capitalized teams made it impossible for him to compete. So he sold it to a super rich 0.2%er named Carl Pohlad who hired Andy McPahil and won two championships. Then he hired Terry Ryan who’s about average, and then Pohlad cried wolf during Bud Selig’s national Contractathon tour. Which, of course, was just a ploy to get more ballpark money. And he fired Terry Ryan and gave the job to someone named Bill Smith, who was then fired and replaced by the twice aforementioned Ryan. All of which is to say that Twins’ complicated history has kind of kept their number of potential GMs low, and their seeming willingness to put stability above mediocrity hasn’t helped either.

10% excellent GMs: Pat Gillick (4)
38% crappy GMs (!!!): Woody Woodward (10 years), Bill Bavasi (4.5)
That’s not even counting the terrible Jack Z, which would push them over 50%. Hey, M’s, we pray that Jerry DiPoto is awesome for you.

7% excellent GMs: John Hart (4)
0% crappy GMs
Now it’s entirely possible that we’ll look back at Jon Daniels as an excellent GM. Time will tell there. But most Rangers fans would probably put Hart’s four years in the crappy column.

6% excellent GMs: Theo Epstein (4), Andy MacPhail (2)
20% crappy GMs: John Holland (19)
Holland’s name isn’t much heard these days, but he’s the guy who couldn’t win a pennant with core of Williams, Santo, Banks, Jenkins, and Brock. Oh wait…. Anyway, he failed to win that pennant and then the Cubs dropped into awful land for a decade and a half. And look, I didn’t even count Jim Hendry or Ed Lynch, neither of whom was the Einstein of Wrigleyville.

0% excellent GMs
0% crappy GMs
Jury’s out on Dave Stewart, though I loved his work on the electric violin.

0% excellent GMs
0% crappy GMs
Yeah, I gave Chuck Lamar a pass here. Maybe I shouldn’t have? First he had an expansion team. Second he had Vince Namoli for a boss.

0% excellent GMs
8% crappy GMs: Ed Wade (4.25)
You know, Gerry Hunsicker is underrated.

0% excellent GMs
8% crappy GMs: Frank Lane (8)
Not one excellent GM in 96 years. Think on that one a little.

0% excellent GMs
65% crappy GMs: Dan O’Dowd (15)
The Rockies exemplify what crappy team building looks like. Every year they have a different plan, but every year they have the same GM. Well, until last year. It took them 15 years to figure out that O’Dowd wasn’t doing his job. Joe Sheehan yesterday wrote that after all this time, it’s pretty simple. For the Rockies to win, they have to field a massive run-scoring machine with a good bullpen. To win like late-career Rocky Balboa: Hit hard, hope you can absorb the punishment, and hang on for the final bell. The team tried every thing from good Christian souls to sinkerballers to humidors to slap hitters under O’Dowd. It’s time they cleaned house and hired someone with a strong, consistent vision. Imagine the pandemonium of a consistent Denver contender. Actually, we don’t have to, that’s what the Broncos bring, and the city is gaga for them. Hanging onto the good old boys is costing the Rox market share in their own town and profits. But do they care?



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