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Pioneers/Executives

So you want to elect a General Manager: The Hall of Miller and Eric Approach

Team building may not have a lot of sizzle, but what a massive advantage well run teams have! We’ve elected three team builders so far, and among them they appeared in 32 World Series and won 21 of them. Not a coincidence.

Anyone with a grasp of baseball history can pick Branch Rickey, Ed Barrow, and George Weiss, as we’ve proven by electing them to the Hall of Miller and Eric. But what about after them? As always, we need what Hall of Fame voters frequently lack: a solid, research-based, and commonsense framework for evaluating and honoring people in this category.

Our series of GM updates surely provides you with some clues about our thinking, but as we dive into the next tiers down from the obvious immortals, we’d like to share our thinking about what makes strong candidate. Very few people have written about the systematic evaluation of team builders. Those articles and books that do have largely chosen narrative means to do so, supplementing with objective measures. We are trying to flip that approach around.

Famous Phrases

I’ll get into the data stuff in a little bit, but what we really need to talk about in this space are the broader pieces of information necessary to make a high-quality decision about a team builder. Since the Cooperstown Hall is the only other one electing GMs, let’s see what words they use to describe the outstanding characteristics of each of their honorees:

Ed Barrow

  • Converted Babe Ruth from pitcher to outfielder (as manager)
  • Discovered Honus Wagner and many other great stars
  • Won World Series in 1918 (as manager)
  • Built New York Yankees into outstanding organization
  • Winning 14 pennants, 10 World Series

Warren Giles

  • Headed Cincinatti Reds…capturing pennants in 1939–1940

Pat Gillick

  • Brilliant talent evaluator
  • Uncanny ability to shape rosters
  • Three World Series titles
  • Sterling resume with six organizations
  • Building five divisional champions
  • Consecutive World Series titles
  • Architect of Baltimore and Seattle playoff teams
  • 2008 World champions
  • Advanced to the postseason 11 times
  • 20 winning records

Larry MacPhail

  • Won championships in both leagues

Lee MacPhail

  • Integrity and sportsmanship
  • Helped build a system which yielded seven world series championships
  • Helped lay groundwork for one of the game’s most consistently successful franchises

Jacob Rupport

  • Transformed New York Yankees from second-division team to perennial champions
  • Procured Babe Ruth
  • Hired…Miller Huggins and Ed Barrow
  • Acquired 19 other future Hall of Famers
  • Captured 10 pennants
  • [Yanks won their] first seven world titles

Bill Veeck

  • Pennant winner in Cleveland in 1948
  • Won again…1959

George Weiss

  • Master builder of championship teams
  • Developed best minor league chain in game
  • Won 10 pennants and 7 World Series

Branch Rickey

Well, his plaque really talks more about his innovations, but it does mention Jackie Robinson by name. Robinson was, after all, not only the integrating player but a great star in his time. The line on Rickey’s plaque that reads ”Brought Jackie Robinson to Brooklyn in 1947,” makes a nod to the Mahatma’s eye for talent.

GM Guidelines

So let’s parse. For each of the items mentioned below, we’ve created questions that support our inquiry into an exec’s career. I’ll list them all at the end.

The first thing we notice from the Hall’s plaques are that it’s #1 criteria by a country mile is winning pennants and World Series. We think that’s a pretty reasonable criterion, and we’ll include that among our guidelines.

A number of the plaques use words like master builder, architect, and lay groundwork, all construction metaphors for the work GMs do. We think this relates to questions of attribution and responsibility, and not only for the teams under his watch, but also the condition in which he left the team. Did the GM just rode the wave started by his predecessor or whether he truly built up the team. Did he leave behind a massive collection of talent to support his successor?

In Ruppert’s plaque we see the word transform. This word is certainly implied in Lee MacPhail’s plaque as well and perhaps others. So the Hall is at least a little impressed by execs who can turn a team around. We actually lay a lot of stock by this because, as with managers, it shows a great deal of skill. Of course, not every GM has that opportunity, and we need to ask not only whether he transformed teams but whether more generally teams improved, manifesting his abilities.

Finally, a few of the plaques mention or refer indirectly to an honoree’s ability as a talent evaluator. Of course, it’s part of an executive’s job to bring in talent. Just as much as he can. So we’ll need to ask about how he went about his job. Did he just get lucky a couple times, or can we see a mind at work. Sometimes we do and sometimes we don’t.

The cool thing about these first few items is that each of them is answerable to a high degree through objective measurements. We’re assembling the data to create those measurements. There are, however, a couple other important questions that come off the plaques that don’t have a strong quantitative answer, and to which we need to supplement with narrative. Execs and pioneers often have contributions beyond the team-building role. Many GMs rose through the ranks as scouts, farm directors, or scouting directors making important contributions (Al Campanis and Harry Dalton, for example), while others served in leaguewide positions such as Warren Giles and Lee MacPhail. So we add three guiding questions related to those things.

The Hall has done a good job of identifying key attributes for great GMs, even if we might not agree with all its selections nor with its willy-nilly process. Our last pair of questions help us dig into the tougher stuff and may help candidates who are a little less obvious rise up or drop down if need be. We need to know the context in which a GM’s decisions were made and if he did anything amazingly detrimental to his teams that his record might not reveal. In other words, we need some narrative. We’ll stick them in just before those three “what else ya got” questions we just talked about.

These questions help us remember that some owners order teardowns that negatively impact the record of a GM. Or an owner might order his team builder to mortgage the farm to win now. Or that the GM’s job is simply to care take a dynasty and keep it going. Great Depressions happen, sapping teams’ ability to buy and pay players. World wars happen, sucking away talent for years at a time. Strikes and lockouts happen. Penurious ownership happens. The team acquires a great star who immediately loses his career in a freak accident. Or a GM simply inherits the job of maintaining and then transitioning a high-quality team. In other words, the stuff swirling around a GM that he can’t control.

That business of the detrimental action (or lack thereof) helps us get our heads around the stuff a GM can control and fumbled. It’s one of those things you need to ask. If you don’t, you ignore that Clark Griffith’s refusal to create a farm system, kept his Senators stuck in the 1910s until the 1950s. This won’t explicitly show up in the numbers, but Griffith’s stubborn rejection of modern team building led to 20 years in the wilderness. Similarly, some teams refused to integrate initially, which limited their teams’ ability to compete.

Let’s list all our guiding questions in one place.

GM GUIDELINE #1: Did he win pennants and World Series?

GM GUIDELINE #2: Was he responsible, in the main, for building the teams that won those pennants and World Series? Or those subsequent to his departure?

GM GUIDLINE #3: Did teams improve under his watch?

GM GUIDELINE #4: Do his transactions show evidence of skill, vision, or planning?

GM GUIDELINE #5: What circumstances or conditions impacted the GM’s job?

GM GUIDELINE #6: Did the GM do anything that actively harmed his team’s chances?

GM GUIDELINE #7: Did he pioneer or innovate in any important way that adds to his case?

GM GUIDELINE #8: Does he have any other important executive experience that adds to his case?

GM GUIDELINE #9: Does he have a player or managerial case that supports his induction as a combination candidate?

That’s a pretty strong battery of questions. I’ve written previously about the data we are assembling to share with you. While we don’t claim any perfection about it, we do claim it’s at least starting down an objective and commonsense path. Various pieces of that data connect directly to these questions.

  • Team performance data: Connects directly to question 1 and question 3, with the latter represented by performance vs. expectation.
  • GM performance data: Question 2 is answered well by a GM’s teams’ performance against expectation, and his managers’ pythagenat records further contribute. We are also assembling specific information about how much of each of a GM’s WAR was earned by players he acquired and how much his acquisitions contributed to the team after he departed.
  • Transaction logs: These connect directly to 4 and indirectly to questions 2 and 3.

So that’s a lotta words. But we think it’s important that we articulate this information. Writing is thinking on paper, and now you know what our thinking is. We, perhaps naively, believe that this information is somewhat new and may help advance everyone’s thinking about team builders. Or not. But we always invite your thinking because even though we may write a lot, we don’t necessarily know a lot. Especially for this field, which is much less measureable, and much less measured, than other aspects of baseball.

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