MLB General Manager 101

On top of this list are egomaniac owners, with way more money than brains:

MLB Cost per Win 2015

Where you REALLY don’t want to be on this chart is near the top & out of the post-season– those team’s CEO’s & GM’s all deserve scrutiny.

MLB teams spent an average of $1,573,000 per win in 2015.  In today’s free agent market, teams pay an average of $6M/win.  Teams determine player value by calculating the number of wins a player will add above replacement level (WAR), using a blend of scouting and advanced metrics. A championship-level player at any position is 2-3 WAR, an all-star is 4-6 WAR, and a MVP is 8-10 WAR.  Finding & signing bargains, while minimizing mistakes, is how you win as a GM.

All players need to be objectively valued, starting with the most important baseball skill– hitting.  Hitting is best measured using the triple slash stats of AVG/OBP/SLG which gives a true measure of a hitter’s ability.  OBP is life in baseball.  It is the most important measure of a hitter’s value, carrying around three times the weight of SLG, which is second in importance.  AVG is prone to severe fluctuations, even from season to season, and doesn’t measure the batter’s ability to take a walk– a critical hitting skill.

For reference, 2015 MLB triple slash averages for all players was .254/.317/.405.

Q: What is a batter is trying to do at the plate?  A: Create runs.  He does this by: 1) not making outs, and 2) hitting for power.

Productive outs are WAY over-rated in most situations.  Sacrifice bunts give the other team an out, which is generally bad in terms of winning.  Base stealing is also over-hyped, as caught stealing hurts– especially in this modern power-hitting era.  Team SB% needs to be >75% to be effective towards winning.

A hitter’s value always needs to be understood in the context of the defensive position he plays.  Catcher, shortstop, centerfield, and second base are critical & difficult defensive positions, which must be played competently for a pitching staff to be successful & stay healthy.  Power & run production is usually expected from the less-demanding defensive positions: first base, corner outfielders, and third base.  Of course, DH has always been about power in the AL, since 1973.

Pitching, as related to winning, is also about power.  Pitchers with high K/9 and low BB/9 have the low ERA’s.  Strikeout pitchers handle the best hitters with their stuff, and cover up for poor defense.  The value of true-ace pitching in the post-season is exponentially higher than in the regular season.

Relief pitching has only the fraction of the value of starting pitching.  Most organizations still overpay on closers and set-up relievers.  Smart organizations stockpile power arms, then convert them to relievers if they fail as starters, in order to keep payroll costs down.

Defense was the final baseball frontier to be conquered by sabermetrics, begrudgingly earning respect from the old-timers.  With the advent of digital video technology in the 2000’s, each player is now more accurately measured for their true defensive value.  As recently as the 1990’s, assists, put outs, and errors were the only stats for individual defense; making Gold Glove awards (and any other opinions on defensive ability) highly subjective.  Now, Zone Ratings, etc… use statistical analysis to objectify range, accuracy, arm strength, and competence at all positions.

As productive players at premium defensive positions get older, their defensive skills erode necessitating their being moved to easier spots, usually 1B or DH.   Baseball history proves that it is nearly impossible to move a major-league player up the defensive spectrum, which runs C-SS-2B-CF-3B-RF-LF-1B-DH.

All this new data gives savvy GM’s (with a competitive payroll) the ability to budget their ball club, from its rebuilding to World Series champion. This is exactly how in 2015, the Houston Astros & Chicago Cubs rose from the ashes into the post-season.  The St. Louis Cardinals are an example of an organization that is always competitively-funded & well-run from top to bottom.

Pennants & WS championships are won in the off-season.  The deals a general manager makes through trades, free agent signings, and Rule 5 draft acquisitions shape the roster for the field manager.  Most big league skippers will manage their talent equally well; and even the best, such as Joe Maddon can only add a few wins to a season’s total.  The field manager’s primary value is in the post-season where game-management skills win & lose pennants. That’s why rebuilding organizations punt on experience and often give the manager job to a rookie at minimum salary– because they aren’t too worried about the post-season.

Generally, you need a good manager to win it all, and having a great one really helps.  The most infamous example of an incompetent manager winning the World Series was in 2001, when Arizona Diamondbacks skipper Bob Brenly so horribly mismanaged his 2 HOF aces– Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling; along with his bullpen to the point where HOF NY Yankee closer Mariano Rivera was pitching in the bottom of the 9th of Game 7 with a one-run lead.  A last-gasp rally started by Mark Grace, and aided by a Rivera throwing error, saved the Diamondbacks from eternal ridicule.

BTW, the Diamondbacks/Yankees 2001 was (IMO) the greatest World Series in the history of the game.

The most important GM questions of each off-season are: What is the payroll budget and where is this organization on the win curve?  Understanding where a team is on its win curve determines spending priorities.  Is this a team ready to win it all, or does it need to keep building, or rebuild?  With an answer fairly determined, spending is then balanced accordingly on MLB payroll and draft/player development.  Teams with no shot at winning (<75 wins projected) are well-advised to dump veteran payroll, in order to re-invest in prospects, the draft, and young international free agents.

Looking at basic team numbers can reveal much about where an organization sits on the win curve.  Today with two Wild Cards, a team can virtually guarantee a playoff birth with 92-94 wins.  Runs Scored (RS) & Runs Allowed (RA) objectify won/loss record, through Pythagorean projections.  Intelligent GM’s can look at their roster before the season and use advanced metrics to estimate RS/RA, in order to approximate their team’s final W/L record.

Proof of this is in hindsight too.  For instance, in 2015, the NY Mets were 90-72 scoring 683 runs and allowing 613, projecting to an 89-73 record.  Most teams fall near their RS/RA projection, but not all.  Sometimes teams can be lucky or unlucky in one-run games and/or extra innings– usually these contests are split around 50/50.  This can distort a team’s final record, and reflect a false picture of their true talent.

An example of this were the 2015 Oakland A’s, who were 68-94, yet they were only outscored by 35 runs on the season (694-729).  OAK’s Pythagorean projection was 77-85, but a 19-35 record in one-run games, the worst winning % in MLB, sunk their season.  The good news for A’s fans is that OAK probably isn’t as bad as their 2015 record, and their Moneyball GM Billy Beane knows it.

Other GM’s don’t understand this so well, and they are usually found in organizations that perennially miss the post-season.   Managers are hired and fired more often, and with more fanfare.  Field managers probably receive too much of the credit & blame for winning & losing, while the GM’s off-season moves have much more impact on a team’s performance & final result.

Fans who don’t know their team’s general manger have very little clue as to why their team succeeds or not.   For franchises that continually lose, this is likely the way it will continue to be, until their fans take a closer (and more serious) look at the business of baseball.