The Chicago Cubs will begin their search for a new general manager in earnest once this disaster of a season concludes, but as Gordon Wittenmyer reports in the Chicago Sun-Times, the object of the Cubs desire is already said to have a proven track record and a strong analytic background.

The writer seems to be a little worried about what a strong analytic background might mean and warns against leaning too heavily on the methodology of “propeller heads” when it comes to analysis, suggesting that:

For every Beane and Epstein success story, there’s a flame-out story about guys such as Beane protégé Paul DePodesta (Los Angeles Dodgers) and Epstein assistant Josh Byrnes (Arizona Diamondbacks).

Wittenmyer, ignoring the immediate success that both organizations found following the sabermetrics inclined GMs’ respective departures or that even non-propeller heads have had unsuccessful general managerial careers, then goes on to collect the sage advice of general managers from the weakest divisions in baseball, including the Giants’ Brian Sabean, who points out that pitching, fielding and team speed remain “constant cornerstones” and “predictors of success.”

The overall foundation of the game hasn’t changed over time, and we get reminded of it as we get put into short windows of time as we try to retool and rebuild. If you have [those] three going, it can cover a lot of mistakes.

How did the San Francisco Giants ever win a World Series? Pitching, fielding and team speed cover a lot of mistakes? Hmm. Perhaps this is the philosophy that’s led to the Giants being six games back in the National League West with the worst offense in baseball, in terms of both total runs scored and weighted on base average.

Sabean continues:

We all know how to use statistics and all know how to use analysis to make an educated decision and look forward, but should it — or does it — rule the day, in my opinion? I don’t think so. I think most people would admit you need it, but there’s a feel that goes along with it.

We all know how to use statistics? I think that Aubrey Huff getting a two year contract worth a guaranteed $22 million might beg to differ with this point. If not, surely the $126 million over seven years given to Barry Zito, or Aaron Rowand’s five year $60 million contract, or the $6.5 million that the Giants are paying Miguel Tejada to contribute less than a replacement player contradicts everyone’s common excellence at statistical analysis.

Milwaukee Brewers GM Doug Melvin, seems to have a bit more level headed approach:

We use Sabermetrics; we use numbers. But you’ve got to decide which ones you want to use. The challenging part is you’ve got to have a feel yourself as a general manager, having seen a lot of baseball games, to evaluate a player’s physical skills and how they fit into a club.

No one would ever suggest that an all numbers all the time approach would reap the biggest rewards, just as no one would ever claim that baseball isn’t played by human beings. I think a very good explanation in favour of statistics was used by Jonah Keri in a recent Grantland article.

Scientific advances, be they in baseball or other less awesome fields, ultimately come down to one goal: eliminating guesswork. That doesn’t mean we’ll know everything about baseball. It just means that teams will be better equipped to make decisions when trying to build a championship team.

There’s an important distinction to be made between eliminating and eradicating. Understanding the limitation of numbers in baseball is every bit as important as understanding the power of  their predictive abilities. And that’s where the value of the more intangible aspects come into play.

A great example of this is general manager Alex Anthopoulos in Toronto. His first order of business after taking charge of the Blue Jays organization was to put in place the largest scouting staff in baseball. His second: Commissioning statistical analysis from nom de plume Tom Tango. Like it is for most things in life, an all or nothing approach in baseball is unlikely to be successful.

Speaking of Anthopoulos, I think that there’s a misconception that in acquiring players like Yunel Escobar, Brett Lawrie and Colby Rasmus that the team is taking a numbers first, attitude be damned approach to its roster building. This isn’t the case.

We’ve heard about the depth of investigation that they put into potential draft picks and I find it hard to believe that in trading for players their approach would be any different. A player’s make up is still an important factor even for a team that looks at the right numbers in making an evaluation.

This is what I despise about these anti-stats pieces that seem to come up at least once a week. Declaimers try to frame analysis in terms of all or nothing when it’s just not the case. Take a look back at the third and fourth paragraph of the article in question.

[Cubs chairman Tom] Ricketts has said he wants his new GM to have a track record of success as a top man in baseball operations, a trait many longtime executives in the game say is essential for a regime trying to turn around a century of inertia.

But Ricketts also has made it clear he wants his new GM to have a strong analytical background in advanced baseball metrics, which might be fine — or might become a minefield to navigate if that becomes an overriding influence in the search.

This is what sparked 1,000 words decrying the benefit of advanced metrics? A chairman talking about recruiting efforts and describing someone with experience and analytic ability.

It’s like reporting on a little girl who is about to drink a glass of milk, which might be fine — or might lead to her death because the milk could be poisoned. Cue 1,000 words and quotes from people who don’t drink milk all about the dairy product’s risks.

Comments (2)

  1. It’s all just a little bit of history repeating.

  2. Gordon Wittenmyer:…Smart…Like table.

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