MLB: Winter Meetings

At least that’s what Dave Cameron told me in March of 2010. Zduriencik had learned from Cameron that I was a Wisconsinite working under the FanGraphs boss. Zduriencik, then riding on top of the world (or, at least riding sixth in the world) was struggling to sell his former home in Milwaukee at a time when the housing market was at its nadir during the recession.

Until recently, I thought it must have been a joke. I was just 20 at the time and still a couple years away from graduating from college. Obviously, I did not have the money to buy Jack Zduriencik’s house. But maybe Zduriencik didn’t know about my age and financial status. Maybe he figured it was worth a shot. He had just convinced so many in the sabermetrics world he was a numbers genius. How hard would it be to sell one of them a house?

In case you missed it, over the weekend the Seattle Times published a story chronicling the dysfunction in the Mariners’ front office. The juiciest nugget, particularly for those like myself interested in stats, came from former Mariners assistant Tony Blengino, who said he essentially authored the entirety of Zduriencik’s application for the Mariners GM job with the intention of portraying him as a baseball man with a knowledge of new statistical trends. Blengino added:

“Jack portrayed himself as a scouting/stats hybrid because that’s what he needed to get the job. But Jack never has understood one iota about statistical analysis. To this day, he evaluates hitters by homers, RBI and batting average and pitchers by wins and ERA. Statistical analysis was foreign to him. But he knew he needed it to get in the door.”

The results have been disastrous for the Mariners, who have just one winning season under Zduriencik in five tries. They have made a number of unfortunate trades, which have seen players like Brandon Morrow, Doug Fister, Cliff Lee, Erik Bedard and others dealt for uninspiring returns.

But it seems silly to say the fatal flaw with the Mariners is a lack of forward statistical thinking. It seems like a problem, certainly. But the major failure with the Mariners has been an inability to turn supposedly huge talents into major league players. The Mariners have gotten very little out of Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley and Jesus Montero, all players who ranked in Baseball America’s top 15 prospects at one point in their minor league careers. Is talent development something we would expect to be the strong suit of a “stats guy?” I wouldn’t put it past one, but it hardly seems a given.

Back to Zduriencik, professional general manager and amateur real estate agent. The real story here is less about how his fake stats credentials killed the Mariners and more about how he is just a legendary self-salesman. As scouting director for the Milwaukee Brewers, Zduriencik showed a great eye for amateur talent. He held the position from 1999 to 2006 and oversaw the drafts that added players like Ben Sheets, Corey Hart, J.J. Hardy, Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, Yovani Gallardo, and Ryan Braun to the organization — essentially the entire core of the playoff clubs in 2008 and 2011.

But in 2009, when the Mariners were hiring, the kind of scouting chops Zduriencik showed with Milwaukee weren’t enough. Theo Epstein had just won two titles with the Red Sox and was well known for his statistical methods. There was still the allure of the Moneyball A’s and Billy Beane. This was the kind of thing that was popular — not without good reason, mind you — and even if Zduriencik had no interest in stats as Blengino suggests, he apparently knew what the people in charge wanted. So he took a chance that there was a sucker out there, and just his luck, the Mariners were that sucker.

Of course, this isn’t to suggest Zduriencik didn’t think he could succeed as a general manager. But it has become apparent the Seattle GM job is not one he is well suited to. He has struggled to manage people, from players to coaches to managers to owners, and he has struggled to make proper evaluations of talent. But at least he got his shot, and that’s more than so many can say.

For Zduriencik, selling himself as a general manager was just like selling a house in a down market. You have to get creative, and you have to find a sucker. Luckily for him, Howard Lincoln and Chuck Armstrong were hiring. And luckily for me — one of the FanGraphs authors who co-signed the legendary #6org debacle — I wasn’t in the housing market at the time.