The Sunday Baseball Column: How this GM job has changed

Rob Bradford
September 15, 2019 - 8:52 am
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The job has changed. Just ask J.P. Ricciardi.

The 59-year-old has had a unique view of the evolution this position the Red Sox are currently looking to fill, that of the head of baseball operations. Ricciardi was in the middle of the "Moneyball" Oakland A's with Billy Beane before going to become Toronto's general manager for eight seasons. He would be immersed into the world of the Mets in 2010, leading to his role with the new analytics-driven Giants organization over the past two seasons.

Put it this way: What John Henry was looking for when he went after Beane, and ultimately Ricciardi, after the 2002 season wasn't the same focus as when Dave Dombrowski was hired four years ago. And this time around the priorities will have been altered once again.

From perception to execution, different skill-sets figure to be zeroed in on by the Red Sox' principal owner this time around. It has become less of a cookie-cutter position than ever before, as Ricciardi points out ...

TRANSPARENCY

"I think the biggest thing is that everybody is aware of the GM now. Everybody is aware of every possible thing in an organization. Social media has made things where everybody knows everybody’s farm system, what people think of the farm system. There are so many people that have a say now or an opinion on what an organization is or isn’t. There is more awareness of a what an organization is now.

"I don’t think you have to insulate yourself, but you have to be aware that there are no small problems. Everything is going to be reported on. If you have a kid in low A who gets hurt it gets reported on  and you have to be aware of it. You just have to bo the on top of your organization 24-7. It’s like having a police scanner on your desk. You have to know everything that is happening, not only in your organization but in other organizations. It has changed that way. The awareness of what organizations are. Right, wrong, or indifferent a lot of people have opinions on what they should do or shouldn’t do so it’s out there."

SIZE OF FRONT OFFICES

"You’re still in charge of baseball operations so you’re in charge of all the people who work for you. Personally, I’m not that big a proponent of more is better. I would subscribe to the theory is good people are what you’re looking for. I’m not so sure bigger is better but that just seems that’s the way most front offices are leaning these days. I’ve always subscribed the theory that if you have good people in these positions you’re going to be rock-solid."

ANALYTICS VS. SCOUTING

"I don’t think that has changed a lot. Analytics have really grown in the game but I don’t think you can any way shape or form discount what scouting brings to the table. I want good scouts. I want scouts to get the information I need and be able to evaluate on the really important decisions I have to make. I want the analytics to give me the information of why or how or who, to fill in the blanks or to bring attention to things we might not be looking at. I definitely believe there is a hybrid that has to be involved. I just don’t think you can be one way. I don’t see how it can work. There is a lot of things that scouting brings to the table that is really, really important. In an organization, I think it’s really important that you are balanced.

"They are both important and it’s how you balance them out is where you’re going to get your most success. If you lean one way or the other you just aren’t going to have a balanced approach to what you’re trying to do. They check and balance each other out. The days of the Herman Munster episode where you’re driving down the road an a ball hits the windshield and someone says, ‘Where did that ball come from?’ And they find out Herman Munster hit the ball from 500 yards away and all of a sudden they pull over and they try to sign Herman Munster, those days are over. The analytics have really brought a lot of things to light and I don’t think they’re the end-all, be-all but I do think they’re important. Just like I don’t think a guy standing up in a room pounding the table saying, ‘My gut tells me this guy …’ That’s like closing your eyes and picking a horse at the Kentucky Derby."

PRIORITIZING THE RIGHT PEOPLE

"With the Mets, we really didn’t have a big group, either. The Giants, (President of Baseball Operations) Farhan (Zaidi) is trying to grow the group and Farhan is coming from an analytics background. But one of the qualities that Farhan has is that he listens and he doesn’t forget when you tell him about someone. That’s a good quality to have. You look at the analytics but you still value the opinion of scouts. I don’t think it’s that hard, I really don’t. And I think anyone who tries to draw a line in the sand and say it’s this way or that way I think you’re setting yourself up for failure.

"I think you have to get information from scouts who have a track record. That really goes a long way. Guys who have helped pull the trigger on trades, the drafts and guys who have helped evaluate your own players, those evaluators have to have a track record and I think that’s what makes an organization. It’s when you run into an organization which doesn't have a track record and are willy-nilly winging it that’s where you can get in trouble just solely relying on the scouts."

DEALING WITH AGENTS

"It has definitely changed. Agents talk way more to GMs now than they ever did. They’re just more part of the game and players have allowed it to be that way. What are you going to do? You have to deal with it. You can’t stick your head in the sand and say, ‘I don’t ever want to deal with an agent.’ Players have agents, players rely those agents and players trust those agents so you have to have a rapport with them."

HESITANCY TO MAKE TRADES

"Today it’s really hard to make trades. For the most part, most organizations are afraid to make a mistake. They’re so afraid to get ripped. They’re so afraid to get second-guessed. I think there just is a lot of hesitancy of teams to make trade especially with young players. ... Just go back and look, they don’t always turn out to be what we think they’re going to be. A lot of guys just don’t want to be the one who want to make the mistake. Right, wrong or indifferent, they’re their players and they have to look at them in whatever way they need to value them. But there are less trades made today because more teams are afraid of giving up players who can come back to haunt them."

And while digesting this new landscape is important, as is identifying the right person at the right time, it should be understood all of these lists highlighting potential candidates for the Red Sox job are filled with square pegs in round holes. Good people with good track records, but not necessarily someone who is going to scratch where this organization is currently itching. And in the end, there is one person who is going to determine exactly what kind of discomfort the Sox are dealing with: Henry.

WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN

Mike Hazen would have made a lot of sense for the Red Sox for a lot of reasons, including his proven ability with the Diamondbacks to get out ahead of the curve when it comes to big contracts and get what is perceived to be top value in return for big names. But he is no longer an option thanks to the Massachusetts native's new contract extension with Arizona. Put it on the list of what-might-have-beens.

We have the aforementioned pursuit of Beane after the 2002 season, leading to Henry and Co. going after Ricciardi. Then, four years later when Theo Epstein took his hiatus in a power struggle with then-President Larry Lucchino, the Red Sox had made strong overtures for Dayton Moore to fill the position. But Atlanta GM John Schuerholz convinced Moore to stay with the Braves, insinuating he would be the longtime GM's heir apparent. So Moore stayed only to make his move to Kansas City a year later, winning the World Series with the Royals in 2015.

And as long as we're on interesting almosts, after the 2013 season, the Cubs wanted to entertain making Torey Lovullo their next manager but because of the agreement made when Epstein bolted for Chicago the then-Red Sox bench coach wasn't allowed an interview. If Lovullo did leave after that world championship season, John Farrell's new bench coach would have been a familiar name: Current Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash.

THE REALITY OF THE RED SOX FARM SYSTEM

"It's not as bad as everyone says it is."

That was one from American League talent evaluator who spent a good chunk of his time in 2019 scouting the Red Sox' farm system. 

Asked to identify the five most intriguing Red Sox minor-leaguers (Double-A and higher), this was his list:

1. Starting pitcher Bryan Mata. "He reminds of a young Carlos Zambrano. ... Probably projects to be a No. 3."

2. Outfielder Jarren Duran: "Sort of a Jacoby Ellsbury-like without the power. He's still getting used to playing the outfield, which is understandable. He makes up for some bad routes with his speed."

3. First baseman Bobby Dalbec: "Could be a Four-A guy or a perennial big league All-Star. He obviously has the kind of power that works in the game today but does guess on pitches too much for my liking right now. ... He's a really, really good defender."

4. Infielder C.J. Chatham: "I really like Chatham because I can see him having the ability to play all four infield positions. He puts the ball in play." (Note: Chatham finished the minor-league season dabbling in some time at second base.)

5. Pitcher Tanner Houck: "They should keep him as a reliever. It's good he's gone back to prioritizing that two-seamer instead of worrying too much about throwing his four-seam fastball."

One last note on the Sox minor-league situation: One of the biggest false narratives when it comes to Dombrowski's downfall is that the former President of Baseball Operations gutted the farm system. Listen, there are specific areas Dombrowski should be criticized for, but this really shouldn't be near the top of the list.

Sure, Dombrowski traded a ton of minor-leaguers, but the percentage of those players who the Red Sox could have actually used to turnover the roster are few and far between. Go ahead, name them. The Ty Buttreys, Mauricio Dubons and Shaun Andersons of the world will be solid major leaguers, but would they have represented the answers to what will ail this organization? To get three seasons of Chris Sale a front office is going to have to get uncomfortable with the likes of deals including Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech. That would be the case with any GM, anywhere. But not including Rafael Devers in the Sale deal is where Dombrowski should get a pat on the back.

And as for the rumor that ownership stepped in at the trade deadline and told Dombrowski to not deal any more prospects, according to sources familiar with the situation, that is another flawed line of thinking. For better or worse, that strategy -- which left with some confusion because of the then-President of Baseball Operations' declaration that his approach was dependent on the two different paths to the postseason -- was a Dombrowski production.

A SHIFT IN SCOUTING

It made some in baseball uncomfortable seeing the Giants move on from eight pro scouts, many of whom had proven track records. Initially, it reeked of analytics winning out over the human element once again. But there news from Zaidi that people should have taken notice of when digesting exactly what was going on.

"Zaidi said that it's becoming more and more important to dedicate scouting resources to the low levels of the minor leagues, all the way down to the Dominican Summer League and rookie ball," wrote NBC Sports Bay Area's Alex Pavlovic.

The reality is this is where a lot of organizations might be going, with teams looking to allocate scouts toward levels there just simply isn't as much information. Advance scouting in the big leagues is another example of this shift.

The Red Sox are one of the many teams that don't have a scout on the road advancing their upcoming opponents, instead, relying on video and analytics with Steve Langone and J.T. Watkins collecting and distributing the information while with the big league club. 

The process is one that has shifted numerous times throughout the years, with the Red Sox once alternating two advance scouts with one on the road and the other with the big league club, with the pair alternating with each series. 

An example of how specific (and potentially imperfect) any approach can be arrived during one of the key Red Sox' losses in the past few weeks. When J.D. Martinez' launched what appeared to be a game-tying double off the left-field wall in the ninth-inning of the Red Sox' Sept. 5 game against the Twins, third base coach Carlos Febles not only had the play in front of him but was also armed with some significant information to help in the decision to send Rafael Devers.

The Red Sox' report had eight occasions in which Twins left fielder Eddie Rosario had executed similar plays -- cleanly throwing a ball off the wall and throwing home. Seven of the previous instances had Rosario's throw sailing well wide of his target. Not this time.

SO, YOU LIKE ANALYTICS ...

If you haven't taken a deep dive into the Web site "BaseballSavant.com" then do yourself a favor and give it a whirl. 

Some Red Sox-centric items that we came across, for instance ...

- The increase in shifts on Mookie Betts this season is striking. Betts is being shifted on -- (identified as having three or more fielders on one side of second base) -- 43 percent of the time. Last year the number was 11 percent, and in 2017 he saw shifts just 1.4 percent of the time.

- Christian Vazquez is not only taken his offensive game to another level this season but he has taken a huge jump when it comes to his defense. Vazquez is fifth in the majors in pitch-framing after finishing 27th last season. His pop-time (throwing down to second base on stolen base attempts has also gone from 2.04 (46th overall last season) to ninth-best (1.96).

- Andrew Bentintendi is tied with Mike Trout and Max Kepler for being identified as the best outfielders when it comes to taking proper routes. Who's last in the big leagues? (Take it for what it's worth) Jackie Bradley Jr. Benintendi is, however, seventh-worst when it comes to Outs Above Average at minus-nine. Victor Robles leads all outfielders at a plus-18, with Bradley Jr. dropping from 12 in 2018 to six this season.

And one non-Red Sox-centric item ...

- Last year there were 54 home runs of 450 feet or more. This year there have been 95 of them.