November 19, 2017

Swans and Dolphins

November 5, 2017 by · 1 Comment 

Baseball’s Winter Meetings are an event that dates to the beginnings of the 20th Century and before the advent of the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA), were one of the prime venues for addressing the state of the game. In their earliest history, the meetings effected momentous rules changes that made major alterations in how the game was played. Now, the MLBPA and ownership hammer out any changes to the game primarily in the Collective Bargaining Agreement and the Winter Meetings are more about player trades and transactions, at least as the focus of public attention.

This year’s meetings will be held at the Disney Swan and Dolphin Resort in Orlando from December 9-13 and as baseball–and all sports–have become increasingly an entertainment spectacle, the site is appropriate. While there will be very serious business conducted at the winter meetings, the site begs parody. The swans will be the free agents preening and posing as they swim before the throng of wealthy owners. The other prime commodity for public consumption will be tow- and three-team trades, teased out of the water like trained dolphins by the media outlets that chase every rumor until finally something emerges from the water with a splash.

Before the Winter Meetings begin, it appears that all of the Major League teams will have filled out their managerial and coaching ranks. There may be almost as much to read into these trends as the trades and free agent signings that will become the “Hot Stove” bluster of coming days.

There is definitely a changing of the guard occurring. Dusty Baker’s firing could mark the final departure of one of the most well-liked and highly respected managers in recent decades. Joe Girardi is another, although the relatively younger, former Yankee skipper is likely to catch on somewhere else in the near future. The overall trend is toward youth as the hiring of Alex Cora signals. Some have written that younger managers are more savvy in analytics, but that hardly seems to be the vibe that endures after the sum of all the moves is made.

Brad Ausmus, he of the Dartmouth business degree, was once embraced as the first wave of new analytically inclined managers. The Tigers hired Ron Gardenhire to replace Ausmus in October, which is akin to the Detroit front office joining a bowling league while concurrently cancelling their subscriptions to live streaming TV. They don’t come more ‘old-school” than Gardenhire.

The new managers are generally younger like Alex Cora and to some extent Davey Martinez. But it is not the youth by itself that seems to have been the selling point. Cora is fluent in both Spanish and English and can talk to players of any nationality. He is a communicator–he was an ESPN commentator as well–but one who is known for being a keen student of the game. One Boston newspaper even went so far as to call Cora, “cerebral” in his study of game tendencies, a rare use of a three-syllable word for a Boston sports writer.

The plaudits for Martinez in the Washington press are rather similar to those for Cora. Both speak both English and Spanish fluently. But the Washington Post discusses Martinez as something of a “hybrid.” Martinez may well get 60-mpg, but as a manager the local pundits believe he can be both old-school and analytically driven at the same time. He is both a great communicator and someone who will listen to his analytics department more than Dusty did, which is not to say that Baker was fired because his lineup cards were more instinctual than statistically attuned.

The question is whether we have seen this movie before?

In 2014 the Nationals parted company with veteran manager Davey Johnson for Matt Williams who had extensive dugout experience, but had never managed before. They repeat the pattern in that they have dismissed Baker the veteran for Martinez the unproven. Also like Matt Williams, Martinez has asserted that he is a disciplinarian. “I want my players to be on time and run out ground balls.” Whooaaa… Does that mean he wants Mr. Hair Flip to fun our ground balls? That got Matt Williams in a world of hurt.

Bryce Harper publicly supported Williams despite their public confrontation over his reluctance to run full tilt to first on routine grounders. My guess is that he will do more to comply with this new edict in his last year in a Nationals uniform than he did three years ago. Also, the clubhouse cancer that undermined Matt Williams, came less from Harper and more from Jayson Werth and Gio Gonzalez. The left-handed pitcher smacked the ball into Matt Williams hand one day as he was lifted from the game and was alleged to have been shown the Marine disciplinary side of Matt Williams as a result. From there the clubhouse atmosphere went downhill and the bad-boys eventually won the day.

So how does the modern manager demand a modest level of discipline and also gain the reputation as being a good communicator with the modern player? How effectively can a manger suggest to a pitcher or hitter that he might change his approach based on what the numbers say about his existing tactics? Those questions are difficult to answer in any case, but with Dave Martinez we cannot know because he has never been there before. He is untried and untested, like Matt Williams was.

There are some differences however, and they may be important ones. Mike Rizzo was likely the one who championed Matt Williams. Both had worked together in the Diamondbacks organization and it is probable that Rizzo’s recommendation landed “the big marine” the job. Now it appears that the Lerners were the ones that fired Dusty Baker, largely in a fit of pique because he did not win the NLDS two seasons in a row. Mike Rizzo is in much the situation now that Baker was in last season as we prepared for the Winter Meetings. His contract extents through the end of the 2018 season and no more. It is highly likely the Lerners will make his tenure conditional upon the same level of success. If Rizzo and Davey Martinez do not win something in the post season in 2018, Rizzo may be the one who leaves.

That may well occasion more cooperation between Rizzo and Martinez than was the case with Dusty Baker. Did Dusty have the authority to bat Jayson Werth second in the lineup and leave Howie Kendrick on the bench for all five games of the 2018 NLDS? Will Martinez seek the advice of his front office? The answer may lie in the relationship Joe Maddon had with Andrew Friedman back in St. Petersburg. According to the Chicago Tribune, Maddon had a contractual clause that gave him a two-week window to declare himself a free agent manager if and when Friedman left the Tampa Bay Rays organization. Friedman went to Los Angeles and Maddon left, then took over the Cubs under Theo Epstein and the rest has been a very nice historical run for the Cubs.

All of this goes to say that as the Winter Meetings approach, Dave Martinez should do what Joe Maddon, his mentor, might have done. He might study his lineup and figure out exactly why his new team has been unable to solve the post-season. He should seek to have some input into the decisions about this or that free agent and exactly how the Nationals are going to have a better catching corps in 2018 and a rotation that doesn’t lose its bearing under the hot lights of October. Are their enough bullpen options to keep them going at the high levels it will take to beat the Cubs and Dodgers?

What the Nationals need more than anything is a better marriage of their managerial staff. The analytics department should be included in that equation, because there are some indications that they are not big players in the scout-driven front office of Mike Rizzo.

The modern baseball team is about getting everyone involved. It takes 25 players to win a World Series and it takes everyone in the front office–ownership included–to put those players in the best position to win. Over the next month or so, we will see how much the Washington Nationals front office is pulling together to put a winner on the field next season. Watching the swans and dolphins in Orlando may have a lot to do with how well the Nationals will do next season.

Comments

One Response to “Swans and Dolphins”
  1. Cliff Blau says:

    Actually, winter meetings go back before the beginning of major league baseball in 1876. SABR’s 19th Century Committee is working on a book detailing those meetings from the 1850s to 1900.

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