SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – For three days, the brain trusts of all 30 Major League Baseball teams gathered at a ritzy resort in this wealthy desert suburb and tried to find common ground. The start of a baseball offseason is traditionally slow, and in a year when a new collective bargaining agreement is due, the action was even quieter.
But when these general managers met, more and more of them saw reflections. They are thirtysomethings, analytically inclined, and products of elite, private universities. The last five years have become something of a race among owners to secure the brightest minds, a race that has homogenized the game.
“When people begin to value players much more similarly across the industry, the ability to find value disappears or greatly decreases,” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. “There’s no question that teams are looking at player evaluation much more similarly than they were five years ago.”
So the search for the next competitive advantage is more difficult. Sixteen front offices employ an Ivy League graduate as either their president of baseball operations or general manager. Even more employ those from prestigious private schools. Just one former big-league player (Jerry Dipoto, Seattle) is a general manager. Every team has an analytics department, some bigger than others, and the translation of that data can breed disparate opinions. But finding common ground, longtime Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said, is harder because one perspective is dominant.
“You can’t exploit somebody’s difference of opinion,” Cashman said.
Instead, the 49-year-old executive said, market conditions drive more transactions. He traded two elite relievers, Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman, last summer because he did not believe his team could contend in 2016. Miller, dealt to Cleveland for four prospects, became a postseason star.
“I had the same value of the players as the Cleveland Indians did,” Cashman said. “You saw us be able to match up on players even though we valued them similarly. It was just, they were living in the present and we had to live in the future.”
Matt Klentak, a 36-year-old Dartmouth College product, finds balance through his boss – a 63-year-old, third-generation baseball man in Phillies president Andy MacPhail. But Klentak believes the hidden advantages are in how a team applies the information it accrues across every level of the franchise.
“Trying to produce the best information possible is still going to be a major priority,” said Klentak, in his second offseason as Phillies general manager. “It could be analytics. It could be scouting reports. It could be medical information. It could be something undefined.”
Huntington, an Amherst College graduate who was hired as Pirates GM at 38, saw symmetry in how front offices operate today. The amount of consensus is similar to 20 years ago, when everything was far more scouting-based. When a group shifts in one direction, Huntington said, there will always be undervalued areas.
“We are a copycat industry,” Huntington said. “The Royals, with their success of their back three that were so dominant, led to an increase in the reliever market last year. Andrew Miller’s willingness and ability to go at any point in the game and for multiple innings, that will impact that market. As people move in a certain direction, our goal is to understand that.”
Thad Levine, a 44-year-old Haverford College graduate who this month became general manager of the Minnesota Twins, foresees a course correction.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we start seeing a balance between people with our backgrounds marrying up with players,” Levine said. “I think there’s been a newfound appreciation for the value that ex-players can bring to the decision-making process, which quite frankly in the prior decade, we totally disengaged from. It became more of a business exercise.”
Levine recalled meetings during his time as a deputy with the Texas Rangers that included former players Darren Oliver and Michael Young, who took interest in front-office roles. Levine would explain to them a message the executives wanted to convey to a current player, something gleaned from the data that could help them. The ex-players listened.
“He would definitely not hear it the way you just explained it,” they told Levine.
The prevailing archetype does not apply to all organizations, but most have adopted a blend of scouting and analytics. Take the perspectives of executives from two teams who occupy different points on the spectrum:
“The key is most analytics-driven organizations are still reliant on scouting,” said Huntington, of the data-happy Pirates. “Scouting is still at the core of everything that we do and helping understand why we’re getting the numbers we’re getting.”
“Where you’re going to find trades and differences of opinion is with scouting,” Atlanta Braves general manager John Coppolella, 37, said. “We will always be based in scouting. We may be one of the, if not the, most scouting-friendly organizations. That’s just the way we’re going to roll. Maybe that gives us an advantage. Maybe it’s a disadvantage. We like what it feels like to us.”
Different isn’t always better; Arizona’s front office, led by longtime baseball men Tony La Russa and Dave Stewart, failed in its big-splash approach. They were replaced last week by Mike Hazen, a 40-year-old graduate of Princeton University, and another front office started thinking like the growing majority.
“There are still market inefficiencies,” said Huntington, standing in the corner of a ballroom where his rivals fielded questions from reporters.
“And, no, I’m not going to share what we’re looking at.”