Old school baseball executives like Andy MacPhail adapting to times – Chicago Tribune

When incoming Phillies President Andy MacPhail was asked Thursday what kind of criteria he would use in choosing the next general manager, owner John Middleton interrupted.

“I’ve told Andy what he needs to do,” Middleton said. “He needs to hire himself.”

That response made me flash back to 1999, when I was in the TV booth during a rain delay of a Cubs-Giants game and Chip Caray asked what the Cubs needed to do to get out of their rut.

My reply was MacPhail should “fire Ed Lynch and become the GM himself.”

That didn’t win me any friends in the Cubs’ front office, but 11 months later, that’s exactly what happened. MacPhail demoted Lynch to a scouting position and took on the dual role of president and general manager.

“Either I’m going to get it or it’s going to kill me,” MacPhail said after the announcement. “Hopefully we’re not presiding over a funeral in a few years.”

The Cubs didn’t “get it” under MacPhail, though he thankfully lived on and now is running his fourth organization. He won two championships with the Twins, watched the 2003 Cubs come within five outs of becoming the first Cubs team to make the World Series since 1945 and helped resuscitate the Orioles franchise, though the players he acquired didn’t jell until after he resigned.

Now, after firing unpopular GM Ruben Amaro Jr., MacPhail is under the gun to turn around a woeful Phillies franchise that has hit rock bottom in 2015, on pace to lose 100 games.

The Phillies are one of six teams with GM openings or interims as GMs, along with the Brewers, Angels, Red Sox, Mariners and Marlins.

While MacPhail is admittedly an old-school type, he’s likely looking for one of the new breed of young, analytics-minded executives who can outsmart their counterparts with a database at their fingertips.

The stunning successes of the Cubs and Astros this year will only reinforce the new-age trend.

Red Sox President Dave Dombrowski, who recently was fired by the Tigers, grew up in the business under then-White Sox GM Roland Hemond, well before the analytics age. Dombrowski said they used stats like WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched) back in the day, though the terminology certainly wasn’t the same.

“Roland was teaching me, and he said, ‘Here are some things that are extremely important for you to look at on a weekly basis when you look at statistics of minor-league players,’ ” Dombrowski said. “Hits-to-innings pitched, strikeouts-to-walks ratio, etc.

“So you didn’t have names for them, but even then they were cognizant of some statistics that were important. Roland didn’t dream it up. He had been dealing with it already. They were nowhere near as intricate as today, but there was some feeling of (analytics) back then.”

The game has evolved along with technology, and young GMs like Theo Epstein in Boston and Billy Beane in Oakland helped usher in an analytics revolution in the early 2000s. After Beane agreed to let reporter Michael Lewis shadow him for Lewis’ book, “Moneyball,” and watched it become a best-seller, owners soon began looking for their own Moneyball-type GMs.

“People used analytics then, but you just weren’t talking about it much,” Dombrowski said. “Probably around that ‘Moneyball’ time period, there was more openness about it. People used statistical information in different ways. Some relied on it more than others. But it’s a tool. And as a tool, you should use whatever tools you have access to.”

Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said the movie version of “Moneyball” is really what “brought (analytics) to the general public’s attention,” though he admits he hasn’t seen the film.

“I’m boycotting it,” Rizzo said with a laugh. “Not going to ever see it, because I don’t like the way the scouts are portrayed. My son saw it and with my dad (longtime scout Phil Rizzo) and me in the business, I said, ‘Should I go see it?’ He said: ‘Dad, you probably shouldn’t go see it. You might not like it.’

“And I know Billy Beane, and he’s a scout’s guy. He knows scouting and he was a scout, and I like him a lot. I know that had to be a very Hollywood (version) of the book.”

Rizzo agreed with Dombrowski’s view that GMs always have used analytics without using the modern terminology.

“Analytics has expanded greatly over the last 10 years or so, but like Dave says, we’ve been using analytics our whole careers,” Rizzo said. “Maybe we didn’t call it that. I never made a decision without looking at numbers and statistics and analyzing them in my own mind.

“Now it has become more of an established part of the front office, but I don’t think it’s new in any way, shape or form. It’s something that we’ve always done. Even old-timers like my dad say, ‘We don’t scout numbers.’

“I remember talking to my dad a long time ago, and he was saying, ‘Now (this player) strikes out once every 21/2 at-bats.’ He was using analytics in his own way. He just didn’t know it.”

Mike Rizzo, a former scout himself, is from the old-school camp like MacPhail. But he’s also smart enough to have adapted with the times.

“I’m well versed on (analytics) now,” he said. “I’m fairly at the expert category now, but I don’t know nearly as much as the five guys I hired to run our analytics department, our research and development. We’ve hired five young, aggressive, smart Ivy League guys who are good guys. They know their stuff, they know the analytics and they know that they don’t know everything.

“They respect the baseball aspect of it as much as or more than the baseball people respect the numbers aspect, and that’s important. To fit into our shop that has to happen, because we’re a baseball shop first.”

Now it’s MacPhail’s chance to turn the Phillies into a baseball shop again. Not to sound repetitive, but maybe he should hire himself.

psullivan@tribpub.com

Twitter @PWSullivan

Comments

Write a Reply or Comment:

You must be logged in to post a comment.