LEARN TO SPELL ANTHOPOULOS

By Murray Chass

November 22, 2009

When the Toronto Blue Jays named Alex Anthopoulos their new general manager last month, the inclination was to think that they couldn’t get out of the statistically-oriented rut their departing general manager, J.P. Ricciardi had put them in. Anthopoulos, after all, had been Ricciardi’s assistant and was 32 years old. All those young new general managers practiced statistically-oriented baseball, didn’t they?Alex Anthopoulos 225

But then came word from Omar Minaya, the New York Mets’ general manager, who gave Anthopoulos his first job in baseball with the Montreal Expos in 2002.

“He’s not from a statistics background,” Minaya said. “He’s from an evaluation background.”

What refreshing news, at least to these ears. Baseball has become divided into two camps in recent years, the teams that continue to rely on scouts and their evaluation of players and those that base personnel decisions on statistics. I’m old-fashioned and I would sooner trust scouts’ eyes and judgments than numbers disgorged from a computer.

I see nothing wrong with using statistical data to supplement information about players, but some teams have made their computers their leading authority on players. The Michael Lewis book “Moneyball,” about Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics, popularized the statistically-oriented method of building a team.

Two years ago, only a year after they won the World Series, the St. Louis Cardinals fired their general manager, Walt Jocketty, because he was reluctant to adopt the statistical approach the team’s owners preferred.

Last month the San Diego Padres fired their long-time general manager, Kevin Towers, despite four division titles and one National League pennant, their managing owner saying he wanted to take a more “strategic approach,” a euphemism for statistics.

The Blue Jays, on the other hand, saw the reliance on statistics and saw that it didn’t work. “That was the trouble with J.P.,” a member of the Toronto organization said.

When Ricciardi joined the Blue Jays, he assured the owners that he could win more with less, a promise on which he did not deliver as his teams had four losing seasons in his eight-year tenure.

Paul Beeston, the Blue Jays’ chief executive officer, was fond of Ricciardi but knew a change was in order. He is ecstatic with his new general manager.

JP Ricciardi2 225Recalling a time when he wasn’t working for the team but had an office in the team’s offices, Beeston said, “This guy would come in and all he would do is ask questions about things we did in the past. He wanted to know about Pat Gillick and Al Lamacchia and Bobby Mattick. He wanted to know what made Bobby Cox a great manager. He listened. You saw him developing.”

The Canadian native of Greek heritage listened because of advice he had once received from a scout, Bryan Lambe, who is now a special assistant to Minaya.

“God had a scout in mind when he designed the human head,” Lambe told Anthopoulos. “He gave us two eyes, two ears and one mouth. Listen and watch twice as much as you talk and you have a chance to learn something.”

“He was just starting out,” Lambe said the other day. “Young guys like to talk. They want to tell you what they know. But he took it to heart. A lot of them don’t.”

That Anthopoulos has become a general manager only eight years into his baseball career is remarkable in itself, but doing it as an evaluator makes it all the moreso.

“Evaluating is a tough business,” the member of the Toronto organization said. “Anyone can look at the good ones and say they’re good, but it’s the others you need to scout.”

“I started out without knowing anything about evaluating,” Anthopoulos said. “I thought I could evaluate just by looking at numbers on a page. I guess I would call myself an analytical guy. I break things down; I ask questions.”

It was a question he asked in 2002 that began his career. Minaya had just become general manager of the Expos and had no staff because virtually all of the Expos’ employees went to Florida with the new owner of the Marlins, Jeffrey Loria.

“The kid asked me for a job,” Minaya recalled, “and said ‘I’ll work for nothing.’ We didn’t have too many employees, and I hired him. He did a good job, he was a hard worker, he had a good personality, and he was very passionate.”

Anthopoulos recalled the beginning of his life as an evaluator.

“When I started working for the Expos, I’d sit behind the plate with the scouts,” he said. “I worked for Fred Ferreira in Florida. He was with the Expos, and he had a school there. I got to go to the Dominican Republic and Japan. I was on the field for almost two years working with players. I learned a lot being around instructors and looking at players’ mechanics. I tried to correlate that with statistics. If a guy struck out a lot, I’d try to see if that matched up with the numbers.”

When he joined the Expos’ scouting department in 2002, Anthopoulos went on a videotape binge. “I had them ship me all the videos they had. I’d stay up each night and watch countless hours of video. I looked at players who had success and who didn’t have success and figured out why. It would help me develop as an evaluator. I’d go in the next day and ask Omar or Dana Brown, the scouting coordinator, questions.”

Anybody can look at numbers, Anthopoulos added, but an organization needs to be able to evaluate players.

“When I was working for the Expos and Jeremy Giambi was with Philadelphia,” he related, “I watched him in b.p. I had concerns with his swing. The numbers might have showed he could be a good player, but my eyes told me something else.”

Anthopoulos said he doesn’t dismiss statistics but rather tries to use them in his evaluations. “I don’t know if it’s ever one or the other,” he said. “You need to use both and tie these things together. I think the makeup of a player is important. Having the best evaluator is important. A guy might have bad stats but there might be a small mechanical adjustment you think you can make.”

He cited A.J. Burnett as an example. Burnett, he said, had a high rate of walks early in his career, but if you looked at his arm action and his delivery, “you thought his walk rate would get better with time.”

It did over the course of his career, although it went back up this year.

Emphasizing his belief in scouting, Anthopoulos has reinforced the Blue Jays’ scouting staff as his first step toward making the team competitive again. 

“I looked at our list of scouts and was shocked to see how many we were down from 2000 or 2001,” said the member of the organization.roy-halladay2-225

Anthopoulos has built up both the amateur and the professional scouting staffs to levels where the Blue Jays may have the largest scouting staff in the majors. He said he has added 14 area scouts for a total of 25 and 10 professional scouts for a total of 21.

‘We give our scouts huge areas,” Anthopoulos said. “They’re limited with their time. They don’t get to see players as much as they’d like.”

The professional scouts may be busy next spring scrutinizing minor league prospects in other teams’ systems, unless Anthopoulos trades Roy Halladay before then. The Mets will be one of the teams interested in the prized pitcher.

“I’ll definitely have to check on anyone who might be available,” Minaya, the Mets’ general manager, said. “I don’t expect him to give me a discount because I gave him his first job.”

 

YOUNG JON DANIELS

Jon Daniels 150At the age of 32, Alex Anthopoulos was only the fifth youngest person to be named a major league general manager. Jon Daniels of Texas was the youngest, named in 2005 when he was 28 years and 41 days old. The days are necessary to include because Theo Epstein was 28 years and 11 months old when the Red Sox hired him in 2002.

Anthopoulos, however, is now the second youngest general manager because the others have aged since they were hired, probably in more ways than one.

Daniels at 32, has remained the youngest, and Anthopoulos, three months older than Daniels, is second. They are followed by Andrew Friedman of Tampa Bay 33; Epstein, 36 next month; Jed Hoyer of San Diego, who will turn 36 three weeks before Epstein; Josh Byrnes of Arizona 39.

 

IT’S BROADCASTING BOBBY

Arrogance apparently won out over desire so Bobby Valentine will have to bide his time on a broadcasting set while he awaits another opportunity to manage in the major leagues.Bobby Valentine8

Back from a six-year managing stint in Japan, Valentine interviewed for the Cleveland Indians’ vacancy, but Manny Acta got the job.

Valentine was seriously considered for the position, especially after his impressive interview. That he impressed the Indians should not be surprising because Valentine talks a good game (that’s why ESPN has hired him). He also manages a good game. But some people in the Indians’ front office were wary of his reputation.

“We’ve worked hard to establish a culture of respect,” one of them said, alluding to Valentine’s history of trying to do other peoples’ jobs, including the general manager’s.

But Valentine made it easy for the Indians to deal with that potential problem.

“He bungled the media session with us,” the person said. After each candidate was interviewed, he met with members of the Cleveland news media to answer questions. Perhaps feeling that the Indians’ job was beneath him, Valentine was aloof and took a standoffish approach at the news conference, saying he didn’t care if he got the job.

“He miscalculated so badly,” the Indians’ employee said, “that no one locally cared that we didn’t hire him.”

Acta, meanwhile, seeking another managing job after Washington fired him last season, went to his interview fully prepared, demonstrating knowledge about the players, the team and the organization.

Valentine called a day or two later and said hey guys, I’m really interested in the job. But he was too late. The Houston Astros were hot after Acta and were prepared to hire him if the Indians didn’t. The Indians quickly made their decision, and when Valentine called, they told him maybe next time, Bobby.

 

IT’S STILL ABOUT WINNING

zack-greinke2-225Disturbing developments in the post-season award voting by the Baseball Writers Association of America cropped up in the Cy Young awards. The writers gave the awards to Zack Greinke and Tim Lincecum, who between them had 31 victories. That’s the same number that Denny McLain had by himself in 1968.

I don’t have a serious problem with either Greinke or Lincecum, though I would have preferred Felix Hernandez and Chris Carpenter. But what troubles me is some of the winners’ comments about pitching statistics and the voters’ apparent reliance on them.

“You can see where it’s taken a turn to complete numbers,” Lincecum said, referring to the different thinking expressed in this year’s voting.

On conference calls with baseball writers, both winners talked about statistics they view as significant. For Greinke it’s FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching), for Lincecum, WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched).

They can like any statistic they choose, but I’d like to remind them and the voters that the game is still about winning. Teams that win the most games finish in first place. Teams that win the fewest games finish last.

Pitchers have always pitched for teams of different levels of ability. Good pitchers find a way to win in spite of their teams’ shortcomings. In 1972 Steve Carlton won 27 games for a Philadelphia team that had a 59-97 record.

Greinke had a terrific season pitching for a very poor team. I take nothing away from him. Let him keep his award. Lincecum? As good as he was, I don’t think he would have had a chance if two Cardinals pitchers, Adam Wainwright and Carpenter, hadn’t cancelled each other out.  

I am not suggesting that the award should go automatically to the pitcher with the most wins, but it sounds as if there’s a danger that it might go to the pitcher with the best FIP.tim-lincecum-225

Some good pitchers – Jack Morris was a good example –pitch to the score. If they are ahead, 6-1, they pitch differently from the way they do if they are ahead, 2-1.

There are also pitchers who have good numbers but in close games don’t stay in the game long enough to get the win. Those who do might have their statistics bloated, but they help their team win more games.

If the winners feel good about citing statistics that make them look good, they’re not doing anything any of us wouldn’t do. However, it’s too easy for them to go from there to using the statistics as crutches to defend their less than great won-loss record: “Hey, I had a great WHIP; it’s not my fault my team didn’t play better and help me win more games.”

And the voting writers will be their enablers and their accessories.

 

CREATIVE LAWYERING

Roger Clemens2 150In case you missed it, lawyers for Roger Clemens recently came up with a super new defense for a defamation lawsuit: Just kidding, folks.

That’s what the lawyers said in Federal court in Brooklyn in seeking a dismissal of McNamee’s lawsuit against Clemens for allegedly defaming him.

In the Clemens motion for dismissal of the suit, they said Clemens, his lawyers and others were not serious when they questioned McNamee’s mental state and accused him of manufacturing evidence.

“They are part of the public battle of words between the two camps and in no way suggest to the average reader that McNamee is actually mentally unfit,” a lawyer wrote.

Let’s see if I have this right. I can say anything I want about somebody, and if he sues me for defamation, I’ll say “just kidding.” Somehow I don’t think that would or should work.

Comments? Please send email to comments@murraychass.com.