Old school vs. new school in the NL West

I think it’s safe to say the Dodgers are favored in the National League West this season, with the World’s Champion Giants fighting for table scraps, and perhaps the recently bolstered Padres pushing the Giants. Which leaves the Diamondbacks and Rockies largely out of the conversation. But the Diamondbacks have Tony La Russa and Dave Stewart! Which is … good for them?

Well, we don’t really know yet. You have to admit that Pedro Moura’s story about a distinct difference between the Diamondbacks and Dodgers does lead one to wonder…

LOS ANGELES – Consider the contrast: Arizona Diamondbacks general manager Dave Stewart publicly appealed to free-agent pitcher James Shields this week by calling his organization a “true baseball team,” one that does not place an emphasis on the importance of analytics or advanced statistical metrics.

Dodgers manager Don Mattingly publicly appealed to reason this week in saying you’d have to be a “fool” not to incorporate analytics. Both men had long, successful major-league careers, and both have their proponents and opponents in their divergent post-playing careers.

The two of them occupying opposite sides of the sabermetric spectrum in 2015 makes for quite a spectacle, and represents just how far Mattingly has come in his four-plus years at the helm in Los Angeles.

Just in case you missed it last week, here’s the context for Stewart’s comments. Even in context, they don’t speak particularly well for him. Stewart’s boss is Tony La Russa, who might once have been the saber-savviest manager in the majors … but that was a long, long time ago. Lately – and by “lately” I mean the decade or so – La Russa’s sounded like a man who’s offended by what’s been happening on the analytical side of things. La Russa did hire an ex-veterinarian to run the Diamondbacks’ analytics department. Which isn’t necessarily a problem, but one might reasonably wonder about La Russa’s commitment to the most modern of analytics, since someone committed to the most modern of analytics probably wouldn’t have hired a director of analytics who’s a) never worked for a baseball team before, and b) just happens to be a good friend from way, way back.

Should we jump to rash conclusions? No! There are three things worth remembering here. One, the ex-veterinarian might have spent much of the last few years scouring the Web for the latest and greatest, and maybe he’s the one man who might convince La Russa that sabermetrics isn’t a dirty word and Billy Beane didn’t write that damned book. Two, the Philadelphia Phillies won three straight division titles while Ruben Amaro Jr. was running the club; in 2009, Amaro was named Executive of the Year. Three, youneverknow.

As for Mattingly, Moura correctly notes that Mattingly never seemed quite so enthusiastic about metrics before Andrew Friedman arrived. Which isn’t really a knock against Mattingly. Unless you’re La Russa or Bobby Cox or some other future Hall of Famer, you’re probably going to take your cues from the people upstairs, for the simple reason that if you don’t, they’ll find someone who will.

I don’t mean to suggest that Mattingly’s not an intelligent fellow, or wouldn’t have come to things on his own without any nudges from the nerds upstairs. But as brilliant and independent as we all like to think ourselves, the truth is that we’re largely a product of our culture. Trade Mattingly to the Twins, and he’s probably not making a bunch of public pronouncements about the wonders of modern baseball information. Which, again, isn’t a knock at all, but rather an acknowledgment of human nature.

Do Friedman and Mattingly seem to have an edge over La Russa and Stewart? Damn right, at least in this particular sphere. But the Dodgers larger, more important edge comes in the spheres of current talent and resources. If you magically sent La Russa and Stewart to the Dodgers tomorrow, wouldn’t you still expect the Dodgers to finish ahead of the Diamondbacks this year? I would.

But if La Russa, who’s never really done anything but manage, can somehow build a championship team with the Diamondbacks’ resources, we oughtta put him in the Hall of Fame.