The Secrets of Baseball Management

I’ve read 19 baseball books this year, and enjoyed nearly all of them. Most of them a great deal. But there’s just one that seems to me essential: Mark Armour and Dan Levitt’s In Pursuit of Pennants: Baseball Operations from Deadball to Moneyball. And it’s essential because it goes a long way toward explaining much of the last century of major-league baseball. How we got from there to here.

The book is exceptionally well-researched, -reasoned, and -argued, and also exceptionally well-written.

Full Disclosure Time! I consider both Mark and Dan friends! But while both have written books before, both together and alone, and I’ve enjoyed those books, too, this one’s a better, more important book than their others.

Whilst reading In Pursuit of Pennants on my Kindle, I highlighted a few passages that particularly intrigued me, and some of those passages turned into questions that Mark and Dan were kind enough to answer via shared Google Doc (yes, sometimes technology really is our friend). Below, a very lightly edited version of our conversation…

Rob: I’m fascinated by the thought of longtime Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss personally keeping a “dope book … filled with information on young players around the country, and he would often travel to see them play and sign or purchase those he liked.” Did you try to locate Dreyfuss’s journal? And who are some of the great players signed or purchased by Dreyfuss personally? I think it’s fascinating that he was not only the owner of a highly successful franchise, but also the de facto general manager.

Mark: We went through Dreyfuss’s papers at the Hall of Fame and found a lot of great correspondence, but there was no sign of his journals.   

The most famous Dreyfuss signing was Fred Clarke in 1894.  There are a few different versions of the story, actually, but they agree on the main details.  Dreyfuss got a tip (from one of the many minor league operators he knew) about a great player with Savannah. Dreyfuss traveled a lot in his work for his family’s distillery, and he arranged a trip to Memphis to check out Clarke.  After a couple of games, he paid the Savannah manager $200, brought Clarke back on the train to Louisville (Dreyfuss’s National League team), and the 21-year-old Clarke got four hits in his first game.  Dreyfuss read the baseball periodicals of the day, kept track of the best prospects in his book, used sources around the country, and tried to see the most highly touted players; this basic story is repeated for several other players (Tommy Leach, Deacon Phillippe, etc.).  He acquired Honus Wagner from the minors, though by that time other people knew who he was.  As we say in the book, Branch Rickey called Dreyfuss the greatest talent evaluator in history.

Dan: The last owner to act as his own general manager was the Twins’ Calvin Griffith, who sold his team in 1984.  In his first decade after moving the team from Washington, Griffith oversaw the turnaround of a hapless franchise into one of the league’s better organizations. But as the economics of the game changed in the 1970s, Griffith (like Charlie Finley, another owner-GM) couldn’t adjust.

Rob: You write glowingly of Jacob Ruppert. Any thoughts on why it took so bloody long for Ruppert to get into the Hall of Fame?

Dan:  Until recently there has never been much of a push to recognize owners in the Hall.  The executives enshrined over the first forty-plus years were men who had long careers in the game starting as players: Al Spalding, Connie Mack, Clark Griffith, Charles Comiskey.  The first man enshrined as a pure owner was Tom Yawkey, a fairly idiosyncratic choice, and not someone typically upheld as a standard bearer of ownership excellence. Then we have Bill Veeck, who is romanticized as more than just an owner and was at the forefront of integration, and William Hulbert, who basically created the National League.

It was not until the last decade that three more pure owners (Walter O’Malley, Dreyfuss, and Ruppert) were recognized, and I would suggest a couple of reasons. When the Hall enshrined a large group associated with Negro Leagues in 2006, several were owners and executives, possibly stimulating the Hall to consider owners from the white Major Leagues. Second, the recent explosion in interest in the management of the game off the field, of which Moneyball was both a cause and a beneficiary, has highlighted the importance of ownership in assembling and maintaining a championship ballclub.  

Ruppert might have been the most successful owner of all-time, taking a struggling franchise in 1915 and turning it into the most famous and successful in American sports.  But I believe his wait was more a function of voting patterns — a general overlooking of owners and GMs — than a lack of recognition of his accomplishments.

Mark: I would add that owners do not really have a constituency.  George Davis had to wait several decades, but he eventually got a constituency: sabermetricians who kept staring at his outstanding record.  When Dreyfuss made the Hall in 2008, I contacted a friend at the Hall (not a voter) and asked him to try to find out who or what was behind Dreyfuss’s candidacy.  I thought it was great and deserved, but it came out of the blue, as I had not heard a single person ever advocate for him and he’d been dead for 75 years. When Ruppert made it I was less surprised. There were a couple of SABR historians on the committee and, although I have no idea how they voted, I know they were very familiar with his overwhelming credentials. And now that the Hall has some momentum, I hope they get around to Sam Breadon and Ewing Kaufman.

Rob: So who gets the blame for letting Roberto Clemente get away? Is that squarely on the shoulders of Buzzy Bavasi? (btw, more on him in a moment…)

Mark:  I suppose. Bavasi obviously felt that the 1954 Dodgers, the defending league champs, were too good to waste a roster spot on the 19-year-old Clemente.  Instead, they kept an outfielder like George Shuba, who hit .154 in 46 games.  As far as I can determine, this is the only time in the five years of the bonus rule (1953-57) that a team risked sending a bonus player to the minor leagues. The only other bonus player the Dodgers signed in this period was Sandy Koufax, and fortunately they didn’t try the same trick.  Al Campanis signed both guys, by the way. 

Rob: You describe this wonderful moment in 1953, when Gussie Busch, who’s just bought the St. Louis Cardinals, is visiting spring training and notices there aren’t any black players on the field. When he’s told there aren’t any black players, he says, “How can it be the great game if blacks can’t play?”

Did Busch take immediate steps to integrate the Cardinals? I don’t think of that franchise as being anywhere near the forefront of integration, as Bob Gibson and Curt Flood didn’t arrive until a few years later.

Mark: In the six years since Jackie Robinson debuted, the Cardinals had fallen behind their N.L. rivals on integration, and also (not coincidentally) in the standings. Gussie Busch attacked this issue immediately.  He signed Quincy Trouppe, a long-time Negro League star, as a scout soon after taking control. They signed their first black player in May 1953, a college outfielder, and Busch sent the kid a telegram welcoming him to the team. They had a few more blacks in their system that first year. He spoke about this problem often, both to the press and to his baseball people. The Cards fielded their first African-American in 1954, Tom Alston. For the first few years the black players they signed did not contribute much, while the N.L. kept filling up with black stars.  Gibson and Flood, as you mention, plus Bill White and George Crowe and others, came in the late 1950s.

There were other things, too. When a few black players complained about their poor (separate) accommodations in Spring Training, Busch bought a hotel in St. Petersburg so the whole team could live together.  Busch had a lot of problems with the player “revolution” that came a decade later, but on the civil-rights issue he deserves a lot of credit.  

Dan: The Cardinals of the 1960s were a unique ballclub.  Busch, GM Bing Devine, and manager Johnny Keane created a well-integrated, harmonious team in a city that had been major league baseball’s southernmost location.  Though much of the credit must go the players, Busch demanded the integration, and Devine and Keane created an atmosphere that guys like Gibson, McCarver, and White still talk about 50 years later.

Rob: Reading about the moves Earl Weaver made, immediately upon taking over as manager of the Orioles — making Don Buford an every-day player and using Elrod Hendricks more often — led me to wonder, how many times have new managers made big decisions that paid off so handsomely? Seems like the sort of thing that would separate a great manager from everyone else.

Mark: I agree. Normally when a guy takes over a club in mid-season he seems reluctant to change things too dramatically right away — why call attention to the fact that you thought the other guy (in this case Hank Bauer, who had won a World Series two years earlier) was wrong? Weaver, who had never worn a big league uniform until becoming first base coach that season, really took command. Buford had been a little-used infielder, but in Weaver’s very first game he moved Buford to the outfield, installed him as the leadoff hitter, and started him every day the rest of the year.  That takes confidence, and Weaver managed his entire career with an extreme belief that he knew which players should play.

Dan: When Bill McKechnie took over the Pirates at mid-season in 1922 — his first real shot at the big leagues — the team was 32-33. McKechnie ended the indecision over infield roles, making Pie Traynor the full-time third baseman and installing Cotton Tierney at second. Under McKechnie the team went 53-36 and would capture the World Series three years later.

Dick Williams and Billy Martin also made a habit of taking over teams and modifying the roles of players already on hand.  Like Weaver, they had no shortage of confidence.

Rob: So we know about the Oriole Way, and I suppose other teams followed suit. Still, doesn’t it seem strange that every team since hasn’t done something almost exactly like this? Seems like you hear about a team doing it every so often, which of course means they were not doing it before.

Dan: I would not underestimate the task of getting everyone — major league coaches, minor league instructors and coaches, and scouts — all on the same page.  Most of the men are strong-willed, with their own ideas about how to do things.  Well before it was fashionable, Baltimore overcame these difficulties and put together detailed manuals on everything from how a second baseman should make various plays to drills to increase sprinting speeds.  Moreover, they also had a detailed manual for scouts with all the necessary forms and rules along with organizational summaries.  Paul Richards started a lot of it, though it was not really formalized and written down until after Harry Dalton took over the farm system in 1960.

Mark: It probably happens a bit more than we think, but, yes, not as much as it should.  Dalton took much of the Oriole system with him when he went to Milwaukee — not sure if it was called the Brewer Way, but his papers at the Hall include the instruction manual that the Brewers organization used.  I always thought this would be a great project, figuring out how the game is taught by different organizations: Do all teams use the same cutoffs or relays on balls to the outfield, or is there some variety?

Rob: You rate the Dodgers’ 1968 draft class — including Ron Cey, Davey Lopes, Steve Garvey, Doyle Alexander, Joe Ferguson, Geoff Zahn, and Bill Buckner — as the greatest ever, based on future WAR. Bobby Valentine was in that class, too. Can you give us a few more nuggets from your draft database? What’s the second-best draft? What’s the worst? Which GM or scouting director has drafted the most talent?

Dan:  One of the interesting facets of the Dodgers’ draft was its breadth of talent. Typically the top drafts are dominated by one inner-ring Hall of Fame level player. The second-best draft class was that of the 1983 Red Sox, when they selected Roger Clemens and Ellis Burks. The fourth-best class (the 1983 Pirates) was Barry Bonds … alone.

The Tigers, under scouting director (and future GM) Bill Lajoie and longtime scouting coordinator Ed Katalinas, had a phenomenal two-year run in 1975 and 1976, landing the core of their 1984 world championship squad.  Individually the two draft classes ranked ninth and sixth respectively, and included Lou Whitaker, Tom Brookens, Dave Rozema, Jason Thompson, Alan Trammell, Dan Petry, Jack Morris, and Steve Kemp.  As evidence of how hard it is to draft — essentially projecting teenagers into adulthood — the reason the Tigers bottomed out in the mid-1970s was principally because of poor drafting with many of the same scouts.

Mark: The third-best draft was also Boston, in 1976, when they signed Wade Boggs, Bruce Hurst, and John Tudor.  In fact, the Red Sox have done better in the draft than anyone else by a fairly significant margin.  Of course, we acknowledge that it is overly simplistic to credit a player’s entire career to the wisdom of the people drafting him, rather than the people who may have developed him, kept him healthy, taught him a new pitch, etc.  But it’s an instructive way to look at the history.

The “worst” draft is harder to determine because there are several teams every year who get essentially nothing out of the draft.  As a rule of thumb, an “average” draft for team will yield 25-30 career WAR.  Every June we read all the draft recaps in hopes that our team has drafted a star and a few regulars.  Maybe they did, but history suggests that they probably did not.

Rob: Oh, and in 1968 the Dodgers’ GM was still Bavasi, their scouting director Al Campanis. Can you make a good case for one or both of them not being in the Hall of Fame? Because I think, considering their long tenures and the Dodgers’ success from the early ‘50s through the 1980s, both probably deserve it.

Mark:  Well, you don’t have to convince us.  We believe that there are far too few general managers (and owners) in the Hall of Fame, and many of the people we highlight in our book we believe deserve enshrinement.  Bavasi won eight pennants with the Dodgers and turned the roster over completely.  Campanis won four more pennants as GM, on top of being a great, innovative scout, and legendary scouting director.  If we’re going to have GMs in the Hall of Fame, which we do, you need these two, Bob Howsam, Harry Dalton and John Schuerholz just to start catching up.

Dan: And a strong case could be made for Joe Brown and Frank Cashen.  Brown masterminded the Pirates 1960 and 1971 World Series squads and won five division titles in six years from 1970 to 1975.  Moreover, Brown was at the forefront of signing African-American and Latino players.  In 1971, the Pirates started the first started all-black (African-American or dark-skinned Latino) lineup. Cashen oversaw a great Orioles team for a decade and later rebuilt a wretched Mets organization into the 1986 world champions.

Rob: There’s a great bit in the book about Ewing Kauffman’s Royals using pretty sophisticated, computer-driven data in the early 1970s. Now, I’ve read about the demise of the ill-fated Royals Academy a few times (including in your book), but what happened to the Royals’ computers? I don’t recall reading a single thing about this in the late ‘70s, when I came to know the team.

Dan: Kauffman was a pharmaceutical entrepreneur with a quick, inquiring mind. He came up with creative ways to motivate his sales force, was a voracious reader, and a math wiz. He was also a highly aggressive and demanding leader, claiming that his expansion team would win a pennant in five years.  Kauffman was always looking for a creative advantage.  

Kauffman sought out proto-sabermetrician Earnshaw Cook, who had written a book, Percentage Baseball, the first serious statistical look at the game written by an outsider. Though many of Cook’s specific conclusions have since been shown to be oversimplifications, the book convinced Kauffman that analytical thinking could offer a competitive advantage. Kauffman introduced one of baseball’s first computer systems, which by the end of the 1971 season contained statistics such as “the nature of every pitch thrown by a Royal…what happened to every ball hit…[and] even the humidity.”

Exactly why the Royals’ use of computers for early analytics petered out remains unknown.  However, there can be little doubt that the front office had less enthusiasm for new-fangled ideas than Kauffman.  GM Cedric Tallis was a brilliant trader and had built a top-notch staff that included a number of future big league general managers: Syd Thrift, Lou Gorman, John Schuerholz, and Herk Robinson. But they had grown up in baseball’s conventional environment, and it is unlikely they had Kauffman’s fervor for unfamiliar initiatives like analytics and computers.

Rob: For me, the two biggest heroes of the book might be Barney Dreyfuss and Pat Gillick. Doesn’t it seem that Gillick was, for some decades, a half-step ahead of everyone else? I just love that story about why he grabbed Rico Carty in the expansion draft.

Dan: Gillick had a simple but effective approach: Get great scouts and then widen the talent search to non-traditional avenues; in Gillick’s terminology, “One needs to fish in many waters.”  Early in his career with the Astors he became friends with legendary Dominican Republic scout Epy Guerrero and the duo signed Cesar Cedeño in 1967.  As GM of the Blue Jays in the late 1970s and 1980s, Gillick again teamed up with Guerrero to establish a presence in the Dominican Republic and the first proto-academy.  He mastered the Rule 5 draft better than anyone, landing George Bell, Kelly Gruber, Willie Upshaw, and Jim Gott.

Gillick knew when to pursue hard to sign amateurs where others might have passed, landing John Olerud in the third round and convincing him to sign with Toronto.  He was also at the forefront of looking to Japan for players, first landing closer Kazuhiro Sasaki and a year later paying up for Ichiro Suzuki, the first Japanese position player to excel in the states. And for one more river, Gillick was highly successful in signing free agents without getting stuck with long term burdensome contracts.

Mark: After Moneyball came out in 2003, Gillick criticized the book for the way it depicted scouts, including a few of his friends, and he might have come across to some people as resistant to new ideas. This is untrue. Gillick was a great scout, and is a great believer in scouting. But if he had been born 20 years later, I believe he still would have been a great GM.  He is extremely bright, knows and remembers everyone in baseball, and made a career of thinking outside the box, finding new ways to find or evaluate players. Those skills have always played.

Rob: So there’s a book coming out soon — in fact, maybe it’s already out — about The Cardinal Way. You’ve got a striking fact in your book: The Cardinals’ 25-man postseason roster in 2013 included just five players from the 2011 team. Talk about rooting for laundry! So what it is about the Cardinals, anyway? And does their success for so many years, under the current ownership, exemplify a larger principle that runs through your entire book?

Dan: The Cardinal Way, a concept whose roots date back to Branch Rickey in the 1920s, was recently revived by owner Bill DeWitt and GM John Mozeliak.  In its current incarnation, the Cardinals require buy-in from their entire organization including minor-league instructors, and scouts, regarding training, execution of on-field plays, and the type of players they are looking for.  Moreover, Mozeliak has overseen the creation of a baseball development department to house several projects and an internal website where the front office and field staff can have instant access to everything about every player.

Mark: I see DeWitt as the key figure and, getting back to an earlier question, a Hall of Fame owner.  Like Ruppert, like O’Malley, like Bob Howsam, DeWitt has created a great organization that works well from top to bottom and is generally free of drama.  When it had become clear that Walt Jocketty was not on board with all of the program, including their inroads into analytics, he was let go in 2007 despite years of success.  The organization did not miss a beat.  The recent hacking scandal could change the story, but I would not bet against this blowing over.

Rob: When you look at the Mariners over these last few years, how would you balance what now seems like poor management with just plain-old bad luck? You’ll probably agree that regardless of his abilities, it was time for him to go. But how much of this was his own making?

Mark: The Mariners’ biggest problem in the last decade, clearly, is that the system stopped producing talent.  Dustin Ackley, the No. 2 pick in the 2009 draft, is probably the exemplar of the entire Jack Z era. He reached the majors quickly and seemed like a star right away.  And then he just seemed to get a little worse every year.  Is this a fault of the system, or Ackley, or bad luck?  They had the No. 2 pick again in 2011, Danny Hultzen, who has been hurt.  They had the No. 3 pick in 2012, Mike Zunino, who does not seem destined for stardom.  It’s always hard to say exactly where the mistakes are being made.  Honestly, all of that could still be bad luck.  

If it’s bad luck, there has been an awful lot of it.  In addition to the development problems, over the last few years the Mariners have behaved as if they were one or two players away, and this has made them acquire veteran role players instead of acquiring prospects.  Their surprisingly good season last year seemed to justify their thinking.  

But yes, it was time for Jack, who also seemed to have trouble getting along with people.  The Mariners have already suggested that they are not looking for a GM who wants to tear things down, so more of the same might be ahead.  I kind of want them to go Full Astro, but ownership might be weary of a “development” solution, given their recent history. Hey, they’ve got another high draft pick next year!

Dan: Six full years as a GM with only two seasons over .500 and no playoff appearances suggests it’s time for a change. In addition to poor drafts, after a couple of pretty good early trades, Zduriencik’s most significant deals didn’t really work out either. The Mariners didn’t get anyone back in the Cliff Lee trade that became a quality regular. Doug Fister certainly would have helped the club more than anyone they got for him. And Michael Pineda for Jesus Montero would have to be considered a misstep as well.