Sports Outside the Beltway

The John Hart Post-season

If someone would ask who is the most influential general manager in baseball today, many people would answer, Billy Beane of the Oakland Athletics. Beane, the one-time prospect, was the first general manager to put the ideas of Bill James to practical use. By using metrics that other organizations ignored, Beane built a team that has been competitive over the past decade despite operating with one of the smallest budgets in the game. Now more teams are using statistical analysis to evaluate their talent, but Beane was the first to do it. (At least this time around. Other teams did it in the past, but there wasn’t a fancy name like Sabermetrics to describe it then.) And Beane had a book written about him. How much more influential can he be?

It’s possible though, that Beane isn’t the answer. In fact an argument could be made that the most influential GM in baseball isn’t even a GM anymore.

John Hart now a special assistant to owner Tom Hicks of the Texas Rangers may have transformed the game even more than Beane has. In fact, it’s the change that Hart introduced that has helped make statistical analysis more accepted throughout the game.

Hart did set an example in the early 90′s as he brought the Cleveland Indians back to respectability and the World Series (twice). He signed his young talent to multi-year contracts before they reached arbitration. He figured that if he locked up players early, he might spend more at the beginning of the deal but spend a lot less than he otherwise would have at the end of the deal.

Back in the day when teams controlled the players (and salaries) Branch Rickey famously said “Trade a player a year too early rather than a year too late.”

For baseball, things have changed a lot economically in the past half century. Given the popularity of the sport, the free movement that players have achieved and the resulting rising salaries, identifying, signing, developing and keeping talent is the toughest challenge of every major league team. But what Branch Rickey describes that challenge.

What John Hart did in Cleveland was introduce a way to meet that challenge. But what he did behind the scenes was even more interesting.

At the time of the championship series this year, Jerry Crasnick of ESPN wrote John Hart’s family tree.

Excuse Hart if he feels as if his professional life is flashing before his eyes.

His former right-hand man, Dan O’Dowd, is riding a late-season wave with the resurgent Rockies. But first Colorado must get past the Arizona Diamondbacks, who are run by Josh Byrnes, a former front-office assistant in Cleveland at the height of Hart’s regime.

And the Cleveland Indians, the franchise Hart guided to six postseason berths and two World Series appearances from 1995 through 2001, will try to end 59 years of championship futility against Boston. General manager Mark Shapiro, yet another Hart protégé, is the man in charge in Cleveland.

That means three of the four general managers still playing consider Hart a mentor and lifelong influence. Which makes you wonder: How did he miss Theo Epstein?

How’d he develop all of this front office talent?

The John Hart front-office “tree” encompasses more than the three LCS general managers. Neal Huntington, the new GM in Pittsburgh, spent nine years in Cleveland. Paul DePodesta worked for the Indians before moving on to Oakland, the Dodgers and San Diego. And Chris Antonetti, Shapiro’s top assistant, is widely regarded as a GM-in-waiting.

Shapiro has a history degree from Princeton, Byrnes went to Haverford, Huntington is an Amherst graduate and DePodesta went to Harvard. Those academic pedigrees might seem a little highfalutin for the old guard, but Hart found a way to marry the two approaches in Cleveland. Nothing got done until John Goryl, Tom Giordano and the veteran baseball men had their say.

“This isn’t Sabermetrics,” Hart said. “I wanted our guys to hear what the manager says and how tough it is in that dugout, because I’ve been there. I wanted them to respect the old scout in the blue Plymouth who’s going from one city to the next trying to find the next young superstar out of high school or college. They all got schooled on old baseball.”

Antonetti was widely regarded as a future GM someplace else. His name came up as a possibility in St. Louis but Cleveland offered him a deal to stay in place. but look at the academic backgrounds of the men listed above. It appears that John Hart’s innovation to the front office was to introduce the interdisciplinary approach to running a baseball team.

There are still those who deride the statistical approach to baseball. But what Hart showed was that different approaches could be melded together to run a baseball team successfully.

Rob Neyer, in a similar article, four years ago had Hart describe his philosophy.

“My background was field development,” Hart recalls. “But as I noticed the evolvement of the game, I realized that while there were a lot of strengths I was going to bring, if we wanted to have the best organization, we needed to have people around that offered another skill set. When you’re in that position, you worry. You want to be good. And at some point I said to myself, ‘Here’s where we want to be. And if we want to get here, this is what I need. I can’t do this by myself.’ ”

As the new general manager, one of Hart’s first hires was Shapiro. “I knew that Mark had great leadership skills,” says Hart, “in addition to being a Princeton graduate and very bright. But what I wanted to do with Mark was get him to where he was in a leadership position, to where he could go lead a farm department. And the great thing was to get him around the baseball people, the guys that had made a living in the game for so long, the Johnny Goryls and the other 40-year guys. Mark picked it up. He just got it, and the baseball guys established a great confidence in Mark.”

But Crasnick didn’t give Hart enough credit. Hart’s model may well have been copied by the Boston Red Sox. No Theo Epstein didn’t serve under Hart, but he apparently learned quite well from him.

One majored in history at Wesleyan University. One studied psychology at Harvard. One pursued American studies at Colby College. One elected Russian studies and political science, also at Colby.

One managed two hits off future Anaheim Angel Jarrod Washburn as a sophomore at Wesleyan. One had a .301 career average for the Crimson. One began at Colby as an “OK field, no hit” infielder, took up pitching, and won nine games. One tried out for the varsity at Weymouth South High as a junior and was told “I’d made the team, but that I was never going to play.”

One grew up in Plymouth, N.H., one in Swampscott, one in Walpole, N.H., the other in Weymouth, all fans of the Boston Red Sox.

Today, they constitute much of the organization’s underpinning, literally and figuratively. Literally, they are based underground, below the Fenway Park box office at the corner of Brookline Avenue and Yawkey Way. Figuratively, they get the necessary and complex work — contracts, arbitration casework, player recruitment, advance scouting, and more — done.

But there was another way that John Hart influenced the Red Sox this year. Not in the front office but on the bench.

When he was a younger manager with the Phillies, Francona did little to distinguish himself. In four years on the job, Francona never managed more than 77 wins in a season, and by the end of his tenure he’d lost control of the team. There were also concerns that Francona overused his young pitchers in the service of, well, not much of anything. After the smoke cleared, it appeared that Francona had squandered his opportunity.

However, he then spent time in the Cleveland Indians front office and as the bench coach for the Texas Rangers and Oakland A’s. In those roles, Francona learned new approaches to the game — namely, the value of statistical analysis when it comes to making baseball decisions. Certainly, Francona never abandoned his traditionalist bearing, but his time in progressive organizations like Cleveland and Oakland helped him learn to blend approaches. That rare skill impressed the new regime in Boston when they interviewed Francona for their vacant managerial post.

At the time of his hiring, Francona’s managerial record was pocked with failure, and he was viewed by fans and media as an uninspired choice; you may recall a similar reaction when Torre was named Yankees manager. Of course, Francona promptly proved them all wrong.

Dayn Perry, who wrote the article, also noticed what I did: the similarity of the Francona signing with the Red Sox to the Torre signing by the Yankees. Each came in with a less than impressive managing career, but both emerged as top managers. Francona, was prepared for his new position, in part, by learning the Hart approach to baseball.

Baseball Musings noted something about Francona right after he was hired.

I always thought this was Buck Showalter’s strength with the Yankees, using players in situations in which there was a high probability of them succeeding. If that’s Terry’s philosophy as well, he’ll do well with the Red Sox.

So it can reasonably be argued that John Hart’s influence extended to all four teams to reach the championship series this year. And with another Hart protege now running the show in Pittsburgh the interdisciplinary approach to running a ballclub continues to spread.

Crossposted on Soccer Dad.

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