Sports Outside the Beltway

An O-Turn?

The hiring of Andy MacPhail last year brought hope to Orioles’ fans that the end of the team’s 10 year drought may soon be over. Of course any turnaround effected by MacPhail will be complicated by the fact that the Orioles play in the same division as two of the best run and richest franchises.

Making matters worse is that any turnaround will almost certainly necessitate the Orioles getting worse (relative to the competition) before they get better as the Rays seem ready to improve.

Matters were complicated by the fact that even as the Rays were gradually moving in the right direction the Orioles were moving in the wrong one.

Since then we’ve run through some real crackerjack front office types, from the absurd Syd Thrift to the nice-but-overmatched Mike Flanagan, who has been paired up with Jim Beattie and Jim Duquette. Too many cooks, maybe. Or maybe it was that all the cooks weren’t any good to begin with. I mean, we hired the guy that traded Scott Kazmir for Victor Zambrano, you know? Then we wound up with Zambrano on our team this year.

But I’m getting sidetracked now by silly Jim Duquette decisions. MacPhail has said all the right things so far, and done a few of them, too. Like getting rid of Victor freakin’ Zambrano, and recognizing that Tejada had to be dealt, and at least paying lip service to offers for Bedard and Roberts.

(And the Orioles made matters worse by taking some of the sting out of the Kazmir deal for the Mets by repeating the error and trading the Mets John Maine for Kris Benson!)

Now certain things seem to be getting better though. For one thing, John Sickels believes

This system is underrated. While some of the more-heralded guys like Brandon Snyder look overrated to me by other analysts, there is some growing depth here, and several of the Grade C+/C guys have the potential to move beyond those grades.

The Orioles still have work to do getting their farm system to the level of the Yankees, Red Sox, or Devil Rays. But they are making progress.

And it appears that now the Mariners are showing increased interest in Erik Bedard according to Ken Rosenthal.

The Mariners are continuing their aggressive pursuit of Bedard, major-league sources say, and there are growing indications that the teams could be moving closer to a deal.

The Reds also remain interested in Bedard, but the Mariners are willing to trade their top outfield prospect, Adam Jones, while the Reds will not part with their best minor-league outfielder, Jay Bruce.

Maybe waiting to deal wasn’t so much a matter of indecision but carefully biding time.

The A’s strong returns for right-hander Dan Haren and outfielder Nick Swisher in recent trades seemingly has increased the Orioles’ leverage. The addition of Bedard, meanwhile, would give the Mariners a potentially dynamic rotation to compete with the Angels in the American League West.

Getting off of the O’s for the end, this is a fascinating observation. We usually read about how the earlier free agent signings “set the market” for later players of similar ability. It never occurred to me that the same market principle could work for teams making trades.

This is reflective of two trends in baseball. The first (more basic) trend is the greater attention being paid to talent and its worth to a team. (This is likely bad news for the kinds of players that the Orioles have acquired recently who were valued more for their “veteran leadership” than their on field talent.) And the other related trend is the increased visibility of the GM. Since judging, acquiring and developing talent is becoming more important, the GM’s role (and the organization he puts together) has become more important too.

Crossposted at Soccer Dad

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The Billick enigma

I was surprised yesterday when a friend e-mailed me that the Ravens were going to announce the firing of longtime coach Brian Billick.

Rick Maese writes “Firing Billick was Right Move

In the beginning, the Ravens had no choice. Brian Billick was fresh off orchestrating an offensive miracle in Minnesota. He whisked into town, met with Ravens owner Art Modell and vice presidents David Modell and Ozzie Newsome at a downtown steakhouse, and before long, the opening passages of the most exciting chapter of the team’s young history were being written.

In the end, though, the Ravens again had no choice. For the better part of nine seasons, Billick had orchestrated an offensive disaster here in Baltimore. The crescendo — the 2007 season — was long and painful, and it ends today with the news that the Ravens are parting ways with the best coach the franchise has ever known.

It’s a bold move for team owner, Steve Bisciotti, but a move that he had to make. The slips, falls and missteps over the entirety of the 2007 season made it clear that Billick’s effectiveness in Baltimore had expired.

Without diminishing Billick’s accomplishments Maese writes that Billick’s “shelf-life” had expired. This is a sentiment I heard on a sports talk show last night.

Read those paragraphs again. Billick was hired after engineering “an offensive miracle” but in Baltimore he was in charge of “an offensive disaster.” Even in the Ravens Super Bowl year, the teams strength hasn’t been the offense during the Billick era. In 2000 it was defense and special teams that carried the Ravens to their one Super Bowl championship. I never quite understood how someone who had been known for his offensive acumen, never put together sustained offensive success as a head coach.

The Sun’s Ravens beat writer Jamison Hensley wrote Billick got one last win as coach, then lost his job

Several players said Billick lost the confidence of the locker room with his questionable play calling and stale message. According to two players, they were asked by some staff members – presumably prompted by Bisciotti – whether Billick had lost the team.

Bisciotti declined to discuss the reasons for his decision, saying it boiled down to a “gut feeling.” Newsome and team president Dick Cass recommended to Bisciotti that Billick be fired.

“I just changed my mind,” Bisciotti said. “I can’t explain to you how tough a decision it is. It’s the toughest decision I’ve ever had to make.”

Asked whether he had specifically told Billick earlier that he would return, Bisciotti said, “There were indications but no promises.”

Finally there are names being bandied about right now

The team is expected to focus its search on NFL coaches. Potential candidates could include Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, former San Diego Chargers coach Marty Schottenheimer, former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher, New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, University of Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz and Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan.

Newsome said Ryan would be interviewed for the vacancy, and several players expressed support for him yesterday.

I assumed that Ryan would be the team’s first choice. If he doesn’t get the job in Baltimore, he’ll likely head elsewhere. Still on a talk show last night, Hensley said that based on Bisciotti’s statement, he figured that the team would be looking for a head coach from outside the organization.

The Raven website
has reactions from Todd Heap and (likely retiring) Jonathan Ogden.

The biggest concern I have is that the problem wasn’t Billick but the talent. The team suffered a lot of injuries this year. Given that it’s an older team that’s a problem that’s not likely to go away. Firing Billick may solve one problem but it may fail to address a more significant one.

See James Joyner.

Crossposted on Soccer Dad.


Why was Neuheisel in Baltimore

The Ravens completed a disappointing 2007, with a 27-21 upset win over the Steelers last night. The win followed the news, by a few days, the offensive co-ordinator Rick Neuheisel was headed back to the college ranks to be head coach at UCLA.

This brings up the question, what the heck has Neusheisel been doing the past 3 years with the Ravens?

David Steele writes:

Neuheisel’s tenure, though, will be a footnote in Ravens history, and as much as he praised the team for giving him a second chance as he left for his new gig at UCLA, he’ll likely view Baltimore as a steppingstone, too. As for the offensive coordinator position he vacated, his replacement will surely have far, far more on his plate than Neuheisel did. He’d better.

Yes it was nice for the Ravens to give Neuheisel the position, but did it benefit the team at all. Neuheisel was originally brought on as quarterbacks coach and yet Kyle Boller seems no closer to being anointed the team’s starting quarterback than he was 3 years ago. Maybe he just doesn’t have the ability.

The offense of the Ravens was not very good in two of the three years. Especially this year. So why didn’t Billick give the play calling duties to Neuheisel when Billick’s play calling didn’t pan out this year?

Look at the expectations Neuheisel brings to his new job:

While programs all across the country are hell-bent on making sure a coaching hire has some ties to the school instead of getting the best possible candidate available, UCLA was able to do both.

“Being in the NFL for the last three years is like going to grad school and I think that will be a great asset to him as he returns to college,” said legendary for NFL and UCLA head coach Dick Vermiel. “I am very excited about this decision.”

He’ll get the quarterbacks and will coach them up so there won’t be another disaster like this year when injuries struck Ben Olson and Pat Cowan. He’ll get the offense moving and will make the Bruins one of the more exciting teams in the Pac 10. He’ll get the wins to make UCLA a powerhouse again. With a .688 winning percentage, he has a decent on-field resume to earn instant credibility, and he isn’t going to ask for, or receive, any sort of a grace period.

I get the impression that the Ravens job benefited Rick Neuheisel. Given the circumstances of his firing from the University of Washington, I can understand giving him a chance. But did Neuheisel get the positions with the Ravens for the Ravens? Or for Neuheisel?

Surely this is one more event that requires some investigation when considering Brian Billick’s future.

Crossposted on Soccer Dad.


The value of Bedard

via ballbug

The Sun quotes Andy MacPhail saying that his priority is not to trade Bedard. At the same time he has to listen to offers.

The Dodgers and Orioles have been talking about Bedard for several weeks, with outfielder Matt Kemp, reliever Jonathan Broxton and pitching prospect Clayton Kershaw among the names discussed.

The Orioles also met with the New York Mets this morning, but one club source said today that the Mets, who had been reluctant in previous discussions to move their top prospect, outfielder Fernando Martinez, aren’t considered a top contender for Bedard.

MacPhail was also expected today to meet with the Seattle Mariners, who have long coveted Bedard and would certainly get the Orioles’ attention with an offer headed by outfielder Adam Jones and pitcher Brandon Morrow. The Cincinnati Reds are also in the mix for Bedard, though one team source said on Monday that they aren’t willing to include top prospect Jay Bruce in the deal. The Toronto Blue Jays have also expressed interest, but it remains unlikely the club would trade him within the American League East.

I don’t think that any Orioles fan wants to see Bedard go elsewhere. Still there’s a feeling expressed on the Orioles’ mailing list (and I’m sure elsewhere) that the Orioles have precious little talent in their system and that the only way they can hope to contend is to rebuild. Given that Bedard is one of the few talents the Orioles have, trading him is one way to (hopefully) speed up the rebuilding process.

Based on his statements, it seems that MacPhail feels the same way. He’s in no rush to trade Bedard, even if the Orioles can’t convince him to sign an extension, the team still controls him for another two seasons. That gives the Orioles some leverage. This does too.

In fact, Bedard is so attractive the Tigers and Phillies – clubs initially told by Baltimore they do not match up – were still pressing to try to find ways to get involved on the talented lefty.
. . .
One NL talent evaluator who loves Bedard said, “Bedard is closer in talent to Santana than Haren is to Bedard. In fact, it is not impossible to believe that in a year, we will all think Bedard is better than Santana.” An AL executive said, “Here is what impresses me about Bedard, he pitches in the AL East against the Yankees and Red Sox. So, to me, he can pitch anywhere and excel.”

It’s clear that the Orioles could get the most talent in return for Bedard. If they choose to trade him they have no excuses for failing to get a great return of talent on the deal.

Crossposted at Soccer Dad.

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Well at least they beat the spread

Well given the history the Ravens should get some satisfaction from last night’s performance.

The Ravens’ motivation for tomorrow night comes from the chance to end the New England Patriots’ perfect season, stop a franchise-worst five-game losing streak and make NFL history of their own.

If the 20-point-underdog Ravens beat the undefeated Patriots, it would mark the biggest upset in 33 years, at least by Las Vegas standards.

In recorded oddsmaker history, only one team has won an NFL game after being an underdog of at least 20 points. It occurred in 1974, when the San Diego Chargers upended the heavily favored Cincinnati Bengals, 20-17.

From ESPN’s play by play

3rd and 10 at BLT 39
(1:53) (No Huddle, Shotgun) T.Brady pass short left to K.Faulk ran ob at BLT 30 for 9 yards.
Timeout #2 by BLT at 01:48.
4th and 1 at BLT 30
(1:48) H.Evans up the middle to BLT 31 for -1 yards.
PENALTY on NE-R.Hochstein, False Start, 5 yards, enforced at BLT 30 – No Play.
4th and 6 at BLT 35
(1:48) (Shotgun) T.Brady scrambles up the middle to BLT 23 for 12 yards (R.Lewis).
PENALTY on BLT-S.Rolle, Illegal Contact, 5 yards, enforced at BLT 23.
1st and 10 at BLT 18
(1:38) (Shotgun) K.Faulk up the middle to BLT 13 for 5 yards (H.Ngata).
2nd and 5 at BLT 13 (1:06) (Shotgun) T.Brady pass incomplete short middle to W.Welker (R.Lewis).
3rd and 5 at BLT 13
(1:00) (No Huddle, Shotgun) T.Brady pass incomplete short left to W.Welker.
Timeout #2 by NE at 00:55.
4th and 5 at BLT 13
(:55) (Shotgun) T.Brady pass incomplete short middle to B.Watson.
PENALTY on BLT-J.Winborne, Defensive Holding, 5 yards, enforced at BLT 13 – No Play.

There were 3 4th down plays in that series that looked like the Ravens had successfully defended their lead.
The first play isn’t listed as a play, for it was “Timeout #2 by BLT.” The Ravens had successfully stopped the one yard run, but the timeout was called before the play started.
On the next play New England got called for a false start, so even though the Ravens again successfully defended the run, the play was done over. The five yard penalty actually helped the Patriots. (A few play earlier the Ravens had declined a penalty, choosing to let the Patriots burn a down instead.)
Finally the 4th and 5 pass to Watson was incomplete, only then a penalty was called on the Ravens, and again the Patriots were saved from a 4th down.

All that said, it was still one of the most exciting games I ever saw. Even the game ended with a perfect 52 yard pass to Mark Clayton. Unfortunately Clayton was at the New England 3 when he caught it after time ran out.

Perhaps the most significant point of the Baltimore Sun’s scouting report is this:

Ravens run offense vs. Patriots run defense

If the Ravens have any chance of winning, they need to control the ball with a commitment to the running game. The Patriots have allowed 4.1 yards a carry, which is 20th in the NFL. But few teams can exploit New England’s run defense because most fall behind so early, which explains why offenses average 21.2 attempts (second fewest in the league) against the Patriots. Ranked third in the NFL in rushing, Ravens running back Willis McGahee is averaging 82.7 yards a game. He has scored a touchdown in each of his past six games. Edge: Ravens

Indeed McGahee ran for 138 yards and helped the Ravens hold the ball (and keep it away from Tom Brady.) He regularly broke tackles and had some really nice gains.

Perhaps the most meaningless stat in the game is that New England only converted 2 of 12 third down opportunities. That’s true as far as it goes. But as demonstrated above penalties and an ill-timed time out call bailed them out in the fourth quarter. But before that their second quarter touchdown drive was also aided by Baltimore penalties.

The Ravens controlled enough of the game that they should have won. But they gave Tom Brady a few too many extra chances and he exploited them.

I didn’t learn my lesson from 2000, when I woke a Yankees fan son to watch Mariano Rivera save the win against the Diamondbacks. Last night I woke a Ravens fan son to see the end of the game, even if his older (and now wiser) brother reminded me “Diamondbacks.”

Deadspin hopes this will stop those last minute time outs before big plays.

Crossposted on Soccer Dad.


Billick, McNair and Boller

After the Ravens’ 13-3 playoff run last year, this year’s 4-5 record is a huge disappointment. At this point it’s a better bet that the Ravens will finish 6 – 10 than 10 – 6. In other words, it would be a miracle for this team to make the playoffs.

This has gotten a lot of fans and the media talking about who should stay and who should go. Rick Maese argued after the loss that Billick should go.

That time has come. The most important man not named Lewis in this team’s short history has reached a point of ineffectiveness.

In relation to Billick’s fine career pacing the Ravens’ sideline, the 2007 season feels like an old rock band getting wheeled out on stage long after the music died. Billick’s song has faded. He no longer moves the fans – but that’s not really the problem. Unfortunately, Billick no longer moves his players. There’s no harmony, no new notes. Where we used to bob our heads to the beat, we now shake our heads in defeat.

The column was largely a fan’s rant rather than an analysis. Billick has been a fine coach of the Ravens. He was at the helm for only two years when the team won a Super Bowl. However, looking at his whole record and the one word that comes to mind is “uneven.” Sure he’s had good years as coach, but he’s also had years like 2005, when the team went 6 – 10.

What is it about Billick that’s so frustrating? Mike Preston, put his finger on it.

The Billick defenders will point fingers at current quarterback Steve McNair. That’s the easy way out. The big picture is, what quarterback has prospered under Billick? Even Elvis Grbac, a Pro Bowl performer the year before he came to Baltimore, retired one season after playing here.

I remember that year well. Grbac was terrible in the red zone. (Backup Randall Cunningham was much better there. Or at least that’s what it looked like to me.)

It’s funny that Billick whose experience prior to Baltimore, was offensive coach for the Vikings, has presided over teams lacking in offense. Even 2000, the year the team won the Super Bowl, it looked like it was the defense and special teams that led the team. The offense was just there.

Preston continues:

For years, Billick got a free pass in Baltimore because some of his inadequacies were overlooked. As long as the defense continued to make plays, and the Ravens won, everyone was happy in the Castle.

But it’s different now. Some of the great defensive players are gone or have gotten older. This defense can’t dominate as it used to.

So, after years of riding Newsome’s drafts and the back of middle linebacker Ray Lewis, Billick can’t hold up his end as far as the X’s and O’s. The Ravens can’t overcome his weakness.

Preston doesn’t feel that Billick has to go, however he writes

We’ve heard all the excuses during the past nine years. Billick didn’t have receivers. He didn’t have a quarterback. He didn’t have athletic offensive linemen. He didn’t have a running back.

Blah, blah, blah. … Enough, please.

It’s time general manager Ozzie Newsome and Bisciotti delivered the ultimatum to Billick. Either he guts this system, or he goes.

But Billick isn’t the only Raven with a question mark hanging over him.

After last week’s game there was a question whether or not Steve McNair would continue being the team’s #1 quarterback. At the time David Steele answered in the negative.

Before the game, Steve McNair spoke up for himself. After the game, his teammates spoke up for him.

But his actions have spoken louder than any of their words. His actions are screaming out: This is the end. For McNair as the Ravens’ starting quarterback, and for the Ravens as the Super Bowl contenders he was supposed to have turned them into.

The answer for now has been answered by a very convenient injury to McNail meaning that he will be sidelined for at least the next few weeks. That would be enough time to evaluate what Kyle Boller’s value is to the team. (This is not longer an issue of potential. We’re way past that stage.)

So how can we expect Boller to perform? There’s been a lot of dissension. Even among those who feel that Boller is better than McNair for now, there seems to be little support for Boller as quarterback of the future. Except for Bill Ordine.

Putting it briefly, A) Boller has generally had to play under exceptionally adverse circumstances; B) He sill has a big-time arm that’s plenty rare; and C) Drafting quarterbacks is always an iffy proposition and now we’re looking at a crop of college QBs that lacks the blue-chippers of the last few years. (Free agent wise, I give you Vinny Testaverde and Tim Rattay).

Further on Ordine warns,

And there’s one more thing. Don’t expect Boller to work miracles in these last seven games. The Ravens have the toughest stretch of games imaginable. Boller is probably going to be playing from behind in most of them with all the disadvantages that implies. And the offensive line is not playing anywhere near as well as it did last season (14 regular-season sacks in 2006 and 17 so far in ’07). That means the bottom line on Boller will have to be weighted to reflect these realities.

So here’s the conclusion. Unless Boller absolutely comes apart at the seams or John Elway magically appears in the draft or as a free agent (oops, bad example), a fair decision on whether he’s a genuine playoff-caliber quarterback should wait until the end of 2008.

So how does the prognosis for each work out?
Billick – iffy.
McNair – iffy.
Boller – iffy.

Not very encouraging. Of all three, Boller appears to be in the best position. His future is largely in his own hands.

McNair’s comments that if he were replaced he couldn’t blame the team suggest that he is done. While it’s admirable for him to take responsibility, athletes who realize that there are better options than themselves are usually finished.

And Billick? I’m uncomfortable saying that the coach is at fault. However he’s had only 4 winning seasons in eight so far. The team has never been so far away from contention that he hasn’t been able to redeem himself.

Arguing for keeping him is that the team’s performance last year earned him a 4 year extension suggesting that owner Steve Biscotti realizes that his commitment is long term and is willing to take some lumps along the way.

Arguing against his continued service as Ravens coach is, I guess, Rex Ryan.

The Ravens know what is at stake for Ryan. He almost became the head coach of the San Diego Chargers in the offseason.

Since he became the Ravens’ coordinator in 2005, the team has had the No. 2- and No. 1-ranked defenses in the league. With one more good season — the Ravens are currently ranked fifth — Ryan will become a top head coaching candidate again.

If Billick is fired, Ryan would become a serious candidate here, especially because he is so popular with the players.

The Ravens have lost a lot of talented coaches over the years for head coaching jobs elsewhere. True, the results of those moves have been mixed. It also speaks well of the franchise that it recognizes coaching talent. But maybe now it’s time for the Ravens to say, “enough” and give one of their coaching stars the chance to be promoted.

Crossposted on Soccer Dad.


1970 – it was a very good year …

In Baltimore.
For sports fans.

Thirty seven years later – also 23 years since the Colts left and 22 since the Orioles ceased their run of 19 winning consecutive winning season – it’s hard to remember that there was time like this, but the Baltimore Sun’s Mike Klingaman does.

The Orioles (108-54) won their division by 15 games, then took four of five from the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series. Three months later, the Colts answered by defeating the Dallas Cowboys in the Super Bowl.

On their heels came the Bullets, the city’s basketball entry, who reached the NBA Finals before losing to the Milwaukee Bucks.

“That was a magical year, though people didn’t realize it,” said Sam Havrilak, then a Colts running back. “It wasn’t such a big deal until [years later] when the media built it up.”

In 1970 Baltimore, the stars were all aligned. The Orioles had Jim Palmer, Boog Powell and Robinson; the Colts had John Unitas, John Mackey and Ted Hendricks. Even the Bullets seemed destined for success behind Earl Monroe, Wes Unseld and Gus Johnson.

I was a 10 year old, who had moved to Baltimore 2 years earlier. It was a great time to be a sports fan in Baltimore. (My children came of sports fan age during hte 90′s when their grandfather’s team, the Yankees were dominant and their father’s team stunk. Guess who they root for.)

But there was a cloud attached to that silver lining.

Yet the Orioles struggled at the turnstiles. Crowds averaged 13,000 during the season, and even the final game of the Series at Memorial Stadium fell far short of a sellout.

Players still are irked by that.

“We were a damn good team, and we knew it,” said Powell, the American League’s Most Valuable Player in 1970. “We were disappointed that there weren’t more people in the ballpark.

“When we got so far in front during the season, people said, ‘We know you’re not going to lose [the pennant], so we’ll save our money for the World Series.’

“But, deep down, you knew Baltimore at that time was just not a baseball town.”

It wasn’t just that Baltimore was a football, WBAL, the one time flagship station of the Orioles saw baseball games as nothing more than programming. It wasn’t until WFBR took over the broadcasts in 1979 that rooting for the Orioles became fashionable.

The reason for this discussion, is that,with the Patriots going strong, Boston may again (repeating 2004) be a city of champions. But what the article reminded me of was a cartoon that the Sun (possibly the Evening Sun) reprinted from a New York paper at that time. (It might have been the Daily News, but I’m uncertain.) It depicted a number of individuals discussing Baltimore’s sports dominance at the time. The punchline was something like “But they don’t have a hockey team.” (Well Baltimore had a hockey team, the Clippers, but they were part of the now-defunct AHL, not the NHL.) Maybe Bill Ordine or someone around the Sun could dig up that cartoon, and republish it, if the paper has the rights to it.

One other thing I remember is that given how good the Oriole were for the first 15 years we lived in Baltimore, I never really developed a sense that it was possible that the team could deteriorate or ever be bad. I was in my mid-20′s when that realization hit. 19 years is a long run of success. To the best of my knowledge it is the second longest streak or winning seasons in North American sports history. (First place belongs to the Yankees.) But it’s long over now and the question is whether or how long it will be before the Orioles get it back.

(One final irony: we moved to Baltimore from Springfield Massachusetts. When I learned we’d be moving I wondered if I’d still be allowed to root for the Red Sox. The Orioles success from 1969 and on made that question moot very quickly.)

Crossposted on Soccer Dad.


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.


How Manny became a Jedi

The ALCS will pit the Boston Red Sox against the Cleveland Indians for the honor of facing the National League Champion. Or Manny Ramirez’s current team vs. his first team.

Manny Ramirez, 16 years ago, was quite a sensation at the high school level (he played for George Washington High School in Washington Heights)and the New York Times gave him quite a bit of coverage as he was a highly regarded prospect. I suppose there was some hope he might get drafted by the Yankees and play just a few miles from his home.

Manny Ramirez, who plays center field and third base, batted .633 last season and is rated the best high school player in the city and one of the best in the country (he made USA Today’s top 25), will hit balls out of the park. He hit 16 homers last season.

His teammates say they admire Manny, the son of a cab driver, for not acting cocky. But he would like to be identified in the newspaper as the Hitman. The big-league scouts are following the Hitman; so is Washington Heights. Even the neighborhood’s greatest baseball success story — a Panamanian immigrant named Rod Carew who graduated from Washington in 1964 and was recently elected to the Hall of Fame — says he has heard of Manny Ramirez’s bat.

But the coverage continued even after he was drafted by Cleveland.

In many ways, Ramirez hasn’t left Washington Heights, the upper Manhattan neighborhood of Dominican immigrants where he rose from the Alexis Ferreira Little League to become a local hero as the star third baseman on the George Washington High School team. Last spring, with a .650 average and 14 home runs in 22 games, he was the best high school ballplayer in New York City.

Now, as the No. 1 draft pick of the Cleveland Indians, he has shown similar strengths in the Appalachian League. Batting third in the lineup, he leads the rookie league in home runs, with 14 in 49 games — including two grand slams in one week — and in runs batted in with 52.

But while the center fielder with the quicksilver swing feels at home within the confines of Burlington Athletic Stadium, the shy teen-ager from teeming, close-knit Washington Heights feels marooned here, in small-town America.

(Realizing that Manny was special, the Times followed the George Washington High School baseball team during his senior year as well as his development through the Indians’ organization.)

Manny was one of the centerpieces of a revitalized Cleveland Indians organization that was rebuilt through drafting excellent young players and retaining them. Under John Hart the team developed stars such as Ramirez, Albert Belle, Jim Thome, and Carlos Baerga, reaching the World Series twice (once in 1995 and once in 1997).

In the winter of 2000, Ramirez was lured to the Boston Red Sox as a free agent where he would become their new star. Cleveland was in decline and would start a new rebuilding era under John Hart’s successor, Mark Shapiro, which has now led the Indians back to the postseason.

Ramirez helped the Red Sox win their first World Championship in nearly a century in 2004 and, this year, to their first first place finish in nearly 20 years this year. Ramirez has been regarded as something of a flaky fellow. It was perhaps because of this perception that Boston was prepared to trade him for Alex Rodriguez prior to the 2003 season. (He still had a lot fans among his former teammates.)

By now Manny Ramirez is a great ballplayer and he’s reaching the age where a player’s skills often decline. So how does he retain his skills? Rob Bradford of Boston Herald uncovered some of his preparation in Manny has Plan.

The media, whose job it is to uncover every nook and cranny concerning each player’s makeup, is left living in the world of the fans for whom they write. This is the mystery of Manny, by all accounts one of the smartest, best-prepared hitters in the history of the game.

Few people know about the extra hand-eye coordination exercises Ramirez has added to his routine since the middle of the 2004 season. Strength and conditioning coach Dave Page fires golf ball-like spheres at the slugger’s strike zone, where they are caught by Ramirez’ right hand, acting as a bat.

Later in the workout, which is done 30 minutes before every game, Page throws four rings at Ramirez. Each ring has a different colored ball attached to it, and Page calls out the color of the ball Manny has to grab out of mid-air.

One of the toughest aspects of hitting is deciding what pitch is coming at you in a fraction of a second. So in order to maintain his skill Manny spends extra time honing that decision making. (It reminded me of Obi-Wan training Luke, without the blindfold.) It may very well be that at the end of next year, when his current contract expires, that Manny will once again be highly sought after. If so, it will be a testament, to his dedication to his job.

Friday night, the team that drafted the promising 19 year old will face the team that signed their star away. It will be the battle of Manny’s teams.

Crossposted at Soccer Dad.

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Torre fired

No not that one. This one.

But seriously go back a year to the Freakonomics blog for the correct question: If Joe Torre is fired, why?

I’m no Yankee fan but how many managers have had the success Joe Torre has had. True having Mariano Rivera as his closer for most of his tenure has helped. And having a team loaded with the best talent money could buy didn’t hurt. Still, during his run he overlapped with the very talented Atlanta Braves managed by Bobby Cox. The Braves one precisely one world championship during their run in 1995. They even blew an unheard of 2 – 0 lead heading home in 1996 before they were undone by the Yankees the following year.

As much as I hated it at the time there’s no denying that the Yankees of 1996 – 2000 were one of the great baseball dynasties of all time. Torre deserves a lot of credit. He did have choices to make and they usually turned out correctly. Perhaps those years spoiled George, but as fluky (good) as they were for the Yankees they were fluky. Now the Yankees recent failures in the post-season are probably also a little fluky (bad).

So why blame Torre?

Mike Mussina (unfairly demonized in these parts due to Orioles mismanagement) had it right:

“It’s my seventh season and we’ve had seven tremendous seasons,” Mussina said. “We’ve been in the postseason every year, we’ve made it to the World Series. It’s not easy to do this year after year after year, and when he’s done it 12 times in a row, I don’t know what more you’d want, honestly.

“I’d play for the guy anytime. We’re the ones that go out on the field and have to perform. And if we don’t perform, it shouldn’t be a reflection of his ability. The reflection should be on us, not on him.

No it’s not easy, even when you have the talent. Blaming Torre is absurd.

Crossposted on Soccer Dad.

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