Zach Lee was an “untouchable” prospect at this year’s deadline.
That concept from a recent article in the Los Angeles Times seemed ridiculous enough to write about on its own, but the deeper implications of it were far more significant and interesting.
Essentially, yes, Zach Lee was labeled untouchable. But no, it wasn’t for anything he necessarily earned. Rather, Ned Colletti has always had one foot out the door with the Dodgers and was a lame duck GM.
Colletti was prevented by ownership from making any midseason adjustments to the bullpen, people familiar with the situation said. Top prospects Corey Seager, Julio Urias and Joc Pederson were labeled as untouchable by President Stan Kasten. So were some mid-tier prospects, including Zach Lee, a former first-round pick whose development has stalled.
It tells me that Stan Kasten was thinking about making a change in the front office for a while, not because of what happened in 2013 or 2014, but because of the direction he wanted the franchise to head in.
It’s important in understanding that this was anything but a panic move to recent results, and that the team had always desired to change the dynamic. While Kasten is an old school guy, he has always been progressive and accepting of analytics, so the Andrew Friedman interest isn’t surprising. This is especially true since he contrasts heavily with Colletti, who basically has to be force fed analytics.
In recent years, though, there had seemingly been a noticeable improvement with Colletti, which I noted when Kasten retained him after the ownership shift. Yes, part of it was reduced expectations and reduced opportunity for blunders under Frank McCourt, but part of it seemed genuinely better at evaluation with the occasion inexplicable contract blunder that showed flashes of the old Ned.
Well, we now get the hint that a large part of that improvement comes with the establishment of an analytics department. Yes, now the Dodgers have one, but they were one of the last teams to adapt an analytics department, with Alex Tamin coming aboard in the off-season of 2011. (As J.P. Hoornstra wrote last year, the lone remaining member of Paul DePodesta’s stats group quite two months after Colletti arrived, and they’d gotten by with interns after that.) Since Kasten arrived though, a clear shift in priorities became clear and he expanded the department significantly. That’s important, since the analytics guys provided the voices who battled against Colletti on personnel news.
I had been told that or had it hinted privately by a few people, but with this move now made, the wars over personnel moves are now public information.
Two trade deadlines ago, the Los Angeles Dodgers got deep into discussions with the Los Angeles Angels to acquire second baseman Howie Kendrick.
The Angels were foundering and looking to deal expensive veterans for talent that could help replenish their bereft farm system. The Dodgers, living with aging Mark Ellis as their primary second baseman, felt in need of an upgrade. In the end, the Dodgers passed on the deal because they didn’t want to part with pitching prospect Zach Lee and they were worried about tampering with a team on a historic run.
According to sources, that decision widened a rift in the team’s front office. It lingered for nearly a year and a half. The push-pull, in general terms, was between general manager Ned Colletti and his small group of loyalists, primarily scouts and former scouts such as Rick Ragazzo and Vance Lovelace, and an analytics group that felt its input sometimes fell on deaf ears.
“To sum up from a distance, I would say [Friedman] has a great analytic mind and base,” Colletti said.
From what I’ve heard, the general tone is that if you didn’t like the Fausto Carmona and Kevin Correia deals, well it could’ve been worse had he not had his hands tied.
It’s not about Zach Lee or a foolish evaluation, it’s about preventing disaster before the replacement rides into town.
As far as 2014 goes, no it wasn’t Ned’s fault. Of course bullpen construction in one-year samples is unfair to rip him for. Yes, the playoffs are a crap-shoot and 94 wins is a solid season. I agree with all that. But one year clearly wasn’t the issue here, neither for me nor the people in charge of the Dodgers. This move was clearly about a shift away from one philosophy and towards another.
It’s all moving towards progress from my view, because the recent battles over the influence of analytics has revealed that in essence Colletti was basically the same guy who signed Juan Pierre and Andruw Jones and Jason Schmidt with dubious reasoning. The improvement we observed was primarily a combination of being handcuffed by a reduced payroll, being handcuffed by Stan Kasten, and the analytics department fighting for input. Scary, really.
That’s not to say Andrew Friedman is perfect or anything close to it. I don’t even have a problem with those depicting him as overrated or whatever pejorative you want to use to describe him with. But in terms of upgrading the Dodgers, at least now we’ll have a better, more cohesive process. If nothing else, that’ll come by default because the guy in charge of personnel moves will be on board with the rest of the power players in the organization, like Kasten.
Nobody in baseball these days wants to be forced into the old “Moneyball” labels, in part because they no longer fit. Friedman, for example, played college baseball. He can recognize a good slider or the value of a 95 mph fastball as well as the next scout. But the Dodgers have spent a lot of money, with very little hoopla, beefing up their analytics department, investing in computers and hardware. It was an area where the team had fallen behind under former owner Frank McCourt and, yeah, his appointed baseball guy, Colletti.
“I’d say when I got here, maybe we were near the bottom,” Kasten said, summing up the state of the Dodgers’ analytical efforts. “I’d say now we’re easily middle of the pack, but you know, we’re the Dodgers, so I feel we should be leaders and I know we will be because we’re on that path. Andrew will be helpful there, but he’s not a one-trick pony. I think it’s unfair to characterize it that way.”
Kasten wanted to be top-of-the-line in analytics and obviously wanted them to have a more significant impact, and Ned consistently fought that, so why haggle or ride the status quo with that guy when there’s an opportunity to get everybody on the same page? Kasten apparently recognized this issue and made an easy choice in Friedman.
Speaking of the Friedman criticisms or worries, there were a bunch of hot takes when this was announced. No, Friedman hasn’t proven he can win with or manage a big payroll. No, he hasn’t proven he can hit on draft picks late in the first round (though not many have). And, of course, nothing he does with the Dodgers will be quite like what it was with the Rays.
All true and also all completely missing the point. It’s not about what he hasn’t done, it’s about upgrading the process of doing things in the first place.
The result: Something like a legend. When I wrote about the quest (inside and outside of the sport) to quantify or engineer clubhouse chemistry, insiders would sometimes tell me that teams were working on it, they didn’t know which, “but probably the Rays.” When I wrote about building a new type of player development system using analytical approaches, I’d hear that if any team was trying something new, it was the Rays—though nobody quite knew what they were doing, or how. The story of the Rays was thus established: They had secret weapons; nobody knew them; and so we agreed that one of them was certainly Andrew Friedman.
It’s just hard to see what issue anybody could have with the decision-making process becoming more cutting edge. And it’s not just Friedman either, perhaps more importantly it’s Kasten who wants this.
Hell, it even seems like Bill Plaschke, the guy who made it a mission to drive “super nerd” Paul DePodesta out of baseball, is willing to give him a chance.
He is a leading proponent of the empirical analysis of baseball statistics known as, “sabermetrics,” which makes him the polar opposite of Colletti, who often judged players on gut instincts and scouting reports.
“I think more and more that’s becoming a part of baseball front offices,” Kasten said. “And I think over time, teams that lag behind are going to fall behind. But in fairness to Andrew, he doesn’t view himself as a numbers guy. He thinks success requires healthy doses of any tools you can have.”
Or maybe Kasten just pointed out to Bill that using scouting and all that for evaluations IS part of sabermetrics. Either way, it’s telling of the air of optimism and hope surrounding this move, and I think it’s well warranted.
Andrew Friedman’s success with the Rays has nothing to do with solving the different types of issues he’ll now run into with the Dodgers, critics have got that much right. But his specific plan/system for the Rays is not what led to this hire in the first place, nor is it why fans should be optimistic. Rather, it’s the way Friedman managed to solve the problems in front of him and be successful that had everything to do with the Dodgers making this move.
The Friedman hire may not pay immediate, significant dividends in the short term with the way the roster is currently constructed, but it’s hard not to envision this move as a significant upgrade for the Dodgers in the long run.