Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Thoughts On Theo Moving On

Let me just start by saying that by no means am I trying to say that Theo Epstein's job with the Boston Red Sox was easy. It wasn't. Like Brian Cashman, his job is very difficult. The notion that they have it easy because they have a lot of money to spend is ridiculous. While it makes things easier for them than for other GM's, there are resultant ways it is more difficult. Namely expectations. Yes, they have more money with which to achieve success. But the definition of what is success is greatly heightened over what it is for almost every other GM in the game. Further, you sometimes hear the criticism that it would be interesting to see a GM that has had success building a team more cheaply from within be given an opportunity to operate with more money. Well, it might be interesting, but I'm not sure it would be a whole lot more beyond that. And that's because once you have more money, it's more difficult to build from within because you have less First Round draft picks and less time to be patient because you're expected to win now. Being the GM of the Yankees or Red Sox is not as basic or simplistic as some want to make it seem. There are always tradeoffs.

With that all said, we also shouldn't act like there aren't a lot of other GMs that, if given more resources, couldn't do a really good job. Let's get one thing straight: Theo Epstein is a good GM. He's just finished overseeing the best collective decade the Red Sox have had as an organization in nearly a century. Not a high bar to clear, but he's done a good job. But is he really any better than 10-15 or more other executives in the game?

I'm not sure that he is. As good a job as he did from 2003-2007, his teams won the AL East zero times the last four years and missed the playoffs altogether the last two. The playoffs are a crapshoot so it's difficult to criticize 2008-2009 too much (though the 2009 team was flawed), but there is very little getting around the last two seasons. We can talk about injuries and underperformances all we want, and there was no doubt some of that at play. But two years in a row? With that payroll? I don't think so. There's a greater systematic issue at play.

And a big thing to note is that those teams were talented (2011 more than 2010). He assembled talent. But, clearly, they were lacking in other areas. Talent isn't everything, and Epstein did not do a good job of assembling a complete roster that had all of the elements of a winner. Oddly enough, this is exactly what he did early in his tenure with the Sox, and a big part of what made them so successful.

It's also worth noting that, after the Pedro/Schilling 2004 team, Epstein really didn't do a great job of putting together a starting pitching staff. He had some good years (2007), but on the whole the Red Sox have not had great starting pitching relative to their resources. Lester has been fantastic, and even better was developed from withing. Beyond him, have there been any decided victories since 2007? I could be missing someone, but I don't think that their have been.

I couldn't agree with Epstein more when he says he thinks it's best for both him and the organization for him to move on. He's very good at what he does, and he'll probably do a great job in Chicago with a change of scenery and removing himself from all of the drama in Boston. Even though he helped create that drama and this mess. (That's a separate conversation, whether or not he's running away from what he created. While I do think there's some merit to that, I also think Epstein is sincere in that now is a better time for a clean break - for both parties - than next year. They just had a very disappointing season, are hiring a new manager, and need to make some changes. I'm sure DV will tackle this at some point.)

But I also think Boston will do well with a new face and some new ideas in the General Manager's position. I don't think Theo's irreplaceable. Not at all. I'm sure Ben Cherington is very good at what he does, and he'll probably do a great job in Boston. Just like a lot of the other talented baseball minds in the game would. Theo did a great job early with his Moneyball approach, and I don't think every GM would have had the success that he did those first few years. At that time he really might have been unique in his ability. But ever since Moneyball has become mainstream, he's become more very good than elite. One of the Top 15 instead of one of the Top 5, just to throw numbers out there. Something like that.

Theo did a great job in Boston overall. And Red Sox fans should be thankful to him for that. But they also shouldn't be overly upset about his leaving. It's best for Theo, and it will be just fine for the organization.


the gm at work said...

Lots of things to talk about here, and not once did Pat even mention the Lackey Tommy John surgery story (not that there's anything wrong with that). I'm going to try to keep it reasonably short by offering some quick hits:

1. Being one of the top 15 is not impressive. It means you're better than average. Yay. I give Theo Epstein more credit than that. He's in the top third, but probably no better than that, especially when you factor in the last few years that were far inferior to the first few years.

2. A reason that he became less effective in the last few years is because, contrary to what he may have said himself, he lost his objectivity a little bit. He listened to the fans a little too much and listened to his own prejudices and biases a little too much. Lackey, Drew, and Crawford didn't have the same logic behind them as Schilling, Foulke, dropping Nomar, and even getting rid of Johnny Damon (which is a move I'd absolutely make again).

3. The 2009 team was almost exactly like the 2011 team.

4. Related to point 2, he became a bit more of a pussy, because if he wasn't, he would have traded David Ortiz or Kevin Youkilis long ago. He was not as bold in the later years as he was in the early years. There is nothing bold about throwing the most money to the guys atop the leaderboard.

5. I do not consider him a pussy for "creating this mess" and then splitting. He deserved to leave, as I wrote in my post "I Like Justice." I do agree with what he said about certain baseball personnel running their course in certain places, and I think his ideas, philosophy, and whatnot, while fresh and effective at the beginning, had run their course by 2009-2011. Same with Francona.

(And to tie it into upcoming posts, same with a blog.)

And it's more human nature than it is any fault of their own.

I give the overall tenure a B. I'd be curious to know what you guys think.

Ross Kaplan said...

The real question is how much of an effect the GM has on its team. Obviously it's his job to assemble the team, select and develop prospects and make any necessary moves along the way to bring depth or make improvements.

By that definition I think that Theo did a very good job of assembling a team that at least on paper was good enough to win the World Series for most of his tenure. I feel like the failure to follow through on that potential should be attributed to the coaches and players.

As DV said, Cherington replacing Theo probably won't make a big difference on the success of the team, but I think that speaks more about the lack of influence a GM has on his team's success and less about that GM's ability to construct a championship caliber ball club.

Anonymous said...

so long lackey! welcome back dice k :(

Anonymous said...

this rain delay tonight might be awesome if the cards win tomorrow ill go to game 7!

the gm at work said...

Ross, I think I assigned blame fairly in my "I Like Justice" post. Especially as more light is shed on his entire tenure (even his boy Cherington seems to make it look like he's not a baseball guy and is strictly a numbers guy, Theo is largely responsible for a lot of the "it's not a sprint, it's a marathon" philosophy that drives me up the friggin wall, because he believes in the stochastic nature of baseball which would indicate that after the course of 162 games, everything averages itself out to what it should be.

I feel like Francona managed with this kind of lack of urgency because he got that order from the boys upstairs. And obviously, the players lacked all senses of urgency altogether (except for the one who used to play for the Tampa Bay Rays), largely because of what I perceive as a flawed organizational philosophy.

I've spent enough time in my own life surrounded by numbers (not that I'd want to do it otherwise) to have drank a lot of the Kool-Aid about everything being as it should over a large enough sample size. I do believe it to a certain extent. I do, however, think it's complete garbage to punt a game in April by playing the entire B-team simultaneously because at the end of the season you'll be what you're constructed to be. A win in April against Cleveland that was prevented when Darnell McDonald gets thrown out stealing at second base means just as much as a win in September against Tampa that was prevented when 46 inexplicably gets thrown out stealing at third or against Toronto when Mike Aviles gets thrown out stealing at second.

TimC said...

A ton could be said about the transition from being a small or mid-budget GM to a big-budget one but to be really quick my view is that Theo is probably a top-5 candidate if an owner is hiring in a small market and probably more to the average if hiring big. Basically, I think his strengths and weaknesses, discussed at length all over this blog, point to him being a mid-budget type of guy rather than the architect of any 'wicked best team evers!!11!'. The top-10 designation is probably just right.

My very general theory on winning in sports (approaching soapbox) is that it can go one of two ways- win with a great team effort or win with individual excellence. (Baseball is a funny one to peg due to the way it is essentially an aggregate of individual efforts but I do think there is an argument for team victory.) Certainly, for one example, in basketball teams ride one guy or teams play tough, together, and outfox more talented teams. The general equation (boarding soapbox) would be something along the lines of talent beats team, unless talent nearly equal, then team wins, and in the NBA in particular we see playoff after playoff where teams with inflated records, inflated through victories over lesser teams, fall to less talented but more balanced or organized teams that probably would have found the effort of collectively giving the 100% over 82 nights too taxing but find the series format more manageable.

I think this sort of links with how I see Theo because, in the beginning, the Sox needed total rebuilding (which is the reverse of hoop, where teams get one star first, then build around). It was essentially up to Theo to stock the roster from top to bottom with good players, famously shipping out a star or two in the name of creating the '25' needed to match up with different staffs and lineups and digging through all kinds of bargain bins to do so. He won in '04 with this roster but, importantly, did not really need to acquire guys I would call 'game-winners' who can turn a game with one swing or flip a series with one complete game shutout. Schilling was his, obviously, but beyond that, the pieces were there.

The off-season that followed set the challenge for Theo- it was now time to find his own 'game-winners' as guys started departing. It seemed as he succeeded in '07 by getting Beckett but I think we around here suspect he is more fluke than star. Not one of his other attempts to acquire these types of players has really panned out, Gonzalez I suppose potentially (and likely) exempted, but for the most part the players he has spent the money or prospects on to provide these massive performances have failed to do so.

DV, you ridicule the '2nd highest OPS' comment and we are all with you. However, reading between the VORPs reveals that Theo is not yet of the frame of mind, at least then, to consider a $14 million annual contract a 'game-winner' salary because the stats cited for JD are those over the long-term, not the type to turn an October deficit in game or series. Poor Theo. Another great 'juxtaposition', if you will, is the Lackey-Burnett comparison. At the very least, Burnett had the ability to dominate, to shut down a lineup, whereas Lackey at his best was a guy who could reliably get seven innings down with three runs across. That's cute and wins in June but if my team is down 2-1 in the ALDS, who do I want to call? The answer is as philosophical as baseball can get but for my money I would always take the 'game-winner'.

TimC said...

So to summarize this lengthening rant, I think Theo is more than capable of building a playoff team in any MLB city. He's sharp, he's proven, and he's gutsy. I think the problem is that he just cannot, for some reason, find these guys who can impact October with one play, he either gets the wrong guy (CRAWFORD) or spends too much on a Millar/Nixon/Mueller level guy (Cameron/Renteria/Dice). What is the point, really, of paying the second-highest level of price? I say, pay the bargain level, as Theo did so well, or pay the absolute top, as more successful big-market types do, and you are 90% of the way to being a big-time GM. Anyway, best of luck to the guy as he was a real hero for me a few years ago and I hope he can at least give the Cubs fans another shot at disappointment.

TimC said...

I want to add to the 'inflated victory' thing, what I mean by a talented NBA team having inflated wins is that I believe bad teams can be beaten by talent and that it is easier for LeBron, Kobe, even MJ, to impose his will on these games and win when the team is playing a vanilla gameplan or is just having an off night. As the playoffs roll around, these teams are no longer opponents and the stars find themselves against organized and focused opposition, requiring these stars to then utilize their teammates in the effort of winning more so than they did in the regular season.