GMs Need More Skills Than Ever Before
It would be wildly inaccurate to say that the job of the general manager has become unrecognizable over the last 10 years.
The goal remains the same: accumulate the best talent available within a budget in an effort to compete for the short and long term. The most important skill remains talent evaluation and the ability to distill the right kinds of information from diverse sources. The constituencies, too, are largely familiar, with GMs accountable to owners, fellow front-office workers, players, coaching staffs, agents, the media and the fans.
Yet while those fundamental elements of the job remain the same, the job of major league general managers has taken on a different complexion and additional dimensions over the past 10 years. The reasons are numerous.
The money in the game has grown substantially, with the average player salary nearly doubling over a 10-year span to more than $3 million a year. Before 2000, only one player had received a $100 million contract. Over the next 10 years, however, 17 more players passed that threshold.
With that swelling of money has come heightened scrutiny. Yet that has not been the only factor in elevating the prominence of the position. It was, after all, the decade when "Moneyball" changed the way the public and at least some members of the industry viewed the job. Suddenly, the decisions made by GMs became as scrutinized—even more scrutinized, at times—as the performance of players themselves.
The heightened attention of the job coincided with a period when statistical information has exploded in volume, complexity and accessibility. That trend has been driven by dramatic changes in technology and the distribution of information that have directly affected the way business gets done by general managers.
There is little doubt that the job has been reshaped. Even the title of the general manager has been subjected to experiment over the past 10 years. Some teams have tried to divide responsibilities and name co-GMs. Some organizations have eliminated the title of general manager from their organizational structure.
The Rays, for instance, made a point of eliminating the title of GM when installing Andrew Friedman as executive vice president of baseball operations. As a complement to Friedman, the Rays hired veteran Gerry Hunsicker, a former GM himself, and gave him the title of senior vice president of baseball operations. Owner Stuart Sternberg and team president Matt Silverman, after careers in the financial industry, considered the GM title ill-suited to such a key decision-making role.
"At the time, Andrew's title indicated where we expected the job was headed," Silverman said. "'General manager' doesn't capture the scope and depth of the position today."
The importance of player evaluation has not changed. But the sorts of information that informs those evaluations has become very different.
Scouting reports were once the primary—at times sole—foundation for those evaluations. Statistics that are now viewed in some circles as crude also contributed to the conversation.
In the past 10 years, the lenses through which the game is viewed have multiplied. Teams examine a wealth of new statistics that either didn't exist or weren't understood a decade ago. They look for subjective and objective performance data, as well as subjective and objective medical and psychological/makeup information. They have expanded pro scouting staffs to all but eliminate below-the-radar prospects.
Over the span of a decade, GMs sought several new sources of information, resulting in significant growth in the size of front-office staffs. Consequently, GMs had to become ever more adept at managing not just people but ideas, weighing different pieces of information to select courses of action and alternatives.
"It had always been and will always be, essentially, about the evaluation of talent. But the modalities of evaluation have changed," said Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino, who traces the change in the position to the 1980s. "The GM has got to be more of a manager and organizer than I think before. He's got more people, and I think you have to go back to the stakes are so much higher with the contracts, with $50 million, $100 million, $150 million contracts. There has to be greater focus and specialization, and more hands on deck."
The need to account for a diverse array of information has made it natural to assume that key decision makers come from academic backgrounds more than baseball backgrounds. There is also an assumption that the job is skewing younger as a result of the search for people open to new ideas and new ways of thinking.
That may be overblown, however. In 2000, 29 of the 30 GMs had received some degree of college education. In 2010, that is true of 28 of the 30 GMs. According to Major League Baseball, the average age of those who held the job in 2000 was 47.1 years old; six of the 30 GMs were in their thirties. The current mean for those in the position is 46.6, and seven of the individuals who hold the position have yet to turn 40.
"You've got a broad range of guys. The common thread is that each of these people is highly intelligent and each is driven to be successful and to find advantages," said Mark Shapiro, who has served eight years as Indians GM and will move up to the job of team president after this season. "When I say the quality, intelligence, aptitude and capability of front offices across the board has increased, it's not just because some guys from Ivy League schools have become general managers. It's because the standards have been raised, the competition is greater and people are adapting."
There are fewer former pro players who are GMs now (eight) than there were a decade ago (14). Even so, it is clear that GMs still come from a diversity of backgrounds, which has only gone to improve the quality of the work being done across the game.
"It happens very rarely that you would run into a front office that you think is not well run," Orioles GM Andy MacPhail said. "You just don't run into teams anymore where you think, 'What are they doing?' It just doesn't happen nearly as frequently as it may have happened 20, 25 years ago."
That, in turn, has made it ever harder for teams to gain a competitive advantage over their opponents. So, too, has the fact that information—most notably, statistical information—that once was exploited by a select few clubs is now widely available to both front offices and the public.
It's not as if statistics, even statistical analysis below the surface of traditional measures like average, homers and RBIs, were unknown in the 20th century. Sandy Alderson's work in Oakland caught the attention of the industry. Lucchino recalled that one year after he was named Orioles president in 1988, the team "literally found room in a large closet" for a statistical analyst.
Even so, the numbers that clubs came to view as relevant in evaluating a player have changed enormously. Batting average and homers were displaced by on-base percentage, slugging and OPS as the primary currency of evaluations in recent years.
Yet 10 years ago, those numbers were readily available back-of-the-baseball-card numbers. It was a matter of choice whether teams employed them or not.
A decade later, new sets of metrics have transformed further the way player performance is measured. The goal is to come to some sort of realization about what sorts of numbers are meaningful when taking the complete measure of a player's skills. As that process improves, teams are less inclined to make decisions based on intuition.
"There's much greater specificity and documentation now than there ever was," Lucchino said. "It's much less, 'My instincts tell me this.' Nowadays it's more, 'The data show me that . . . ' "
And there is plenty of data for GMs to use. Pitch f/x data has altered the way teams can analyze both pitchers and hitters alike. Defense, too, is now measured and quantified in ways that were unthinkable a decade ago.
"In 10 years' time, the understanding of how to use the information and the amount of information and the openness to its application has changed dramatically," Shapiro said. "There's a greater amount of (data) and a greater ability to apply it."
"You have this whole new generation of stats that didn't really exist when I started: qERA, Fielding Independent Pitching, a Plus-Minus Baseball Information Solutions rating, BABIP, UZR, VORP, WAR, win probability," added MacPhail, who served as Twins GM from 1985-1994, became president of the Cubs from 1994-2006 and then joined the Orioles in 2007. "Most of it didn't exist even 10 years ago. I think the Internet has become a catalyst for people developing their ideas and sharing, and some of the product has now become common stats that we all look at and all talk about."
The Internet has made a more sophisticated inventory of numbers widely available, and in some respects it has leveled the playing field. That, in turn, has made it ever more difficult to claim a competitive advantage.
Because so much is now measured, it has become harder and harder for teams to gain a competitive advantage by finding market inefficiencies.
"Evaluations are getting more and more precise, so you could argue that they're better in a way," Red Sox GM Theo Epstein said. "But at the same time, you have to work harder to make an actual impactful evaluation because so many clubs are making the same evaluation.
"You might think a guy is a good player. It was more likely 10 years ago that you were the only one who felt that way. Now, that view is going to be shared by a lot of your colleagues around the game.
"I think it puts more of an emphasis on using proprietary methods, hiring great scouts and putting them in the right position to see the right players at the right time, trying to carve out your own niche of private information that's exclusive to your own organization so that you can use that to make decisions."
It has become even more important for GMs to separate useful from useless data. Overload has become a danger, given that there are now endless ways to mine information. Part of the challenge of the GM, then, is not merely to gather data. He must also sift through it and figure out how to turn that information into a decision.
"There are stats within the stats that you've got to break down to determine whether stats are beneficial," Brewers GM Doug Melvin said. "I spend a lot of time trying to do that.
"I think sometimes you get paralyzed from making a decision if you get too much information," he continued. "It's only my opinion, but I think the more information you have, sometimes it can be just as dangerous as not having enough information."
The fact that new statistical metrics are so widely available and understood has deprived smaller-market clubs of one of their key weapons in fighting against teams with deeper pockets. A renewed emphasis on the draft by the richest clubs has taken away another.
When the Sox hired him as GM in 2002, Epstein pronounced his mission to be the creation of a scouting and player development machine. That proclamation struck some smaller market clubs as ominous.
Teams with limited resources had become adept at exploiting market inefficiencies, leaving teams with deep pockets to construct their clubs using free agency, the most inefficient of markets. Suddenly, the Red Sox were ready to pour big-market resources into the areas of scouting and player development, whose affordability had allowed small-market clubs to compete.
"Small-market clubs were more value driven out of necessity. They were more conscious of risk. They were more industrious, out of necessity. These days, I think that mindset and approach has infiltrated the big-market clubs as well," Epstein said. "Scouting and player development as the core way to build a team. That's not the unique province of smaller market teams anymore."
The Yankees followed suit, particularly after Brian Cashman got operational control over New York's baseball operations in 2005. He began plowing more money into both the draft and international amateur signings, and steered the club away from signing role players such as Steve Karsay and Rondell White, who cost the team both money and draft picks.
"In baseball, draft day is the most important day of the year. I know one of the reasons I think we've gotten back to having success is the fact that we made that day important again, protecting draft choices and not sacrificing them for a middle reliever," Cashman said. "You increase your amateur talent budget because if I wind up being successful in having a number of players emerge in our draft, it will save me from adding $50 million or $60 million, $70 million or $100 million in the free agent market.
"I can turn from within and have a Phil Hughes and have enough remaining so that I can go sign a C.C. Sabathia."
The same technology that has changed the way that information is digested in the industry and that has altered the way in which GMs can work with their staffs has not been without consequence.
The shift of news coverage from daily newspapers to the online realm has come with significantly increased demands on the time of general managers. There is a demand for information in real time, the result of which is an endless stream of phone calls and e-mails from media members anxious to be apprised of the latest transactions.
For the media and GMs alike, the round-the-clock news cycle has made it ever more difficult to unplug from a job that has always been consuming.
"The job has always been a job that the conscientious general manager, whether he was working or not, was thinking about and absorbed in it 24/7," Shapiro said. "That said, the downtimes that existed, it's a lot more challenging to get any ability to get away and regenerate because of the Internet, technology and the media demands that go along with the job now."
Yet while some of the changes that have taken place in the position have been frustrating, GMs still insist that the job is, at the end of the day, a pleasure. The job is consuming, but that is in part because the dialogue about the game has become richer.
With greater understanding of the game has come more dynamic conversation about it. The fact that there is a more competitive decision-making landscape across the 30 clubs is challenging, but also invigorating.
Though a different job now than it was a decade ago, the role of being a general manager remains a tremendously appealing one.
"Like any other job, any other industry, there is a feeling that if you're not getting better, you're falling behind," Epstein said. "It makes you want to get out of bed right away in the morning and start outworking your competitors."
"People have become more educated in the game than ever. They're looking for new measures to try to quantify what really is taking place on the field, testing theories. It's terrific," Cashman said. "We're taking the game and trying to find every which way to measure what's real and what's not, and trying to make sense of it. That's wonderful."