2020 MLB Executive Of The Year: Andrew Friedman
The team with the blue-accented uniforms got to the World Series based on the many of the tenets and principles Andrew Friedman believes strongly in, including a deep roster with positional versatility, a pitching staff with flexible roles, a focus on run prevention, a strong and positive clubhouse culture and a manager who embraces data and is willing to make bold decisions with buy-in from his players.
Oh yeah, and the Dodgers were there, too.
As much as Friedman has been lauded—and honored here as Baseball America’s Major League Executive of the Year—for the Dodgers’ success that culminated with the 2020 World Series championship, his imprint was also evident on the Rays. He played a key role in transforming them from one of baseball’s worst franchises to an annual contender, starting with Tampa Bay’s surprising 2008 run to the World Series.
That the teams met on the field—albeit in the “bubble” of Arlington, Texas—for the World Series was something even Friedman admitted was surreal.
But that two teams he helped build were baseball’s best was not really a surprise.
“That’s who Andrew is—he's inclusive by nature, he's analytical by nature and he's passionate by nature,” Dodgers president Stan Kasten told the Tampa Bay Times.
“There are some things that he believes in that work, and he would be the same guy, no matter where he is. He would find the path that was necessary to achieve success. He did it there, he has done it here.”
There are some differences, such as the experience Friedman gained since then-new Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg hired him in 2005 as a 20-something who had played baseball in college but worked in finance to lead their baseball operations department. Not to mention the benefit of the extra $125 million or so in payroll he gets to work with each season in Los Angeles.
But listening to Friedman explain his core principles on the eve of the World Series opener, he truly could have been talking about either team.
"Fundamentally speaking, (we look for) guys in the batter’s box who are passive on pitches out of the zone and aggressive on pitches in the zone, and can do damage. Also (we seek those who) add value on defense. And pitchers who have multiple weapons and can execute pitches . . .
“I think the overarching pillar is culture and environment. In our front office, in our clubhouse it’s something that is extremely important to all of us. We feel like it’s a difficult thing to put your finger on and to quantify. But it’s one of those things that when you have it you know and when you don’t, you know it in the most glaring of ways.”
Friedman said the value of a culture that emphasized making the players feel comfortable was something he learned from Sternberg, who empowered him and team president Matt Silverman to transform a team that had finished last in nine of its first 10 seasons, and had never won more than 70 games.
Hiring Joe Maddon as a first-time manager was a bold move that paid off. Bringing in seasoned executive Gerry Hunsicker to provide guidance also helped.
But much of what worked for Friedman then, and now, came from a simple premise: that people thrive when placed in the best environment and are enmeshed in a winning culture. When people are comfortable, they perform better.
"I think that stems from having honest conversations with people, and just the consistency of message,” Friedman said, “and everyone really being on the same page. It doesn’t mean that we don’t disagree. But I think culture is incredibly important to organizational success.
"I have believed in that for a long time but I think a lot of that for me from the early years really stemmed from the Rays owner, Stu Sternberg. That was a real tenet of his and something that he believed strongly in. So much of my growth professionally was Stu as a mentor. He has done an immeasurable amount for me and my family. A lot of what I’ve learned, in a lot of respects, has come from him.”
Under Sternberg’s leadership, Friedman, Silverman and Maddon set about to first change the culture of the Rays franchise and then the results on the field. Progress was initially slow but the differences from previous owner Vince Naimoli, general manager Chuck LaMar and manager Lou Piniella soon became apparent in the team offices, the clubhouse and eventually on the field.
After losing 101 and 96 games in their first two seasons, they changed the name—dropping the “Devil” from Rays—color scheme and uniforms for the team in 2008. More importantly, they changed the results. Tampa Bay won 97 games and played its way into the American League pennant.
There were many facets and Friedman then, as now, was not one to take credit. “It’s never Andrew tooting his own horn,” Kasten said. “He is as committed to a philosophy of everyone sharing in their success as anyone I've ever seen. That's a tremendous testament to his own personality.”
But he had a hands-on approach, breaking down walls by visiting informally and joking with players and staff in the clubhouse before and after games, dressing casually, carrying around a pink rubber ball he would toss to catch people off guard, making a concerted effort come across not as the boss but one of the guys.
While the improvement in Tampa Bay came quicker than even Friedman expected, the Rays, more impressively, were able to sustain it, making the playoffs three more times over the next five years.
Kasten said it was obvious watching from a distance that the Rays had something special working.
“They have a philosophy, and then an execution, that allows them to be good year in, year out,” Kasten said. “No excuses. No falling back on perceived limitations, they just go out there and do it. It’s something that's extraordinarily impressive. It was to me back then, it remains that way too.”
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Several players who were with the Rays then told the Tampa Bay Times that it’s obvious how Friedman took many of the same philosophies with him when he left after the 2014 season for Los Angeles.
“He left a lasting footprint in Tampa Bay; he’s doing the same thing with the Dodgers now,” said David Price, whom the Rays drafted No. 1 overall in 2007 and who was traded to the Dodgers in February but opted to sit out the pandemic-abbreviated season.
"He had a ton of impact. Andrew's ability to not only add the right pieces to the team, but he makes sure those guys are going to fit in that clubhouse. He does a really good job of not only evaluating a player but evaluating the person as well.
“That's something that Tampa has done a good job in, and they continue to do that, and that's part of the reason they've had the success they've had this year and years prior. Andrew was one of those guys who definitely led them in the right direction.”
Third baseman Evan Longoria saw it happen around him with the Rays as their star rookie in 2008, and from across the field since being traded to the Giants after the 2017 season.
“It took a few years to build, but he did an amazing job drafting and bringing in veteran talent to complement us young players,” Longoria said of his time in Tampa Bay. “Andrew is easy to get along with, and him and Joe (Maddon) were exactly what players like myself needed. We felt comfortable going out and playing without them putting a ton of external pressure on us.”
First baseman Carlos Peña, who now works as an MLB Network analyst, said you can see the similarities between the teams on the field.
“It’s pretty much the same style play,” Peña said. “And as I’ve often said, the Rays and the Dodgers are both playing chess while the rest of the league is playing checkers. Except the Rays are playing on a wooden board and Dodgers are playing on a golden one.”
Friedman is older now, richer, and more of a family man. But he remained just as driven to get the Dodgers their first World Series championship since 1988 as he was to get the Rays turned around.
“He’s a very highly respected guy. He’s still the same personable guy. He’s got that little smile on his face. He’s got his little wisecracks that he always has,” Price said. “He’s got a different relationship with all the players on the roster, all the staff members. He hasn’t changed. He really hasn’t. And that’s very cool to see.”