As we are three weeks into the season and teams are slowly beginning to sort themselves into the haves and have-nots, I have begun to think about what I want out of different areas of my baseball operations. There is always the fallacy that teams are always trying to win when we know that really isn’t the case. Some of the choices may be based on entertainment value, but they are always based upon wanting to win on the field. Players won’t be part of this because players play, and they are always trying to compete to win.
Owner: Every sports fan everywhere wants to have a well-heeled team owner who has an intense desire to win at all costs. However, that isn’t always the reality. There are countless instances where the teams are owned by individuals and conglomerates who prioritize profitability over winning on the field. The current owners of the Cincinnati Reds and Oakland A’s typify the bad example of profits over wins. In Cincinnati, the owners have taken the position that the fans will have to take what they are serving and like it as they dismantled the club. The Oakland A’s have an owner who has decided the club should be a real-life version of the film Major League. He wants to move the club to Las Vegas and has decided to raise the ticket prices while fielding a club only their mothers would recognize. Against that backdrop, fans of teams like the Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Mets cannot complain about the level of support from team ownership. The Dodgers have shown each year they will do what it takes to keep the club among the elite in baseball. The addition of first baseman Freddie Freeman is the most recent example. The Mets have a vocal owner who is showing he wants a championship, no matter the cost. He might get a bit loose on social media from time to time, but no one can say he doesn’t care. The spending spree which netted players like starting pitcher Max Scherzer has fans of the team thanking their lucky stars the Wilpon Era is over.
General Manager: For generations, the baseball operations departments were led by the general manager. Old school general managers like Buzzie Bavasi and Dal Maxvill were known to make moves on a napkin in a bar. The old traditions of making deals based upon a hunch or a tidbit from a scout died out around the turn of the century with the rise of the Moneyball A’s. Team owners became enamored with the way the A’s were built on a tight budget. Teams began to develop analytics departments. The general managers became a private coterie of Ivy League-educated guys where playing experience is not a prerequisite for the job. I am a proponent of having multiple paths to building a winning baseball team. Having a general manager who makes deals to be aggressive, not merely looking for marginal advantages makes for a more exciting game. In modern baseball, we should welcome clubs like the Colorado Rockies general manager, Bill Schmidt, who seemed to zig when everyone else zagged when he acquired utility man Kris Bryant in free agency. Perry Minasian is his time leading the baseball operations for the Los Angeles Angels has made some interesting moves, especially on the pitching side of the club. Taking flyers on guys like Noah Syndergaard is no sure bet. Using all of their draft picks last year on pitchers is bold, but at least he isn’t just trying to do the obvious thing. Teams operating in a vacuum might seem curious, but sometimes crazy works.
Manager: Modern baseball has seen the role of the field manager minimized in the eyes of many fans. Fans of a certain age (read: old) remember the days of characters such as Earl Weaver managing the Baltimore Orioles, or Billy Martin at the helm of the New York Yankees. We have seen the clips of them on the field arguing for calls and kicking dirt on the umpire when something did not go their way. Current managers like Gabe Kapler of the San Francisco Giants or Kevin Cash or the Tampa Bay Rays are widely viewed as technocrats who merely push buttons and manage by number. Moves can be somewhat predicted ahead of time given a particular game state. Gone are the days were the manager can get away with saying he made a move on a gut feeling; there is too much data to allow for managing from the hip. Managers now have to answer for moves that are made without the statistical advantage. Who among us can remember a manager saying they let a batter hit against a same-handed relief pitcher because he felt the guy was “hot”? The role of the modern manager is more about getting the players to understand their roles within the team; when they will play, or why they won’t in other spots. I am all for a blend of a manager who uses the numbers and data available to him, while at the same time employing some unconventional tactics within a game in an effort to gain an advantage. Nothing ventured; nothing gained.
Announcer: It may seem odd to have the announcer listed among the things in a baseball operation to be considered, but in fact the announcer is the voice fans hear every night when they are tuned in to the game, so they have an outside influence on the narrative of a particular game; a particular player, or a particular team. Los Angeles Dodgers fans were largely raised on the esteemed voice of Vin Scully, perhaps the best to ever do it. Jack Buck in St. Louis and Ernie Harwell in Detroit were the soothing voices of summer for decades in their municipalities. The current booths have done a lot to help fans understand how front offices now think and behave and what the advanced data means. Not all booths are created equal as there is plenty of misuse of data or an attachment to an old way of doing things. Hearing analysts decrying the lack of certain strategies which have been found to be suboptimal (bunts) in an effort to have the same go back to a way they understand it is less than ideal, but they can learn with time. The ideal booth in my opinion is one where the announcer is known to be rooting for the home team but can appreciate the opposition. This, combined with a color analyst who can provide context to the data they are using or the strategy they are espousing because it can really bring down barriers of entry to the sport. A female voice in the booth is welcome as playing in the big leagues is not mandatory to talk about it.
Umpire: This might be strange to see them on this list, but they are on the field every night and the game cannot be played without them. No fan anywhere comes to the game for an ump show. On the most recent episode of the Dingers and K’s Podcast, we discussed going back in history to correct some umpire wrongs like reversing the Jim Joyce call in the Armando Galarraga’s nearly perfect game. We really only notice the umpire when they make a mistake or are involved in a controversial decision. Issues with the umpires are driving us towards one of the most fundamental shifts to the game in our lifetime-the automated strike zone. Fewer performances like the one Angel Hernandez had behind the plate during a recent game between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Milwaukee Brewers, the better the game will be for it. Instant replay has also come to be in aid of the on-field umpires. Ideally, for me, the umpire will have a bit of character and add some color to his job. Taking balls and strikes away from the home plate umpire will take away a lot of the problems everyone has with the umpires, although I admit it will take some getting used to seeing balls far away from the catcher’s target getting called strikes (the announcers can really be helpful here to get the fans on board with the changes). Bringing back some Joe West or Doug Harvey types of characters will not be a bad thing as long as they get the calls right.
A lot of fans don’t consider these soft factors when watching a game and can underrate their influence on the proceedings. What kind of things do you want to see from these areas of the sport as it relates to our favorite teams and the game overall?