Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Jeffrey Loria, Sabermetric Hero?

Last year I finally got round to becoming a big consumer of baseball podcasts. One of my favourites was The Baseball Show with Rany and Joe, sponsored by the Baseball Reference Play Index. This past winter, Rany Jazayerli decided to hang up his microphone, and Joe Sheehan declined to continue the podcast either alone or with a new partner. That's just my lot in life, always a day late and a dollar short.

The reason I liked it so much is the same reason I tend to read op-ed columns I disagree vehemently with. The 'contentious statement' quotient was high, and stimulated a great deal of thought and research. In this context, it is worth noting that Baseball Prospectus' Effectively Wild podcast has inherited this sponsorship. The reason is that a recent podcast presented thoughts about the 2014 fortunes of the Miami Marlins. Nothing was liable to set off both Rany and Joe on flights of self-righteous dudgeon than mentioning the name of Jeffrey Loria. Indeed, when listening to today's sabermetricians one seems to think of Mr Loria as occupying the frozen centre of Hell, with three faces, bat's wings and gnawing on the souls of Judas Iscariot, Brutus and Cassius. Or, if that is too august a position to assign to him, that Lucifer would have sprouted a fourth face just for Jeffrey.

One might think that an Expos' fan would share such sentiments, but in this case one would be wrong. I do not think Mr Loria served the franchise in Montréal well; but I do think he served himself well, and that by the standards of today's sabermetrics he should not be consigned to the centre of anything except perhaps some kind of sabermetric Hall of Fame.

Like a lot of Baseball Prospectus' content in this year's annual, the essay (which I have not yet read) was not actually written by a fan of the team. Instead, a Mets' fan, David Roth, a staff writer at SB Nation and co-founder and editor of The Classical, took the job. Apparently the essay has Latin in it, which given the title of this blog must come as a recommendation. He appears to characterise the Marlins' front office as a 'doof junta', and the organisation itself as a piece of 'towering crude pop art'. 'Do [the Marlins] have any positive role in the business of baseball?' asks Sam Miller, one of the podcast's co-hosts. Roth responds that it is not just the Age of Loria that has established this reputation, but that Wayne Huizenga also had his part to play. We'll come back to that towards the end.

That opening question announces that this podcast will be an assault on Mr Loria's management of the franchise. This becomes plain later on when Miller asks,'Is he a bad dude?' Roth replies: 'He's a bad dude....Loria meddles. He cares. But he cares about all the wrong stuff, and he cares about it way too much.' Oh, he cares too much about stuff that Roth thinks is the wrong stuff. This just typifies how what Roth, Miller and Miller's co-host Ben Lindbergh actually say completely undermines the image they think they are constructing.

Such problematic discussion riddles the podcast. The image painted of the Marlins' ownership and administration is of a deceitful group. Some of this derives from the fire-sale trades that followed the unprofitable and underachieving 2012 team. 'I can't think of them as a team that is willing to deal in good faith,' says Roth, after describing how the Marlins will not give no-trade clauses to players, as opposed perhaps to giving them and then having to enter into negotiations about setting aside the clause when the opportunity to make a deal arises. The Marlins seem to take a fairly straightforward position here. If a no-trade clause is important to a player, he should tell his agent not to return calls from the Marlins.

The Marlins make a huge profit, according to Roth. He does not substantiate the opinion. It could well be the case, as before making a $7 million loss in 2012 according to Forbes, the Marlins averaged a profit of $42 million between 2006 and 2009. (BTW, it's worth noting that the team had to pay $155 million for the stadium, which is a little bit under the $168 million of profits made between 2006 and 2009.) Since then their profits gradually declined until a big jump in payroll to coincide with the opening of Marlins Park led to the loss. Chances are that, thanks to revenue sharing, the Marlins made around $40-50 million again. So let's grant Roth that point. Roth goes on to say, 'Loria's certainly a better businessperson than the Wilpons.' So he hasn't spent the money yet because the players the Marlins have at the moment are probably not ready to contend for a pennant. And this makes him a bad dude?

Well, Lindbergh seems to think that the obligation to make money is an onerous task to befall a baseball organisation, when he says 'You would think the typical GM would want to think of himself as something more than an enabler of the owner, or as someone who makes the owner more money.' Miller chimes in, '[Loria] goes behind his GM's back and signs Greg Dobbs...which feels like a weird way to meddle. He does this tear-down...this poorly received tear-down....And when he tore down, he tore down really incredibly effective immediately in building the farm system up. And he does seem to have some knack for bringing in free agents when he gets personally involved in wooing them....From a competitive perspective, is he better or worse than the median GM?' In answering, Roth has this to say about the Marlins under [Larry] Beinfest (and Mr Loria, if Miller's question is to be accepted in the form Miller posed it): 'They weren't cheap in the draft....They paid above slot. They did like all the things a team that was trying to draft well would do....Beinfest had free rein in this very limited very unnecessarily overactive way. I think he did more than a lot of other GMs would do.' So all the good things are to Beinfest's credit, while the bad are Mr Loria's fault?

And what about the fans? Lindbergh: 'I wonder to what extent it spoils the fan experience? Often the redeeming aspect of rooting for a bad team is that you can anticipate something good a few years down the can imagine your team... building this core... and having a perennial contender. Whereas if you're the Marlins fan based on past precedent the most you can really hope for is that the strong farm system produces a bunch of guys all at once and that you can hang on to them for a year or two before you have to start talking about trading them.' Well, wait a minute. Those chaps traded in fire sales in 1998 and in 2012 were mostly free-agent signings or acquired in trade: Bonifacio, Buck, Buehrle, Infante and Reyes in 2012; or Alou, Bonilla, Brown, Leiter, Nen and Sheffield in 1998. I'll give Lindbergh a pass on Hanley Ramirez and Anibal Sanchez, who were acquired by the Marlins when they were still down on the farm.

The problem for Baseball Prospectus commenting in this way on the Marlins is tucked away in Baseball Between the Numbers, pp 306-25, 'Is Wayne Huizenga a Genius?', by Jonah Keri. Keri has this to say:
With apologies to sentimental types, the twin goals of a baseball team are: (a) to seize the opportunity when it arises and win the World Series and (b) to make money. Huizenga recognized that winners and losers are often separated by mere inches, the bat of an eyelash. He also saw a moneymaking opportunity, with a winning team likely to rake in the bucks and a dismantled winner likely to make more....Mensa has reserved a spot for Wayne Huizenga a tthe head of the table.
Connie Mack, beloved figure of bygone years said much the same thing about the relationship between profits and winning.

What we have discussed here is the 'success cycle', a not entirely accepted concept of newfangled sabermetrics. Among them, none of Roth, Miller nor Lindbergh really has an exact handle on the Marlins' application of this principle. Roth makes an important error when he says, 'Both of those World Series teams they burned down the next year.' Not true. The 2003 winner was not actually burned down until the Delgado signing during the 2004/5 offseason failed to carry them back into the playoffs. The tear-down came in 2005/6, when Lowell and Beckett were dealt to the Red Sox, Delgado to the Mets and Castillo to the Twins. This slip-up basically undermines his argument when he says in another place, 'They have this model that worked twice. I wonder if that entrenched that this is an OK way to do things.' This isn't quite right, because he misses the 2009 team, which was a further run at playoff contention. The missing link here is the lack of a big-name free agent signing. In 2010, the Marlins faded to .500, Fredi Gonzalez was fired in mid-season and the second-place finish of 2009 possibly seemed flukish. To me, the firing of Gonzalez, is a sign that Mr Loria expected a repeat of 2009. Mr Loria, remember, cares.

Nothing illustrates the difficulty of taking seriously the analysis by the 'experts' in this podcast more than an incident near the end. There is then about a minute-and-a-half of mocking of the veteran free agent signings by the Marlins this off-season, with Sam and Ben giggling like a couple of schoolboys over whatever might amuse schoolboys. (The names of Casey McGehee and Brian Bogusevic excite especial mirth.) This leads to a bit of cruel mockery of old baseball fans feeling at home in their dotage watching familiar names of yesteryear. I think I'm missing some kind of in-joke here. Earlier on, Roth characterises the experience of the Marlins' front office in a mental picture of Jeffrey Loria driving up in a golf cart and calling you an arsehole before driving off again. By the time he puts Sam and Ben in stitches, one is inclined to wonder what the difference is between that and calling people a 'doof junta'.

This basically was an excuse once again for the sabermetric chattering classes to throw the contents of their chamber-pots over Mr Loria, an unpopular owner because he is a hard-nosed businessman who is committed to another of those sabermetric themes, that baseball is a business. Mr Loria exploits a system that benefits him, but unlike the other 'welfare queens' (another of those negative images trotted out to attack Mr Loria), the evidence suggests that Mr Loria actually wants to win the World Series. If you want to attack someone for being a stingy owner only interested in pocketing revenue sharing and publicly financed ballparks, I would suggest there are better targets than him. While his franchise may have eschewed the single-minded pursuit of OBP (Marlins' hitting prospects have tended to be sluggers), and not bought into the notion TINSTAAPP (there is no such thing as a pitching prospect), in other respects it is a model of sabermetric strategy:
1. draft and develop prospects
2. buy or trade for talent at the right time

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