Young GMs, senior advisors find pairings beneficial
New and old school coming together to mix evaluation on both statistics and scouting
When Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington was talking to Gary Hughes about joining the staff as a professional scouting consultant, he wanted to make one thing clear to the longtime baseball man.
"He said, 'I just want you to know that we're not what you think we are,'" the 71-year-old Hughes, who is beginning his second season with the organization, recalled with a laugh.
What people think the Red Sox are, of course, is a team that makes decisions based solely on the hum of computer printouts instead of the crack of the bat, a team that thinks everything that happens on a baseball field can be explained or predicted by statistics.
But the two sides of this very real baseball divide have been over-simplified to the point of caricature. Over here, the 30-something, Ivy League-educated general managers who trust only in what the advanced metrics and acronyms -- WAR, BABIP -- tell them. Over there, the old wise men who rely on gut instinct and intangibles they've learned to detect after watching thousands of games over four or five decades.
The reality is that, while the generations still don't always see eye-to-eye on everything, it seems that both the cutting edge GMs and old-school senior advisors have come to see the value of each other.
"Just speaking about the Red Sox, there seems to be some real respect," Hughes said. "They've been great. They've had me do a lot of things. They've sought out my advice. At least they're listening. That's all I can ask."
Astros GM Jeff Luhnow had no real world baseball experience before being hired by the Cardinals to be vice president of baseball development in 2003. His background was as the founder of Archetype Solutions and as an executive at petstore.com and the global management consulting firm of McKinsey and Company. Obviously, a pretty sharp guy.
But when it comes to baseball, he welcomes input from 63-year-old Enos Cabell, who signed his first professional contract in 1968.
"To have someone who's been around the game as long as Enos has, with his experience. is invaluable to a person like me," Luhnow said. "This is my 10th season in baseball, but my level of experience and knowledge pales in comparison to what Enos knows. So to be able to just ask him a question or call him up and get his opinion is very helpful to me. He goes and sees our whole system. He sees players for the Draft. He knows our players inside and out. And it's beyond player evaluation. It's also how to get things done, the psychology of the clubhouse, how to interact with coaches and managers, everything else."
Cabell also doesn't fit the stereotype of the crusty old-timer who resists change, either. He was a math major in college and puts that to use in his role.
"It's mostly making sure they understand situations we're in, evaluating the talent," Cabell explained. "Because what we've done, it's similar to "Moneyball," but it's not "Moneyball." It's more of the statistical numbers, and the numbers don't lie. But also it has to be a system in place where you have two, three, maybe four or five people making decisions on the players -- if they have the heart, if they have enough go-get-'em to play in the big leagues. So I think Jeff relies on me and my expertise for a lot of that.
"And then making sure he understands where the players are. I mean, what's their makeup? Because a lot of times the general managers don't get down in the clubhouse and they don't meet the players the way they really are. And I'm old enough and played before, so I think that helps him in his evaluations."
Cabell isn't the only one who's open to trying new things. Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. said that both 78-year-old Dallas Green and 75-year-old Hall of Famer Pat Gillick are always looking to improve tried-and-true techniques.
"Dallas has kind of been through the wars," Amaro said. "He's tried X, Y and Z. As old-school as people think Dallas is, he's also thought a lot out of the box. He's not afraid to do that. They know the best way to formulate a championship-caliber club. Pat, in particular, because he's done it so many times. And again, a guy who kind of thinks outside the box."
Both Phillies senior advisors preach a balance between tradition and modern analysis.
"You can't out-talent people all the time," Green noted. "But you've got to keep competing and you've got to figure out a way to win. What older guys do is we adapt. And I think most of the older guys are able to do that. If they're not, they're out. The biggest thing in old vs. new is the numbers. Old guys don't go by that. We put the eye on them, and our experience is going to tell us whether the guy is going to keep progressing or whether he's leveled off or whether he's going backward. Maybe the numbers do help show that, but you can make a lot of mistakes just looking at numbers."
Gillick is willing to consider even the more advanced metrics.
"I think they all have value, certainly," he said. "I'm pretty open to anything. There's more ways to get the job done than just one. And if you're a good and thorough general manager, those are things you have to look at.
"The one thing I think now, I don't see how the reporters, with everything they have to do, how they have time to watch the game. And that's what I want to say about statistics. They're fine. But the important thing is to watch the game. Sometimes if you're doing too much statistically, you can miss a lot of what's going on in the ballgame."
Dan Duquette was one of the first of the new breed. He was just 33 when he became general manager of the Expos in September 1991. At the time, former outfielder, coach and manager Eddie Haas, whose playing career began 38 years earlier, was on Montreal's staff. When Duquette was hired by the Orioles after the 2011 season, he quickly surrounded himself with a circle of older sages, including Lee Thomas.
"Their experience and their firsthand knowledge of playing the game is helpful," Duquette said. "But having years of experience and seeing a lot of situations develop, these veteran guys can pretty much tell you what's going to happen before it happens. That's one of the real values. And they are terrific role models for the younger executives. Their maturity and their experience is real helpful for keeping things on an even course."
A young, tech-savvy general manager and a graybeard with 50 years of practical baseball experience stored in his head may seem like an odd coupling. But they're proving to be mutually beneficial relationships.
Hughes believes the pendulum has swung back from the extreme reliance on the "Moneyball" approach that swept the game after Billy Beane's early success in Oakland and the best-selling book that gave it its name.
"Definitely," Hughes said. "Because initially it went goofy. It went crazy. It's still not all the way back. It's somewhere in the middle, which is where it probably belongs. And now even Billy will say, you know, everybody's doing the same stuff now. It all works. The thing is to get it right. It's an information business. The more information you have, the better off you're going to be."
No matter where that information comes from.
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.