What a difference two years make.
In 2013, the Boston Red Sox won the World Series, defeating the Detroit Tigers in the playoffs on their way to a third title in a span of 10 seasons.
Yesterday those selfsame Red Sox hired Dave Dombrowski, the recently fired architect of that Tigers team, to be their new president of baseball operations. Ben Cherington, the general manager of the 2013 title-winning Red Sox, agreed to step down from his position, clearing the way for Dombrowski to run the show in Boston.
What can you learn from this chain of events? Dombrowski and Cherington were key management cogs on superb teams in 2013. Less than two years later, they no longer hold their positions. The Red Sox (53-66) and Tigers (57-61) are on their way to losing seasons, despite exorbitant payrolls that rank in the top five for all of Major League Baseball (MLB). The lesson here is this: In baseball, as in conventional business, success is ephemeral and competitive advantages erode.
The One-Word Answer to All Baseball Arguments
The truth about executives in sports has always been this: They get too much credit when players win, and too much blame when players lose. Yes, there are general managers and coaches who have squeezed superb results out of middling players. There are even templates for reversing a negative culture. But what any manager in sports needs to do, first and foremost, is find talent.
In football, the most important talent to find has always been quarterbacks. In baseball, it's pitching. And if you had to sum up, in one word, why Dombrowski and Cherington are in different places today than they were in 2013, that word would be "pitching." There are 30 teams in MLB. The Tigers and Red Sox rank 27th and 28th, respectively, in pitching. That's how you lose games, despite a top-five payroll. That's also how you lose your job, if you're the high-ranking executive who authorized those pricey contracts.
In the last decade, the Oakland A's approach to finding talent while maintaining a low payroll has received oodles of attention. In "Moneyball," Michael Lewis's 2003 book about the Oakland A's 2002 baseball season, the author sought to answer an essential question: How did the A's, with their paltry payroll ($41 million), manage to compete with the big-market New York Yankees ($125 million)? A 2011 movie based on the book dramatized the same question, with Brad Pitt playing the part of Billy Beane, the general manager of the small-market A's.
Lewis's provocative work relied on the assumption that high-priced talent is necessarily winning talent. But in countless cases, in all sports--not just this year's Tigers or Red Sox--high-priced talent fails miserably. Winning generally requires a mixture of scrappy go-getters and move-the-needle geniuses.
While the A's precocious grasp of advanced baseball metrics was profound and influential, there's a reason the cinematic depiction of Beane's talent-acquisition skills conveniently omitted the A's superb starting pitchers. Many general managers and philosophies--not just Beane and "Moneyball"--would've won games with the "big three" of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito taking the mound.
And this season, the A's (52-69) are even worse than the Red Sox and Tigers. While Beane's methods were ahead of their time, they've now become a norm: All 30 teams apply sabermetrics and advanced analytics to the talent evaluation process. Yesterday's competitive advantage is today's standard.
The Next Stage of Talent Evaluation
In a post-Moneyball era, what's the best way to find the pitching that can help you win games? One example comes from the Houston Astros (65-55), in first place this season after several years of cellar-dwelling.
For example, the Astros saw high potential in right-handed pitcher Collin McHugh when McHugh was on the Colorado Rockies--even though he posted some dismal stats prior to 2014.
Why did the Astros view McHugh as a buy-low candidate? Mainly because the spin rate of his curveball showed promise, notes MLB.com's Paul Casella.
The move has paid off handsomely. In 2014, McHugh posted a 2.73 earned run average (ERA) in 25 starts, a drastic improvement over the 8.94 ERA he'd logged in his first 15 major league appearances. This year, McHugh is 13-6 with a 4.09 ERA. For a paltry $500,000 salary, he's made 24 starts and pitched 152 innings for a winning team. Now that's value. That's the type of talent discovery that great executives are supposed to make.
You could call the Astros' approach a mixture of Moneyball and old-fashioned scouting, where the eyeball test of baseball skills is just as important as a player's sabermetrics. But what matters, more than any of that, is that they saw a gem where others saw a pebble. And if you can find talent where no one else is looking, you'll find yourself with a competitive advantage. At least till your competitors start looking in the same places.