September 22, 2003

End of Season Triblogging

The Indians season is grinding to an end this week, and among several bright spots for me is manager Eric Wedge. Sheldon Ocker of the Akron Beacon Journal says that Wedge is one of a "new breed" of baseball managers. And after four paragraphs of filler in the article, he gets around to suggesting what he means by that.

In contrast to the managers of the past, Wedge believes if an athlete has certain innate or developed skills -- a strong and accurate throwing arm, the strength and coordination to hit a baseball plus average foot speed -- he can learn to become a good player.

Not exactly groundbreaking baseball thought, I daresay. I guess where Wedge parts company with some other managers is that he takes it upon himself to be the guy to work on making them better players, instead of leaving that work to underling coaches, minor league systems or Little League programs. Another excerpt:

(Wedge) has concluded that it's the manager's task and within his capabilities to teach a player to become significantly better...

...In Wedge's view, part of a manager's job -- a large part -- is to develop baseball athletes into baseball players. In the past, managers saw their mission mostly as keeping peace in the clubhouse and making moves, pointing the team in the right direction by juggling lineups and mastering the art of changing pitchers to give players the best chance to succeed.

I guess Wedge has little choice other than to accept a role as teacher when he's dealing with a green crop of 21-25-year old rookies. But more and more as the season goes along, I am able to see those attributes that got G.M. Mark Shapiro excited about Wedge as his Manager of the Future back in the offseason. He is patient, positive and serious about getting better every day. He is not just "accepting" the teaching role, he is relishing it, and seems committed to it.

And I don't mean to minimize Ocker's assertion that there is something truly "unique" about Wedge, as baseball managers go. He seems to be very tuned in to the mental aspects of the game. He talks constantly about hitting "approach", game preparation, and continuous improvement. More from the Ocker column:

So the manager is not merely talking about developing physical techniques. Baseball is a game that requires confidence, mental agility and self discipline...

...For Wedge, rising to the status of big-league player is a process based on evolution, learning through experience, absorbing knowledge from coaches, the manager and veteran players.

Again, while it may not be original thought, Wedge is himself organized, disciplined and serious about the task at hand, which is quite a departure from good-old-boy Charlie Manuel's approach of previous seasons. It shows on the field. And we can assume that Wedge's philosophy is merely a logical extension of Mark Shapiro's vision.

The whole new "thinking man's approach" to running a baseball operation may have begun with John Hart as General Manager, but it has taken off under Shapiro. The Plain Dealer is running a series all this week entitled "Rethinking the Game Plan". Here are the links to Sunday's Part 1, which also includes a sidebar story on how the Tribe payroll stacks up with the league, and Monday's Part 2. The reporters have been given rare access to the Indians' deep thinkers, and the report is must reading for Tribologists, and of course for Tribloggers. Here's an excerpt dealing with Shapiro's "radical" techniques:

Although he had already established some of the plan's elements in his former roles as director of the Indians' minor- league teams and assistant general manager, the profound transformation had been occurring largely out of view of fans and reporters.

The concepts the Ivy League- educated Shapiro had put in place in advance of the Colon deal - computer-aided research, advanced statistical analysis, cost-benefit studies, performance assessment, risk management, skills testing, standardized communication - wouldn't have raised an eyebrow in any other $150 million-a-year company. In fact, they would have been standard practice years ago or the business likely would have been out of business.

In tradition-bound baseball, though, the approach was radical, even heretical.

After all, this was a business in which some superstitious managers still believed that stepping on the foul line could affect a game's outcome, and owners parted with $2 million to sign high school athletes based largely on a scout's gut instincts.

They dissect the Bartolo Colon trade in Part 1, complete with economic justifications going back almost two years prior to the deal. But it also had to do with talent in the organization:

The Indians' lengthy winning record also had contributed to the problem. Baseball's parity rules dictated that losing clubs, and those who had lost players to free agency, got to choose prospective players in the amateur draft ahead of front-running teams. The pickings in the later rounds were slimmer, and the selections the Indians made weren't always good.

The upshot was that when Hart and Shapiro sat down in early 2001 to assess the team's future, the road ahead abruptly led off a cliff.

"We were scared to death about '03, '04 and '05 - scared to death," Shapiro says. Not just about the immediate prospect of losing, but about having enough valuable players left to barter for prospects."

The rest of the piece contains insights into Shapiro and the assembling of his team of high-tech GenX-ers, along with a detailed play-by-play of the Colon deal. Part 2 does the same with the Thome deal, including the story of the front office's computer-aided analysis of Thome's projected baseball future.

Read it all, Tribe fans.

UPDATE 9/23: Here's Part 3 of the PD series.

UPDATE 9/24: Here's Part 4 of the PD series.

Posted by dan at September 22, 2003 8:01 PM