Sandy Alderson and the New Wave of Analytics in MLB (in 1985)

Many Mets fans don’t know that a generation ago, in the mid and late 1980s, Sandy Alderson represented the vanguard of the analytics/sabermetrics movement. From what I’ve heard, Alderson is now considered a bit old-fashioned, but he was a very good analogue to Billy Beane in the first years he was general manager of the Oakland A’s. Like Beane, Alderson was in his 30s, had new ways of thinking and acting, and had a vogue of being hailed as a disruptive force in MLB. Here’s some of a profile of Alderson by Lowell Cohn of the San Francisco Chronicle, from March 22, 1985:

THE BRAINS behind A’s baseball is a 37-year-old lawyer named Sandy Alderson. You may not know about him. When you think of the A’s front office, Roy Eisenhardt’s name probably comes to mind, and you immediately seize on adjectives like intelligent and innovative.

So who is this Alderson? He often jogs to Phoenix Stadium from his hotel, and then he goes to the weight room. After his workout, he sits in the stands in a T-shirt and white shorts, the kind tennis players wear. He is thin. His face is smooth and his forehead is large, and he looks as if he might be somebody’s bashful nephew who got free passes to the games down here.

Actually, Alderson is fast becoming the most dynamic executive in baseball. During the winter meetings, he made the two most startling trades, one involving Rickey Henderson, the other Bill Caudill. While most of the career baseball men were sitting around lobbies puffing cigars and discussing what used to be, Alderson was working.

BEFORE GOING to Harvard Law School, Alderson was a Marine. He met Eisenhardt when they worked together at a San Francisco law firm, and after the Haas family bought the A’s, Eisenhardt brought Alderson into the operation. At first he negotiated contracts and informed players when they were being sent down to the minors because Billy Martin, who didn’t mind punching a player on occasion, hated to hurt their feelings. Before last season, Eisenhardt pulled back from the day-to-day business of the team, and appointed Alderson vice president for baseball operations.

I was talking with Alderson recently in a shaded part of the stands at Phoenix Stadium. It was cool in the shadows. Alderson quickly developed goose bumps on his arms and legs, and before long he was shivering. I suggested we move into the sun, but he said no, the shade was all right. I’m not sure why he stayed there, although I would guess that he didn’t want to surrender to the chill. He was practicing a discipline – mind over matter, if you will – and that may tell you something about a man with little baseball experience who is taking on baseball’s 25 other general managers.

We talked casually about the team, and suddenly Alderson said one of the A’s strengths is Mike Norris’ drug problem.

Come again?

In a careful, measured voice, Alderson explained that in the past, some teammates stayed away from Norris because he would act erratically when on drugs. Others wouldn’t associate with him for fear they’d be labeled as drug users, too. Some guys did not want to be branded as squealers and said nothing, as was the case on the Dodgers when guys would turn the other way as Steve Howe was snorting cocaine in the bullpen. Now Norris’ problems are out in the open, and teammates are relieved of the burden of guilt by association or of being stoolies.

ALDERSON SAID this kind of situation brings a team together. The players feel free to help Norris, and because of the care they show, he feels responsible not to violate their trust. “I got so much backing here I’d have to be admitted to a nuthouse to screw up again,” Norris says.

I asked how players actually demonstrate their concern, and Alderson said teammates have attended Norris’ therapy meetings with him. Norris goes to group therapy four nights a week, four hours a session. The players don’t accompany Norris to guard him, Alderson said. They go because they want to be part of his recovery. . . .

The idea behind all this, Alderson says, is that the A’s have made a human contract not to let one of their number fall by the wayside. If they can pull together around Norris, they may somehow become a better team.

Compare those impressions of Alderson in 1985 with this look at Billy Beane early in his tenure as A’s. Later that year, in early September of ‘85, C.W. Nevius of the Chronicle called Alderson “an unknown” in a profile headlined “The Brains Behind the A’s.” More from the profile:

When Don Sutton, a trade acquisition who became the pillar of the A’s pitching staff this year, says, “I’m here because of Sandy Alderson,” you have to wonder how many people knew he meant the guy who came to Sutton’s introductory press conference wearing tennis shorts.

“He’s not hung up on playing the baseball big shot,” Sutton says, “and that’s nice to deal with.”

It is a low profile taken to an extreme. There is no biography of Alderson in the A’s media guide, nor of team president Roy Eisenhardt, nor executive vice president Wally Haas. Alderson plays shortstop in regular softball games between the A’s front office and a media team, and he’ll sit down for a drink with reporters.

Apple juice. Sometimes he’ll have two or three.

This is also the man who traded Henderson, acquired Alfredo Griffin and is currently engaged in a feud with catcher Mike Heath. Maybe you don’t know him, but in baseball, Alderson is getting a reputation.

“Baseball people don’t give out too many compliments,” says Karl Kuehl, the A’s director of player development, “but Roland Hemond, the GM at Chicago (White Sox), told me, ‘Sandy’s grasp of the game in just two years is almost embarrassing.’ ”

Alderson, 36, is part of a new breed of bright young men who have stepped to the front in the new world of baseball-as-business. The yuppification of the National Pastime isn’t unique in Oakland. Tom Grieve, the 37-year-old GM in Texas, sees a trend.

“Baseball operated for a long time on the theory that the longer you’d been in baseball, the better you’d be at it,” he says. “If you wait around long enough and keep your nose clean, you’ll get the job. Now I think they’re realizing that it’s become a lot more complicated, and that younger, inexperienced people who are bright and hard-working can succeed.”

Alderson may be the most extreme example to date. Unlike Grieve, a former player, his background is two years on the Dartmouth varsity.

“No tools whatsoever” is his self-evaluation. “No range, no hitting. Mediocre at both.”

Just five years ago, Alderson was a practicing attorney in San Francisco, “a general business lawyer,” he says. “Dark suits, pinstripes, button-down collars and wingtip shoes.”

His rise is a combination of his good sense, a quirky series of events and the willingness of Eisenhardt and Haas to take a chance. It is doubtful any other organization would have made its in-house lawyer its “vice president, baseball operations (read general manager).”

The Haas family is new to the brotherhood. They purchased the team in 1980, and when they fired Billy Martin in 1982, there went their primary pipeline to baseball knowledge. Martin made the moves and suggested the trades to Eisenhardt. Things were much calmer after he left, but there was a vacuum.

For a time the operation was run by committee, with Eisenhardt, Haas, Bill Rigney and Alderson offering input. Alderson began to feel he’d found his niche.

The son of a career Air Force officer, Alderson took some time to find his calling. Between his junior and senior years at Dartmouth he finagled a press credential and used his air-travel privileges as a military dependent to fly to Vietnam, touring the country as a war correspondent.

Upon graduation he joined the Marine Corps, became an infantry officer and saw “a little action” at Da Nang. After his discharge he entered Harvard law school, helped, he thinks, by his varied resume, and came out to San Francisco during his second year of law school to visit Tom Bradley, an old friend who was then pitching for the Giants.

“It turned out he’d been sent down to Phoenix,” Alderson recalls. But the trip also gave him a chance to observe the previous A’s owner in action.

“That was the year Charlie Finley was trying to sell all the players (Joe Rudi and Rollie Fingers) to the Red Sox. I was a Red Sox fan at the time.”

Alderson decided to settle in California and got a job as a law clerk in a local firm, where one of the partners was another ex-Marine who graduated from Dartmouth and enjoyed jogging. His name was Roy Eisenhardt. . . . By 1981 (Alderson) was touring the minor leagues, talking to scouts and studying baseball as though it were the bar exam.

“One of the things I really enjoyed when I was a lawyer was agricultural real estate,” Alderson says, “because I got to deal with more than just the sale of products. I actually got to go out in the field and kick the dirt. I liked that.”

Alderson was bright enough to listen more than he talked, which made an impression among longtime baseball types.

“Some people who are smart act like they are smart,” says Hemond of the White Sox. “He listens very attentively and doesn’t profess to know it all.”

With that realization, Alderson sought out Kuehl, a respected judge of talent, whom he hired after a tennis match. Kuehl gave the A’s access to pitching coach Wes Stock and director of scouting Dick Bogard. Along with farm director Walt Jocketty and Rigney, they formed the A’s brain trust.

Alderson made his first deal in November of 1983, admitting, “I don’t think anybody actually believed I was going to have the authority to make trades.”

Needing a reliever, Alderson recalled then-Seattle manager Del Crandall mentioning that his team needed catching help. Alderson offered Bob Kearney and reliever Dave Beard, and the Mariners handed over Bill Caudill, who was second in the league in saves (36) last year and made the All-Star team.

His first trade out of the way, Alderson headed for the winter meetings a month later, and in three days he made three deals, acquiring catcher Jim Essian, pitcher Ray Burris (who led the team in wins and ERA last year) and reliever Tim Stoddard.

Stoddard was traded to the Cubs before spring training ended and Essian wasn’t offered a new contract this year, but “they weren’t bad trades,” Alderson says. “They were also easy. It was a lot of fun. Exhilarating.”

Two months later, Alderson outfoxed (and enraged) the Yankees by claiming Tim Belcher, a highly regarded pitching prospect they had just signed but neglected to protect from the free-agent compensation pool. The A’s were entitled to a pick after Baltimore signed Tom Underwood, who didn’t figure in their plans anyway.

And the Burris and Caudill trades looked even better a year later because of what they enabled the A’s to do. Burris went to Milwaukee for Sutton, and the Caudill trade to Toronto brought Dave Collins and Griffin, who has been the answer at shortstop.

In Griffin’s case, Alderson stubbornly stuck with his scouts and went against those, including best-selling baseball analyst Bill James, who did not think Griffin would cut it.

“It was easy to make bold decisions in the service,” Alderson says, “because I knew I’d only be around three or four years.”

Alderson was attracting attention, but he had only a year’s experience under his belt when he encountered a very thorny problem – Rickey Henderson.

A popular local product, Henderson was a franchise player for the A’s, but he had priced himself out of their market. Henderson had to be dealt, but with their hand forced, the A’s figured to have trouble getting equal value in return.

On such deals do the futures of organizations turn, particularly one in the smallest two-team market in baseball.

“We were all concerned about making a trade that involved the loss of a great player – possibly a superstar – for a handful of pedestrian players,” Alderson said. “We decided that we would shoot for a handful of players, each of whom had the potential to be outstanding, who did not have a long track record, but were within a year or two of arriving in the big leagues.”

Alderson admits the approach was “partly economics. Even pedestrian players have large salaries.”

But it was a method with risks. The A’s did not receive a single “name” player among the five they acquired. Jay Howell was the only major leaguer, and as a long reliever his stats were not eye-opening.

The A’s were trusting their instincts, their scouts and their ability to bring along young talent.

And now, with Howell leading the team in saves, Tim Birtsas going 10-5, Jose Rijo impressive every time he throws and Eric Plunk and Stan Javier up and coming, the trade looks dandy. Baseball has noticed.

Published in: Uncategorized on September 30, 2015 at 10:25 am  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. These are some pretty interesting articles. It’s funny reading about Alderson when he was an up-and-coming G.M. Interesting, too, that he and Bill James were actually disagreed on a particular move when they each came at baseball through a more analytical, stats-based approach. Alderson has taken a lot of grief from Mets fans over the past few years, but it is clear that, if not for his deals, the Mets would not now be in the playoffs this season.
    Nice finds,
    Bill

  2. Alderson WAS kind of a wunderkind early on. It’s funny how Billy Beane gets a book and a movie about him without ever winning a pennant, but it’s guys like Dayton Moore and Andy MacPhail who’ve actually built small-market teams that won the World Series.


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