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 (3)  
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Billy Beane’s First Months as the A’s General Manager

To mark the release of the movie version of Moneyball, I thought I’d gather up some items on Billy Beane in his first year as A’s gm, at a time when very few people were paying much attention to him.

Here, from a Sacramento Bee story on October 18, 1997, are, mostly, some comments from Sandy Alderson and Billy Beane on Beane taking over at the A’s general manager:

“I’m very proud of what Billy has done as a player, a scout and as my assistant,” Alderson said. “He has demonstrated all of the qualities and capabilities of filling the job. He will bring energy and insight to the position.”

At 35, Beane will be among the youngest general managers in baseball. Beane said he’s ready to accept the responsibility.

“This is something I’ve looked forward to doing since I was 18,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to run a ballclub. It’s been a great situation here as a player and a scout. To be around people like Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan and then segue to the front office with Alderson, who I believe is the best in the business, has been a great training ground.

“I feel totally prepared. But as you well know, there’s a lot of work to do.”

Beane will oversee a continuing rebuilding process in Oakland , which has seen the A’s rush through young talent and lose established veterans en route to three straight second-division finishes in the American League West.

Alderson, who guided the A’s to the World Series in 1988-90, said, “the demolition phase is over,” in referring to the losses of such veterans as Dennis Eckersley, Terry Steinbach, Mike Bordick, Mark McGwire and Geronimo Berroa over the last two seasons.

“Now, we can be aggressive and can concentrate on rebuilding. We need someone devoting full attention to the acquisition of players. And with the other duties of my job, I couldn’t do that any longer.”

“We need starting pitching,” [Beane] said. “We’ve got kids who showed last season they can be – like (Jimmy) Haynes and (Brad) Rigby. But they need to be put in a position in the tail-end of rotation.

“We need starters who have had success and shown durability, to carry the load and take pressure off the young guys.”

By trading Berroa and McGwire, the A’s ended up with a 1997 payroll of slightly more than $14.3 [million], the second-lowest in baseball. Beane also said it is “highly unlikely” that Jose Canseco will be back in 1998, which will free up an additional $5 million for next season.

“We’ve still got a long ways to go in a process that started a couple of years ago,” Beane said. “I see a bright future on the field in the next couple of years.

“This will be the first winter in the last four we can actually look to add players instead of worrying about who’s next to leave.”

The next February, in 1998, Beane talked in a San Francisco Chronicle article about how his job was the fruition of a longtime goal:
“It was two weeks into my playing career, when I was 18. Frank Cashen was general manager of the Mets at the time, and he came up to see us minor- league players. He came in with his bow tie and monogrammed shirt and talked to us.

“Everybody was trying to impress our manager. And I said, `You got it wrong. This is the guy you want to be, right there.’ It was just the aura he had.”

“I was always a fan of the game. And this is the greatest outlet as far as being a fan. You are getting paid for being in a rotisserie league. This is a passion of mine, and now I’m looking at it as a passion I get paid for.”

Beane added that growing up in San Diego, he and his friends “were doing that sort of thing [fantasy baseball] before rotisserie became the rage. We were drafting players, getting points on how they did.

“I like evaluating players. I like the idea of putting together pieces and making your mark on the organization.”

Beane said of his baseball career: “I was always probably a better athlete than I was a baseball player. There are a lot of things from a skills standpoint that kept me from being a better player. I was a better athlete than most of the players, but wasn’t as good (at baseball) as they were.

“I’m a hyperactive guy, and I don’t handle failure real well. It’s a worn-out line, but it’s true that the best hitters fail 70 percent of the time. I couldn’t deal with that. I was much too reactive and high-strung. I would have one bad game, and that would stretch into three or four.”

He explained how he became an A’s advance scout in 1990: “The A’s were looking for an advance scout to free Ron Schueler up for other things. “He suggested that I might be interested in doing that job someday. The next day I said, `How about now?'”

“I was real lucky as a player. The GMs I was under — Cashen, Andy MacPhail, Bill Lajoie and Sandy — each was one of the most successful of his era. And all those guys had different personalities and different approaches.

“I was never afforded the opportunity to see the wrong way to do it. Every one of those guys rebuilt a franchise from the bottom up.”

And here are excerpts from a Sacramento Bee article in late March of ’98 previewing the A’s and Beane’s work as gm:

“This is the greatest job in the world,” he said. “It’s like getting paid for being in a rotisserie league.”

[In 1997] the A’s finished 32 games under .500, giving the 35-year-old Beane nowhere to go but up. And he started constructing.

With McGwire and Berroa gone, Beane continued to slice salaries, trading Scott Brosius to the Yankees and cutting loose expensive Jose Canseco.

When the cupboard was bare, he went to work in all areas. Between free agents and trades, he added starters Kenny Rogers and Tom Candiotti, relievers Mike Fetters and Doug Bochtler, infielders Kurt Abbott and Mike Blowers, outfielders Rickey Henderson and Shane Mack, catcher Damon Berryhill and potential designated hitter Kevin Mitchell.

Much as Brian Sabean did with the Giants in ’97, Beane has ended up with a collage of medium-priced veterans who have been through the wars. He’s banking on them to pass on their vast experience to the next generation.

“This reminds me of when I came up in ’79,” the 39-year-old Henderson said. “After all those great teams of the ’70s, they were rebuilding. I was one of the young guys then, just trying to earn a job. Now, the shoe’s on the other foot.

“When I go out there now, I hope the young guys look at me. I want them to do what I did. I want them to ask questions about what it takes to be a winning ballclub and a winning player. I want them to know what it takes to be successful.”

It’s that youth working in the bullpen, around second base and behind home plate that will determine the direction the A’s franchise will take under Beane.

Kids like Ben Grieve, A.J. Hinch, Scott Spiezio, Miguel Tejada, Brad Rigby and Jimmy Haynes. They’re the future, and the A’s recognize it. Beane did his part by bringing in veteran players to help ease the growing pains and to provide guidance. Howe and his coaching staff took great measures to remove as much pressure as they could all spring.

When the 21-year-old Tejada is ready, the A’s feel their double-play combination will be set for years to come. And it may come sooner than expected.

Spiezio, the lead singer for his garage band Spastic Dysphonia, removed all notions about the A’s needing a second baseman. In his rookie year, he made the transformation from third base by leading the A.L. in fielding while hitting 14 home runs.

In a 26-game September call-up, Tejada showed glimpses of the future. Though he batted just .202, he showed he could hit in the clutch and showcased such a powerful throwing arm that first baseman Jason Giambi was tempted to wear a batting helmet in the field.

“In a perfect world, we’d like to give him a full year at Triple-A,” Howe said. Kurt Abbott, who grew up in the A’s system, figures to keep the job warm only until Tejada is ready.

The Natural

Not since Will Clark hit town over a decade ago has the Bay Area seen as sweet a left-handed swing as Grieve’s.

He knocked in 160 runs in 151 games last year and batted .312 in September in Oakland. Though he’s still only 21, he already carries himself with that confident swagger that accompanies pure hitters. The A’s have a hard time not blubbering when his name comes up.

“With Ben, you have to watch yourself,” Beane said. “I can get carried away sometimes myself. I’d be a liar if I said it’s not difficult to temper some of the things I say about him. But from the first time I saw him, I always felt there was something special about him.”

Grieve is a dream pupil to hitting instructor Denny Walling.

“He’s a natural, a picture hitter,” Walling said. “The thing is that he doesn’t swing at bad pitches. He gives himself a chance to be successful because he knows his strike zone better than most guys who’ve been in the league four to five years.

“He wants to work. As good as he is, he wants to be better. He’s just a great kid.”

In his fourth incarnation with the A’s, even the crotchety Henderson has been swept up by the kids. As his career winds down, he says now he wants to help the next generation the way he was helped coming up.

“All I can do is share what I know,” he said. “Then, all you can do is hope they catch on to the things they are capable of doing.”

Key young members of the ’98 A’s included Tejada, Jason Giambi, and Eric Chavez, who played in 16 games. Ben Grieve had a decent season too, and the A’s went 74-88.

On the other hand, the team also had Mike Macfarlane, Dave Magadan, Bip Roberts, Shane Mack, Ed Sprague, Kevin Mitchell, Henderson, Tom Candiotti, and a 36-year-old closer named Billy Taylor.

Published in: on September 25, 2011 at 11:11 am  Leave a Comment  
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