Sunday, August 24, 2008

Theo Epstein a Genius!

What makes a great GM? Is it his acquisitions, his maneuvering, player development or is it simply being at the helm of a great world championship team? This is why Theo Epstein is a genius. He not only has made spectacular acquisitions(trading prospects that never panned out for Curt Schilling) or has maneuvered creatively(picking up David Ortiz from the waiver wire) or has been at the helm of a fantastic, World Championship winning ballclub but has done all, that is why Theo Epstein is a genius.

Theo Epstein is a Yale graduate and has a degree in law from the San Diego School of Law. Theo started off in the Orioles organization but soon after moved over to the Padres. While with the Padres Theo developed as one of the most intelligent young executives in the MLB. In 2002 Larry Lucchino was hired away from the Padres by the Red Sox to be their new CEO. He brought Theo Epstein with him to be an Assistant GM in Boston. Before the 2003 season Theo Epstein was assigned the project of hiring a new GM, so he picked Billy Beane. When the deal was all but done(since Billy was in the middle of his contract, the Sox had to give the A's compensation to the likes of a fat AAA kid who couldn't play defense...I mean Kevin Youkilis) Mr. Beane backed out and after the lengthy process of searching for a new GM, the top three in the Red Sox organization, John Henry(Owner), Tom Werner(Chairman) and Larry Lucchino(CEO) decided to go with the 28 year old Jew, Theo Epstein.

Theo Epstein then accomplished what no GM has accomplished since John Hart and the Indians in the 90's. He built a winning ballclub in one years time while also building a top farm system for a lot of future success which is unheard of. This feat happens once a decade at most. In his second year the Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years and another world championship three years later. The first time they won it all, Theo Epstein built a team through veteran pieces offseason trades and free agent signings. The second time the Red Sox won the World Series by having proven veterans from their 2004 championship team and also a variety of homegrown talent. Lets take a look at the Red Sox team from 2004 and compare it to their 2007 team.

C:Jason Varitek/Jason Varitek(traded for by Dan Duquette along with Derek Lowe **)
1B:Kevin Millar(acquired in a midseason deal with the Marlins for cash)/Kevin Youkilis(homegrown)
2B:Mark Bellhorn(signed cheaply in the offseason)/Dustin Pedroia(homegrown)
3B:Bill Mueller(signed cheaply in the offseason)/Mike Lowell(acquired in trade with Josh Beckett for Anibal Sanchez, Hanley Ramirez*)
SS:Orlando Cabrera(acquired in the genius Nomar trade)/Julio Lugo(bad free agent signing)
LF:Manny Ramirez/Manny Ramirez(signed megadeal in 1998)
CF:Johnny Damon(signed pre-Epstein)/Jacoby Ellsbury(homegrown)
RF:Trot Nixon(homegrown)/JD Drew(signed expensively)
DH:David Ortiz/David Ortiz(picked up off waivers at the beginning of the 2003 season)
SP1:Pedro Martinez(traded for by Dan Duquette)/Josh Beckett(*)
SP2:Curt Schilling/Curt Schilling(Red Sox traded a boatload of prospects which "just happened" to never pan out for the ace)
SP3:Derek Lowe(**)/Daisuke Matsuzaka(signed megadeal before the 2007 season)
SP4:Tim Wakefield/Tim Wakefield(signed by Dan Duquette)
SP5:Bronson Arroyo(was Epstein's first move, a waiver wire pickup)/Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz(homegrown)
CL:Keith Foulke(free agent signing)/Jon Papelbon(homegrown)
SM:Mike Timlin, Scott Williamson(acquired cheaply in trades)/Hideki Okajima(signed for league minimum in the offseason), Manny Delcarmen(homegrown)

As you can see the first team that Epstein assembled was a group of fantastic pitchers and a bunch of hitters who were brought in for basically nothing, were between replacement level and below average(except for Varitek, Manny and Caveman) and all performed extremely well. The second championship team were basically a few of the veterans from the 2004 team and a bunch of homegrown, extremely talented players. They have now replaced Lugo with another homegrown player, Jed Lowrie, and have also replaced Curt Schilling and Tim Wakefield along with adding another top setup man to the bullpen with homegrown talent and they still have one of the top farm systems in the league.

Theo Epstein drafts all the expensive and talented players that fall in the draft because of salary worries(a common happening that leads to top draft picks falling to the rich teams because of seeking to much money for the poorer teams to pay) and also uses every draft pick strategically. He knows his farm system very well and therefore makes excellent trades, i.e. the Curt Schilling trade, he knew his system very well and therefore traded all the top prospects he either didn't like(didn't fit his mold) had no use for them or he knew that they would never pan out. Theo signs a lot of Japanese and Hispanic players because he knows that the more you sign the higher the chances of a few of them turning out to be good are, hence Hideki Okajima. Theo also has a certain mold for each player, hard nosed, tough, smart, plays defense well and gets on base. This mold works extremely well especially in the situation he was given, a small ballpark meaning more homers for players with less power and an already talented pitching core to build around. He realized that this kind of talent is easier to come by in drafts and free agency than the power, speed combination and therefore payed next to nothing for these types of players(Mueller, Millar, Bellhorn and Cabrera) for the 2004 season while simultaneously drafting the same exact types of players in the draft. The reason why he felt compelled to build through the draft and develop his farm system instead of just signing new free agents every year is that young players get injured less often and have a longer career in front of them than free agents do and also you can have many more minor leaguers than major leaguers and therefore there's a higher percentage of good players coming out of your farm system. Epstein has always payed a lot for pitching i.e. Curt Schilling, Keith Foulke and more recently with Josh Beckett and Dice-K because great pitching and great fielding along with getting on base wins pennants. As I mentioned in a previous post, the most causative in-season stats to World Series outcome are FRAA(the runs your defense has saved throughout the season over an average defense), WXRL(a stat that measures how many runs a reliever saves over a replacement level player) and K Rate(the percentage of times a pitcher strikes out a batter per nine innings). Theo Epstein constantly puts his team in the top five of all of these stats.

The one thing that really makes Theo Epstein the greatest in my mind is how he always manages to put his team in the best position to succeed from luck(the "secret sauce" of every World Champion). When a GM assembles a great team they don't always win the World Series(look at 2001-2005 Yankees) let alone make it to the playoffs(look at 2007 Mets) and this is because they're missing the final component to a Championship team, the luck. What Epstein does is he plays a game of risk-reward where things like losing in the eleventh inning of game seven in the Championship Series occur but things like coming from behind to win the World Series, down three games to none and losing in game four in the ninth inning of the ALCS happen also. In 2003 one of the most unlucky things happened to the Red Sox, in '04 they won the World Series, in '05 they lost in the playoffs and in '06 they didn't even make the playoffs before winning it all again last year. How does Theo put his team in these extreme risk-reward positions where most of the time the Red Sox get a boatload of luck and win the World Series? By making crazy moves, acquisitions and decisions. Like when he traded Nomar coming off a season where he hit .370 for an average SS in Orlando Cabrera(2004), depending on a lot of below average players to play like ALL-STARS(2004, 2005), depending on a couple Japanese stars and a ton of unproven rookies to fill out a team(2007) and finally trading Manny Ramirez for an inferior left fielder in Jason Bay. This kind of work is what separates the men from the boys in baseball front offices.