Friday, September 19, 2008

The Other Jew in the AL East

Andrew Friedman was hired to be the Tampa Bay Rays GM, the offseason before the 2006 season. This means that this season is his third. He has managed to not only get the team over .500 after never accomplishing that feat in the Rays brief history, but has also made them into a playoff team and maybe even the best team in the AL. The Rays are also one of the youngest teams in the MLB, thus their core has many more years to play together. How has Mr. Friedman been able to turn the tables in just three years time? That's what I'm going to try to answer for you.

Everyone thinks that the Rays success has come solely from attaining many high draft picks in recent drafts because they've been so bad. But if you look closely and analyze their team you'll see that very few have been drafted early by the Rays. There's Carl Crawford(2nd Round 1998) who's been injured for a while, Rocco Baldelli(1st Round 2000) who before August hadn't played since obtaining some kind of cell disease, BJ Upton(1st Round 2002) a young star, Jeff Neimann(1st Round 2005) who hasn't played because the Rays have a surplus of pitchers, Evan Longoria(1st Round 2006) and David Price(1st overall 2007). That is quite a few players not to mention top prospects Ried Brignac and Wade Davis who were both drafted in the 2nd Round and Delmon Young a 2004 1st Round Pick who was traded to the Twins for Matt Garza, a key component to the Rays success. This list has three superstars and three up and coming, future stars. That still leaves six more hitters and four more starters along with some key bullpen roles that aren't taken by former 1st or 2nd round draft picks.

This is where Friedman has excelled as a GM. He loves picking up former highly touted prospects, that were supposed to excel at the Major League level but never panned out. He has picked these guys up cheaply and some of them have made big impacts for the Rays. He's also found some very nice prospects in the later rounds of the draft like Jeremy Hellickson in the 4th Round and Desmond Jennings in the 10th Round two of many players who have helped transform the Rays Minor League System into one of the better ones in the majors. When Friedman became the GM after the 2005 season the Rays had one of the worst Farm Systems in baseball, after the 2006 season they were ranked 1st. He has stockpiled many exciting young players like Jennings and Hellickson along with Wade Davis, Jake McGee(before Friedman's time), David Price, Ried Brignac and others. He's realized that building through the minor leagues is the right way to go, and since he came into a no pressure situation he was able to do exactly what he wanted. While his young star players were developing Andrew Friedman snagged some nice, cheap free agents that have contributed a lot to this year's success like Carlos Pena(leads team in HR's), Eric Hinske(a key component on offense), Cliff Floyd, Gabe Gross(both solid contributors) and Dan Johnson on offense. Troy Percival, JP Howell, Grant Balfour and Chad Bradford are all essential parts of their top bullpen this year.

The rest of the players are either pre-Andrew Friedman or were acquired via trade. Dioner Navarro and Edwin Jackson were acquired from the LA Dodgers for Julio Lugo and Danys Baez, at the time a huge rip off for the Rays who were getting...two highly touted prospects that never panned out. JP Howell was acquired from the Royals for Joey Gathright, and Willy Aybar came in the trade that had the Rays sending Jeff Ridgeway to the Braves.  They also received Dan Wheeler in a deal that sent Ty Wigginton to the Astros at last year's trade deadline. Aki Iwamura was acquired through the posting method and has also been a solid contributor to this team. Kazmir, Shields, Sonnanstine, Crawford, Baldelli, Upton, Jason Hammel and Jeff Neimann are all from the pre-Friedman Rays who were not badly constructed at all by Chuck LaMar but LaMar just never had enough pitching.

Now that the Rays have tons of top prospects and a fully stocked major league team, they are ready to compete this year and in the future. The Rays are now 11 deep in the rotation and have three SS along with 6 OFers and have plenty more depth. Depth is a huge factor in winning championships and the Rays have lots of it. The Rays have had their fare share of injuries this year with Kazmir, Longoria and Crawford and none of them have had a crippling effect on the Rays because of their great depth. I believe the Rays will win at least one World Series in the next five years and maybe even more. This team is just so deep and talented they have the ability to be the next great dynasty in baseball, all thanks to Andrew Friedman.  The Jew.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

My Interview

When I was in New York this summer I met a guy(Jared Zwerling) who works for Sports Illustrated.  We wound up talking about sports and it led to the fact that I write a blog.  He then asked if he could interview me about the blog, and here it is:

Sports Prodigy is Next Theo Epstein

written by: Jared Zwerling

I boarded my returning flight to New York City, departing from Tel Aviv, and found my aisle seat towards the back of the plane. A buddy of mine filed into the center seat and a young boy was already reading by the window. As I was getting comfortable and thumbing through several magazines deciding what I wanted to read, I overheard them starting to chat casually about the flight and how they spent their time in Israel. Soon their conversation switched to sports, which prompted my friend to say, “He works at Sports Illustrated.” I looked up and the young boy leaned forward and said, poached with excitement, “You do?” followed immediately by, “You have to read my blog.”

This kid’s automatic approach was like a sales pitch, and he definitely had my attention. I wasn’t yet sure how old he was, but he carried a prodigious clout with him well beyond his years. I sensed this was the first time he had met a credentialed sports professional, like myself, and he really didn’t want to burn this bridge.

As he was promoting his blog and grilling me with questions about my profession, I noticed he had a baseball book nestled under his arms. When I asked about him this, he proceeded to scurry underneath his seat to show me his fleet of baseball books. Thinking they were fictional or autobiographical works written by authors like Mike Lupica, they were actually ones that Major League Baseball general managers would probably keep in their office libraries. One he had was called It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over, which is a statistical analysis of the 10 greatest pennant races in baseball history. Along with the statistics behind the selections, the book’s contributors identify the key players and moments in each pennant race and provide reasons for the teams’ surges and collapses.

Okay, now it was time to ask, “How old are you?” His answer? “14.” His name? “Ari Berkowitz” (pictured). While growing up in New York, where he kept to his father’s faith in the Mets, Berkowitz became an obsessed baseball fan at just eight years old and started reading sports business books for fun, like Moneyball, that graduate school students in the industry are required to read. Two years ago, Berkowitz moved with his family to Efrat, a small town located in the West Bank of Israel, but he still spends his summers in Gotham living with his grandparents. All the while, he plays baseball and hardly misses an MLB game, dissecting the sport using statistics and formulas on his baseball blog, Baseball Outlook, which he started in March. Its tagline is: “Where Baseball, Mathematics, Science and Theory merge to form something more magnificent than art… Baseball Outlook.” Whereas most kids root for their favorite players, Berkowitz looks up to general managers and can be very critical at times about their business decisions.

Ari is a great role model for American youths for two main reasons: one, students are falling behind many other developed countries in math and science education; and two, an increasing number of teenagers are quitting sports as they enter high school because it’s a more competitive environment tailored to elite athletes. Through his dynamic blog, Ari demonstrates that sports can be used as a powerful teaching tool in math and science, and he represents alternative ways kids can find success in sports beyond the playing field. They can be a sports writer, sports photographer or, in Berkowitz’s case, a sports general manager one day, among other lines of related work.

I spoke with Ari as the summer wound down, and a few days before he returned to Israel, to find out more about how he got into blogging, what makes a successful general manager and the economics of global sports expansion. Turns out, I was the one who got schooled.

Q: Tell me more about the book you were reading on the plane, It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over.
A: It’s a very good book. It’s about the best pennant races over the years where one team is leading and the other team comes back, or it’s a three-team race down to the end of the season. The chapter that I just finished was about the Dodgers and the Giants in 1961 in Brooklyn, New York. The Brooklyn Dodgers were leading by 13-and-a-half games with 50 games left, and the Giants somehow tied them for the division lead by the end of the season. And then they had a three-game playoff, and the Giants won the first game, the Dodgers won the second game and then in the third game the Dodgers were winning but in the ninth inning, this guy named Bobby Thompson hit a three-run home run for the Giants that is called “The Shot Heard Around the World.” That’s very famous

Q: When you started watching baseball, did you get into the numbers, like statistics and formulas, right away or as you fell in love with the sport?
A: Well, I first started watching the Mets every single day. I missed like 10 games a year – that’s it. Besides the games on Shabbat because I couldn’t watch them. I would watch every game and I would just look at the players and see how they were doing. I always liked homers and RBI’s and average. And then, when I was eight I think, I used to talk to this guy – a huge baseball fan at the time – about baseball and he said I should read this book called Moneyball. He knew I was advanced in baseball. At that age, I knew all the rosters and all the teams and stuff like that. I read the book from eight to nine years old. After that, I started looking at baseball in a different way. I started really looking at on-base percentage and statistical stuff. And then I read this book by John Schuerholz called Built to Win and it’s about the opposite perspective of scouting as opposed to statistics, and what are the pros of scouting. After I read these books, I became pretty obsessed and I started reading more Baseball Prospectus books.

Q: Who’s the best GM today in Major League Baseball?
A: The best GM in my eyes would be Theo Epstein. I actually have a very interesting idea, which is about trading away fallen stars who are leaders of a team. Like Frank Robinson with the Orioles, who was an MVP one season, and the next season he was horrible. And then the Orioles traded him. So even though he dropped off statistically a lot, he was still their key leader and they traded him. And then the next season after that, the Orioles failed. They made the playoffs seven straight years, and then they put an end to that when they traded Robinson. So I want to do a study on if trading away a fallen star but he’s still your team leader, like a Mike Piazza-type player, will that heavily affect your team’s chances of making the playoffs and winning more games?

Q: You made, though, a point in your blog about how there’s so much luck in baseball. Is it harder to do these kinds of studies if there’s so much luck in baseball?
A: Sometimes they do these studies and then figure out that since there are so many variables involved, they just put those off as luck. There’s sometimes no way to attest variables — they just happen.

Q: To that point, the GM in any sport is a frustrating job because your product on the field is constantly changing. Guys getting injured, guys not producing, etc. There are so many fluctuations.
A That’s what makes it so hard, but that’s what also makes it so exciting because at one point you created the perfect team, and then at another point the team’s all injured and all too old, and you have to revamp your whole team. Both are fun jobs: solidifying a good team and rebuilding a whole team.

Q: What skills does a good GM need? Actually, let me ask you like this: Say you just took a job as a GM for a team that’s sub-.500. How would you analyze the team and figure out the next steps looking ahead to the next couple of years?
A: I basically need to analyze my team, the situation, the players, the organization as a whole and the other executives. I will see if I need to improve the scouting and the statistical development of the team. If they aren’t good, that’s not good for the general manager. The scouts are the ones that tell the general manager, “This player performed that way.” That’s what makes the GM’s decision. He weighs them all and then decides. So I would have to take that into consideration and switch it up if I need to. I would hire the appropriate manager. In my opinion, there’s no good manager; there’s only an appropriate manger for the team’s current situation.

Q: Do you think managers and general managers generally get along in baseball?
A: In general, I do not think so because a general manager thinks things more from a second-hand perspective, meaning that he looks at the guy and his statistics and weighs one opinion against the other scouts where he gets his final opinion. The manager just sees everything first-hand, and then says, “Oh, well this guy has a lot of talent.” And then the coach and the GM get into an argument like with Willie Randolph and Omar Minaya. In the general manager’s eyes, a player might be producing, but the manager remembers the key situations when he puts the player in and he fails – not the other situations where he would start him one day and the player would go 2 for 4 with a double and a homer. A manager remembers more of the big moments in the game, like if a player needs a single and he fails, more so than just putting him in and the Mets won.

Q: So you’re saying that the GM is more focused on creating a balanced lineup and the manager is more focused on individual performance?
A: The general manager is further away; he’s basically digesting everything along with other aspects of the game, while the manager encounters one aspect of the game.

Q: How do you think the relationship could be improved so they can work better together?
A: Well, the mistake that general mangers make is hiring quote on quote “the best manager available” and not the best match for the situation the team is in. If I was hiring a manager, I would hire someone that has good chemistry with me, good chemistry with the players that I like and shares the same opinions and outlook as I do for a winning baseball team. The Dodgers hired this offseason Joe Torre, and the only reason why he was hired was because of his track record.

Q: The Yankees will not make the playoffs for the first time since 1993, and obviously GM Brian Cashman is on the hot seat. Are you surprised the team may offer him an extension?
A: I think the deal is that New Yorkers are just so impatient. Brian Cashman is a really good general manager; it’s just that George Steinbrenner, after Brian Cashman would develop a young player, would immediately say, “Trade him away for veteran players.” As George got older and couldn’t deal with that stuff anymore, Brian Cashman started developing these younger players, like Joba Chamberlain, Ian Kennedy, Darrell Rasner, Melky Cabrera – those types of players. Basically I think Brian’s doing a good job. Also George’s son, Hank, realizes that the Yankees have to build through the farm system to win. Therefore, the owners are giving a lot more command over personnel decisions to Brian Cashman. They know he’ll produce a winning team through the farm system, which is how you should do it nowadays. It’s OK to sacrifice a season by going through that process. It’s just that in New York, everything gets overblown.

Q: Is your dream to be a GM of an MLB team one day?
A: For sure.

Q: Do you see yourself going to Sports Business school?
A: Whatever leads to the brightest path in a baseball career.

Q: Are there any other parts of sports business you enjoy, like sponsorship, stadium development, marketing, etc.?
A: Stadium development. I also would for sure go for a President of an MLB team. Basically, as a President you oversee every aspect of the team. There’s a General Manager, or Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations. There’s also an Executive Vice President of Business Sales or for Marketing, PR, all that stuff. And there’s one President who oversees it all. He has the final decision. I also like accounting and stuff.

Q: What got you into blogging?
A: For the past year, I’ve been going to my father and telling him about my opinions. And he would concur. I would tell him about how scouts think and how fans don’t think in numbers and stuff. They think about, “Look at the player and if he’s not good, dispose of him” or “Well, he had a bad game and that’s it.” After awhile, my father said, “You should write your valuable opinions down.” I was pestering him with all these ideas about baseball, and he said, “You should just write a blog about baseball.”

Q: How big is baseball back home in Israel?
A: Where I live, there are a lot of Americans, so they’re die-hard baseball and football fans.

Q: When I was in Israel this summer, I didn’t get the feeling that sports was something people talked about.
A: You came during the offseason. Basketball and soccer are huge in Israel because those are European sports. Maccabi Tel Aviv is one of the top three basketball teams in the European league. The Israeli national league soccer team two years ago tied England in a game.

Q: Does Maccabi Tel Aviv have the kind of money to pay Kobe Bryant or LeBron James $50 million a year?
A: They have tons of money. They would for sure be one of the teams to go after them.

Q: How are these teams so wealthy?
A: Because in Europe, it’s not only the owners’ money; there’s also a pool of sponsors that donate money to the team to spend money on the players. So if you’re getting money from let’s say Geico, Chevy and an oil company, all that together adds up to a lot of money.

Q: In the U.S., Citibank is paying for the naming rights for the new Mets field. It’s going to be called Citi Field. So in Europe, some of Citibank’s money would actually go towards the team’s payroll?
A: Exactly. They sponsor players like boosters in college football.

Q: Do you see baseball becoming more popular in Europe, because outside of the U.S. there’s still more interest in Latin America?
A: I can see it in like 20 years. Because I mean, they’ve already started playing in Russia, and it’s becoming pretty big in China where the Yankees, Dodgers and Padres just opened up schools for baseball. It’ll probably catch on to like 10 million people in China, which is nothing compared to the entire population, but it’s something. And in the Netherlands, it’s already a big sport. Australia too. Also the World Baseball Classic is meant to publicize the sport more. The first one was in 2005 and the next one is going to be in 2009.

Q: There’s definitely a lot of global expansion going on right now with American-born sports.
A: Well, the economy is tough on America right now. It’s 5.5 shekels to the Euro and 3.4 shekels to the dollar. It’s a $1.50 something for every Euro.

Q: Lastly, give me your picks for this year. First, MVP in the American League?
A: I would pick Josh Hamilton.

Q: National League MVP?
A: C.C. Sabathia. He’s only been with the Brewers since the All-Star break. He’s 5-0 with like a 2.00 ERA.

Q: National League Cy Young?
A: C.C. Sabathia.

Q: American League Cy Young?
A: I would go with Cliff Lee.

Q: Most surprising player in Major League Baseball?
A: Josh Hamilton.

Q: Comeback player?
A: Fernando Tatis.

Q: How about the worst trade during the season?
A: Mark Teixeira to the Angels. The Braves got nothing. They got back a worse first baseman and a 26-year-old relief pitcher that’s in Double A.

Q: Best trade?
A: The worst trade is the best team for the other team. For the best trade, I’m going to go with Oakland getting four prospects from the Chicago Cubs who got Rich Harden and Chad Gaudin. Rich is a very injury-prone pitcher and he won’t sustain healthiness for a long period of time.

When kids show an interest in playing sports, parents, teachers and coaches should think outside the field and encourage them to get involved in other areas of sports, from sports writing to sports photography to sports entrepreneurship. Through fields like these, kids learn lifelong skills such as creative writing, critical thinking and teamwork. To emphasize this point, look at how many athletes take on second careers in sports, including broadcast journalists, business owners and charity organizers. These opportunities can be made easily attractive to kids, who are like sponges, with just a little exposure and education. I bet if you walked into a room filled with kids and asked right out of the gate, “What’s the best job in sports?” most would say “An athlete.” But if you told them that a team’s general manager has more power than the athletes because he’s in charge of which players stay and which ones get cut, I think some kids would turn to each other and say, “Really? They’re in charge? I want to be him!”

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

More on Quad-A Players

A few weeks ago a number of extremely interesting articles were written all on the same topic, how to find cheap talent(i.e. Ryan Ludwick). Now, in these articles they refer to these types of players as Quad-A Players, but what really makes you a Quad-A Player? The writers of those articles used Quad-A to mean players that have excelled in the minors/AAA but cannot perform(because of small sample size) or are blocked at the Major League level. What it really means is a player that outperforms almost everyone in AAA but cannot survive in the MLB, even after given a whole season to prove himself. Now there's more. You also have to bring two other factors into the equation because these players might only be performing well because of them. a)age/experience and b)environment. These two factors always have to be taken into account because of the difference in the difficulty between AAA and the MLB. Veteran players will always put up better numbers in AAA than younger players because they've been around longer, meaning they've seen most pitchers and have played in most parks, thus giving the older guys the advantage.

A real good minor league player has to show a few qualities that are key in searching for hidden talent(not Quad-A Players, that's exactly what we don't want). LD%(Line-Drive Rate), BABIP(a BABIP more than 15 points higher than ones BA probably means that player's a fluke), a low strikeout rate, high walk rate and a high, pitches per PA Rate(the average amount of pitches one sees per PA). The latter three statistics show plate discipline which is a great tool for judging minor league talent because plate discipline you will always have no matter what league you play in because it is more of a skill than luck. Plate discipline is also extremely important at the major league level because if you wait long enough the pitcher will eventually make a mistake for you or for another teammate to capitalize on(look at last weeks Mets game against the Phil's where Daniel Murphy tired out the pitcher causing him to walk David Wright and let up a homer to Carlos Delgado). The first few stats determine how good the player actually is at hitting the ball. Another good stat to use to judge a player is HR/FB Rate because this gives you a little bit of insight on the players power stroke, like how many fly balls he hits and how many leave the park. A high average one year probably means the next year he'll have a low one and vise versa. We can also take common stats into account but we just have to remember to take nothing at face value and instead take 45 cents off of everything(adjust for league talent, ballpark, pitching and age). And now without further ado I'd like to present to all of you my own Hidden Talent(non-Quad-A) All-Star team that I've assembled in the early goings of this season. This group of players also includes young bench players in the MLB, also many of these players are playing now because of the September 1 roster expansion.

C: Kelly Shoppach-I have been in love with his stroke for two years now, and he's finally getting to show it off
1B: Jason Botts-playing in Japan owned by the Rangers
2B: Delwyn Young-was up and down with the Dodgers this season
3B: Ruben Gotay-I like his swagger and I believe he can be a decent player
SS: Brent Lillibridge-considered a top prospect but has fallen and is blocked by Yunel Escobar on the Braves
LF: Adam Lind-remember this was before the season! He is now doing great in the MLB
CF: Reggie Willits-bench player for Angels but has only had 80 ab's this years and is blocked by Torii Hunter
RF: Brandon Moss-traded to Pirates in the Manny deal, has supreme power and I believe he is the next Adam Dunn
DH: Juan Rivera-I believe, although older that Juan is a very good hitter and should be given a chance to play everyday
IF: Anderson Machado/Josh Barfield-similar type players both with great sticks
OF: Chris Carter-has great plate discipline
OF: Nelson Cruz-all the articles that I mentioned above were about Nelson Cruz, and I wrote this in the middle of April

SP: Brad Hennessey-was once a top prospect
SP: Chuck Lofgren-has a good repertoire with great command
SP: Jason Hammel-has great stuff, blocked by excellent pithcers in Tampa
SP: Jason Bergmann-quality pitcher with low 90's heat and a decent slider
SP: Hong-Chi Kuo-has good stuff, needs to locate better
6: JA Haap-an interesting project with a lively arm

Most of these players have taken part in my series called No Starting Gig which I basically ran through the pros and cons of the players listed above and mentioned teams which the player would be an upgrade for. There are a few updates necessary like replacements for Brandon Moss, Kelly Shoppach and Adam Lind and there are a few more intriguing young players out there that I 'd like to add. I would replace Kelly Shoppach with DELETED: Kaale Kaihiu(or something like that)who is a minor league catcher for the Royals and has posted really high home-run totals and walk rates along with a high OBP this year and looks very impressive. UPDATE: Kala Ka'aihue who catches for the AA Braves(I'm sorry that I mixed him up yesterday with his older 1B brother Kila Ka'aihue, I can't understand why I did that?) is a great hitting catcher who no one knows about. At AA this year he posted a .274/.412/.457(before adjustments) line which is extremely good for a AA catcher. He also has shown plenty power, hitting 14 homers and 23 doubles and last year had a career year with 22 homers and 20 doubles. As previously shown Kala hit .274 with a .412 OBP, this means that he walked %13.8 of his time at the plate an astounding number for a young player(23). With plate discipline and power Kala possess the two essential tools that translate to the MLB. Another impressive guy is Josh Whitesell who for two straight years has had an OBP over .420, but is 26 years old.

The pitching is more of a gut/scouting perspective than a statistical one. These guys are some of the non-famous pitchers that have made an impression on me for some reason or another(either having terrific stuff or totally ripping the Mets apart). What I'm trying to say is that there are many GMs in the MLB and even more holes in lineups that need to be filled in the offseason, why don't they fill them with the cheap high upside players instead of expensive players in decline to fill in. I've also been wondering how some GMs can repeatedly see division rivals pick up inexpensive talent and have them turn in a few terrific seasons while they themselves still shop for has-beens on the free agency market(yes, I'm looking at you Omar "oh yeah I was the one to sign Pedro and Billy to freakishly expensive long contracts but only manage to get 1+ good years out of them" Minaya). Guys like this(hidden talent type players) aren't so uncommon and can become very productive major league players.

Many of these kind of players have been picked up by Andrew Friedman(GM of Rays) and he has has fed off of them for the past 3 years while building his team through the minors. But if you look at the Rays, their two greatest power hitters are Carlos Pena and Eric Hinske both waiver-wire cheap additions(hidden talents). GMs should realize that free agency means paying a lot of money for players past their peaks while trading for hidden talent type players(or Quad-A Players) has less risk and more reward. Which one would you take? A declining veteran for $8-14 a year over 4-6 years or a guy that you'd have for the next 5-6 years at league minimum with a lot of upside. The new quick fix solution should be trading for these very good and useful young players while giving up nothing instead of spending a lot of money and draft picks on expensive declining veterans. These players are usually one dimensional but dominate those dimensions (i.e. Carlos Pena and hitting). This way you don't waste money and you can still build through your draft and farm system while also getting impact players for cheap. This guy Andrew Friedman is doing this right and everyone else should learn from him.