Thursday, February 19, 2004

Bleeding Dodger Green
Bean Counters or Beane-Counters?  

The Dodgers this week chose sabermetrically-drenched Paul DePodesta, he of the Moneyball stardom, to be their G.M. It wasn't a given.

Thanks to Steve Nelson of the always-interesting Mariners Wheelhouse, I read that just days earlier, according to the Los Angeles Times, the team was interviewing another, very different candidate, Dennis Gilbert, whose diverse background would have made him unique in G.M. circles. Some of his background in the highly-abridged snippets below:

Former agent Dennis Gilbert, who has spent the last three years working as a
special assistant to Chicago White Sox Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, interviewed
for the Dodger general manager job Saturday.

Gilbert, a Los Angeles native and longtime Dodger follower who was part of a
Jeff Smulyan-led group that failed in its bid to purchase the Dodgers last
year, was recommended for the position by Reinsdorf.

[snip] Gilbert, a 55-year-old who has a strong background in
negotiating contracts and scouting, did confirm that the interview took

"I've known Dennis for 20 years, first as an agent, and then working with
me," Reinsdorf said. [snip]

"He certainly knows how to negotiate contracts, and one of the problems the
Dodgers have had over the years is they've paid [players] too much money. He
knows the market. He has a great mind, a really fertile mind, and lots of
good ideas." [snip]

Among his clients in 18 years as an agent, a period in which Gilbert broke
several salary barriers, were George Brett, Barry Bonds, Jose Canseco, Mike
Piazza, Bret Saberhagen, Bobby Bonilla and Danny Tartabull.

Since selling his stock in the firm in 1998, Gilbert has been involved in a
number of ventures, including starting an insurance practice that
specializes in policies for major league players and entertainment industry
professionals, and establishing and raising significant funds for the
Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation.

Gilbert has attended roughly 75 games a year in Dodger Stadium, and while
going through Major League Baseball's due-diligence process as a prospective
owner, Gilbert spent several weeks in 2003 conducting a thorough examination
and review of the franchise, including the front office and the farm system.

So in Gilbert there was candidate who had been a succssful agent (other side of the table perspective), prospective owner (able to empathize with the owners), lots of exposure to the Dodgers as an outsider (75 games a year attendance), some scouting background of indeterminate success (though the fact that his charity work was for scouts would tend to make scouts empathize with him, so he'd be able to tap into other scout perspectives).

Reinsdorf, his current employer, saw this candidate as a winner primarily because he believes Gilbert is a great negotiator.

My first reaction was disgust, in part because I dislike Reinsdorf's history and significant responsibility for some adversarial (against players and fans) positions as an owner, and his significant responsibility for making the Joe Lieberman of Baseball, Bud Zelig (why Lieberman? Inept, Greedy, Nice Guy To Those Who Know Him Personally) the Commissioner. My first reaction was Bean-Counters on the Loose (Fineman Films, 1974), the thought that Reinsdorf really believed that a master negotiator (Gilbert is a much "better" negotiator than say, Scott Boras, whose scorched-earth policy means teams come back to him only when they have to) was a person you wanted to rebuild a proud but increasingly-tattered franchise. The Reinsdorf thought being that if you could just drive down player salaries and scouting costs and minor league agreements and all the things G.M.s can affect on the cost side, you could create a profitable franchise. If you read this weblog often, you know it's unlikely that any organization that has as their mission "maximizing shareholder return" will ever achieve excellence except in the net profit department, that if gross or net are your raison d'etre, your focus on winning as a goal is necessarily diminished, and therefore becomes less likely.

But once my churning chelm settled down, I realized Gilbert's set of aptitudes would be unique among G.M.s/competitors. And there were some very good aptitudes and ways of looking at things. For example, he may or may not have been a good scout, but he learned the scouting way of looking at data. That's a filter, a set of tests, a way of examining and processing data. So was his experience as an agent, and so was his experience as a prospective owner. And he's both outside the Dodger organization, while at the same time he allegedly attends 75 Dodger games a year, which makes him fairly knowledgeable about what existing players do and don't do well.

Uniqueness in itself is a positive, especially in a closed system such as baseball. As Richard of the Just A Gwai Lo blog believes, one can profit just by being in the minority (and it helps a lot to be correct). Richard & I both believe some of the success of the DePodesta-Beane team in Oakland derives from their being alone in pursuing a strategy. And yes, the sabermetric approach has more followers now (Toronto, Boston, perhaps St. Louis, perhaps others not advertising), and the comparative advantage of the approach is bound to fade a little with each subsequent addition. So a unique strategy based on negotiation and the loyalty and diligence of scouts might work well even if it wasn't THE optimal strategy.

I'm really glad the Dodgers chose DePodesta. It'll be interesting to see how the cognitive grandson of Allan Roth guides the franchise. But Dennis Gilbert would have been an equally interesting, and unique, choice to watch manage a baseball franchise's front office.

Executives outside of baseball take note: There are a hundred ways to solve most complex challenges. As Richard says, sometimes just being in the minority and having a workable/right solution is, in itself, the optimal approach.

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