It’s an interesting time to be the general manager of a Major League Baseball team. The Angels ‘Perry Minasian and the Marlins’ Kim Ng have been working in MLB in a certain capacity since the 1990s. They collected club paychecks long before Chaim Bloom, the CEO of the Red Sox, wrote his first article for Baseball Prospectus in 1997, or James Click did the same in 2003. Those four – Minasian, Ng, Click and Bloom – were the last four people are hired to run a baseball division.
Jed Hoyer is not a recent hiring, but he succeeded Theo Epstein on Tuesday when the Cubs baseball operations president stepped down with one year left on his contract. One day, perhaps soon, Billy Beane of Oakland – the most famous baseball director since Branch Rickey – will complete his transition from senior management to ownership, a slow fire in two sports from two continents that started eight years ago.
There is a trend line somewhere in these facts. From a distance it looks squiggly and directionless, as if a 2-year-old was taking a piece of chalk on paper. But it is the trend line that the baseball industry is scrutinizing now and more in five years, or however long it takes to decide whether each team has picked the right person for the job.
Dan Evans, former CEO of Dodgers, has worked closely with both Ng and Minasian. He hired Ng first as an intern with the Chicago White Sox, and later as the head of scouting and player development for the Dodgers. Minasian was in the front office of the Blue Jays when Evans went to Toronto as a scout.
“Such great blends of scouting, analysis and work ethic,” he said, “and they are great listeners.”
It is useful here to reflect on the evolution of the job description and the backgrounds of the (so far) men who have succeeded. Experience with professional scouting, or playing professionally, or both, was a prerequisite for a while. Epstein ushered in a gradual wave of Ivy League-trained GMs. Andrew Friedman demonstrated the value to baseball of a Wall Street background and quantitative analysis. By the end of the 2010s, the scouting / analysis pendulum seemed to have struck a balance. To the older guard, it seemed to favor the ‘outsiders’.
Minasian and Ng are typical baseball lifers. They were trained far from the Ivy League halls – Minasian in UT-Arlington, Ng at the University of Chicago.
Ng advocated arbitration cases for the White Sox in his twenties. She worked in the Yankees and Dodgers front offices before becoming senior vice president of baseball operations for MLB, a role that provides perspective on the inner workings of all 30 teams. She waited nearly three decades before becoming the first female GM of a major men’s sport.
Minasian started out as a Texas Rangers bat boy at the age of 8 before becoming a clubhouse clerk, then a scout, then a coaching assistant, then a front office assistant in Toronto and Atlanta.
“I really think my background is a little bit different from most,” Minasian said Tuesday. “I’ve been in a major clubhouse for over 30 years. I’ve seen different clubs, different personalities, different players. I think that’s one of the benefits I’ll have. I’ve been there enough to see a lot of different situations, and what makes players tap, and when they need a pat or a hug, or when they need to have a serious conversation with someone. I think that’s a feel component, and I’ll be there as long as I am, I feel that’s one of my strengths and I think it will come in handy. ”
“The players certainly have a unique perspective, and they can tell you a lot about the character of boys and how they approach their craft every day,” Ng said Monday. “Sometimes you get zoomed in too much and you don’t necessarily see the whole picture. … I think that’s why you need different perspectives in the room. You need someone from the front office, someone from the scouting department, someone from player development, someone from analytics. You need all these people in the room to make good decisions. We all bring certain strengths and expertise to the table, and if you don’t use those resources, then feel ashamed. ”
None of these are unique ideas, but neither are they coded in the analytic jargon that first needed an interpreter – a language so common among executives now that little interpretation is needed. Ng and Minasian could be as focused on financial flexibility, payroll, roster optimization and decision models as the next GM. At least this was not their message to fans on Day 1.
Nor was this Epstein’s message to fans on his last day with the Cubs.
“(Baseball) is the best game in the world,” Epstein told reporters Tuesday, “but there are some threats because of the way the game is evolving, and I take some responsibility for that because executives like me have spent a lot of time on it. the use of analytics and other measures to optimize individual and team performance has subconsciously negatively impacted the aesthetic value of the game and the entertainment value of the game. I mean, you clearly know that the success rate is getting a little out of hand and we need to find a way to get more action in the game, get the ball in play more often, let players show their athleticism even more and the fans more of what they want. ”
Epstein isn’t the first baseball manager to use the conflict between analysis and aesthetics. He could be the first to do it so publicly, for change. Some have speculated that Epstein will seek an ownership stake in a team or take a job in the league’s Manhattan office. At least one former Epstein employee I spoke to did not rule out a future in politics. It’s a fascinating turn of events for a sport that this week crowned Friedman Executive of the Year. If the Angels or Marlins had hired someone with a similar analytic orientation, no one would have closed their eyes.
Each team’s ownership situation is also peculiar, enough that hiring Ng and Minasian might be more of a fluke than a trend. Derek Jeter, who played for the Yankees during Ng’s time in the Bronx, made the loan in Miami. When the Angels hired manager Joe Maddon a year ago, owner Arte Moreno drew a contrast between “the whole analytical part of the game” and “the fun part of the game.” He’s keen to make the kind of changes Epstein had been dreaming of for a while on Tuesday.
Still, Moreno has also criticized his behind-the-scenes cost savings, by renewing or firing many of his scouting and player development staff. The logic was clear: When the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out most minor league and amateur baseball games from the North American schedule, the demand for scouts, coaches, and support staff declined. A scout I spoke to couldn’t help but notice the irony of Moreno who promised not to cut players’ payroll while hiring a player-friendly GM in Minasian. Behind the scenes, the Angels worked more ruthlessly than any franchise.
The Mets and Phillies also have GM job openings, so the trendline remains incomplete. Two of the most qualified executives for any job just happen to be African American. Michael Hill led Ng in Miami, while De Jon Watson was instrumental in bringing the current core of the Dodgers with them as the team’s farm director. Watson also had a hand in putting together the 2019 Nationals Championship.
Hill and Watson are both baseball lifers. If the pendulum is swung far enough to overlook gender, race, and education, they’ll get more than just Zoom calls from Philadelphia and Queens. And maybe the baseball on the field might look a little different too.