Terry Ryan was drafted by the Twins, pitched in their minor league system for four seasons and haunted ballparks as a scout for several years before moving into their front office.
When his 18 seasons as general manager concluded with his firing Monday, these were a few of his peers. See if you can spot any differences:
• Dodgers GM Farhan Zaidi grew up in the Philippines, studied economics at MIT and was working on his doctorate at Cal-Berkeley when he noticed the Athletics had advertised a front-office position on a baseball analytics website. He got the job.
• Brewers GM David Stearns was a baseball fan at Harvard, where he got a degree in political science in 2007, then joined MLB’s front office a year after graduating, to assist lawyers negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement.
• Astros GM Jeff Luhnow, raised in Mexico City, was a Penn grad and Northwestern MBA who worked as a corporate executive before founding the consulting company Archetype Solutions, whose website says it “incubate[s] novel analytics solutions.” He was a friend of the son-in-law of Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt, who introduced the pair. DeWitt was so impressed, he hired Luhnow to handle the team’s amateur drafts despite no baseball experience.
Yes, the Twins followed baseball orthodoxy when they promoted a ballpark lifer like Ryan to build their team, and it was a smart move. But if Twins owner Jim Pohlad uses the same template to hire a general manager in 2016 as his father did in 1994 to select Ryan, he will be operating in stark contrast to contemporary baseball hiring patterns. Most general managers, and especially those appointed in the past five years, don’t have much in common with the Twins’ longtime leader.
“The skill set that teams look for has changed as the job has gotten more complex. It used to be about managing scouts, running the farm system, making trades,” said Dan Levitt, a Minneapolis author of several books about baseball, including “In Pursuit of Pennants: Baseball Operations from Deadball to Moneyball,” which he co-wrote with Mark Armour. “A lot of different personality types can be successful, but general managers today are selected for their ability to integrate all sorts of input from a variety of departments into a coherent plan of action.”
That’s because the job has less to do with baseball, and more to do with management, than ever before. Spotting the best talent on the diamond was once the most valuable skill a general manager could have. Now that trait, the ability to evaluate the break on a slider or spot a hitch in a swing, is a luxury, less valued than the ability to manage people, brainstorm ideas, harness numbers and communicate effectively. And it’s probably too much for one person.
“You have to have tremendous communication skills, hiring skills, negotiating skills and especially organizational skills,” said Jim Bowden, general manager of the Reds for 10 years, the Nationals for four, and now an analyst and senior writer for ESPN. “It’s obviously grown a lot. But the talent level in front offices has gotten better over the last decade.”
Certainly it’s become younger and more highly educated. Of the 30 general managers running teams today, 11 are 40 or younger, in their 30s, including Stearns, just 30 when he was hired by Milwaukee last October. Only Jon Daniels, hired at 28 and now more than a decade into his tenure with the Rangers, and Cubs President Theo Epstein, also 28 when the Red Sox chose him in 2002, were younger when they took control of MLB teams. Meanwhile, with Ryan replaced, 68-year-old Sandy Alderson of the Mets, an attorney who made a midcareer veer into baseball, is the lone MLB general manager over 60.
As for education, 13 current GMs graduated from Ivy League schools, and a handful more attended other elite academic universities such as Wesleyan and Amherst.
Even the structure of front offices has changed. On at least a dozen MLB teams, the general manager isn’t the top executive with baseball responsibilities; Epstein has final say over decisions made by Cubs GM Jed Hoyer, for instance, and A’s GM David Forst reports to team President Billy Beane, the central character in “Moneyball,” the book that triggered, or at least hastened, baseball’s intellectual revolution.
“The job is about ideas — collecting them, sorting them and implementing them. Using all the tools at your disposal to uncover ideas that will lead to finding better players and winning baseball games,” Bowden said. “That means analytics, that means medical advancement, and traditional scouting, too. By combining all the information together, the game is making fewer mistakes than ever before in identifying [on-field] talent.”
Not that everyone is necessarily happy about the influx of leaders with little experience in the game.
“It’s a joke. The game is becoming a freaking joke because of the nerds who are running it,” Hall of Fame reliever Goose Gossage said during a memorable rant on ESPN last spring. “I’ll tell you what has happened — these guys played rotisserie baseball at Harvard or wherever, and they thought they figured the … game out. But they don’t know [anything].”
Actually, they are developing a track record. Yale grad Epstein built the Red Sox’s first world championship team in 86 years in 2004, and another one three years later. Now he has built the Cubs into a favorite to break their own curse, 108 years without a title. Andrew Friedman, whose career began as an investment banker at Bear Stearns and who is now the Dodgers president of baseball operations, oversaw the Rays’ AL championship in 2008 and kept them contending for years despite some of the game’s smallest payrolls. Daniels, a business-school classmate at Cornell with Padres GM A.J. Preller, has taken the Rangers to two World Series.
“It’s the smart teams that are winning, more than ever. It can’t hurt to do studies on pitcher injuries, or sleep deprivation, or swing planes. Teams are thinking of all sort of ways to improve their results,” Levitt said. “Sometimes you find helpful information where you don’t expect it. When pitch/FX [MLB’s pitch-tracking system] was installed, nobody knew that pitch framing would be uncovered in the data. But teams discovered it can give you an edge.”
Some teams have begun experimenting with medical devices, such as an elbow sleeve to measure the torque on a pitcher’s arm, looking for ways to reduce injury. Others have re-evaluated the method, and areas, that they scout for undiscovered players. And everyone is poring through the data regarding spin rates of pitches and exit velocities of batted balls. “Heck, the Cubs have three guys in a mental-skills department,” Levitt said. “In the ’80s, you had maybe 6-8 people in a typical front office. Today, some teams like the Giants have 30-40 people in the baseball operations department.”
GMs still trade players, armed with data far more complex than WAR and xFIP, to add to their collection of assets. And most spend a lot of time with the field staff, explaining the front office’s blueprint and findings so that they can be used on the field. “Communication with the manager has become critical, because they’re the ones who have to implement your vision,” Levitt said. “At the same time, you need a scout’s [ability] to humanize it. Baseball is a hard game. They’re not chess pieces.”
The Ivy League model hasn’t completely overrun the game. Some executives, such as Washington’s Mike Rizzo, Colorado’s Jeff Bridich and Detroit’s Al Avila, still come out of the scouting world, and the head of the reigning world champion Kansas City Royals, Dayton Moore, was a longtime assistant general manager in Atlanta.
But the young CEO model is where baseball is headed at the moment, and there are plenty more such executives toiling in the game right now and waiting for their chance — potential candidates for the Twins to consider. Dan Kantrowitz, once scouting director for the Cardinals and now an assistant to Beane and Forst in Oakland, is one frequently mentioned around the game, as is Chaim Bloom, the Rays VP of baseball operations. Matt Arnold, currently Stearns’ assistant in Milwaukee, might be a future GM, and Tyrone Brooks was Pittsburgh director of player personnel before moving to run MLB’s diversity pipeline program.
Bowden suggests that Pohlad consider Jason McLeod, the 44-year-old Cubs vice president for player development who worked under Epstein in both Boston and Chicago. “The Twins should hire someone from outside. They need someone to come in unbiased, with an open mind. Someone who isn’t so attached to their prospects, they can’t bear to trade them,” Bowden said. “McLeod would be ideal, because he would build a team of people to catch up to the other 29 teams.”
Pohlad was hesitant to say he wants an entirely new front office staff, and he made it clear he will consider internal candidates for Ryan’s old position, including interim GM Rob Antony. “I consider the benefits of [starting over]. That could be the outcome here, but that’s not a proscribed path,” Pohlad said in announcing Ryan’s firing. “Nor would the person who comes in, wherever they come from, in any way have a mandate to ‘blow up’ the baseball operation, because we don’t see that that needs to happen. We’ll see what the process turns up.”