why aren't SABR-friendly GMs all they're cracked up to be?

Mike Zarrilli

prominent GMs were the subject of hero-worship in certain segments of the on-line SABR world a few years ago. many of their teams have tanked. why?

back in 2009, the SABR world was in love with Mark Shapiro, the GM (now the president) of the cleveland indians.

his front office got an A+ ranking from fangraphs whose staff wrote:

Mark Shapiro and his gang of advisers set the standard for how a front office should operate. . . . They’ve established a fundamental system that works from top to bottom, and explore every area that could give them a competitive advantage. They understand how to value talent, where the inefficiencies are, how to build a roster that works together, and how to sustain winning teams through player development. It’s hard to find any chinks in the armor – the Indians front office is what everyone else aspires to be.

and since that article, the indians have gone 68-94 in 2012, 80-82 in 2011, 69-93 in 2010, and 65-97 in 2009. there isn't a single winning season in there, and only one that was even close to the break even point. they don't look any better for next year.

sure, they haven't been well-funded, but they're not the pirates or the non-2012 marlins either. and they've been playing in one of the least competitive divisions in baseball throughout that period.

while they did well in developing talented players (shin soo-choo, grady sizemore) and identifying talent in other systems (cliff lee, asdrubal cabrera), their overall management in the past several seasons has been mostly underwhelming. i liked the way they shed the soon-to-be-overpriced victor martinez for a good haul, but many of their recent moves have been questionable at best. a rebuilding team signing nick swisher to a multi-year deal? trading for an obviously ailing and velocity-hemorrhaging ubaldo jimenez? there's very little to like about the team's moves and certainly nothing particularly SABR-friendly about them.

last night, another SABR-darling in the front office/human baked potato jack zduriencik succeeded in making a really terrible trade, after having his previous attempt at a terrible trade mercifully nixed by justin upton.

this same seattle front office was widely thought of as among the best in the business a few years ago, culminating in the infamous #6org ranking.

now, this is not my attempt to drop a deuce on the fangraphs organizational rankings. i've done that before, and it's fun. and i may do it again. but jack zduriencik and mark shapiro weren't just the darlings of fangraphs. they were both widely perceived to be the best GMs heading the best, most SABR-friendly front offices in baseball.

seattle doesn't even have cleveland's excuse of being poorly funded. for a long time, they had a nine-figure budget, although that has waned somewhat recently. nevertheless, they finished 75-87, 67-95, 59-103, and 85-77 in the last four seasons.

what is driving the failure of these clubs? are outsiders misunderstanding just how SABR-friendly the GMs are? does the front office enter with good intentions and end up making bad decisions due to public pressure or pressure within the organization?

now, i shouldn't paint too bleak a picture. there are successful, clever GMs out there. the red sox, until the recent front office changeover, were very well run, very successful, . . . and very, very well funded.

for all the knocks he sometimes takes, billy beane's athletics have had decent success, especially in light of their pittance of a budget. they've hovered around .500 in a very tough, very wealthy division from 2009-2011, and won the division in 2012. they've made generally sharp moves on the trade front.

and of course, the tampa bay rays have refined billy beane's technique of success on a shoestring and reformed it into an art, making one of the worst funded ball clubs into a perennial contender in the toughest division around.

still, when you see lauded names like shapiro and zduriencik flopping over and over, one has to wonder why the theory and the reality end up so far apart.

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