The Virtuous Life of Sandy Alderson

I usually get around to reading Malcolm Gladwell’s books. I enjoyed the first three anyway: The Tipping PointBlink, and Outliers. I read excerpts from What the Dog Saw. He’s a good researcher/writer who has the skill to render complex ideas in entertaining, easily digestible ways.

Still, I’m ready for Gladwell to try something new. He’s been working the same mine for a while now.

Nonetheless, the title of his latest book caught my eye:

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Essentially, it is a study in the “advantages” that unexpectedly come from being at a (real or perceived) “disadvantage.” And without reading the book, the notion immediately made intuitive sense to me, from a New York Mets point of view.

By not having a huge budget (the great disadvantage!), it has forced Sandy Alderson to embrace certain strategies in order to merely hope to compete. Importantly, it’s enabled him to avoid common pitfalls that befall teams with bigger budgets.

Without thinking too deeply, what are some of the advantages to having a small payroll?

  • Avoid crippling contracts;
  • Compelled to emphasize scouting and development;
  • Forced to work harder trolling the margins (read: better chance to look like a genius);
  • Obligated to run a lean organization, trim fat;
  • Made to value draft picks;
  • Careful about service time (“Super 2″);
  • Etc., etc. & etcetera.

I’m saying that in some respects, it’s easier to be Sandy Alderson than it is to be Brian Cashman.

Sandy Alderson

It could be argued that attempting to field a competitive team early in his tenure would have been a mistake, because he’d have to allocate limited resources in the wrong direction, playing to short-term instead of long-term goals. And let’s face it, being merely “competitive” is not a worthy goal, particularly if it diminishes your ability to take a long-term approach. He’s enjoyed an atmosphere of low, low expectations. An environment that has given Alderson that most precious commodity: time.

ra-dickey-metsYes, I wish Alderson rebuilt more aggressively, cratered deeper, moved faster, sacrificed even more short-term for the long term. There are things to complain about, certainly. But having time and low expectations allowed Sandy to trade R.A. Dickey and Carlos Beltran. With R.A. in the rotation, the Mets would have been better last season, more fun, more entertaining; but long-term, this trade has the potential for a huge payoff for the organization as a whole. Sandy didn’t create that situation; he responded to it.

The circumstances were (and are) what they were (and are, and probably will be). But because of those circumstances, the Mets have placed an emphasis on strengthening the farm system. I’m not saying they’ve fully achieved it, but that it is clearly a sound baseball practice. The best teams consistently produce strong, young talent. That’s not achieved on a three-year timetable; it takes at least five years to begin to see any kind of meaningful payoff, a clock that began to tick at the moment when the Mets drafted a high school kid from North Bumfrak named Brandon Nimmo.

goliathIf you are Goliath, on the other hand, you don’t spend hours in the gym working on agility drills or mastering new weaponry. You grab your club and mash skulls. It’s how you roll and it’s worked so far. But because Davey was a little guy — not big enough, not strong enough — he was forced to develop other capabilities.

A team that can go buy a free agent (and lose picks in the process) might, over time, neglect the small, sound practices that help sustain a successful organization. When you buy a free agent, you are purchasing, you hope, a solution to a problem. When you can’t buy that free agent, you have to attempt to solve that problem another way — an approach that might, in the long run, prove to offer a less risky, more reliable method.

The low payroll forces you into some sound policies, just as, say, tough times can compel a business to install practices that make them operate smarter, leaner, better. Contraction, consolidation can be a positive. You start worrying more about the foundation and less about the window boxes. That’s a good thing, especially if you can address the finishing touches at a later date.

Building a team on a shoestring requires a risk-averse approach -- there's no room for mistakes.

Building a team on a shoestring requires a risk-averse approach — there’s no room for mistakes.

It comes down to one thing. When you don’t have money to spend, you make fewer spending mistakes. You never buy the wrong thing — read: “Genius!” — because you don’t ever go shopping!  And importantly, you know that you can’t buy the answer to your needs, and the fans know it, too. So you won’t roll the dice and pay $153 million for Jacoby Ellsbury. Which is great, I guess, maybe. Nobody is killing Neal Huntington, the Pirates GM, for not “overpaying” for Shin Shoo Choo. Huntington doesn’t let that stuff clutter his mind. It’s not a consideration.

It’s not because he’s too smart; it’s because he’s too poor.

We know the old adage, Necessity is the mother of invention. In the case of Sandy Alderson, at least in the eyes of some true believers, it is also the mother of virtue. That’s what I’m trying to get at here, his sainthood.

Sandy Alderson, because of his current approach to team-building, is considered by some to be the virtuous man who sneers at checkbook baseball. He avoids all those messy mistakes, as if he stands on higher moral ground. But in fact, his approach is simply a function of the Mets disadvantages. He’s working the next-best alternative.

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It think part of the anti-Omar sentiment expressed out there in the phony narrative that describes his tenure as a total failure, comes from the fact that he had a big budget. He spent freely, handed out big contracts, took risks. His advantage ultimately became, in some ways, a disadvantage. Omar got sloppy, bloated, didn’t stress the nickels and dimes, and in the process hung a few albatrosses around the club’s neck. A fat guy who couldn’t tear himself away from the buffet table. Some fans resent that type of big-money approach. It seems too easy, like any dope could do it. Buying Ellsbury is not as satisfying as bringing up Lenny Dykstra (if you can). We’ve watched Steinbrenner’s Yankees operate for years; we have been conditioned to believe there’s no virtue in being the guy with the most money in his bank account.

His acolytes want Sandy Alderson’s way to be “the best way.” It’s a religion for some of them, and he’s the High Priest, practicing at the Church of the Smartest.

But it’s not true. At least, I don’t think so.

I actually believe that when it comes to business models, Omar had it figured right. The Mets were going to spend, they were going to bring in hugely entertaining players, they were going to win, and the fans were going to flock to the stadium.

It almost worked. And given more time, and more smarts, and the same financial resources, it would have worked. In 2006, the Mets came thisclose to a World Championship. A swing here, an injury there. For perspective on that achievement, it’s happened once in the last 40 years. Imagine if that team succeeded. More fans (revenue), more money (payroll), more happiness, higher expectations. Four million through the gates every year. For a time, at least. Maybe instead of sitting on their hands, the 2007 squad gets the bullpen help it needed and the Mets make the playoffs again. Good times. Delgado, Wright, Reyes, Beltran, Alou, Lo Duca, Green, Castillo. (Don’t laugh, Castillo was good in 2007, a .371 OBP.) It was a good team, with a lot of smart supporting pieces (Easley, Castro, Chavez).

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Yes, there are advantages to being at a disadvantage. You learn to work smarter, leaner, more efficiently. You avoid sloppy mistakes, huge risks. But for the New York Mets to return to sustained greatness, I think they need to begin to take advantage of their advantages, reaping the profound benefits of the money-making potential of the Big Apple.

 

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26 comments

  1. Raff says:

    That book cover is one hell of a Rorschach blot…

  2. Patrick Boegel says:

    Brilliance.

    And I am not saying that lightly, but this is precisely the case of what is going on with the current front office myth making and revisionist history on Omar.

    I’d add one other point to the mix. When Omar was in charge the Mets essentially made the same mistake as when Steve Phillips was in charge, they went cheap on drafting. The Mets willfully abided by Bud Selig’s slotting scheme while other franchises said “to hell with that”. Basically the Mets only willing invested on one side of the equation. They tried to money ball the minor league system. A dash here and there to the international market, and el cheapo on the draft.

    And that was not because Omar was not intelligent enough to do both, he was in my opinion given a choice, spend here, or spend there. Alderson was not even given a choice. He pretends and theorizes there has been one, but all along he has known, his path was set in stone.

    I was not a fan of Steve Phillips as a GM, his work seemed sloppy to me and it always felt like he had no handle on how to fill the minor league system (other than to luck out and get a comp pick for Hampton, reminder to everyone he still approved picking Aaron Heilman ahead of David Wright).

    • Patrick Boegel says:

      hit reply too early there, but to finish on Phillips, I think he was clearly in the same boat as Omar, the Mets ownership was more concerned with pleasing Bud Selig than pleasing their fan base. Hence even when they clearly needed to and should have drafted Lastings Milledge and Scott Kazmir when they dropped to them due to signing bonus demands, they did not say bingo they hemmed and hawed about it even before those drafts. Duquette was not going to let those guys pass though.

  3. Raff says:

    Actually – I meant, in jest, to say that was one hell of tear you went on just as a result of looking at the cover of the book… ;-) Anyway- very thought provoking.

    • Ah, yes. Proust had his madeleine cake, while I had a review on that book in the Times. Whatever gets the wheels going. Sometimes you need to find one idea articulated with clarity and it’s like filling in a long word on a crossword puzzle. A few moments later, you’ve figured out six more clues.

  4. Alan K. says:

    What the Mets are doing is treading water and perpetuating mediocrity. The only truly effective options were to spend to bring in top talent or blow it up completely and be bad enough to get top draft choices. The Wilpons don’t have the money to spend but they were afraid of the PR and financial implications of a total rebuild. So they committed to a so-called plan that does not put them in a position to draft players likely to be true difference makers and left them with, in year 4 of the plan, with a middle of the pack farm system with few if any position player prospects. The primary characteristic of the present ownership/management is risk aversion and you can’t get very far with that approach. Barring a change in ownership or spending philosophy, I don’t see this team being a contender anytime soon. The Wilpons top priority is preserving their ownership.

    • I actually think this team can be a contender fairly soon. There’s a scenario where this year we see Syndergaard, Montero, and Meija pitching at the major league level. Where we see Wheeler make strides in establishing himself. Which leaves Gee, Niese, Colon locked up for next season. Oh, and Matt Harvey comes back. Not counting my chickens, but the Mets could reasonably have an effective & dirt-cheap starting rotation in 2015. Also, there’s hope that a couple of John Sickels’ “C+” pitchers down on the low farm — Fulmer, Matz, etc. — raise their stock. Granderson, Wright, and d’Arnaud will be here. There are reasons to despair, certainly, but reasons to hope, also.

      • Alan K. says:

        The issue is see is that without any top expiring contract, I don’t see where the team can fill in its positional holes without increasing payroll within the next few years, unless they’re willing to move . Syndergaard or Wheeler for an impact bat. While it’s true Granderson, Wright, and d’Arnaud will be around, there are still too many black holes in this lineup. The starting pitching can be outstanding, but that lineup leaves them little margin for error, and I haven’t even factored in the bullpen.

        • Well, yes, those are real problems. On the pen, though I believe it will be a sometimes-maddening process, especially early on, the “depth” approach will reveal some good, young arms. It will be better in a year or two; and Parnell is a good anchor. They are going to have to trade some of this starting pitching. And they need some things to break right, get lucky on Lagares, maybe. I think they will slowly raise payroll.

          I guess my feeling is that while I don’t expect a transformation of attitude at the top, I think they will begin to inch in the direction out of necessity. If the rotation is excellent — Harvey, Wheeler, Syndergaard — then the team only has to be good in order to contend.

          Healthy, productive seasons from Montero and Meija would be huge. I’m willing to cross my fingers, here in the January of my 52nd year.

  5. Raff says:

    It’s just such a damned shame, because a team with the vast “natural resources” the Mets possess should be ale to work multiple sides of the equation- BOTH utilizing financial resources to play with the big boys on Free Agents, Scouting, and Drafting players, as well as sifting through he pool of available players for “value”… New York City Area is their Diamond Mine, but they can’t afford picks, shovels, or mules…

  6. Patrick Boegel says:

    Sadly, I often live my life through the lens of Star Wars, the original trilogy, not the frightening death spiral of ideas on how to ruin fantasy launched in the prequels.

    Who’s the more foolish, the fool or the fool who follows him?

    A great line from the original movie spoke by Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi.

    A lot of life’s central debates from the mundane, to those in the land of the great escape – that being sports fanaticism – all the way to the very serious often hinge on the notion of scores of people almost willfully being ignorant to a new idea or thought and simply following it because it is the latest, greatest.

    It is like the old adage (or at least in the world that I reside, which of course does not make it an adage at all) – who is the more painful annoying at a dinner party, the devot preaching born again believer in God, or the defiant atheist? They both live in a world of absolutes, refusing to consider any possibility they could be wrong. It is like when my democrat friends want to bash backwards republicans and my family of mostly republicans want to wax poetic about liberal destruction of the very fabric of the universe. I’d just as soon chew on staples, tacks and finishing nails to end it all before my brain explodes.

    But taken to the baseball world you have these two insane divisions of fans and barely a speck of in between. One is rising, who are disciples of what I will increasingly refer to as Payroll Science, spending, but just a bit more than average on the proper exact players at the proper exact time. Then those who are disciples of shop till you drop, what difference does it make buy them all. Each fervently uses examples that support their model and find the holes in any example that does not.

    Which leads to insane support of budgeting such as, the Dodger do not spend more than 10% of their payroll on a single player, while the Mets have over 20% committed to David Wright. Nevermind that the Dodgers budget could field three Mets budgets shortly.

    There is nothing wrong with the Rays way, the Cardinals way, the Red Sox way or the Dodgers way for that matter. The principle difference between all four of those teams is they have a plan, execute on it and move accordingly when they can to keep the ball rolling forward.

    Sometimes the Mets feel like neither David nor Goliath. They just feel like the rock, hapless and in motion only because the earth is rotating in orbit and it might get kicked, picked up, thrown or put in a jar.

    I’ve clearly had too much coffee.

  7. IB says:

    When they start winning the fans will come back and there’ll be more money to spend. I really have faith that 2014 is the real turnaround year for this team and they’ll start to get the 35,000 a game.

    • James Preller says:

      Probably true. Hence the frustration. Why don’t they make winning more of a priority? It’s not like they are farmers looking up at the sky, hoping for rain.

  8. IB says:

    James – I thought that was what you were getting at in your excellent post – Alderson’s approach to putting a winner out there within the confines of a small budget.
    It’s not PT Barnum, it’s Off Broadway.
    Hopefully, his methods will start to pan out…..this year.

    • James Preller says:

      I was aiming that last shot at ownership; they dealt the hand that Sandy has been forced to play.

      If be “forced” I can mean willingly accepted at handsome pay.

  9. Dave says:

    Jim,

    I’m not sure if your post is meant to be a criticism of Alderson, or just an observation that he is overrated as a GM. Either way, much of your argument is based on the shaky premise that Alderson’s spending practices are the product of free will, i.e., he could spend and make splashy moves just like Omar did, but he chooses the puritan path of righteousness instead. The reality is that in baseball, roster building, like politics, is “the art of the possible”. Yes, Sandy is a “moneyball” guy/ value oriented investor, but he also does his job under the fiscal constraints the Wilpons impose on him. Part of the reason he has spoken about “doing more with less”, building the farm system, etc., is because he has no choice. Why didn’t Sandy pursue Ellsbury, Cano or Choo? In part because signing any of them would require a massive overpayment, but also because he didn’t have that kind of money to spend, even if he wanted to.

    In honor of your reference to Proust (the first and likely only time Marcel has been mentioned in a Mets blog ) let’s engage in some Remembrance of Payrolls Past.The Mets payroll on opening day of 2013 was $73 million, 23rd in the MLB. In 2008, the Mets opening day payroll was $137 million , 2nd in the MLB. From 2003 through 2009, the Mets opening day payroll ranked between 2d and 4th in the MLB. This is an ownership problem, not a GM problem. You can’t spend what you don’t have. The Beltran and Dickey moves may end up on some future 2 Guys top ten trade list, but it doesn’t make me think Sandy is somehow ready for sainthood. Were those trades smart decisions given the hand he was dealt? Yes. But virtuous…not really.

  10. Michael Geus says:

    I got the following e-mail today.

    I think Goliath got a bad rap.

    Sincerely,

    Lucas Duda

  11. Dave says:

    “Sandy Alderson, because of his current approach to team-building, is considered by some to be the virtuous man who sneers at checkbook baseball. He avoids all those messy mistakes, as if he stands on higher moral ground.”

    This is the part of your post I take issue with. First, I have not heard that point of view expressed very much. Certainly, Sandy has not tried to paint that picture, other than to explain his limitations, not to reveal his personal virtue.

    So is the point that Alderson is getting too much credit for what he is doing? OK, but the tone of the post has an anti-Alderson edge, even if your criticism is directed on his “acolytes”. In any event, the community of Sandy worshippers is small, especially among Mets fans.

    You’re absolutely right that low expectations make it easier to exceed expectations, but I don’t hear many baseball observers lavishing praise on Alderson for assembling a 74 win roster. Again, this is not a situation where the Wilpons are ready to spend and Sandy is too cautious to make a mistake.

    I suppose Sandy is getting some slack because of the low budget and problems he inherited. That is as it should be. Maybe the Mets will win 90 + games in 2015 and Sandy will be rightfully credited. Maybe they win 75 games in 2015, and Sandy will be fired. I personally don’t care whether Alderson is overrated or underrated. The Plan is in place and I hope it works.

    On the payroll data, maybe I went to the wrong payroll site. I’ve seen others listing the Mets at $88 million for 2013, with a big chunk of that going to Santana. The broader point stands. From 2003-2009,the Mets were a top 5 payroll franchise…the last few years we have been sinking into the bottom half.

  12. Alan K. says:

    For someone who has budget issues, Alderson has been overly generous with Ike and Tejada in giving them raises to avoid arbitration. I can’t see how’d he worried about losing a hearing to either player. Any they offered Duda 1.3M after he earned $520,000 in 2013. Some much to creating a sense of accountability, He should have offered each player their 2013 salary and made them go to arbitration if they wanted more.

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