Who is the most valuable human asset in baseball?

Barring injury, an abrupt decline, or an age adjustment, Albert Pujols seems destined to make his way into the “Best Player Ever” conversation. Just entering his age-30 season, Pujols has cracked 366 career home runs on the way to a .334/.427/.628 line. He is, without question, the greatest hitter in the game today, and nothing besides his age indicates he’s entered the decline phase of his career. Of course, any player who can make a claim to stand alongside Ruth, Mays, Aaron, Bonds, and the rest will make the aging curve look foolish.

But for all of this, Pujols cannot be the most valuable person in baseball.

While he’s shown no signs of aging, decline is inevitable. And he’s going to be very, very expensive for the duration of his career. Being the best player in baseball doesn’t make him the most valuable asset in the game. This applies to you, as well, Joe Mauer. In my opinion, the only offensive player in the game who can stand on equal footing with Pujols, Mauer’s detriments in this conversation are nearly identical to those of the Cardinals first baseman. Though he’s much younger than Pujols, Mauer comes with city miles, so to speak. He’s a near-lock to decline at an earlier age than Pujols, both due to his position and the fact that Albert is already breaking the curve.

Mauer, too, is getting awfully pricey. He cannot be the most valuable asset in baseball.

The next logical group of players to look at would be the prospects and very recent call-ups. I’m talking about guys like Matt Wieters, Buster Posey, Jason Heyward and Stephen Strasburg. They’re talented as could be and will be cheap for a while yet, but the most valuable asset in the game doesn’t come from this group. There’s just too much that has to go right between now and 2015.

And I’m dismissing the rest of the veteran superstars out of hand. Alex Rodriguez, Chase Utley, Ichiro, Roy Halladay and CC Sabathia just don’t figure to sustain their performance levels for long enough. Indeed, the most valuable player asset in the game probably comes from the group of young stars.

This list, by no means exclusive, consists of at least Tim Lincecum, Miguel Cabrera, Felix Hernandez, Evan Longoria, Zack Greinke, Matt Kemp and Hanley Ramirez.

But none of these exceptional players is the most valuable asset in baseball, either. The three pitchers, Cabrera and Ramirez already are earning salaries at least beginning to approach their worth, and Kemp will get paid soon enough. Longoria’s a different animal. His agent, Paul Cohen, ought to have a very, very short client list after negotiating that disaster of a contract for Longoria. The Rays control him through 2016, when he will still cost a maximum of $14,050,000. And that’s if he makes the All-Star team and fulfills incentives related to MVP voting. Of all the people listed so far, Longoria might represent the most valuable asset, but we haven’t widened the scope enough yet.

So who could possibly be more valuable going forward than a locked-up 24-year-old third baseman worth 5.3 and 7.2 wins in his first two major league seasons? Well, it might just be the guy who will pay Longoria less through 2016 than he was worth in just 2008 and 2009. That’s Andrew Friedman, executive vice president (and general manager) of the Tampa Rays. Longoria’s contract, as you know, is far from the only coup of Friedman’s career. The Rays are bursting at the seams with young, cheap talent. While it’s difficult to pin down exactly what Friedman makes for his remarkable efforts, he’s no doubt going to make less for his performance than Longoria himself. Friedman might be the most valuable asset in baseball.

Or maybe it’s Theo Epstein. Lots of young talent there, too, and his Boston organization might be the best-run in the game. Or maybe it’s Jack Zduriencik. He’s done simply remarkable things in his brief tenure in Seattle, and he’d be an excellent choice in a general manager fantasy draft. Bill Smith steers the stablest organization in baseball; the Twins compete every single year despite significant financial constraints, and there’s little front office turnover. How Smith handles improved revenue streams will be interesting to follow as the Twins open Target Field. And I haven’t touched on many other outstanding decision-makers. My omission of a general manager from this paragraph isn’t meant as a condemnation (except for you, Dayton, Brian and Ed. You may feel condemned.). It’s just that identifying the “best” general manager in the game isn’t an easy task.

I believe a particular general manager is the most valuable asset in baseball primarily due to ownership’s extraordinary return on investment. It’s tough to figure out exactly how much they all make, but the Yankees’ Brian Cashman, employed by the game’s wealthiest club, will make $6 million for his efforts in 2010. I’d be surprised if any of his adversaries make significantly morel. So we’ve got this group of professionals who make no more than something in the mid-to-high seven figures annually, and they’re responsible for spending the tens and hundreds of millions of dollars that comprise team payrolls.

Surely, some are better than others. So, why aren’t general managers the elusive Moneyball-inspired market inefficiency? Wouldn’t the surest way for a struggling organization to ascend the ranks be to make a transcendently good general manager an offer he or she just couldn’t refuse? If teams are paying players $3.5 million per win this offseason, why not pay a general manager, say, $7 million each year? After all, a great general manager must be worth more than two wins over a replacement GM.

Uh-oh.

General managers can’t be the new market inefficiency, because we can’t adequately quantify their performance. What makes one general manager better than another? Yes, return on investment is a great place to start. But it can’t be as simple to comparing how much one GM pays for a win compared to his peers. We can’t isolate the variables with GM spending like we can player performance. Theo Epstein and Andrew Friedman have different jobs; Dustin Pedroia and Ben Zobrist do not. While maximizing returns on player spending is certainly an important component of general managing in baseball, it’s not everything.

If you want to make a new-age baseball fan scoff in derision, laud a player’s intangibles. Seriously. Go up to Michael Schur at a coffee shop in LA and talk about “[m]ythical fairy creature” David Eckstein‘s heart, grit and guts. He will laugh at you. And God forbid you time-travel back to 2007 and publish an article about Eck’s intangibles in a newspaper. Schur and his colleagues would excoriate you for the public’s amusement. But general managers? Intangibles matter.

Setting aside that nearly all “intangibles” in a business context eventually leave tangible evidence of their existence, much of a general manager’s skill is currently impossible to quantify. His working relationships with other general managers, player agents, ownership and the team manager really, truly matter. Don’t be fooled by the matching uniforms and communal celebrations—for players, baseball is, essentially, an individual sport. Not in the front office, though. Hiring Darin Erstad to play baseball for your team in any year after 2006 was an indefensible act of general managerial malpractice. Hiring Kevin Towers, often ridiculed as an operations guy but universally respected among “baseball people,” might be a wonderful move. You can derive value from a front office employee’s intangibles much more easily than a player’s.

But you can look at Johnny Damon and know how much to pay him, because you have a very good idea of his expected worth (unless you are Dayton Moore). You cannot do the same with general managers. Nolan Ryan could not have approached Tom Hicks last year and explained precisely why Hicks should pay Andrew Friedman some outlandish amount to leave Tampa for Texas. What’s more, most general managers seem to report only to ownership. Given that general managers tend to oversee the quantitative side of organizations, any new-fangled analysis of general managers’ worth would surely never reach ownership’s ears, unless such information could be used to demand a raise. And besides, for the reasons listed above, GM performance isn’t quantifiable.

Yet. But can it be? How would we go about replacing anecdotes with analysis when we evaluate general managers? Would it be a wins-based approach? gmWAR? Would we invent an entirely new sort of metric, perhaps keyed on efficient use of assets? How would we control for the variability of a general manager’s resources? What exactly should go into the analysis of general managers?

Is it even possible?

Just a generation ago, we measured hitters by batting average and pitchers by assigned wins. Might we one day know as much about the executives of the future as we do the players of today? Judging by the extraordinary insight found here and dozens of other baseball think-tanks every single day, I sure wouldn’t bet against it.

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Comments

  1. Alex said...

    Nope. Replacement level for GM is far too high. There are so many smart young execs in the game just waiting for one of only 30 positions in baseball to open up.

    It’s like first base out there.

  2. Tom Vogel said...

    Great article, I started checking out Hardball Times after seeing it on DodgerDivorce.com

    Mr. Fisher seems to have a good handle not just on the game of baseball, but how the league works. I’ve been impressed, and look forward to more. Keep up the good work!

    p.s. The Yankees are a bunch of straight up BITCHES

    Tom Vogel PhD

  3. obsessivegiantscompulsive said...

    One cannot judge an executive by the riches of his farm system without taking into context the expectations that his draft position gives. 

    One area that sabermetrics has not been tackling or understanding is that the draft is pretty much a crapshoot and it gets worse from there.  When you are the worse team in the majors, year in, year out, much like the Rays, you get Top 5 overall draft picks that are much, much more likely to become a good player than if you were a winning team and drafting in the back of the draft (around 4 times better odds). 

    That is a huge advantage over winning teams in terms of drafting to build up a farm system. 

    So does having a lot of prospects make you a better executive?  Not if your success rate is worse than what could be expected with where your draft pick is.

    People don’t understand the dichotomy that exists in the first round of the draft, but it is similar to the difference between fishing in a pond stocked with fish (first five picks), fishing in Lake Tahoe (back of first round), and fishing in the ocean (the rest of the draft).

    I wrote about this long ago (http://sfgiants.scout.com/2/343576.html) with a primitive study (best I could do given the data available back then) but have not seen any great follow-up given all the data that is readily available now and much better comparative metrics available. 

    If I had time, I would do it. 

    The problem I have seen in most studies since is that researchers (like BP) focused too much on how much value the average draft pick provides on average (then slicing that up) when the focus should be on the fact that each draft pick is pretty unlikely to develop into a good starting player and that totally affects how one views the draft and how effective an exec is. 

    Average does not matter, frequency of a standard for a good player is.  Take any of the studies (like BP), see what players career numbers is like the average:  what you see is that the average prospect you select with a first round pick is about that of an average player, a Marquis Grissom or Michael Tucker. 

    I don’t know about you, but I think the whole point of the draft is finding good players, not average players.  And it is intuitively obvious to anybody that the value of each pick should drop over time. 

    The key thing that should be studied about the draft is the frequency of finding that good starting player, not fussing around with the average value of each.  The distribution curve for each draft pick is skewed towards prospect who never makes the majors.

    For example, my study’s results suggests a success rate of around 45% with the Top 5 picks and 11% with a back of the first round pick for selecting a good player (yes, less than a coin flip even for the top picks).  Thus, over a 4 year period, a perenial loser can expect to select 1.8 good players while a playoff team can expect 0.44 good players. 

    Over 10 years of losing (like the Rays), that team should have around 4-5 good players; a winning team over that period, just 1, from the first round.  Does that make the exec of the losing team a better exec?  Not if he generates the prospects that he would be expected to draft, based on the probability of finding a good player with the picks he had.

    Just go into baseball-reference.com’s draft site and just look at the major leaguers (and in your mind, good players) for the first few rounds of the draft, compare the front and back of the first round, and after you do it for a five year period, you will see what I mean.  The frequency is much less.

    And I tried to be conservative because of the roughness of the metrics, so I went over each prospect and if he didn’t pass my smell test for whether it was my impression that he was good or not, even if his numbers look good, I left him out. 

    Still, even with today’s metrics, I expect that my results will be bourne out, that people need to change their view of the draft and the expectations regarding their team’s pick.

  4. Brian C said...

    i’m biased but the first name that came to my mind was Mike Scioscia. Maybe it had been Bobby Cox. There are definitely some good GMs out there, but I’d lean toward a field manager who had a large say in organizational matters as well.

  5. Paul Singman said...

    Interesting article, Josh. I gotta say that a good GM would be the most valuable asset in baseball since realistically they can conceivably have a huge impact on a team. A scout that could identify star players even 20 percent of the time would be other-wordly valuable, but a scout that good is not as realistic.

    I think an interesting situation came up (the one talked about in Moneyball) when Billy Beane apparently tried to trade himself for Kevin Youkilis. Beane obviously was not trying to valuate himself based off of Youkilis, but the concept is interesting and relates to your article nicely.

  6. Nick Steiner said...

    I’ll take me a Pujols any day of the week.  I also agree with Paul that a good GM is more valuable than any player, when you consider contract status, unless that player is like Evan Longoria or something.

  7. Paul said...

    What’s with the agent bashing?

    Maybe Longoria wanted financial security (which he got) + the surety that the Rays wouldn’t mess around with his playing time to keep his salary down.

    Maybe he told his agent that the above is what is important to me, if you can get me 10Mil, then you’ve done a great job.

    Hypotheticals, but is a better agent one who saves the client from himself?  Or one who gets the client what he wants.  Maybe a bit of both.

    That being said, it does look like the best contract in baseball from a team view.

  8. John said...

    The most valuable human asset in baseball is an owner that is willing to spend money to acquire the best possible talent.  Hal Steinbrenner is the most valuable asset in baseball.

  9. eric errickson said...

    Previous responders have suggested a variety of alternatives to the most valuable asset, i.e. human in baseball. These included G.M’s, farm systems, PujoisX2, Mike Scioscia, Bobby Cox and Hal Steinbrenner.

    I would suggest that there is a legion of sabermetricians who might currently hold that job.
    I will also bet they are less expensive.  My cantidate is right down the hall from Theo.  David
    Glasso did a sabermetric over view of G.M.s in Hardball Times 2005 which could be brought up to date.  Thanks for the article, it was thought provoking.

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