At any given time, there are a handful of terrible baseball teams, some of which have little hope of being anything but awful for the foreseeable future. And because there are always bad baseball teams, there are always general managers whose jobs seem less than safe.
We’ve seen current general managers tied to tabloid scandals, lousy public predictions, the fallout from disastrous contracts, and on-the-record allegations of front-office incompetence. Yet the last time a GM lost his job, the Astros had just dropped 100 games for the first time, the Marlins were in the midst of a spending spree, and Mike Trout had a .672 career OPS. Homeland was locking up all the Emmys. It was a different world.
On Twitter and talk radio, it’s still easy to find fans who think someone else (namely themselves) could do a better job of running their team than the GM currently in charge. But not since the Astros fired Ed Wade on November 27, 2011, has an owner come to the same conclusion. It’s been close to two and a half years since an MLB GM lost his job, which is the longest lull of at least the last four decades, and is all the more remarkable considering there were fewer teams for most of that span, and thus fewer opportunities for firings.
Data on GMs is messy; the further back we go, the less likely we are to find a precise date when a GM was dismissed, or any details about the circumstances surrounding a change. In many cases, it’s hard to tell the difference between “fired” and “resigned.” On September 29, 2011, Angels GM Tony Reagins — architect of the Mike Napoli–for–Vernon Wells–and–Vernon Wells’s–massive-contract trade — told the L.A. Times that the Angels would be “creative, aggressive, and see where things shake out” in upgrading their roster over the offseason. On September 30, he “resigned” with a year left on his contract. Commenting on the move, owner Arte Moreno said, with a suggestive choice of pronouns, “We felt a change was needed.”
The “resignation by mutual consent,” as GM Bill Bavasi’s departure from the Angels was branded in October 1999, is a face-saving conceit that often accompanies a change in regime. Kevin Malone resigned as Dodgers GM in April 2001 after threatening a Padres fan who’d heckled Gary Sheffield; while he wasn’t officially axed, Malone would have been fired had he refused to step down. When Padres GM Joe McIlvaine left the team in June 1993, the team’s managing partner, Tom Werner, took pains to point out that McIlvaine wasn’t fired, but noted that “the parting was mutual” and that “the other owners felt it was important to have a general manager who was ‘enthused about being here.’” And in other cases, the parties involved simply refused to clarify the circumstances. Asked whether Cincinnati GM Murray Cook had resigned or been fired when Cook left the team in October 1989, Reds owner Marge Schott said, “I don’t think that needs to be said, OK?” The many flavors of firing make the data difficult to parse.
According to information from Baseball America’s executive database (which lists each team’s general managers since 1950) and additional research by Baseball Prospectus staff, however, it’s typically rare for the GM community to go more than a year between casualties. The longest period without a firing in recent years had come between Royals GM Allard Baird’s ouster on May 30, 2006, and, depending on your definition of “fired,” either June 20, 2007, when the Orioles hired Andy MacPhail to replace Mike Flanagan (who stayed with the team for the rest of the season), or August 27, 2007, when the Astros dismissed Tim Purpura. Even the longer, Baird-to-Purpura span stretched only 453 days. Before the current drought, the longest definitively demotion- and firing-free period of the past 40 years was 560 days, between Frank Wren’s dismissal by Baltimore in October 1999 and Malone’s “resignation.” (If you want to be a stickler and count only official firings, 53 more days takes you to June 2001, when the Pirates fired Cam Bonifay.) We’re up to 830 since the Astros jettisoned Wade, with an end to the streak unlikely before midseason.
The typical tenure of a general manager hired from 1950 to 1995 was just more than five years. GMs hired between 1995 and 2000, however, have lasted a little more than seven, and four of them (Brian Sabean, Billy Beane, Brian Cashman, and Dan O’Dowd) are still extending that average. It’s not that today’s longest-tenured general managers are testing the boundaries of the office’s life expectancy: Previous GMs Joe L. Brown, John Holland, Jim Campbell, Pat Gillick, and John Schuerholz held on to their jobs longer than Sabean’s 6,300-plus days. Rather, the difference lies at the other extreme: Where once it was fairly common to see GMs wear out their welcome in a season or two, today’s new hires are almost always in it for the long haul.
Short of going door-to-door at big league ballparks and subjecting each owner to Rust Cohle–style questioning, we’ll never know exactly how today’s Duracell GMs have managed to elude unemployment for so long. A survey of some current GMs and other high-ranking executives suggests several possible explanations, however.
1. Small Sample Size
Before we get to the good stuff, we have to acknowledge the null hypothesis: that this is a fluke. Even though this lull has lasted much longer than the ones we’re used to seeing, it could simply be a blip — a big blip, granted, but still not reflective of any real trend.
Through a combination of firings, “resignations,” reassignments, and job jumping, seven teams added new GMs after the 2011 season. That cohort of replacements hasn’t had very long to lose its luster. And if even one of the 23 other teams had lost patience with its GM since then, we wouldn’t be talking about this. What looks like a trend could be coincidence.
“Frankly, I think it is simply an anomaly, and we’re just as likely to see a ‘correction’ — that is, an offseason with four openings — as we are to be witnessing some sort of shift in the nature of GM job security,” says one American League GM.
But most of those surveyed did see some signal amid the noise, attributing the firing freeze to one or more of the following factors.
2. Parity Plus Wild Cards
By any measure, baseball has become a more balanced game than it used to be, as revenue sharing and the luxury tax, the expansion of the player pool, and small-market teams’ early adoption of analytics, among other factors, have at least temporarily leveled the playing field. Where once the odds seemed hopelessly stacked against lower-revenue teams, baseball now compares favorably to other major sports in terms of turnover among contenders and champions. As Sam Miller wrote last season, “The correlation between money and wins is now lower than at any point in the last 20 years.”
Just as a GM can entice fans to come to the park or tune in on TV by fielding a competitive team, he can earn a stay of termination from an impatient owner by staving off mathematical elimination in August or early September.
“The majority of teams have been to the playoffs relatively recently,” says Rangers general manager Jon Daniels, who gives parity partial credit for the longer leash today’s GMs are enjoying. “Of those that haven’t, a number of those are in the middle of planned rebuilds. So most current executives have either won recently or gotten sign-off from ownership to take an intentional step back.” That leaves few GMs in the job-threatening region where it’s equally hard to remember the last successful season and envision the next one.
It’s not just that the league is less stratified, of course; there are also more playoff spots available. From 1977 to 1992 (except for the 1981 strike season), there were only four playoff spots for 26 teams; when the Marlins and Rockies arrived in 1993, a postseason berth became even harder to come by.1 The playoff pool’s subsequent expansion to eight and then 10 teams, thanks to the six-division format and the addition of two wild cards to each league, has made October much more inclusive. Now that a third of the teams advance beyond the regular season, all but a handful have at least a faint hope of reaching the postseason. We can’t even count on the Pirates and Royals to roll over anymore.
As one former National League GM says, “The second wild card has given false hope to some organizations, making them appear to be a contender for the postseason when in fact they were only ‘in’ due to the math.” So far, the four winners of the second wild card have completed their 162-game schedules with an average of 90.5 wins, which means that it takes a losing record to finish with a demoralizing double-digit deficit in the games-back column. It’s easier to give a GM another chance after a near miss than it is after a season in which his team wasn’t in it at all.
3. Higher Stakes, Fewer Mistakes
Baseball’s seven-month season and deliberately paced games may have driven some fans to football, but the sport’s drawn-out nature hasn’t hurt profits. Live content is king in the DVR era — even when that content includes David Price taking 26 seconds between pitches — and while the nine-inning game’s 34 to 41 minutes of commercial breaks (plus pitching changes) have arguably made the sport less exciting, they’ve also made it massively profitable, with record revenues exceeding $8 billion last year. Those revenues have rapidly raised the price of purchasing a team. In its March 2013 team value rankings, Forbes assessed only four franchises below $500 million. Just six years earlier, only five franchises had been above $500 million.
Rising profits may have indirectly ensured that the average GM can expect to remain employed longer. It stands to reason that the more money an ownership group has tied up in a team, the more care it will take to pick the right person to run that team.2 And the more exhaustive the head-hunting and hiring process, the less likely it is that an owner would decide to reverse course quickly. We’re past the point at which an owner might make a spur-of-the-moment decision to entrust a team to Hawk Harrelson or “a slow-talking grandfather” who aspires only to scout. Nowadays, even spring training is serious business.
“Teams, more and more, are being run like companies,” says one high-level executive who’s widely considered a GM-in-waiting (and waiting, and waiting). “That means two things: (1) The bottom line is important; if clubs are making money (and most all of them are), you don’t make a change, and (2) companies rarely fire top executives on whims or without really thinking things through before they do so.”
Once an owner settles on a GM, that owner is subject to a whole host of interrelated cognitive biases that work against a subsequent firing: the tendency to avoid any change to the status quo, to overlook faults in order to justify an expenditure, to like what we’re used to, to ascribe greater value to things we already have. And then there are the logistical hurdles that have to be cleared: Even if a parting is amicable, it’s never painless, since it’s not as simple as swapping out a single executive. Replacing a GM means replacing other personnel at every level of the organization, from the front office to the field staff to scouting and player development staffers. It also means putting up with some hiccups during the new regime’s adjustment period. “Owners are recognizing that stability of the ballclub is concurrent with stability of the management team,” says Orioles GM Dan Duquette.
Before disrupting that stability, an owner needs to see a neon, Vernon Wells’s–salary-size sign indicating that it’s time to change direction, such as a financial loss or a massive deficit in the division. But like any of us, owners worry more about losing money than about missing out on the opportunity to make more, and losing money is a foreign concept to today’s teams.
“Financial condition was frequently a reason for radical moves at the end of previous seasons,” says the former NL GM. And now that financial condition is less of a concern, those radical moves aren’t being made.
4. Look-alike GMs
Thanks to increased competition and careful hiring, today’s general managers are very good at their jobs. Not so long ago, it was possible for baseball men like Bobby Cox to float between field manager and general manager positions, or for others like Whitey Herzog and Jack McKeon to occupy both concurrently, but it’s almost inconceivable that one person could possess the skill set to do both jobs today (much as Mike Scioscia might like to try). Today’s GM has a much more specialized knowledge base and skill set, and a résumé that would have made a candidate cutting-edge a decade ago might not even get him an interview today. When the Astros hired Jeff Luhnow to replace Wade, I laid out the model of a modern general manager:
He walks, he talks, he balks at bad contracts. He considers all perspectives and says all the right things, and he wears well-tailored suits while he’s at it. He cares when a player’s peak years are, and he’s aware that wins are more costly when they come from free agents. He knows how most players’ minor-league statistics translate to the majors, and he has scouts who can tell him what that standard model is missing. Instead of dismissing Internet analysts as uninformed outsiders, he quotes Bill James in conversation (if he hasn’t already hired him). Basically, he’s the best possible person for the job — except, maybe, for the guy that other team in your division just signed.
If the team you root for has a GM who fits that description, you’re probably happy to have him. But hiring a statistically savvy, well-spoken GM is less of a competitive advantage than it would have been when there weren’t so many on the market. As Phil Birnbaum, the editor of SABR’s By the Numbers newsletter, pointed out at last year’s Sloan Conference, “One of the things that analytics can do very well is filter out the really stupid decisions.” He also observed that “you gain more by not being stupid than you do by being smart.” Going from ignoring analytics to embracing them was a big boon to front-office first movers when many teams were still stuck in the Batting Average Age. But even the Phillies have finally cracked and hired a full-time analytics manager. Glaring inefficiencies are now much harder to find, and the smartest teams have to settle for smaller edges. In this environment, hiring a GM cut from the Beane/Epstein/Friedman cloth isn’t innovative; it’s called keeping up.
In his 1986 essay “Why No One Hits .400 Any More,” evolutionary biologist and author Stephen Jay Gould theorized that when baseball’s level of competition was low, the few legitimately elite players feasted on the weaker ones, and the gap between the best and the rest was big. But as the quality of competition increased, the leaguewide level of play moved closer to the limits of human ability, and the best players no longer stood out to the same degree. Gould used his theory to help explain why there hasn’t been a .400 hitter since Ted Williams, but we can also apply this logic to general managers: As GMs get smarter and more multidisciplinary, it’s growing harder to be the front-office equivalent of a .400 hitter — the kind of GM who Michael Lewis might write a book about.
Because there’s less variation between GMs and front offices than there once was, there’s also less reason for most teams to think that changing GMs would make them much better. Going from Chuck LaMar to Andrew Friedman helped the Rays improve from perennial doormat to four-time playoff team; there’s no way they could get the same sort of benefit now by going from Friedman to anyone else. Given the headaches associated with a front-office overhaul, owners have to consider whether it’s worth ditching the GM they know, who in most cases is quite competent, for an unknown replacement with a similar background whose best case is “slightly better.” For many teams, the potential upgrade would barely cover the cost.
Viewing the situation from an owner’s perspective, another AL GM understands why it’s always easier not to make a move. “[Given] the lack of obvious replacement, I’d rather go with somebody I know and I’m comfortable with rather than going out on the marketplace and hiring somebody I have no knowledge of,” he says.
5. General Managing by Committee
A third AL general manager describes the new breed of GM as “leaders of people who are capable of delegating in areas where they are weak and building strong supporting staffs around them.” A GM doesn’t have to have the biggest brain in the office, but he does need to know how to recruit the right people and get the most out of the staff he’s assembled.3 Baseball as big business means that running a team in 2014 takes a village populated by high- and low-level full-timers and a fleet of poorly paid interns. With more contributions coming from that ever-growing group of advisers, the auteur theory of team construction — that every roster is a reflection of the GM’s personal approach to team-building and cultivating talent — no longer works as well as it once did.
With more voices involved, it’s harder to give the GM sole credit for a successful transaction. A team’s star player might have been drafted or signed based on information gleaned from an underling’s spreadsheet or scouting trip, with the GM’s contribution limited to hiring that subordinate (or that subordinate’s superior) and giving him or her a seat at the increasingly crowded table. However, this works both ways: It’s also harder to lay all the blame for a bad deal at the GM’s door when that contract was discussed in committee before it was signed.
“Owners recognize that a front office that functions well goes well beyond any one person, so perhaps making GM changes either doesn’t accomplish the goal of changing the organizational direction or has more hidden costs than may appear at first blush,” says the third AL GM.
No one knows better than the Rockies’ Dan O’Dowd that things don’t work the way they used to; since mid-2012, he and Bill Geivett have been splitting the GM’s traditional duties, with O’Dowd concentrating on scouting and player development and Geivett focusing on the big league club’s day-to-day operations. “When I first broke in, GMs made most if not all of the major decisions with input from his staff,” O’Dowd says, “but those decisions were also judged on their own.” Fifteen years later, GMs not only rely more heavily on their staff, but also stay in constant contact with their superiors.
Today’s GMs, O’Dowd says, are “more analytical by nature and very process-oriented, so that leads to many discussions with ownership as you develop strategy and make decisions.” That day-to-day owner involvement, in turn, “leads to a decision-making process whereby it is done collectively and more difficult to lay responsibility at the feet of the GM only.”
In the past, it was common for “a lack of communication” or clashes with ownership to be cited when a GM was fired or resigned after a short time in office, but the modern general manager’s willingness to collaborate makes those issues less likely. Inevitably, working together more closely also brings the owner and the GM together on a personal level, making it more difficult for the former to tell the latter to clear out his desk.4 So in part, the recent lack of turnover could come down to the fact that no one likes to fire a friend. “In some cases, relationships are at stake that are affecting it,” says one of the AL GMs.
Ultimately, the buck still stops with the general manager. No effective “leader of people” would try to save his job by blaming his boss or an underling’s advice, and no friendship could keep a GM in power indefinitely despite repeated losses (either financial or on the field). But the era of front-office good feelings likely has something to do with some owners’ slow hooks.
It’s unlikely that any of the above explanations is the one true reason for the ceasefire; as Daniels says, there are “probably a variety of factors involved.” We haven’t even touched on all of them. There’s also improved public relations: The former NL GM suggests that “some GMs use the growth of the Internet and baseball-related prospect sites to spin their product and try to salvage their jobs.” There’s the fact that smarter owners are less susceptible to the planning fallacy and more likely to stay the course when it turns out that, yes, the Astros really are going to be awful until they get good, or that Dayton Moore was serious about that eight-to-10-year rebuilding plan. There’s even the relatively new practice of promoting successful GMs to team president, making it impossible for other teams to poach them; since the last GM firing, the White Sox and Marlins have promoted their old GMs to team president and installed internal replacements.
As compelling as some of these possibilities might seem, the real test of whether this is a trend will be seeing if it continues. Some GMs have received contract extensions or had their options picked up this offseason, but several clubs could have vacancies by the end of the year. General manager contract details are hard to come by, but at least six teams (Angels, Mariners, Yankees, Mets, Pirates, Reds) have GMs entering their contract years, so we might see some carnage in 2014.
Even if every GM who lacks job security beyond this season survives, the streak will end at some point. The real question is whether the next GM hired should expect to last longer than the average GM hired two decades ago. Major league managers are hired to be fired, the saying goes, and the same observation has historically applied to GMs. But maybe we’ve entered an era in which some GMs are hired in the hopes that they’ll actually stick around.
Morris Greenberg, Chris Mosch, and Ryan Lind of Baseball Prospectus provided research assistance for this article.