Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers' "Moneyball" Strategy Isn't Madness
Kevin Towers poses the question that baseball fans have asked for months.
"What's the method to his madness?" the Arizona Diamondbacks general manager asks of himself before a recent spring training game at Salt River Fields in Scottsdale.
After the D-backs finished a perfectly mediocre season last year — 81 wins and 81 losses — Towers traded the team's marquee player, right fielder Justin Upton, and one of the top prospects in all of baseball, starting pitcher Trevor Bauer. The trades and other moves Towers made during the off-season have sparked the fury of many fans and criticism from local and national media.
But that's not to say Towers has an answer to his own question.
Just as there's no exact science to playing baseball, there's no formula for being successful as a general manager.
See related story: "The Screwball Economics of Major League Baseball"
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The New York Yankees have had the league's highest payroll for more than a decade, and since 2001 — when the Diamondbacks defeated the Yankees in the World Series — the Bronx Bombers have just one World Series trophy to show for it.
Meanwhile, Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane's well-known "Moneyball" strategy, portrayed in the 2011 movie of that name — in which statistics play a prominent role in picking the optimal players for a low-payroll team — has yielded the Oakland A's zero World Series appearances under Beane, who's been GM there since 1998.
Twenty-eight other teams, including the Diamondbacks, and their general managers are dealing with innumerable circumstances and constraints while trying to put players on the field and fans in the seats.
Towers knows something about this gig. "K.T." has been a general manager in the majors since 1995, save one season, 2010, which he spent as a scout for the Yankees. From 1995 to 2009, he was GM of the San Diego Padres, a team that's been a division winner only five times in team history, with four of those under Towers.
He may not be doing anything revolutionary as he heads into his third season as the Diamondbacks' GM, but that's not to say he's not doing things differently.
Towers has added a new crop of unlikely players to the Diamondbacks — and he's banking that they will mean a marked improvement over last year's club.
But not one of the three new shortstops has proved himself worthy of a starting role in the big leagues. Three new D-backs, including reliever Heath Bell, are 35 years old.
And the number-one pick in the 2005 MLB Draft — and the only star on the Diamondbacks over the past few years — is a Diamondback no more.
Let's hope madness is the method.
Shortstop Didi Gregorius reminds Kevin Towers of a young Derek Jeter.
Towers was lampooned in mainstream sports media for making that comparison after acquiring Gregorius by trading away top pitching prospect Trevor Bauer. How dare he compare the great Yankees shortstop to a guy with virtually no big-league experience and a. .265 batting average in the minors last year?
But that was Kevin Towers the scout speaking. And, yes, he meant it.
Towers does see similarities — their defensive actions, range, and ability to throw off the wrong foot — between Gregorius and the 18-year-old Jeter he scouted at Kalamazoo (Michigan) Central High School in the early '90s, toward the beginning of his scouting career.
"I'm not comparing Gregorius to where Jeter is now," Towers says at the Cactus League game. "If he ends up being half or three-quarters of Jeter, that would be outstanding."
There's more Towers the scout where that came from.
In the guy he says eventually will become his new leadoff hitter, outfielder Adam Eaton, Towers sees retired New York Mets leadoff man and three-time all-star Lenny Dykstra.
In pitching prospect Archie Bradley, he sees Cy Young Award winner Chris Carpenter.
Some comparisons are a little tamer. In outfielder A.J. Pollock, it's Texas Rangers outfielder Craig Gentry.
"Sometimes you have to trust your intuition — your gut instincts — and put your neck out there in the noose [about] what you think the player's ultimately going to be," Towers says. "Sometimes you have to do it at an early age with somebody like Gregorius."
Towers explains that if Gregorius had turned in two or three productive years as a starting shortstop elsewhere, his price tag would've gone up — just as Jeter's did.
"You take risks when they're at the prospect level . . . calculated risks," he says. "I'm sure after Jeter's fourth or fifth year, there was no way you were ever going to get your hands on him."
To take this risk on Gregorius, the Diamondbacks shipped Bauer to the Cleveland Indians as part of a three-team deal.
In 2012, MLB.com ranked Bauer as the number-five overall prospect and the number-two pitching prospect. Gregorius didn't make the list of 100 top prospects.
However, in Bauer's brief stint as a big-leaguer, he proved quite the problem child.
Bauer's extremely long and unorthodox warmup routine includes throwing the ball from foul pole to foul pole. He spent his spare time making terrible rap music, including one song released after Bauer was dealt to Cleveland that contained an apparent insult of D-backs catcher Miguel Montero. The veteran Montero had dared to do his job and call pitches for the rookie.
Bauer's clownish antics apparently weren't the reason he was sent to the Indians, although it sounds as though they helped make him available.
"I'm not going to say that didn't weigh into the decision-making, but he's a young kid," Towers says. "With young kids, it's inexperience and immaturity. Over time, I think he'll turn into a great everyday player."
Maybe K.T.'s being polite.
In Bauer's four career big-league starts with the Diamondbacks, his continually shaking off Montero's pitch calls had dismal results. Bauer earned just one victory, while posting a miserable 6.06 earned-run average.
"Really, we weren't trying to just get rid of him. [It's that] we like Gregorius a lot," Towers insists. "We think Gregorius will have a chance to be a very special player."
In 19 plate appearances in spring training this year, Gregorius hit .474.
Bauer allowed four runs in three innings in his last start with Cleveland.
"Moneyball," as a concept, is old news in MLB front offices.
You can bet that most teams play their own version of it by now. Everybody has his own method of analyzing players' effectiveness and cost related to winning as many ballgames as possible.
In the 2011 Hollywood movie starring Brad Pitt as Billy Beane — based on the 2003 Moneyball book by Michael Lewis — the cash-strapped Oakland A's win an unexpectedly high number of games given the team's seemingly unimpressive roster, which was built on player statistics.
It's a romantic view of what actually happened during the 2002 A's season, but some of Beane's principles, explained in the movie and book, have been adopted and modified around the bigs.
By the time the movie came out, eight years after the "Moneyball" story first was told, other GMs had caught up with Beane.
Sports Illustrated explained to fans after the movie's release that every team since had made statistical analysis a significant part of its operation, with a little more than half of big-league organizations relying "heavily" on stats. The magazine argued that Theo Epstein, then-general manager of the Boston Red Sox, had become the most ahead-of-the-curve GM in baseball. Epstein, using his own methods, including advanced statistical analysis of players, won two World Series in less than a decade with Boston.
Now, it's harder for GMs to gain an advantage like Beane did in 2002, when he placed a higher value on players' on-base percentages.
GMs nowadays are more hesitant to open the blinds to the front office and show just how the sausage is made — perhaps this is why Towers stresses that his specific reasoning about players "can't be discussed openly."
But the numbers game certainly is a factor in Towers' decision-making, as explained by his view of replacing the bats of Upton and center fielder Chris Young, who's now a member of the Oakland A's.
"We're going to score the same amount of runs [with them gone]," Towers says.
Believe it or not, there's a lot of science behind his statement.
It sounds contrary to logic, but the Diamondbacks don't need more runs this season than they had last year to win more games.
For starters, only eight teams scored more runs than the Diamondbacks last year. Of those eight, only three made the playoffs.
This concept of runs is pointed out by Jonah Hill's character in Moneyball, as he explains in one scene that he's calculated how many runs must be scored and how many can be allowed for the A's to have a good chance of making the playoffs.
He was using a basic formula from the field of sabermetrics — a discipline described by the man who coined the term, Bill James, as "the search for objective knowledge about baseball."
The formula, the "Pythagorean expectation" — also created by James — provides evidence that Towers is right about the team not needing more offense.
Had the Diamondbacks scored the most runs in baseball last year, more than the Yankees and the Rangers, but the runs allowed remained the same, the D-backs still would've been projected to lose their division race, according to this formula.
(It should be noted that this "Pythagorean expectation" has some credibility. At the halfway point of last season, the formula was used to project that the Los Angeles Dodgers would finish with a record of 86-76, and that the Diamondbacks would finish 81-81. The projections were on the nose.)
But how can Towers say Eaton and Martin Prado will replace the runs lost by Young and Upton?
In this post-Moneyball era, its easy for fans to see predictions based on sabermetrics. Websites like FanGraphs.com provide advanced statistical analysis of players, including projections for the upcoming season.
It can be seen that sabermetrics provide a formula for "runs created" — a measure of how many runs go up on the scoreboard for a team thanks to a given player.
Based on an average of four experts' calculations listed at FanGraphs, Eaton and Prado are projected to create 166.5 runs this year combined, compared to 163.25 between Young and Upton.
That calculation was based on both playing a full season, and Eaton found out recently that a spring training injury to his left elbow could keep him benched for two months. He probably will be replaced by Cody Ross, another of Towers' off-season pickups, who hasn't lagged far behind Eaton at the plate.
Before you look beneath the surface, the new guys appear not to be much a statistical improvement over the old.
So we're left to surmise that it's pitching — not hitting — that matters most in Towers' scheme.
Perhaps that's why the GM won't let you forget that pitcher Randall Delgado was brought to the Diamondbacks in the deal that sent Upton to Atlanta and landed Prado in Arizona.
Delgado posted a 4-9 rookie record with a 4.37 ERA, but he could be an established starter (he had 17 starts for the Braves last year) on a D-backs team that had to dip into its minor-league system for starting help last season. As for his losses, three of them were considered "tough," in that he pitched at least six innings and gave up no more than three runs but still earned a loss.
And he's got the potential to be a strikeout leader: He recorded 7.4 Ks per nine innings last year, fourth-most among National League rookies, and more than any regular Diamondbacks starter last time, save Ian Kennedy.
His addition signals the remodeling of the team's pitching staff that Towers promised.
In the starting rotation, three guys will be back in their roles — Kennedy, Trevor Cahill, and Wade Miley. Former A's pitcher Brandon McCarthy, whose 2012 season was cut short after he was hit in the head by a line drive, has signed with the D-backs and probably will be in the front end of the rotation. Delgado and Patrick Corbin are left to battle for the fifth spot. Daniel Hudson, who underwent Tommy John surgery in the middle of last season, is slated to return at some point this summer.
Towers, looking for a "big arm" in the bullpen, decided on 35-year-old reliever Heath Bell, a three-time all-star who's coming off a poor season in Miami. Left-handed relievers also were a weak spot in the bullpen last year, so Towers landed two — Matt Reynolds and Tony Sipp.
"The [NL] West is always won with arms," Towers says. "Our fate will really depend on how well we throw the ball [and] how well our bullpen does."
None of this matters to a lot of fans right now: Towers is a villain for trading Upton.
The same day word got out that Upton was traded to the Braves as part of a seven-player deal, Fox Sports baseball analyst Ken Rosenthal decided he knew Towers' plan.
"Well, the Arizona Diamondbacks are getting what they wanted — a team full of gritty dirtballs," Rosenthal told his national audience.
Rosenthal, siding with an anonymous former D-backs player, said it looked like Towers and manager Kirk Gibson want "grinders" — guys who play like Gibson did. Yet it's common sense that the D-backs would prefer a guy who might hit a World Series homer on two bum legs, like Gibson did for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1988, rather than a guy, Upton, seen jogging to track down balls in the right field corner of Chase Field last year but who could hit the occasional home run into the Fatburger on the concourse behind left field.
"Give me Justin's 40-homer, .900 OPS promise," Rosenthal wrote. "A team won't win with 25 Paul O'Neills slamming their helmets or 25 David Ecksteins hustling like crazy."
But there's a reason that Towers is a general manager and that Rosenthal comes across as a bow-tied goof on Fox broadcasts.
In five seasons and change, Upton produced neither 40 home runs nor an OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) of more than .900, despite any promise he may have.
While Rosenthal paints Towers as the Neanderthal of baseball management, the move's hardly controversial when team needs and statistics are considered.
The Diamondbacks crunched the numbers to, for example, find value in Prado over Upton.
"I think a lot people look at us as just an old-school baseball team that doesn't embrace the analytical approach, the importance of statistics, quantitative analysis," Towers says. "We do. We just don't brag about it."
Towers knew that new third baseman Prado had a higher WAR (wins above replacement) last year than did Upton.
What he's saying is profoundly more complicated than the analysis portrayed in the Moneyball story, which depicts on-base percentage as the catalyst for championship baseball.
WAR, another sabermetric measure, attempts to gauge how many wins a player provides a team above a "replacement" player — which more or less means a bench player — thus putting a number to the value of a starting player.
It's just one way of seeing how Prado can be more valuable to the Diamondbacks than Upton.
When Towers describes why he likes Prado as a hitter over Upton, he notes things that can be seen and, therefore, measured — working the count, cutting strikeouts, and being a tough out and a consistent hitter.
For example, Upton swung at almost 45 percent of the pitches he saw last season, while Prado swung at fewer than 38 percent. When Prado swings the bat, he makes contact more than 90 percent of the time, whereas Upton makes contact about 77 percent of the time.
Towers has more specific reasons for favoring Prado as a batter over Upton, like "quality at-bats late in the ballgame."
Sure enough, sabermetrics has ways to measure that, one of which is a metric called "clutch," which takes into account how batters hit in so-called "important" situations.
Prado's "clutch" was rated just above the benchmark for "above average" last year. Upton was between "below average" and "poor" last season, and is between "poor" and "awful" for his career.
This analysis digs beneath the comparison of overall runs scored in a season between the two.
Despite Rosenthal's opinion, there's no column for "gritty" in the Bill James handbook.
"People want to call them gritty, grinders," Towers says of some of his favorite new D-backs. "You know what? They're talented."
Towers never answered the question he posed to himself.
He won't go to great lengths to defend the moves he's made.
He understands that fans and media criticize the trades, but he prefers that everybody "wait and find out" if they were worth it.
There's been some evidence this spring that Towers' plan can work, by "scraping together" runs with speed instead of heavy hitting while the pitching staff keeps runs off the scoreboard.
On March 13, the Diamondbacks faced Milwaukee Brewers starter Yovani Gallardo, who's never lost to the D-backs in a regular-season game since he came into the majors in 2007.
D-backs outfielder Gerardo Parra opened the game with a homer off Gallardo, who didn't allow another run in his four-inning outing.
On the other hand, Delgado — still fighting for that fifth spot in the Diamondbacks' rotation — didn't allow a single run in his four innings.
Halfway through the bottom of the sixth inning, the Diamondbacks had five runs on only two hits, while the Brewers committed zero errors. That's scraping together runs, and that's Towers' plan executed.
At the end of the 2010 season, Towers inherited a team that had just finished last in the division for two straight seasons. The next year, the D-backs were division winners, although they made an early exit from the playoffs. In 2012, fans were stuck with mediocrity.
Towers hopes that the team he's assembled plays on grass and dirt like they do on paper and in his head. If they do, it'll be "Upton who?" If they don't, it'll be an outcry for mounting that silvery head on the jagged end of a broken bat.
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