This is the final installment in a 12-part series.
"A Hit Is A Hit" — The Sopranos, season one.
Christopher has been bankrolling a band called "Visiting Day", who are managed by his girlfriend Adriana. He plays the band's demo to his associate Hesh, an old-timer in the music business.
HESH: I think it's ... not good.
CHRISTOPHER: Wanna be a little more specific?
HESH: There's good. And there's not good. This is not good.
CHRISTOPHER: Okay, maybe it's not your era — no offense, but ...
HESH: Kid, music is music, talent is talent. I don't care who you are. I seen it all. I seen heavy metal invented by Hendrix at the Bottom Line, he just got out of the army. I told him, "Kid, I don't know what you call it — talent, charisma, magic — whatever it is, you got it." These guys ... [gestures to the cassette] ... I'm sorry, they don't.
CHRISTOPHER: That Vito is a great guitar player, Hesh.
HESH: Good, fine, he's a great guitar player. However, there's one constant in the music business: A hit is a hit. And this, my friend, is not a hit.
CHRISTOPHER: But why?
HESH: Christ. Reasons we can never comprehend or codify, you pitiful schlepper.
Of all the installments in this series, this is the one where it's most tempting to beg off and admit, this might just above my pay grade. I'll be honest, I can't say with much confidence whether Mark Shapiro should be fired. What I can say is that there are definitely good reasons to fire him.
Before we get to that, better face up to some hard facts. If you're going to fire Shapiro, you have to believe that a better option is available. Chris Antonetti is the heir apparent, but you fire Shapiro and keep Antonetti only if you think that in keeping Antonetti, you preserve the best parts of Shapiro while rooting out his shortcomings. Heck, maybe that's actually the case, but I personally couldn't say. It doesn't seem likely. And if Antonetti was the instant front-runner for most any GM opening, what would that make Shapiro if he were available?
Shapiro's calling card is turning walk-year veterans into prospects who become multi-year contributors to the team — a truly staggering haul, including Grady Sizemore, Cliff Lee, Coco Crisp, Shin-Soo Choo, Travis Hafner, Milton Bradley, Franklin Gutierrez, Asdrubal Cabrera, Josh Bard and Kelly Shoppach. Add to that list, potentially, over the next several years, Matt LaPorta, Carlos Santana, Luis Valbuena, Michael Brantley, Lou Marson, plus a half-dozen significant pitching prospects, plus Mark DeRosa, Arthur Rhodes, Justin Masterson and Chris Perez. Even his least successful trade acquisitions — Alex Escobar, Jason Michaels, Brandon Phillips, Billy Traber, Andy Marte, Josh Barfield — have not been entirely bereft of big-league talent.
We've chanted that litany before, but it bears recalling because horse trading is one of the most important jobs of a GM, and it's notably one of the only jobs where success or failure is directly traced to his decision. Shapiro also has had an impressive run with third-tier free agent starting pitchers — Pavano made 33 starts and netted a decent prospect, Byrd completed three serviceable seasons, Millwood won the freakin' ERA title, and even Brian Anderson did okay for a couple of years. And while fans rightly bemoan the dead weight of Hafner's contract, Shapiro has not really made the big, crippling mistakes that befall most GMs — on the balance sheet, Hafner-Westbrook-Dellucci pale before Wells-Rios-Ryan.
If you're going to get rid of Shapiro and his like-minded colleagues, then you have to be willing to live without those exemplary skills — without his leadership, class, and intelligence, his deftness with trades and contracts, the respect he commands within the industry, and especially — especially — his willingness to take the public body blows when tough decisions need to be made. You can't assume that the next guy will excel in all of those areas. I am certain we'd miss those qualities.
Having said that, I can tell you why Shapiro should be fired in one word: Talent.
Baseball is never simple. As a rule, the world's most elite natural athletes cannot succeed as major leaguers. Hitting and pitching are simply too hard. Hitting at this level requires a knack that may be the hardest thing to quantify or characterize in all of sports, and if you don't have it, then all the talk or mechanics and approaches in the world can't save you, even if you have several NBA championships and MVP awards on your résumé. Pitching at this level requires a freakish combination of precise muscle control, huge arm-generated torque, resistance to elbow and shoulder injury under extreme stress, and intelligence.
Running a baseball club may be just as hard and just as unquantifiable; after all, more than a few titans of industry have tried and failed. A brilliant executive can't necessarily run a ballclub any better than a world-class athlete can hit a curveball. The brilliant executive can be an inspiring leader, managing and empowering his charges. He can define what kind of people he wants working in the organization, hire them, set expectations, evaluate them, act on them. He can fire people. He can order case studies and surveys of best practices. He can analyze statistics and devise processes, enact them, evaluate them, refine them, start over from scratch if need be. He can maintain outstanding communication with his staff, with his bosses, with the public. He can do all these things reliably, even predictably, because he simply has the tools and the skills.
For all that, however, the brilliant executive can't necessarily tell you whether it's better to overspend on Raul Ibañez or Kerry Wood. He can't necessarily devise a process to tell you that, and he can't necessarily hire the right person to tell you that, either. Nor can he devise a process to hire the right person to tell you that. It doesn't always come down to objective analysis or having a good process. Sometimes it comes down to talent: the talent to play, the talent to evaluate talent, the talent to develop talent, and the judgment to make decisions about talent.
Sometimes — often, maybe — it comes down to reasons we can never comprehend or codify, pitiful schleppers that we are.
Evaluating talent is a special skill, and here I can speak with some experience. Most of my professional life is centered around my ability to identify genuine talent — musical talent, IT talent, and even writing talent — people who reliably will perform at a high or exceptionally high level, just about 100 percent of the time. I have, on occasion, identified individuals with weak paper qualifications who later went on to excel in their field. In some cases, they thrived in part because I gave them an opportunity and aided their development. In other cases, their success was inevitable, and I just saw it earlier than some others.
I am not suggesting, by any stretch of the imagination, that I have the ability to judge baseball talent. Maybe, if I'd spent 20 years working as a baseball professional, learning from thousands of discussions with scouts and making and testing my own observations — maybe then, but perhaps not even then. For whatever it's worth, though, I can tell you that my ability to assess a person's talents is entirely intuitive. I have no ability to explain it, or to teach anyone else how to do it. I can be highly analytical in my assessments of people, breaking down facts and metrics, making rules and devising grading systems to create rankings — and I can teach these things by rote and by example. However, none of that has anything to do with being able to differentiate reliably between a high ceiling and a low ceiling.
I can't tell you for sure that it's the same for baseball, but I worry that it is. Most of the people reading this could be trained in the rudiments of being a low-level scout — doing your homework and measuring some kid's raw tools on the field. Skills are another thing entirely — evaluating footwork and positioning on defense, observing quality of command across a variety of pitches, intuiting the difference between a bad day and a chronic problem. Beyond these, another level, the crucial, game-changing question: Will this ballplayer develop skills beyond what he's showing today? How does he project to a different level at a different age, or even just to a different ballpark in a different league?
I have no doubt that great baseball scouts learned a lot from the great scouts who came before them, and I have no doubt that a gifted executive can learn immensely from a great scout, purely by his ability to listen and communicate and absorb. At the same time, I am quite sure that the greatest talent evaluators in the game are possessed of something that is innate and ineffable. And I am genuinely concerned that the Indians don't employ any of those people — and that, in fact, Shapiro may have favored others in the organization to the point where the best evaluators left.
Take a look at the AP report of Neal Huntington being hired away by the Pirates:
Huntington formerly was the assistant general manager to the Indians' Mark Shapiro, but dropped behind vice president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti and assistant general manager John Mirabelli on the front office depth chart two years ago.
Huntington accepted a different role in 2005, Shapiro said, because Antonetti's skills were in the management and administrative side, while Huntington's were in evaluation and scouting.
"My skill set and passion were more that of an evaluator, but they never technically took me out of the front office," Huntington said. "I was exposed to some incredible things -- rebuilding an organization and being involved in every decision, every tough decision, that was made."
And from the MLB.com report:
As an adviser to Shapiro and vice president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti, Huntington was involved in nearly all personnel and staffing decisions, as well as trade acquisition discussions. He also spent the majority of his time evaluating talent on both the Minor and Major League level.
When asked about Huntington, Shapiro responded: "[Huntington is] one of our chief evaluators and one of our strongest voices on every level," Shapiro said.
Here's a guy who was the highest-ranking evaluator in the organization and possibly the best, a guy with a master's degree in sports management from UMass, and essentially, he was passed over — well treated, perhaps, but pointedly not in line for a future role as GM. So too, perhaps, was John Farrell, who upon leaving Cleveland — quite amicably, as Huntington did — was quoted to say that he was looking to have a larger voice in an organization. Farrell had been a major league pitcher and a college pitching coach, and with the Indians he served stints as Farm Director and Director of Player Development. Despite his experience and impeccable reputation, Farrell too was not viewed as the future leader of the organization.
Years earlier, there was Tony LaCava, whom the Indians hired in 2002 as national cross-checker, essentially rescuing him from the sinking-ship Montreal Expos. As the Expos very recent Farm Director, LaCava naturally was instrumental in selecting the prospects to be received in the Colon deal, which is not only Shapiro's signature trade, but arguably the most successful trade of a veteran for prospects by any GM, ever. LaCava, too, was not retained in the Indians organization, moving on to the Blue Jays as Assistant GM in 2003, just one year later, while John Mirabelli continued his string of generally disastrous drafts.
Like Huntington, LaCava is going to be a GM sooner or later, yet he wasn't good enough to be Assistant GM in Cleveland. None of these guys were given large enough roles in the organization to keep them around, and no doubt the Indians were possessed of too much executive talent to keep in-house — a nice problem to have. Still, given how things have gone since, it's telling that the prince-in-waiting anointment, and present-day "co-GM" status, went not to an ace evaluator, but instead to Antonetti, a man whose background and skill set are more or less identical to Shapiro's.
For all the talk about being open to all ideas and all viewpoints, the major player-evaluation talent in the Indians organization was basically told that being a solid administrator was more important, and that their path to bigger jobs would have to be in some other, presumably less enlightened organization — and never mind that it doesn't matter how well administered your organization is if you don't know who the best talent is. (Is it any wonder, then, that when Shapiro hires a former catcher for a manager, he then populates his coaching staff almost entirely with other former catchers? All leaders lead by example, first and foremost.)
This is not to say that an executive without a scouting background cannot be an outstanding GM, but it's noteworthy that other organizations that have gone with the "Ivy League whiz kid" GM model tend to have a "wise old baseball man" figure hanging close by, advising the gifted non-scout executive. The Red Sox had Bill Lajoie attached to Theo Epstein; Allard Baird is in that role now, while Lajoie is now advising Huntington in Pittsburgh. The Rays put Gerry Hunsicker with Andrew Friedman, and down in Texas, Jon Daniels has access to no less than John Hart and Nolan Ryan. But when non-scout-gifted-executives Shapiro and Antonetti huddle to make the big decisions, who are the wise old evaluators in the room — Charles Nagy and Jason Bere?
Later that night, at home, Adriana and Christopher discuss Visiting Day's potential. Hip-hop mogul "Massive Genius" has told Adriana that the band's demos are promising.
CHRISTOPHER: You know how I use the technique of positive visualization?
ADRIANA: I know you talk about it. You're fairly negative a lot of the time.
CHRISTOPHER: I think you should mentally prepare for the possibility that Visiting Day sucks.
CHRISTOPHER: I think that ... the only reason you've gotten this far with Massive is ... he wants to be in your pants.
ADRIANA: Boy, oh, boy.
CHRISTOPHER: Look, I had some experts listen to the demo ... they crapped all over it. Sorry.
ADRIANA: Who, Hesh? That old synagogue cantor?
CHRISTOPHER: Silvio. Hey, he owned rock clubs in Asbury. You heard what Squid said. A professional engineer.
ADRIANA: What about my opinion? That it's good. That it's special. This is just a way for you to keep me down.
CHRISTOPHER: That ain't fair.
ADRIANA: What's wrong with it, huh? What's wrong with Visiting Day?
CHRISTOPHER: I don't know ... but it's a problem that you don't know.
This series of articles perhaps has only demonstrated the obvious, that a club this bad — which decides in June that it must not only tank the current season but the next season at the same time — has suffered multiple failures in more than one part of the organization. In any one area, we can talk about how much control that one group of people — coaches, scouts, trainers — really had, compared to the influence of the other groups and the whims of the fates. But a systemic failure points ultimately to Shapiro, who hired and is accountable for all of those groups, and the harsh truth is that every club must contend with the whims of the fates — or fail to contend with them, as the Indians have.
Amateur scouting has been a disaster since Shapiro took over; maybe time will reveal that it was fixed two or three years ago, but maybe not. Big-league scouting has been a mixed bag, with veteran acquisitions missing a lot more often than they hit — in Barfield's case, about four times more often. The training staff has won high praise from some in the industry, but they haven't stopped the Indians from being undercut severely by injuries to a half-dozen key players in just two years — in some cases, multiple injuries and disappointing rehab processes have afflicted a single player like Jake Westbrook over and over again. The farm system has been another mixed bag, producing too many players who dominate at Triple-A but can barely perform at replacement level in the majors. If all clubs were like the Indians in this regard, those MLE formulas might look a lot different.
We had a manager whose playing-time decisions often defied any imaginable logic or reason, who thought it was important to have Ramon Vazquez on his bench rather than future 30-30 man Brandon Phillips, and who thought it was a good idea to put Ryan Garko in the outfield, with a rookie flyball pitcher on the mound — scratch that, ever — and we had a GM who let him do these things. It's true that Shapiro fired Wedge, and he may be sincere in saying that bringing in a new manager is an exciting opportunity. Even so, Shapiro made it abundantly clear that he didn't think there was any real, qualitative reason why Wedge shouldn't continue to be the manager — his exact words were, "it's a cop-out."
We had extraordinarily bad — and sometimes historically bad — bullpens in 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2009. Those volcanic fiascos were, at least, largely Shapiro's direct creations, and at most, entirely the fault of Shapiro and people who were hired by Shapiro, and who generally have not been fired by Shapiro. They have turned too many contenders into also-rans, too many decent squads into train-wrecks, and too many season ticket holders into non-customers.
The sum of these observations is this one, frightening, inescapable conclusion: Shapiro has not given us any concrete reason to believe that he knows how to put people into critical positions who are capable of evaluating, developing and coaching real talent — the kind that can thrive at the major league level. Without people in key roles who are possessed of that kind of judgment and talent, it doesn't make any difference how good your organizational processes are or how much class-acting you do. We cannot contend on a diet of trade-acquired minor leaguers and recycled starting pitchers alone. If these things weren't clear five years ago, or even one year ago, they ought to be crystal clear now.
I am just a scribe, neither scout nor coach, not a baseball executive and certainly not a former major leaguer. So I don't really know what's wrong with the Cleveland Indians. But it's a problem if Mark Shapiro doesn't know either. And as much respect for him as I have, I'm not at all convinced that he does.