clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Worst GM Poll: J.P. Ricciardi vs. Ned Colletti

UPDATE: This poll is now closed.

Here's the second match of the quarterfinal round. Jon Daniels vs. Bill Bavasi is still open, so get your votes in there, because that one will close when the next poll opens.

This match pits Toronto's J.P. Ricciardi (6) against the Dodgers' Ned Colletti (3).

Ricciardi actually made a fairly significant move since his match last week, dumping Frank Thomas' contract rather than letting Thomas collect a vesting option on his contract by accumulating plate appearances. As a result, the Jays are going with Matt Stairs and Rod Barajas at DH.

Anyway, Ricciardi's situation is that he won the Jays' job as a sabermetric-friendly GM, then spent his first several years ruthlessly implementing one of the worst aspects of some early-00s sabermetrics by spending his best draft picks on one low-upside college player after another. As a result, he has failed to draft and develop the sorts of stars the Jays need to compete against the Red Sox and Yankees. He has also recently behaved as if the Jays were very close to a playoff berth, bringing in B-grade stars like Troy Glaus and A.J. Burnett, even though the Jays' talent level has been far below Boston and New York throughout most of Ricciardi's tenure. He also unwisely handed $126 million to Vernon Wells even though Wells is now 29 and has only had two seasons in his career with an OPS+ above 105.

We discussed Ricciardi when he won his last match, so again, in the interest of not skewing the vote, please check out that thread if you're unfamiliar with Ricciardi's background. Most of this one will be spent discussing Colletti.

There really isn't an organization in the majors - not even the A's - that typifies the ideological twists and turns of early-21st-century baseball better than the Dodgers. After missing the playoffs for seven consecutive years, they hired A's assistant GM Paul DePodesta in early 2004. DePodesta pulled off a spectacular trade at midseason, dealing overrated catcher Paul Lo Duca, outfielder Juan Encarnacion and reliever Guillermo Mota to the Marlins for pitcher Brad Penny, first baseman Hee Seop Choi and prospect Bill Murphy. The next day, DePodesta sent Murphy to the Diamondbacks in a four-player trade, receiving Steve Finley. Finley played well down the stretch and hit a walk-off grand slam on October 2 to clinch the division for the Dodgers on the next-to-last day of the season. Penny emerged in 2005 as a legitimate #2 starter, then became one of the best pitchers in the National League in 2007. And none of the players DePodesta traded ever did anything interesting.

It didn't matter. The Los Angeles media vilified DePodesta with almost religious zeal, acting as if he were a spreadsheet-fetishizing bureaucrat, a useful idiot whose numbers were being used to destroy hearts and souls everywhere and bring the storied Dodgers franchise to his knees. It was as if he were the calculator-punching baseball equivalent of Arthur Henderson or something.

The Dodgers' miserable 71-91 record in 2005 appeared to prove the critics right, but the fact was that DePodesta was in an unwinnable situation. The team he inherited contained almost no one who was still useful by the time 2005 rolled around. Most of DePodesta's big-ticket acquisitions - Penny, J.D. Drew, Derek Lowe, Jeff Kent - worked out just fine. And DePodesta had a manger in Jim Tracy who actively disagreed with DePodesta's philosophies and seemed more concerned with making him look bad than with winning baseball games.

But whatever. The Dodgers' ownership gave in to the chattering idiots and fired DePodesta after just a year and a half on the job. In his place, the Dodgers hired Colletti, whose philosophy seemed diametrically opposed to DePodesta's. Colletti worked under Brian Sabean in San Francisco and represented baseball's old guard. When asked about VORP, a very basic and useful new stat that every GM should be aware of, Colletti memorably replied, ''I may be using it and not even know it, and if I am, it's nobody's business. There are a lot of different criteria in judging players. I think I use, um, esoteric qualitative mathematical review times five. That's one of them."

The ha-ha anti-intellectualism of this response must have warmed the hearts (and souls!) of LA's media, who practically threw Colletti a parade. A parade with lots of heart! And soul! And guts! And no pocket protectors! Or calculators! Ha ha, nerds!

For all that, though, Colletti's first offseason was a qualified success. He dumped Milton Bradley on the A's and received a decent player in Andre Ethier in return. He signed Rafael Furcal, which worked out relatively well, and Nomar Garciaparra, which worked for one year, at least. He signed Takashi Saito to a cheap contract, and that turned out briliantly. Colletti did deal two fairly interesting prospects (Edwin Jackson and Chuck Tiffany) for two pretty dubious relievers, so that was a warning sign, but other than that, Colletti's first few months on the job were fine.

During the 2006 season, though, things started to go awry. First, Colletti traded Jae Weong Seo and Dioner Navarro for Toby Hall and Mark Hendrickson. Now, ignoring for a second the fact that Seo isn't any good and that it's questionable whether Navarro will ever develop into a good big league catcher, why would you trade a 22-year-old big-leaguer for Toby Hall? And Mark Hendrickson?

Luckily for Dodgers fans, several young players already in the farm system when Colletti arrived were so good that it quickly became impossible to take them out of the lineup. But it soon became clear that whenever there was any question about a young player, Colletti preferred to find a veteran, regardless of how dubious that veteran might be.

Colletti's 2006-2007 offseason was awful. Rather than being satisfied with the one good year he got out of the rickety Garciaparra, Colletti resigned him to a two-year contract, even though he had terrific prospects (Andy LaRoche and James Loney) ready or nearly ready at both positions Garciaparra played, plus another useful and fairly young third baseman in Wilson Betemit. He signed the nearly worthless Luis Gonzalez to play the outfield even though he had Matt Kemp banging on the door there. He signed Jason Schmidt to a deal that seemed reasonable at the time but that so far has failed to generate any returns.

And, finally, Colletti signed banjo-hitting, noodle-armed outfielder Juan Pierre to an insane five-year deal that sent the Heart-and-Soul Train careening at warp speed into the brick wall of reality.

Until now the reader may be forgiven for thinking this post is a polemic against observation-based analysis. It's not, and there isn't a good organization in baseball that doesn't understand why scouting is important. The recent history of the Atlanta franchise clearly proves the point.

What I oppose is the knee-jerk rejection of statistical analysis, and the use of vague appeals to heart and soul to excuse complete cluelessness. Have you ever seen Juan Pierre play? I have. He's not a good baseball player, and any scout worth his or her salt should be able to see that. He can't throw, he doesn't play otherwise spectacular defense, he can barely hit the ball out of the infield, he doesn't get on base, and he doesn't steal bases terribly efficiently. He's fast. That's about it.

So why did Colletti sign Pierre? I don't think the answer has to do with scouting at all. Instead, it's knee-jerk anti-stats all the way. Here's what Colletti had to say at the time:

"Juan's ability to hit combined with his speed make him a perfect catalyst for our lineup," general manager Ned Colletti said. "I've long admired how he plays the game."

The "how he plays the game" part is pretty obvious BS. As for his "ability to hit"... really? What ability is that? The best I can figure is that Pierre posts high batting averages. And speed? He gets caught stealing a fair amount, so how much value can that really have? Not much, unless you value stolen base totals without considering the caught stealings.

Ultimately, the really important word in that quote is "catalyst." Colletti didn't seem to see Pierre for what he was; instead, he saw him for what he represented - the speedy, slap-hitting centerfielder who always led off back in the old days, back when baseball was good. Admittedly, I'm speculating some here, but I think that viewing the debate going on in baseball as stats-versus-scouting misses the point a little bit. I don't think the Pierre signing was about scouting at all, since basic scouting would have revealed what every twerp with a blog already knew - that Pierre stinks. Instead, it was about clinging to outdated statistics like batting average and stolen bases, and about favoring players based on how well they fit into certain value systems and templates - Pierre as the sort of speedy, slap-hitting veteran outfielder that every team needs, rather than Pierre as the non-hitting, defensively-challenged liability he actually is.

Many of the really high-functioning organizations in baseball right now - Boston, Arizona, Tampa, Milwaukee - have already figured out that the stats-vs.-scouts debate is a red herring. The really major change that statistical analysis brought about wasn't the marginalization of scouts, but rather the proper use of statistics. All statistical analysis should've done is to reorient scouts' jobs a little bit. Colletti's signing of Pierre didn't really have to do with scouting, it probably just had to do with an antiquated view of baseball, and an antiquated view of how numbers should be used in baseball.

The 2007 Dodgers won just 82 games, and their success was due almost entirely to players acquired before Colletti arrived, some of whom he'd tried to block in the offseason: Russell Martin, Loney, Kent, Kemp, Penny, Lowe, Jonathan Broxton, Chad Billingsley. The only Colletti acquisitions who really played well were relievers Saito and Rudy Seanez and reserve infielder Betemit. Furcal, Ethier, Gonzalez and Randy Wolf were all mediocre; Pierre, Hendrickson, David Wells, Brett Tomko and any number of other part-timers were just awful. Some of that has to do with the fact that role players rotate in and out more quickly than stars, but the non-contributions of Colletti's players were still striking.

In the 2007-2008 offseason, Colletti's big moves were the acquisitions of Hiroki Kuroda and Andruw Jones, as well as the hiring of Joe Torre as the Dodgers' new manager. Jones hasn't worked out so far, but the money Colletti gave him was reasonable. The early returns on Kuroda are somewhat promising, although the jury is out. Notably, though, the Dodgers are still messing around with Kemp (whose outstanding combination of power, average and speed give him the look of a future star), using him in a time-share with Pierre. There's no reason for this except either stubbornness or plain old stupidity. Neither of these qualities befits a major-league GM.

...And now I've gone off on a huge rant about Colletti, probably meaning that the vote is forever tainted. Whatever. I guess objectivity can never be achieved. But, while I don't have time to do it right now, a similar article could've been written about Ricciardi, but from a different angle. He, too, positioned himself poorly when statistical analysis began to gain influence, in that he used the worst feature of statistical analysis at the time - the belief in drafting college players over high schoolers - to shoot his organization in the foot over and over again.