When we look back in 25, 50, 100 years at the turn of the century in terms of its place in baseball history — assuming we are both still around and still care about baseball history — it will be remembered for the emergence of sabermetrics and statistical analysis in public baseball discussion. Well, that among other things. This type of stuff was around for a while before this, but it was clearly popularized when Moneyball the book came out and again when the movie was released. The story, of course, is that the A’s used different sorts of numbers to identify undervalued players to be able to compete with the richest teams in baseball despite a meager payroll.
While Moneyball is generally thought of as the catalyst to sabermetrics taking a firm place in public discussion, the numbers themselves really aren’t the point story in the grand scheme of things. Yes, the A’s used OBP instead of batting average and all of that, but the lesson to take away is that teams must look for advantages being ignored by other teams around the league. Market inefficiencies are how you win consistently at the highest level. To put it another way, if you want to be competitive, you have to figure out when and how to zig where the rest of the league is zagging.
As we sit here today in mid-September, the Red Sox find themselves at a crossroads of sorts. They do, to be fair, have one of the best young cores of position players in the league, but they also have (self-imposed or no) payroll concerns as well as questions in their pitching staff. On top of that, of course, they are without a leader in their front office. The Red Sox organization has a decision to make. They can go along zagging with the rest of the league, or they can take a bold step and find some ways to zig.
Now, it’s easy for me to sit here on a laptop with no real stakes in this fight saying the Red Sox need to find inefficiencies. It’s a lot harder to, ya know, actually go out there and do it. On the other hand, that’s why these decision-makers make the big bucks, yeah? Anyway, it all starts with finding Dombrowski’s replacement and building the front office back up. If you look around the league, you’ll notice that basically every front office looks the same right now.
This is hardly an original thought, but an overwhelming majority of front offices are made up predominantly of white, male, Ivy League-educated front offices. Clearly, that model has worked out for a lot of teams, including the Red Sox with Theo Epstein. We’re going to see a lot of those candidates in the interview process who fit that mold from successful organizations like the Astros and Twins and Athletics, among others, and there will be a fair argument for it. The assistants in those organizations are extremely bright and very accomplished.
All of that being said, the Red Sox would be smart to look at other candidates both for GM and for lower-level positions from under-represented groups. It is never a bad thing to have divergent points of view and perspectives in and organization, not just in baseball. Raquel Ferreira is one name I keep coming back to. She has been in the organization for a couple of decades now, serving in just about every role imaginable but largely focusing on player development. For now, she is part of a foursome leading the front office in the interim until a Dombrowski replacement is named. There is no reason she shouldn’t get a legitimate chance to interview for the top job. Someone like Haley Alvarez, a scouting coordinator for the Athletics, is also an up-and-coming name who could theoretically be brought over if given a bigger role. There are certainly more women and minorities around the league who can provide some much-needed diversity of thought as the Red Sox transition to a new era.
The idea of zigging isn’t just about the hiring process to replace Dombrowski, though. It’s about the way the organization is run as a whole. The Red Sox, and every team really, has a chance to pave the way in player development whenever they choose. At this point, most every baseball fan knows how little minor-league players get paid and just generally how relatively poorly they have to live relative to their importance to the organization. With youth and prospects as valuable as ever in today’s game, there is a huge amount of value in simply making life easier for minor leaguers.
Ever if we put aside the moral responsibility of paying the minor leaguers and giving them a better day-to-day quality of life — which we clearly shouldn’t do, but will for the sake of this point — there is on-the-field benefits to be had for the first team to significantly increase pay in the minors. Prospects who are more relaxed, better rested and have more time to practice and train are almost certainly going to turn into better players. Somebody has to be the first to do make this chance, and it’s going to happen at some point. The easiest way for the Red Sox to improve their player development is to open their wallets.
And that brings me to the final point, and perhaps the most obvious inefficiency in the game right now. It is, in fact, a major reason the Red Sox were the best team of this century just a year ago. Spend money, and put the chips towards the major-league roster. Baseball, like basically every other league, is a copycat league. When a team wins the World Series, lessons are usually taken and stolen. The Royals popularized mega-bullpens, especially in the postseason. The Astros and Cubs brought the full tank to the mainstream. The Red Sox bucked trends by spending in free agency and on their roster in general and pushing in prospects in trades for veterans. Teams didn’t copy that, though, and that advantage still exists for whoever wants it.
Ultimately, I feel like most of this is wishful thinking more than anything. The Red Sox are probably going to model their front office around every other group in the league because it is the safest choice. They probably aren’t going to be the team to buck the trend in minor-league compensation because right now no one wants to be the team to go against the league. They probably aren’t going to spend big in free agency and just in general year after year because the luxury tax has been turned into a de facto cap. The Red Sox have an infrastructure in place that they can be successful even without being overly creative. We came into this century being taught to find the market inefficiencies, be bold and build something memorable. Boston has a chance to do all of that right now.