One of the things you hear all the time in baseball analysis, especially from people who think of themselves as “data-driven” or “analytical,” is that the appropriate way to judge people and decisions is on the process, not the results. Smart moves don’t always pay off, and bad ones turn out just fine sometimes, so the outcome of a choice isn’t the most important aspect of assessing a decision (if it should be considered at all).
What goes less often discussed is that assessing process is much easier said than done. We don’t know how the sausage gets made—what the scouts said, what the analysts suggested, if the owner thought it was worth his money. (In baseball, unfortunately, it’s always his money, but that’s an article for another day.) We in the public sphere judge transactions based on the eye test, some reports from aspiring scouts, and incomplete public analytics like PECOTA. A major league organization has numerous people with substantial expertise working full-time in each of these areas, so it would be foolish to think they have the same approach or rely on the same information as even the most knowledgeable fan. Puzzling out why a decision was made is even harder in the case of the White Sox, as the precise division of responsibility between Executive Vice President Kenny Williams and GM Rick Hahn remains unclear nearly four years after they assumed their current positions.
Of course, if you don’t know what information someone relied on to make a decision, you can’t really judge the process. We adjust for randomness and unknown factors when we assess on-field performance, and we are forced to do the same for front office moves. It’s Bayesian reasoning in an informal, elementary sense—after enough promising moves go south, or enough puzzlers turn out pretty well, you start to figure that there’s something important we’re missing. The challenge, then, is figuring out what to do when you can’t regress to the mean or talk about stabilization points; indeed, it’s not clear what such concepts would even look like if we wanted to rigorously analyze front offices in a quantitative manner, and qualitatively things aren’t any more obvious.
For instance, with the Marcus Semien/Jeff Samardzija and Trayce Thompson/Todd Frazier deals, Rick Hahn’s had two straight off-seasons where a player who looked like a bench contributor for the White Sox performed on par with the marquee name he was traded for, despite the trades’ being fairly well-received initially. But who’s to blame for those two suboptimal outcomes? How much is on the coaching staff for not helping players make adjustments day-to-day? Pro scouting and analytics for having a bad handle on talent? Player development for failing to nourish prospects? How much is on Rick Hahn for pulling the trigger? Or Kenny Williams for that matter? How much responsibility do the latter two have for hiring and firing the first four (especially given Jerry Reinsdorf’s well-known loyalty to front office staffers)? And how much of all of this is just bad luck?
Without being inside the organization at the time of the trades, we don’t know what their expectations were or where things went wrong. We just know that the results don’t look great, and while that tells us something, it’s hard to be sure exactly what.
You can ask the same questions for some of the more ignominious moves the White Sox have made the last few years—signing Jeff Keppinger and Emilio Bonifacio, sticking with Gordon Beckham and Dayan Viciedo, trading for and sticking with Avisail Garcia, trading for Matt Davidson, everything involved in this season’s carousel of fourth and fifth starters, anything having to do with Robin Ventura, bunts, and bullpens—without it becoming any more clear to an outsider where the biggest problems lie. (Well, not entirely. The White Sox’s decision to not spend money on—and in some cases literally steal money from—amateur talent for a solid decade was a pretty obvious problem, and the corresponding debilitation of the farm system has led to many of the regrettable moves mentioned above. As it stands, the particular issue regarding amateur talent acquisition seems to have been mostly resolved, though its effects will continue to linger for a couple more years.)
Of course, the Sox have also made some very successful moves the last couple years, acquiring four-win player Adam Eaton for a sixth starter and quasi-ace Jose Quintana as a minor league free agent. Those also have to be included when assessing how good the front office as presently constituted is, but given how unexpected the results have been, it’s a fair (but unanswerable) question to ask if even the optimists in the front office really saw them coming.
Stretches like the White Sox’s last six weeks are the sort of things that make a fanbase start reaching for the pitchforks, for reasons I don’t have to explain. Ultimately, what frustrates me is not just the reappearance of some of the same issues that have plagued the team for years; it’s that as an outsider I can’t speak confidently about what their exact issues are (nor do I trust any diagnosis from someone without sources inside the front office). Do I think the brain trust has been particularly impressive on the whole? No, but that doesn’t mean I can pretend that I know the problem is Rick Hahn, or the scouts, or anyone else, so a purge in the front office wouldn’t exactly inspire confidence in me. Only one member of the front office both signs the checks and helms another franchise with a reputation for squandering opportunities. Unfortunately, firing the owner isn’t particularly straightforward.
That potent uncertainty makes it harder to predict what they’ll do next, understand the implications of what they have done, or be hopeful about any future moves. Appropriately, that makes the White Sox front office of the 2010s pretty comparable to the team itself: occasionally thrilling, more often frustrating, and on the whole mostly puzzling. It’s not a problem unique to this franchise, but it certainly gets tiresome when nothing seems to change over more than half a decade.
Lead Image Credit: Mark J. Rebilas // USA Today Sports Images