Sandy Alderson, the (Sort of) Early Years

Now that the hiring of Sandy Alderson as the new Mets general manager is a virtual done deal, I thought this would be a good time to share with you a clip from what I often refer to on my own blog as The Vast and Dusty Scratchbomb VHS Archives. I have a tape with a couple of spring training previews from 1988. One was done by MLB and hosted by Mel Allen. The other was produced by NBC Sports and featured their stable of baseball announcers: Marv Albert, Vin Scully, and Joe Garagiola, among others. The clip I'm about to share comes from the latter.

Those of you old enough to recall may remember that going into the 1988 season, the Oakland A's were considered the team to beat. They challenged the Twins for the AL West title in 1987, and though they fell short, they fortified themselves that winter with acquisitions like Bob Welch, Dave Parker, and rookie Walt Weiss (which inspired the addition by subtraction of Alfredo Griffin). The architect of this team, which would go on to win the American League pennant for the next three seasons, was Sandy Alderson.

In this clip, Alderson receives a few brief interviews, and actually gives a nod to statistical analysis. It may seem like "no duh" statistical analysis to say that home runs win ballgames, but keep in mind this was in the small ball, artificial turf decade of the 1980s. He also acknowledges his law degree, but says his Marine Corps training is much more important to his baseball work. 

 

Alderson has a great deal of respect in baseball circles, and yet I still think he's grossly overlooked and underappreciated (or, if you're Ian O'Connor, ridiculously maligned). Moneyball painted him as little more than Billy Beane's mentor, which is unfair at best. Anyone who wants a good perspective on exactly what Alderson did for Oakland--and baseball--should ready Alan Schwarz's The Number Game. (In fact, if you like baseball at all, it is imperative you read this book. It is full of amazing, virtually unknown details about the game's statistical history, and also shows that the Nerds vs. Jocks battle is anything but new.)

Alderson worked his way through the A's front office from legal counsel to GM, despite having no prior baseball experience of any kind. But being a blank slate allowed him to look at the game with fresh eyes, and to be receptive when he ran across an early sabermetric evangelist.

Shortly before being elevated to the GM position, he heard baseball commentator Eric Walker on NPR and sought out his work. (Adam Rubin recently did a great interview with Walker here.) Walker's most impassioned cause was on-base percentage. Even before Bill James gave that stat much study, Walker championed the idea that the best judge of a player's offensive worth was his likelihood to make an out. It made perfect sense to Alderson--or at least more sense than trying to construct a winning team without any sort of data, which is what virtually every other team staffed by baseball lifers did.

Once Alderson became GM, he hired Walker to write annual analyses of the A's and make recommendations for acquisitions. These were the essential blueprints for Oakland's future dynasty. In the conservative, anti-intellectual world of MLB front offices, building your franchise around number crunching was unheard of--so unheard of, in fact, that Alderson tried to keep his Secret Weapon under wraps. Very few people in the Oakland organization even knew who Walker was, let alone what he did for the team.

Of course, now his methods are no longer considered madness. No modern front office would dream of building their team without some sort of advanced (and occasionally proprietary) statistical analysis. More than anyone else, Alderson is responsible for this. I think Mets fans can be encouraged by these words from Walker, when asked how he would do if hired by New York:

If the Mets do indeed go with him, there will be, I reckon, some deep changes throughout the organization, and it will come out much the better for it at the end. It would be real fun to see him working with a decent budget in an era in which he would no longer have to be fighting superstition...I think, frankly, that if the organization works with him, he’ll work well with the organization. If the organization as it is doesn’t work well with him, there will be, I suspect, changes. Not immediate. Not sweeping. He’s not the kind of guy who comes in with a new broom who throws everybody out. He’s going to try to work with what’s in place. But, in the end, people are going to comport with his view of things or they won’t be around is my opinion.

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