Interview with Dave Cameron, the Mariners Blogger and Fangraphs Columnist who Ranked the Braves #8
Dave Cameron, founder of the U.S.S. Mariner blog, frequent Fangraphs columnist,
and Wall Street Journal contributor, is one of the best writers and
sabermetricians on the web that I know. He recently wrote
organizational breakdowns for all 30 teams, and ranked the Braves as
the 8th best franchise in baseball. He was kind enough to answer a few questions.
1. First things first: I wanted to ask about your organizational rankings, which we linked to here. Considering the 90-loss season we just had, an overall grade of A- and a #8 ranking seemed like great news around here. Still, we were behind the Mets, even though in your breakdowns we trump them both in the front office and in the minors. Can you explain how you value each of the components? Considering that you place the Braves in the top 8 of all major league franchises, does that mean you think this is a playoff team?
There’s no algebraic formula for the weights of each ranking. Instead, look at it like an assembly line. Each piece is important, though some more so than others. If you were building a car, and you had a great frame, a perfect engine, and a leather interior, but you forgot to add tires, you have a machine that doesn’t work. But you also have a machine that is easily fixed — just add tires and you’re good to go. If you leave out the engine, that’s a bigger problem. Teams with ownership who won’t invest in the team got docked more than teams with a poor minor league system, and a good front office is more important than currently having good major league talent, but total failure in any area is a significant problem.
And as you’ll notice, the top three teams in the rankings are all from the AL East. Obviously, only two of those three can make the playoffs in a given year, so ending up in the top eight does not mean that I’m predicting that the Braves will be playing in October. The Mets are the best team in that division, and the Phillies are still ahead of the Braves as well. But Atlanta is better than people think, and they certainly could surprise some folks and take the division or wild card.
2. When it comes to your Mariners, you’ve packed a lot of success and heartbreak into just one short decade. Just 9 years ago, the M’s tied the all-time wins record; just last year, they lost 101 games. Based on their new front office, minor league system, and the young core on the ML roster, you ranked them 15th out of 30 teams. They’ve already shown how fast you can go from success to failure, and you’re already projecting them as being close to success again. How did they go from such a high to such a low in so short a time, and how much does it have to do with the personal strengths and weaknesses of Pat Gillick and Bill Bavasi? What do the Mariners need to do to become a perennial contender again?
Pat Gillick has an operating plan that allows the team to win while he’s in charge, and then he leaves just as the franchise falls to ruins and lets someone else clean up his mess. In some ways, Bill Bavasi inherited an impossible situation — an aging team that had no chance of success but was expected to contend based on past performance. Given that circumstance, I don’t think anyone could have won with the ‘03-’06 Mariners teams. But that doesn’t absolve Bavasi of his mistakes, and he made a lot of them. He just got left behind in the move towards better analytical decision making, and ended up paying through the nose for things that don’t matter - proven veteran leadership, clutch hitting, clubhouse influence, stuff like that. The total inability to judge pitching talent didn’t help either.
For the M’s to become a contender again, they needed to join the 21st century, and that’s what Zduriencik has brought to the franchise since taking over. Tony Blengino is running a department of baseball research, the team hired Tom Tango to consult on personnel decisions, and they are building a video database to allow them to integrate scouting and statistical analysis for decision making purposes. With a process in place that emphasizes making decisions based on evidence and reason, not gut feelings and magic wishes, the team is set up to do well going forward.
3. You’ve been a familiar face in Mariners circles and general baseball circles for quite some time, and you’re writing for the Wall Street Journal as well. How did you get into sabermetrics? What are you working on now? What is one baseball question that you would like to understand better? Now that you’re writing for the WSJ, what do you wish the general baseball audience understood a little better?
I first got exposed to more statistical ways of viewing baseball while reading Rob Neyer’s column on ESPN and posting in a Usenet newsgroup about the Mariners. This began in 1994 or so. As for what I’m working on now, there’s a few things kicking around in my head with regards to an improved draft structure that I think will be interesting to tackle. With the Wall Street Journal, I just want to lower the barrier that keep people from understanding basic things about how baseball works. On-base percentage is the easiest thing in the world — times on base divided by opportunities — it shouldn’t be intimidating to anyone.
4. You’ve had a little more opportunity to watch Japanese players than we have in Atlanta, from Ichiro and Kenji Johjima to Shiggy Hasegawa and Kaz Sasaki. We just signed Kenshin Kawakami to a 3-year deal, and while I’m looking forward to seeing him and his hitchy delivery — he just one-hit the Nats last night in spring training — I’m still a little worried that he might bust or forget the strike zone entirely, like Kei Igawa. What sort of factors have led to the success of Japanese players, particularly Japanese pitchers, in the major leagues? Are there any tendencies that make failure more or less likely?
There’s no such thing as “Japanese players.” There are baseball players from Japan, and they are very different from player to player. Hideo Nomo wasn’t anything like Hideki Irabu. Ichiro isn’t anything like Hideki Matsui. Kenji Johjima isn’t anything like Akinori Iwamura. The only thing Igawa and Kawakami have in common is ancestry. If he fails, it won’t be because there’s a systematic issue that keeps Japanese players from succeeding in the majors.
5. If you were Commissioner of Baseball, what is the one thing you would change?
I’d ban the current commissioner from ever making a public appearance again.
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