Character and Analytics: Doug Melvin @ SABR | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

Milwaukee Brewers general manager Doug Melvin cut his organizational teeth working the computer for the New York Yankees organization. Starting in 1979, Melvin worked with one of three organizations to feature a specific computer model. During a recent Society for American Baseball Research Analytics Conference, Melvin recounted his tales of lugging the computer around, setting it up and taking it down. At one point, he noted that the organization might be better off tracking data with crayons to keep notes.

If everyone in baseball now uses advanced metrics to some degree, the difference remains in the human element, and the application of those metrics. Melvin discussed this in detail during the his panel at the Conference, along with general managers Chris Antonetti of the Cleveland Indians and Jerry Dipoto of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the Arizona meeting, but thankfully, SABR posted the full audio from the session (including Q and A), as well as printed excerpts of key quotes.

SABR Analytics General Managers Panel: http://sabr.org/latest/sabranalytics-general-managers-panel (copyright SABR 2012)

Let it be known that I have been critical of Melvin’s moves in the past, and in years past, I’ve questioned whether the Brewers needed to get new sets of eyes to overlook their organization. Like most baseball fans, I made those decisions without full knowledge of the organizational structure and interactions within the Brewers’ franchise, and it shows — Doug Melvin has several more playoff games under his belt than I do, and decades of top notch organizational experience. If the delightful, surprising 96-win season last year was unexpected, it was also a trump card, and I decided to sit back and learn my lessons.

It turns out the Brewers absolutely have a pioneer, and a critical judge of character at the head of their baseball operations.

Melvin underscored the human side of the game by noting that there are elements of players’ lives that affect their performance from time to time; this seeps into the evaluation process. One particular story pitted a fine 17-year old prospect against a group of evaluators during Melvin’s time with Earl Weaver’s Baltimore Orioles organization. The kid was unmotivated, and hardly lived up to his previous billing — the Orioles’ brass eventually learned that the kid just learned of his parents’ divorce upon leaving for the tryout. An extreme, singular example, sure, but Melvin needs just that note about how humanity interjects itself into the ballgame.

As you probably expected, Melvin is a true hybrid general manager, as he maintains demands of his scouts that look toward traditional toolsy evaluations. This shouldn’t necessarily be a surprise, given Melvin’s tenure with Jack Zduriencik and their best-bat available draft approach that also landed some rather well-equipped wheels and generally well-rounded players. If no one’s going to mistake Rickie Weeks and Corey Hart for 40-40 candidates, that doesn’t mean they don’t have multiple elements that make their game move.

Against his requests that his scouts look for 5-tools, Melvin challenges his statistical workers to cut through the noise. As transcribed by SABR, Melvin stated:

When it comes to metrics, the toughest job right now (in regards to analytics) is to filter through all the noise. I keep asking my people and challenging them: What are the five or six most important statistical data that can help us mesh that with the (traditional) five tools that scouts bring to the table? Every day there seems to be something new coming forth, whether it’s FIP or batting average on balls in play (BABIP) … and it’s very important.

Furthermore, Melvin’s most radical work might be in the realm of fielding analysis. The team employed exaggerated shifts last year, and Melvin stated that they were highly successful — helping the team to save approximately 75 runs. He noted that it’s especially important to have managers and coaches that are on board with this approach.

If there’s one quote that hit me throughout the entire session, it was Melvin’s statement about judging the conditions of the game. The context of analysis and baseball statistics is one of the most important aspects of getting things right, and Melvin noted that one of the toughest things about baseball is that there is never a time when the conditions are the same. Melvin stated that that’s the toughest challenge in the game — “finding absolutes.”

In order to place analysis in proper context, general managers do need to judge character, and they do need to balance human elements. Here’s where Melving appears at his best, both as a guarded general manager, and with his dry wit. Among everyday Brewers fans, Melvin’s “poker face” has some renown, and he emphasized that given contemporary communication and the multiple outlets for leaks, it is crucial to limit his phone calls when making deals and seeking out interested parties. Beyond that, Melvin is always mindful of where to find value on his roster, and he’s constantly finding the balance between his club’s pricey contracts and valuable replacements.

“It’s not like Arizona real estate,” Melvin said of baseball players’ value, noting that general managers don’t work in an environment where the contracts fall the other way. So, when he’s working with cost controlled players at key positions (he mentioned J.J. Hardy), he can use extra money elsewhere to build depth; when he’s working with larger contracts at key positions (he mentioned Rickie Weeks), he knows that he needs to build depth with smaller contracts.

Overall, Melvin comes across exactly as I expected — smart, opinionated, reserved, and witty. He clearly embraces the challenge of working in a market the size of Milwaukee, and he also understands how special the fan support is in this market. This yielded one of the biggest laughs of the session:

In 2003, when I first got here, we didn’t have a very good team. My goal was to have a team more popular than the sausage race. I haven’t gotten there yet, but we’ll keep trying.

I highly recommend checking out the audio from this session, as well as others, from the SABR Analytics Conference. I know Doug melvin will make moves that I disagree with in the future, but there’s a reason he’s been at the helm in Milwaukee for so long; hopefully, he will remain in Milwaukee for years to come.

IMAGE: http://aeryssports.com/around-the-horn/tag/doug-melvin/

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