Defending Doug Melvin | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

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

Reading site statistics after the Brewers fired Runnin’ Ron Roenicke, it is clear that fans have plenty of vitriol reserved for President & GM Doug Melvin: “Fire Doug Melvin” has lead some to the site from Google, which shouldn’t necessarily be surprising. Across Brewers fandom, even “staunch” Melvin supporters will be quick to point out that they believe their club’s GM is “good” rather than “great” or “elite,” and there are many fans who don’t even want to admit that much of the Brewers’ general manager. However, before one wastes too much breath demanding that Principal Owner Mark Attanasio fire Melvin, one must note that the sequence of events leading up to the season make a Melvin dismissal highly unlikely. Since ownership may have been negotiating some type of extension deal with Melvin, it is highly improbable that the club will suddenly go from “let’s work out a serious extension” to “you need to hit the bricks.” That said, the basic fact that Melvin may stay in Milwaukee does not necessarily mean fans cannot criticize his performance. However, is that vitriol warranted?

Mark Attanasio Impacts Key Transactions
First and foremost, before one places blame on Melvin, one must address the potential influence that Attanasio has on (a) the general outlook of the club, and (b) specific transactions. It has been clear throughout the years that Attanasio favors the idea of building a competitive club year-in, and year-out, which absolutely must impact the club’s transactions if a hierarchical chain of command exists between Owner & Chairman and President & GM. If Melvin takes order and direction from Attanasio on how the club must fare, there is a certain limit to the types of transactions he can produce. Granted, this does not automatically excuse any and all acquisitions by the GM, but it must certainly color fans’ judgments. It is highly likely that there is a back-and-forth relationship between Melvin and Attanasio, rather than a strict hierarchical relationship, but this is not necessarily an indictment on Melvin, either (who can blame a baseball GM and front office for wanting to win, after all?).

While fan understanding of (a) might be foggy at best, there is crystal clear evidence about (b) that helps fans understand Attanasio’s impact on the club. First and foremost, when the Brewers locked up Ryan Braun early in 2011, there was a distinct picture painted of full-front office involvement to make Braun “a Brewer for life.” Attanasio mentioned in the press proceedings for the signing that Braun — several years away from free agency, by the way — approached the club about becoming a Brewers player for life. This undoubtedly resulted in a type of contract negotiation that is beyond the simple purview of the GM’s “day-to-day operations,” and it is the type of transaction that exhibits Attanasio’s impact. More recently, and perhaps more infamously, Attanasio was obviously and openly involved in signing free agent Kyle Lohse, which required the club to surrender their first round draft pick in 2013. Granted, there are public comments where Melvin provides positive feedback on the signing, but that is to be expected by a master of press manipulation (or, at the very least, from a man of relatively few, and careful, words to the press). Even more recently, Attanasio was involved in negotiating with Francisco Rodriguez, which provides more evidence of a collaborative front office (at least; or, an owner-dominated front office, at its strongest).

This type of evidence is difficult for fans to handle, of course, because it’s much easier to clamor for a new GM than a new Owner. A change in ownership requires Attanasio to sell the club, whereas a change in GM is something much more probable (and, presumably, less painful to demand). Demanding a new owner, or a change in ownership strategy, requires fan demeanor to shift against the full club, whereas one can rather easily maintain positions such as “I love the Attanasio Brewers” and “I want Melvin fired.” Unfortunately, however, it is unrealistic to suggest that Melvin should have rebuilt the club years ago when it is clear that ownership direction either explicitly or implicitly guided the club away from that conclusion. This does not absolve Melvin of other day-to-day acquisitions and transactions, but again, it certainly colors judgment of the overall club direction. Fans also must ask, “if Melvin faces this level of interaction and direction from Attanasio, what types of changes will a new GM be able to make?”

Even the potentially “negative” side of Attanasio’s involvement with the club vision for transactions must be countered by the positives. For example, both Melvin and Attanasio have aggressively and effectively used arbitration buyout deals throughout the last decade. Braun (the first time), Rickie Weeks (yes, Weeks), Yovani Gallardo, Corey Hart, Carlos Gomez, Jonathan Lucroy, even Prince Fielder are key players that the Brewers aggressively signed with (at least) cost-controlled arbitration contracts and (at best) valuable (or competitive) free agency buyouts. It’s so easy to look through Melvin’s tenure and cite the Bill Hall or Jeff Suppan contracts without noting the positive culture of using relatively lucrative contracts to keep talented core players in Milwaukee for several years. This is one area of the Melvin-Attanasio braintrust that is absolutely praiseworthy in general, and specifically beneficial for a small-market club.

Melvin is a Forward-Thinking, But Quiet GM
I have written about this before, but it deserves repeating: while other GMs outwardly or openly christen their statistics departments or receive monikers to describe their analytical approach, Melvin has quietly pioneered areas of research and analysis in the MLB. Bill James provides early evidence that the Brewers were strong proponents of the fielding shift prior to its “en vogue” status in the league, which is one key area where Melvin lead his research team or organizational approach to innovate on the field. It is also well-known that Melvin poses without easy soundbites on statistics in the press, despite his work in scouting departments and developing statistical computer systems earlier in his career.

Instead of serving as an idealist, or a staunch guide of a specific statistical program, Melvin’s attitude of thoughtfulness, reflection, and critiques regarding statistics makes it more difficult to paint him as one of the game’s pioneers. Yet, there is evidence in his own professional development and strategical execution on the field that Melvin is indeed a forward-thinking GM. Fans should consider this before they clamor for Melvin’s dismissal: while it is true that the Brewers probably couldn’t put together a GM job search without tripping over statistical programmers, it is worth weighing Melvin’s own record against new GM candidates. Melvin actually has the track record of being “ahead of the game;” of their next GM, Brewers fans need to demand the same.

Melvin Improved the Scouting Department
By now, too many years have passed to use the “Melvin kept Jack Zduriencik around” line as an argument to support keeping Melvin in charge of the day-to-day baseball operations. However, following the unfortunate and unforeseen passing of Bruce Seid, Melvin hired GM prospect Ray Montgomery. The Montgomery move instantly helped the organization follow tragedy with a high-profile acquisition, which also can help fans understand a more concrete development for the future of the Brewers’ GM (many, in recent days, including myself, have speculated that Melvin may step fully into a President role, developing Montgomery into a day-to-day GM). Montgomery’s work in Arizona helped produce a Top 10 farm system (according to BaseballAmerica), which should lead Brewers fans to feel some cautious optimism.

Furthermore, as time moves forward from the Seid era, I think it is worth suggesting that (a) Seid’s draft approach clearly changed in 2014, and (b) his farm system now features more intriguing depth; on top of that, Melvin has also improved the scouting department by building a Dominican Academy and expanding international signings because of that academy. Regarding (a), Seid clearly went-for-broke with a boom/bust potential draft that looks quite different than some of the low-ceiling/high-floor picks he procured in previous drafts. The Brewers arguably have more potential impact talent in their farm system, even if those prospects may also be more likely to flame out before reaching the big club. This is more of a statement of fact about the draft itself, however, and not an indictment of Seid, who should be praised for changing his approach to aggressively land some of the best potential talent and athletes available in the last draft.

As with other areas of the day-to-day club, there are certainly areas for improvement in the Brewers’ scouting and development phases. However, there are some concrete arguments to be made about the club improving in that regard, and that should be credited (at least in part) to Melvin. Assembling a team and an approach to scouting, drafting, and development that can change is an element required of any GM, and for any mistakes the club made with previous Seid drafts, showcasing actual, concrete improvements is also a point in their favor.

The Brewers Have Had a Competitive Decade
Perhaps the most contentious argument to make to the Brewers fanbase at this point and time is to cite the Brewers’ actual record in favor of Melvin’s performance. This is an issue I’ve worked on for some time, including the lead-up to the 2014 season. First and foremost, one could argue that 2012 clearly marked an end to the Brewers’ eight-year competitive window, during which Milwaukee was one of the most productive and competitive clubs in the National League; certainly, the idea that only the Phillies, Cardinals, Dodgers, and Braves won more games and appeared in more playoff series is a mark in favor of the small market Brewers. Melvin deserves some of that credit, at the very least.

However, the argument does not simply stop with 2012, as the surges to close 2012 and 2013 complicated matters for Melvin. Melvin was basically faced with (a) the legacy of 2011, one of the greatest teams in Brewers history, (b) a set of younger players seizing jobs and performing well at the MLB level, and (c) second-half 2012 and 2013 performances that were white-hot. These circumstances produce a difficult wager: one can certainly, justifiably argue that the Brewers should have rebuilt their club sooner; however, given the second-half surges, recent success, and new youngsters performing well at the big league level, one at least must admit that the rebuild / compete judgment was more of a wager of faith than a pure, evidence-based argument. There is arguably evidence to support going for it all in 2014, which even looked great until the middle of August that year! The collapse arguably compounds the evidence in favor of rebuilding, as a cynic could argue that the collapse was simply the necessary, easily foreseen conclusion of at least three years of mismanagement.

2013 & 2014 NL 2013 2014 Total Playoffs (LCS / WS / Champ)
St. Louis 97 90 187 2 (2 / 1 / 0)
Dodgers 92 94 186 2 (1 / 0 / 0)
Pittsburgh 94 88 182 2 (0 / 0 / 0)
Washington 86 96 182 1 (0 / 0 / 0)
Atlanta 96 79 175 1 (0 / 0 / 0)
Cincinnati 90 76 166 1 (0 / 0 / 0)
Giants 76 88 164 1 (1 / 1 / 1)
Milwaukee 74 82 156
Padres 76 77 153
Mets 74 79 153
Philadelphia 73 73 146
Arizona 81 64 145
Rockies 74 66 140
Cubs 66 73 139
Miami 62 77 139

Furthermore, even given the disappointing 2013 and 2014 campaigns, the Brewers still stood straight in the middle of the National League, where only four clubs average 90-or-more wins over the span of two years.

  • 10 teams average 83 wins or worse in the 2013-2014 NL.
  • 3 playoff teams also had a losing season within those two years.
  • 7 teams managed to make the playoffs (among 10 Wild Card and Divisional spots).

Of course, fittingly, the Brewers were right in the middle of this league. Which leads one to wonder, again, how the front office could be held negligible for not rebuilding. One could argue that the Brewers could have chosen to tear it down after the collapse, which is a valid investigation to make. However, it is not necessarily the case that the Brewers were simply reckless or short-sighted for competing in 2015.

Conclusion
In the context of a mediocre National League, Brewers fans might not find Melvin’s success or competitive clubs to be that impressive. However, this is simply the environment of the league at this point in time, which makes it difficult for anyone to simply say, “it’s time to rebuild.” When the Padres, Mets, and Marlins can average fewer than 77 wins and jump to compete in 2015, it is not extreme to see why the Brewers continued to opt toward competition. In this sense, a more interesting critique emerges of Melvin, which I raised on my latest appearance on Vineet’s podcast: given the fire of aggressive moves in the 2014-2015 offseason, one can argue that Melvin was too still with his big league roster. If ever there was a chance to aggressively retool the team for the present and change the franchise outlook, 2014-2015 was that offseason (see Los Angeles, Atlanta, San Diego, Miami, Chicago, and even Cincinnati, to some extent). Arguably the Mets are the only 2015 contender that stood as still as the Brewers in the offseason.

The trouble with this argument, however, is that it changes the focus of judging Melvin’s performance from rebuilding to competing. Brewers fans are clamoring for a rebuild, not clamoring for Melvin to more aggressively trade & acquire to compete. However, once one considers Attanasio’s imprint on the club, the already-improving scouting and development side, Melvin’s overall track record, and his forward-thinking vision with his front office, it is difficult to maintain that the GM should simply be fired. I would not be surprised to see Melvin step aside at some point in his last contract year of 2015, given the fact that he has run the team for 12 offseasons and is in his 13th season. This is not the same as demanding that Attanasio fire Melvin, however, since it is a recognition of Melvin’s strengths and weaknesses throughout his tenure in Milwaukee. The comprehensive picture makes it much more difficult to come to a soundbite conclusion on Melvin’s performance, which is fitting for a GM that is also difficult to pin down in the press.

Author’s Note: All news links compiled on May 6, 2015, and post completed and edited on May 6, 2015.

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