Doug Melvin: Learning and Autonomy

Doug Melvin will no longer serve as the Milwaukee Brewers’ general manager in 2016. Reports suggest the club seeks a replacement who is young, hungry and friendly to analytics. It’s long been hinted that Ray Montgomery came to Milwaukee in 2014 with a foot in the door for the next GM job; however, the Brewers have hired a search firm and are at least paying lip service to the notion that they’ll look outside the organization for their next boss.

The future remains uncertain at the moment, but the Brewers’ non-contention does afford us ample opportunity to reflect upon Melvin’s tenure. Our own Michael Bradburn offered his thoughts on Wednesday and opined that Melvin was mediocre, at best, in Milwaukee. The under-.500 record and mere two postseason appearances certainly back up such a claim. And while some may view this too sanguine, I prefer to remember what Melvin was able to accomplish in Milwaukee, rather than focus on his errors. He helped make the Brewers relevant again in Major League Baseball. He captained the ship when the organization ended their 26-year playoff drought. He (and Mark Attanasio) made Milwaukee a legitimate destination for established veteran players in free agency. He authored the CC Sabathia trade, which defined an era for the Brewers. In many ways, he allowed many in the state of Wisconsin to re-discover baseball.

Could things have been even better during Melvin’s career in Milwaukee? Or, perhaps, should things have been better? Hell yes. The GM made numerous mistakes with the Brewers. Somehow ending up with Yuniesky Betancourt and Alex Gonzalez as opening-day first basemen on a supposedly contending team is just one of the missteps.

Despite the miscalculations that perhaps cost the Brewers an extra postseason appearance or a deeper run in the playoffs, Doug Melvin’s willingness to learn and adapt has stood out as his tenure has come to a close. In other words, Melvin has shown the ability to analyze internal processes, identify necessary areas of improvement and implement positive changes. That’s one of the reasons why the Brewers organization is trending upwards, regardless of the uncomfortable win-loss record.

In this statement, I’m referencing multiple things. Here are two examples:

  • The fact that the Milwaukee Brewers shut down their player-development operations in Latin America in the 2000s. This allowed the organization to allocate money to one or two players and bring them immediately to the club’s training facility in Arizona, which they thought would increase their chances of successfully developing their young players. Needless to say, it didn’t work. The club fell behind in the international market, which had been becoming indispensable to a club’s talent acquisition. Melvin and his staff recognized this, opened a new facility in the Dominican Republic in 2011, re-structured their international scouting staff, and began spending money in the international market — even dishing out the highest international bonus ($3.2 million for Gilbert Lara) in Major League Baseball last year. Milwaukee even made serious bids for Jose Abreu and Yoan Moncada, not to mention (accidentally) winning the Nori Aoki bid.
  • The fact that the Milwaukee Brewers struggled to develop high-end pitching throughout his career and saw many of their first- and second-round prospects unceremoniously flame out. Bruce Seid and Ray Montgomery have shifted strategies. Milwaukee’s first pick in each of the last four drafts has been a high-school player (Coulter, Williams, Medeiros, and Clark), targeting upside rather than proximity to the majors. The team had gotten college-heavy in previous seasons. Furthermore, the club added additional minor-league coaches to the lower levels and better integrated the high-minor coaching staffs with the big-league staff — all with the idea that additional resources allocated to the minors would eventually equal large monetary savings in the majors. The doesn’t even address the hitting and pitching symposiums that the player development staff have run in recent years.

I could’ve mentioned the increased emphasis on analytics during Melvin’s tenure, the team’s early embracing of pre-emptive contract extensions, or even how they were one of the first big-league organizations to invest in biomechanical pitching analysis. Since late-2011, with the opening of the Dominican training complex, it’s been noticeable how much Melvin and his staff have learned from past mistakes and have implemented a myriad of changes at the minor-league level. The recent trades have helped, but the results of those moves had begun to be recognized earlier this season. The minor-league system has improved dramatically. It’s fair, I think, to assume that this has much to do with the holistic overhaul in the organization and isn’t just random.

It should also be recognized that any reflection on Melvin’s tenure in Milwaukee must acknowledge the issue of autonomy; that is, the possibility that he may not have complete autonomy in personnel decisions. Owner Mark Attanasio has brought a big wallet, charisma, and commitment to the Brewers. He also carries an insatiable desire to win. Rumors have circled that he, not Melvin, authored the Kyle Lohse signing in 2012 and that he shot down the idea of an earlier rebuild.

I have conflicting opinions on this aspect of Melvin’s legacy. On one hand, I’ve had numerous sources over the past three years hint at Attanasio’s high level of involvement in personnel decisions, indicating that Melvin’s hands have sometimes been tied. On the other hand, if that were really true, I question why Melvin would have stayed in Milwaukee for such a long time. Many teams across Major League Baseball would have gladly snapped him up in a second.

Unfortunately, this is one of those “what if” portions of outsider analysis that will always be incomplete. It doesn’t mean the concept shouldn’t be mentioned, though, and an explanation of the ramifications of it.

I want to continue to look at Melvin’s time in Milwaukee next week, specifically addressing the inability to field a quality pitching staff and the “gutting of the farm system” that occurred between 2008 and 2011. Look for that in the middle of next week. For now, though, I hope this provides a different perspective on the Melvin Era than has been otherwise discussed across the baseball blogosphere, as his tenure deserves to be viewed in greater depth than just wins and losses. General managers are paid based upon postseason appearances, sure, but the reality is that GMs and baseball front offices are always evolving and never simplistic. Focusing on wins and losses or on postseason appearances loses that nuance.

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