When David Stearns was first hired, BPMilwaukee’s Jack Moore wrote a column about the lack of diversity in MLB front offices. This remains a problem today, as front office openings continue to be filled by Ivy-educated white men. Just this offseason, Arizona replaced Dave Stewart with Mike Hazen, who is a Princeton graduate.
The solution isn’t as simple as just “hire people with more diverse backgrounds.” Teams are hiring people with Stearns’ and Hazen’s pedigrees because Ivy League economics backgrounds have proven beneficial in running major league teams. Dave Stewart—and his more traditional “baseball background”—made a number of puzzling decisions that seemed to be based on a misunderstanding of how to properly value assets. Hazen is unlikely to have the same problem, as we have already seen him make a relatively shrewd trade when dealing Jean Segura, and general managers with similar backgrounds seem to have similar ideas for valuing future assets.
But this likely isn’t the only way to win, and there are real disadvantages to pursuing this economics-based approach. First, the last decade or so has seen a strong discrediting of certain intangibles (leadership, chemistry, work ethic) that were seen as valuable and positive for the entirety of baseball history. This shift in valuation is probably correct! We almost certainly are more correctly valuing players in 2017 than we were in 1997. But there are also likely some intangibles that do provide value, such as a catcher’s ability to call a game (not to be confused with his pitch-framing) or veterans teaching rookies how to be professional. These are situational and fluid, and they depend on the specific personal interactions between people, so they are difficult to measure. Psychology also matters; as we learn more about human behavior, additional information about how to properly value professional athletes becomes available.
The second issue is less related to competitive balance and more related to the commodification of labor that is pervading society. Economics is one way of valuing players, but, when taken to its extremes, can lead to dehumanizing the athletes. One way of countering this is having multiple viewpoints in the room, and “room” here means both the physical room that decisions are made in as well as the metaphorical room that baseball front office executives exist in. When everyone is valuing players the same way—in this case, using economic theories—it becomes an arms race as teams try to become the best at this methodology. For this generation, it has manifested itself as teams trying to get every drop of value from every cost-controlled player.
As I mentioned above, though, there is a big problem with just saying “hire different people.” Teams are trying to win, and this has proven the most effective way of building a winning team. Cost-controlled assets are valuable because having quality young players allows teams to go out and sign veteran free agents to fill in gaps while still maintaining a reasonable payroll. This is a proven strategy, and it is why teams are pursuing front offices with this philosophy. But the background of these types of executives does not lend itself to diversity, and in that baseball does have a problem.
The most practical way for baseball to address this problem is by promoting diversity early and taking steps to get more diverse candidates into entry level positions. MLB has recognized the diversity issue on the field, and its creation of RBI (“Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities”) was a step in the right direction. RBI’s effectiveness can be debated, but it was a concrete step towards a more diverse workforce. A similar program for front offices would be valuable.
When field-to-front office was a more common pathway, promoting diversity on the field could have been enough. But with the rise in Ivy League executives, a more diverse player pool does not guarantee more diverse front offices. According to a study done by UCF at the beginning of the 2016 season, the player pool was about 60 percent white, but there were just four non-white general managers. And Dave Stewart, one of those non-white GMs, was just fired and replaced with Mike Hazen. Thus, something else must be done.
I would suggest that teams do a better job of providing opportunities for people of different backgrounds. A more inclusive outreach program to get young women and people of color into entry-level management jobs is sorely needed, as that is where qualified candidates would come from. If this economics-based valuation of players is truly the best way to maximize talent and build winning teams, then having diverse backgrounds is still useful because it provides different viewpoints. There is no ideal formula that teams will be able to access by reducing inefficiencies to zero; this is not simply a race to become the most efficient. These are still baseball teams and management groups made up of people, and having different viewpoints is valuable here, just as it is in other business and personal settings.
One of the problems that baseball faces—and this is an issue that has been written about before—is that the best way to start your baseball career is by getting an internship with a team. However, these are usually unpaid, and only people from certain socioeconomic backgrounds have the luxury of pursuing those. In fact, this idea was explicitly stated by Braves’ GM John Coppolella in an offseason twitter chat. He specifically told young people not to worry about getting paid.
Look for internships. Don’t worry about the money. Work hard & don’t have expectations beyond being part of a team. Assume nothing. https://t.co/7bUe1QhRZU
— Atlanta Braves (@Braves) December 15, 2016
Some people can do this, but not everyone can, and people who graduate with economics degrees from Ivy League universities are disproportionately in the former category. It is worth noting that Coppolella himself told a story about eating out of trash cans when he was getting paid $18,000 per year, so it wasn’t as if he was living off of a trust fund. But some people cannot afford even that, and MLB needs to do a better job of reaching out to people in those situations. The game would be better with more viewpoints represented, but the current system does not provide any path or incentive for change.