Geoff Young, who runs the Padres blog Ducksnorts, which is part of ESPN's SweetSpot Network, conducted an exhaustive Q&A with Sandy Alderson while the executive was serving as CEO of the San Diego Padres in June 2008.
Young also contributes to Hardball Times and Baseball Prospectus.
Ducksnorts: When you first started as GM [with Oakland], you were reading some Bill James. I was just getting into Bill James in 1984, and it was kind of an eye opener to me. He was sort of on the fringes at that time, and of course … he’s actually now working for the Red Sox. … What impact did his work have on your understanding of the way the game works, and how did it influence the types of decisions you made in a real-time setting?
Alderson: I think it had a significant impact. He was doing some writing, and there were others at the time also on the fringe -- a guy in the Bay Area by the name of Eric Walker. Eric we actually hired as a consultant, although we didn’t advertise that fact, and he did quite a bit of work for us over the years in trying to evaluate not just major league players but minor league players for purposes of projection at the major league level.
When I got into the game, I didn’t have any real background in baseball, so I wasn’t burdened by any [laughs] traditional notions of how to evaluate players or construct teams. I was particularly open to people like Bill James and Eric Walker. Walker wrote a book called The Sinister First Baseman, a little paperback, which was actually quite instructive.
Ducksnorts: He’s the guy who does High Boskage?
Alderson: Right. … I’d say there were two competitive theories at that time, personified on the one hand by Earl Weaver and on the other hand by Gene Mauch. Weaver believed in the three-run homer, and Mauch believed in little ball.
From my standpoint it was the Eric Walkers and the Bill James who I think were able to very adequately support the Earl Weaver approach to the game in terms of overall success and what created the highest probability for success. That tied in nicely because to me the home run is like the 80-yard pass, like the three-point shot. It’s the kind of thing in which you can enjoy the anticipation.
There are a lot of things in baseball and other sports that are more athletic, and more immediate, and more reactive, but you don’t have the same sense of anticipation. I like home runs [laughs] -- people like home runs -- and so it was nice to see the concepts support that notion.
Ducksnorts: Can you talk a little about your [first] time working in the MLB offices and what that was like?
Alderson: By and large it was enjoyable. I went to New York originally with the view that I could bring some of my experiences at the club level to bear at the league level, and I think I was successful in doing that in some respects. I also went to New York in hopes of learning more about the game at the national level, and I think that I learned a good deal when I was there as well. My work was focused on baseball operations and international development.
I enjoyed both of those things. Probably the key aspect of my baseball operations responsibility was umpiring, but there were issues like time of game and trying to address the strike zone. There were a number of challenges that don’t seem terribly monumental today, but were fun to address, and again, I think we had some success. I did come to enjoy the international side of the game and potential for growth there.
Ducksnorts: Between your experience as a first lieutenant in the Marines and also having been an attorney, what were you able to gain from those experiences that you were able to then bring to baseball?
Alderson: As a lawyer, through law school, you’re trained to be analytical, unbiased, more objective. I think that was helpful. And having a legal background, too, you have an understanding of what the contractual issues are and so forth. I think it boils down to just being probably a little more analytical.
The Marine Corps was helpful on several levels. First of all, what it does impress on you is the importance of organization and process, and philosophy, and tenacity. What people don’t understand about the Marine Corps is that… it does require absolute adherence to certain principles, but there are very few principles, and they’re conceptual in nature. It doesn’t require you to do the same thing, the same way, every time. It really encourages initiative and a certain amount of creativity within a framework.
The other way that the Marine Corps was helpful to me, early in my time in baseball, was for credibility -- as odd as that sounds. Without having a background in baseball, people look at you -- and you’re a lawyer -- and they could have some skepticism about that, but as a former Marine, it’s like -- it wasn’t as if I was a former player or someone that had direct association to the game, but it was still something that people respected. I didn’t wear it on my sleeve, but I think, in addition to the inherent qualities that one develops by being in the Marine Corps, from a credibility standpoint it also helped bridge the gap there early, when I was an outsider basically.
Ducksnorts: I kind of guessed as much. I’ve been immersed in baseball full time for about 18 months now, and it’s staggering the difference between being a casual fan and having it be your life and really never letting go…
In the past you were pretty critical of some of the free-agent signings that have been going on -- Kevin Brown, Alex Rodriguez, Mike Hampton. What have you seen in the way that markets have evolved since then -- if they have -- and do you think there will be any kinds of shifts in the near future?
Alderson: I think those signings, of which I was critical at the time, proved to be disastrous for the teams involved. There are very few -- even at the high end, top markets -- of these contracts that have actually turned out well. Some have, but you could probably list very few as having been successful. As a result, what could have become more than just a trend, but commonplace, has not.
Barry Zito is another example, a recent example. There are very few teams that can succeed on that basis. The Texas Rangers are still paying Alex Rodriguez; it’s unbelievable. I don’t know that the San Diego market is different than most markets in the sense that you’ve got to be careful about who you sign long term and make sure that you have alternatives. Jake Peavy was maybe an exception for us because of his youth and his track record.
Ducksnorts: Turning back to the draft, and player development -- the draft just finished taking place and, as you say, we’ve gone out and gotten a lot of position players this year. … There’s been criticism in the past that the Padres have been “overly conservative” in their strategy, with an emphasis on polished college players, and preferring risk avoidance over perceived upside -- the Jay Bruces of the world, or the Upton brothers -- obviously, those guys weren’t available at our slot, but I think you see what I’m getting at -- the guys that are perceived as being once-in-a-generation types. … How would you describe the current philosophy/strategy, and how satisfied are you with it?
Alderson: As we discussed earlier, we’ve made pretty significant strides in our farm system over the last couple of years. To some extent, I think a strategy has to be devised in the context of where you are, where you’ve been, and where you want to go. In other words, if we had the No. 1 farm system in all of Major League Baseball, would we tend to take a few more shots in the dark? Maybe. Would we ever get to be the No. 1 if we didn’t take a few shots in the dark?
I look at a team like -- just to give you an example -- Tampa Bay. I think you could go back and look at Tampa Bay over the last 10 years or so, and the reason that they’ve now started to be successful on the field is because they’ve been successful over the last three, four, five years -- but not before that -- in converting No. 1 draft picks. You can go back and look at the kind of money that they’ve spent on draft picks, some of whom have worked out and some which haven’t. The guys that are starting to work out for them are not just high-ceiling high school players but high-ceiling college players that happened to be available to them in the first or second slot.
I think there’s a lot made in San Diego of what happened surrounding the Matt Bush selection, and I think that was -- in terms of where we’ve come since that time -- something of an aberration. The only other possible basis for that assumption is the fact that in the last couple of years there have been some players like Rick Porcello and so forth who’ve dropped, and Detroit or somebody else has swept in and taken those players. In some cases that’s worked, in some cases it hasn’t.
What I’m hoping is that our farm system from now going forward is going to be viewed as a single unit -- the draft and Latin America, or our international signings. We haven’t done very much at all internationally, we haven’t been successful at all internationally.
We’ve done quite a bit over the last couple years to improve the system. When your system is ranked 29th or 30th, I think you do things a little differently than if it’s ranked 10th or 12th, or if it’s ranked first or second. If we’ve been a little cautious in the past, it’s probably been with a view toward improving our farm system at a time when it was absolutely barren and we didn’t have terribly high draft picks. If you’re drafting [in slots] 20-30, you’re not going to get Evan Longoria. The fact that we got a guy like Chase Headley in the second round I think says more about the way we’re approaching things than the fact that we took Matt Bush with the first pick in the country. That’s ancient history around here, and the problem is, people don’t understand that.