Pat Gillick of the Philadelphia Phillies is trying to outwit 20-something GMs with his old-school style.
At 68, Pat Gillick does not quite fit the image of wonder boy. Well into his fourth decade in the business of Major League Baseball, the general manager of the Philadelphia Phillies hardly looks like an example of the trend sweeping the sport: the hiring of freshly minted, number-crunching, 20-something executives straight out of business school and, one supposes, frat-house fantasy leagues.
In fact, Gillick belongs more to the "old" school, an era when determining a player's value required a clipboard, not a hard drive. His preferred reading is a scouting report - how well a player handles the curve ball, can he go from first to third on a base hit - rather than a spreadsheet that parses OPS and WHIP (that's on-base plus slugging and walks plus hits per innings pitched, for the uninitiated). And while he's evolved, employing some decidedly modern techniques to his ancient methods, Gillick seems determined to show that he isn't ready to become a museum piece.
Indeed, the "old" way has served Gillick well. The Toronto Blue Jays team he built in the early 1990s won two World Series. The Baltimore Orioles, once challengers to Yankees/Red Sox dominance in the American League East, haven't had a winning season since he left - eight years ago. And the 2001 Seattle Mariners, where he was top dog, still hold the record for most wins in a season.
Gillick, who joined the Phillies this past off-season, is bemused by the "new" trend, which has been labeled, for better or worse, "Moneyball." That was the title of Michael Lewis's bestselling book about the Oakland A's and general manager Billy Beane, an outside-the-box thinker who turned conventional wisdom on its head by building ball clubs with the aid of mathematicians, sabremetricians, and assorted pocket-protector- wearing stats geeks.
"I guess it's supposed to be new-fangled, but I don't know if there's anything truly new under the sun," Gillick says.
It seemed new-fangled when the Boston Red Sox hired Theo Epstein as general manager while he was still in his 20s. After the Red Sox 2004 World Series win, the franchise's first in more than eight decades, Moneyball gained even more cachet. Meanwhile, Oakland has been able to remain competitive despite having one of the game's smaller payrolls. In the past couple of years, other franchises have followed Oakland's and Boston's lead.
For instance, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays brought in 29-year-old Andrew Friedman to run the team's baseball operations and he, in turn, hired James Click, a 29-year-old Yale grad who worked previously for Baseball Prospectus, a cutting-edge statistics service. And last October, Texas replaced longtime GM John Hart, who had twice taken teams to the World Series, with 28-year-old Jon Daniels, only a few years removed from Cornell.
Other clubs went right to the source, poaching directly from Epstein's and Beane's staffs. At 35, Josh Byrnes was practically a grizzled veteran when he left the Red Sox last year to become the GM of the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Toronto Blue Jays recruited Oakland's player-personnel director, J.P. Ricciardi, as their manager in 2001, while the Los Angeles Dodgers hired the Athletics' assistant general manager, Paul DePodesta, who majored in economics at Harvard. (Proving that there may be limitations to the wonder of Moneyball, the Dodgers fired DePodesta after a brief and failed tenure.)
The Phillies' hiring of Gillick, on the other hand, seemed conservative by comparison, even quaint. The new guns in baseball aren't old enough to remember that Gillick himself was a wunderkind much like themselves. The fact is, they weren't even born yet. Gillick began working as the assistant minor-league director for the Houston Astros in 1963. He was just 26, six years after graduating from the University of Southern California with a degree in business. He had entered USC at age 16.
"I wasn't a conventional hiring back then," Gillick says. "Usually jobs went to older fellas who had Major League experience or a lot of years in the minors. I had a few seasons in the minors as a pitcher before I hurt my arm. I was a lot younger than other guys in my position."
Gillick says there's a significant difference between his hiring at 26 and those who are brought in today. "The young guys who are given executive jobs now have to work in the spotlight, and the pressure on them to produce is huge," Gillick says. "They're expected to get results immediately. I was able to develop as an executive over years out of the limelight. And I learned. Only when you start working in this business do you realize how much you don't know."
Gillick isn't your average executive either, old school or new school. He has a mega-gig memory at his disposal, recalling phone numbers faster than any Palm Pilot. But even with two World Series rings, he doesn't presume to have all the answers. And he admits that he has incorporated some approaches that might look like they were lifted from "Moneyball."
"I think that I've changed over the years," Gillick says. "I think it would be foolish to think that you can't learn. We still rely on what we can observe about a player - traditional scouting - and I don't think that there's any substitute for that. But I've tried to bring in more statistical support for our scouting - computer analysis or whatever. Fact is, there's just so much more information available today than in the old days."
So far, it seems like the elder statesman hasn't lost his touch. The Phillies recently rattled off a nine-game winning streak and sit in second place in the National League East.
Gillick was one of those who bristled when "Moneyball" was first published. Other Major League executives did more than bristle - they resented Lewis's portrayal of Billy Beane as baseball's lonely genius. But Gillick was angered by "Moneyball" because he thought it did a disservice to other general managers.
"The idea that Major League Baseball is run by an old-boys club [with] a lot of not-too-intelligent baseball men just doesn't wash," Gillick says. "Look at [Atlanta Braves general manager] John Schuerholz. He wasn't an old-time baseball player. He came from outside the game - he was a teacher before he got into baseball. John's been more successful than almost anybody."
Pat Gillick knew the work that awaited him when he took over the Phillies' front office last November. He was in danger of being outbid for the Phillies ace relief pitcher Billy Wagner, who ultimately signed as a free agent with Philadelphia's division rival, the New York Mets. And Gillick knew that he had no place on his roster for slugger Jim Thome, who had a multimillion dollar contract with a no-trade clause.
Gillick describes the Thome conundrum as "potentially difficult" - which would be like describing Fermat's Last Theorem as "challenging." Yet Gillick was able to convince Thome to waive the no-trade clause if the general manager was able to make a deal with certain teams, including the World Series champion Chicago White Sox. Gillick then sent Thome and financial considerations to the White Sox for centerfielder Aaron Rowland and two minor-league pitching prospects.
Making a baseball trade under duress is one of those management skills that no business course can fully prepare you for. And though the proponents of Moneyball scoff at baseball's old-boy network, those personal connections might have been critical in making this deal: White Sox general manager Kenny Williams played for Gillick in Toronto.