It’s been a very unhappy July for Colorado Rockies Owner, Chairman, and CEO Dick Monfort. If the team’s injury woes and on-field struggles weren’t bad enough, he made matters worse by venturing out on a media and public relations mini-tour that’s run the gambit from clumsy, to tone-deaf, to outright irresponsible. If the Rockies’ 2014 season is a trash dumpster, the Owner is a jug of gasoline and his infamous iPad a lit match.
At this point, it’s safe to say that Dick Monfort’s Q-Score in Colorado has never been lower. Most fans would love nothing more than for Monfort’s next public comments to include notice that he’s selling the team (preferably to John Elway). That, however, is quite unlikely to actually happen. Baseball is good business these days, and Monfort – while I personally believe him to be a legitimate baseball fan who honestly wants the Rockies to win – is first and foremost a businessman. He isn’t going anywhere folks. If I were him, neither would I. And neither would you, by the way.
So what’s next on most fans’ wish lists for change at 20th and Blake? In most cases, that’d probably be the firing of the most senior Monfort employee, General Manager Dan O’Dowd. Hired all the way back in September of 1999, O’Dowd is now the fourth longest tenured GM in the sport. While the turnover amongst General Managers in baseball has slowed some in recent years, this is nevertheless quite remarkable. All of the other GMs with similar tenure have enjoyed far greater success than has O’Dowd. The value Monfort places on loyalty is well established, and in no way is this characteristic made more evident than his words and actions vis-à-vis O’Dowd. Not only does Monfort continue to employ O’Dowd, he goes on record, repeatedly, with his view that O’Dowd is the best GM in baseball. It is not with any degree of hyperbole that I venture to guess that Monfort – depending on the size of Dan O’Dowd’s family – is quite literally one of only a half-dozen or so people on the planet who believe that to be true.
But is the polar opposite true? Is Dan O’Dowd the worst General Manager in the sport? Somewhere in-between? Can we really even know? If we were to arrive at some kind of consensus of O’Dowd’s abilities, would firing him be the right thing to do? How much credit or blame should General Managers receive in general? How much should O’Dowd receive in particular? Let’s explore…
How Bad has it Been Exactly?
First, let’s look at some bottom-line results. All GMs – even the best ones – make mistakes. Dan O’Dowd wasn’t the only GM to miss on Max Scherzer and Mike Trout in the draft. He’s certainly not the only GM to sign the wrong free agent or miss an opportunity to maximize a trade asset. If you have an agenda, you can make a solid case that every GM in baseball sucks at his job. So rather than make a solely qualitative judgment (rest assured, I’ll get into that momentarily), I wanted to at least start with some quantitative data.
To that end, here’s how the Rockies compare to other teams in wins and playoff outcomes since 2000, O’Dowd’s first full year on the job. I’ve summarized the information to include the most and least successful team by category, where the Rockies rank out of all 30 teams, and what a statistically “average” NL team would have done over that period. Other than “wins,” all outcomes are presented in raw quantities and percentages; sometimes one is more illustrative than the other. I’ve adjusted the numbers to account for the fact that in 13 of these 14 years, there were more NL teams than AL teams (pre-Astros league switch). I’ve also accounted for the extra wild card opportunity the last two seasons. (Division title ties were counted as ‘.5’ of a title.)
Wins: Only five teams have been worse.
|Rank||Team||Average # of Wins|
|“Average” Team||80.96 (less than 81 due to rainouts not made up)|
Making the playoffs: A couple trips short of average.
|Rank||Team||Made Playoffs||% Seasons Made Playoffs|
Winning the Division: Fail.
|Rank||Team||Won Division||% Seasons Won Division|
Making the World Series: We have a winner!
|Rank||Team||Won Leauge||% Seasons Won Leauge|
By every measure other than “making the World Series,” O’Dowd’s teams have done poorly. That’s interesting to me, because it lines up quite well with a common anti-O’Dowd narratives: “If not for that one fluky year, he’d be gone by now!” That may or may not actually be true – only Monfort knows – but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is. The other performance measure that comports with an oft-cited criticism: the Rockies are one of only six teams that haven’t won a division title during this period. Not good.
How Much Should We Blame Dan O’Dowd?
First of all, a major caveat to the raw data presented above: this represents an imperfect bracket to be sure. When it comes to General Managers, so much of our evaluation must consider the teams they inherited and the teams they bequeathed. The decisions that GMs make have ripple effects that last for years. In O’Dowd’s case, I think it’d be hard to argue that the current state of the organization – from top to bottom – isn’t better today than it was the year he took over. The 1999 Rockies were a bad team. They were bad in terms of wins, the make-up of the major league roster (the Bombers were aging and only Larry Walker remained elite), and the team’s prospect depth (Helton was newly minted and a true asset, but the Rockies highest rated prospect by Baseball America was Choo Freeman at #75).
As difficult as it may be to see at the moment – what with all the smoke emanating from that aforementioned garbage fire in LoDo – we’re much better off today. The Rockies have a stronger big league roster with several quality assets and emerging stars, and a prospect pipeline that includes the #12 (Jon Gray) and #24 (Eddie Butler) players on the 2014 edition of Baseball America’s list. We also have two additional players (David Dahl and Raimel Tapia) that are amongst the hottest stories in the scouting community right now and are sure to be in the top half of next year’s list. There is plenty of criticism to lay at O’Dowd’s feet – and much of his pain over the last 14 years has been self-inflicted – but if he were to be fired tomorrow, he’d be leaving a better situation to his successor than the one he took on in 1999. There’s value in that.
That value is speculative, however. It means nothing if it doesn’t equate to wins at the highest level. O’Dowd has been here long enough to cultivate and benefit from his own value creation by now, and the Rockies have gotten fewer of those precious big league wins than other teams during his tenure. The masses want him gone, and the masses may be right. Those who do remain supporters of O’Dowd probably find credibility in the idea that the Rockies General Manager has to deal with a competitive disadvantage that no other GM does: altitude.
Many folks out there are quick to brush this off as an excuse. But there is often a thin line between excuses and plain old actual reasons; and sometimes it’s easy to confuse one for the other. Those who dismiss this factor tend to believe that, if anything, altitude should be something the Rockies can use to their advantage. The counterargument rests in the particular stress placed on Rockies players by the constant environmental re-acclamations between altitude and sea level. It’s not just the fact that the ball flies further; it’s the fact that pitches behave differently for both pitchers and hitters. Rockies opponents visit Coors one to three times a year (or not at all). They come, either deal with the altered physics or they don’t, and then they leave town and put it out of their minds. Rockies players don’t have that luxury; essentially, they have to learn how to play two versions of this game and switch back and forth between them week to week.
So what say you? Reason or excuse? I’d encourage you to check out some superb analysis from our friends at Purple Row and by my colleague here at Zingers to shed some light on whether this inherent disadvantage does or doesn’t exist. Both make compelling cases.
I myself tend to believe that the altitude disadvantage is real, if for no other reason than that the players themselves perceive it to be real. A Rockies hitter may prosper in the aggregate – Coors may inflate his numbers more than his road performance suffers – but in terms of player acquisition, the Rockies have never seemed to benefit much from this positive effect. Or, at least they haven’t benefited as much as they’ve suffered from the countervailing perception amongst pitchers that Coors will destroy them. In other words, hitters aren’t available at discounts nearly as often as – or to the extent that – pitchers demand premiums or remove themselves from the Rockies’ menu entirely. So regardless of how much Coors actually effects on-field play, it’s clear that the Coors Field perception is a net negative when it comes to roster building.
Beyond altitude, there is a laundry list of O’Dowd-related criticisms and each of them could be followed by an explanation that could be fairly classified as both reason and excuse, depending on one’s point of view. One of the most common – “why don’t we just sign/trade for INSERT FAMOUS PITCHER NAME HERE already!” – I won’t address. Of course O’Dowd wants more high quality pitching. All teams do. That’s the problem. There just aren’t enough Clayton Kershaws and David Prices to go around. There are a couple other criticisms, however, I’d like to dive into a little deeper.
• Injuries and roster depth. Yes, all teams deal with injuries. Monfort recently went on record saying that he won’t use them as an excuse for what’s happened this year. Good for him. Whether he truly believes it or not, that’s the right thing to say. But it’s silly to think that injuries affect all teams equally in any given year. Even more generally, crippling injuries seem to befall the Rockies more often than other clubs. Maybe it’s bad luck and/or yet another consequence of playing at altitude. There isn’t anything O’Dowd can do about that. But maybe it’s a substandard training staff/program, which he can do something about. Or maybe he should have constructed the roster differently to deal more effectively with injuries when they occurred. As for 2014, no team in the league goes into the season with 13 MLB-quality pitchers on hand (the number of starters the Rockies have used this year). Yes, the Rockies were ill-equipped to deal with Nolan Arenado’s injury; but no team in the league – even the “deep” ones – goes into a season without a single positional weakness. Third base was ours.
• Drafting and Developing. There have been misses in the draft. Oh my, have there been misses. The thing is, every fan base in the entire league complains about this same thing. I’m not saying the complaining isn’t justified on a miss-by-miss basis – only that it’s difficult to keep our bad thoughts on this matter in perspective. To wit: I cobbled together a composite list of Baseball America’s and Baseball Prospectus’ rankings of top minor league systems going back to 2001 (I had trouble finding the lists of both outfits for each year, but had at least one or the other for every year); the Rockies’ average system ranking over that time was 13.9 out of 30 teams. In other words, by the opinions of impartial, well-respected prospect evaluators, O’Dowd has been just a tad above average when it comes to building a quality minor league pipeline. I think O’Dowd should be better than average; he had better than average first round picks most of those years. And, of course, most of these players didn’t pan out, including some high profile ones we all remember well. Most players in all teams’ systems don’t pan out; that’s just the reality of talent prospecting. Have some teams done better? Sure. But has O’Dowd’s draft and development work been an outright disaster? Matt Holliday, Troy Tulowitzki, and the rest of our homegrown Generation R that fueled our winning teams in the late ‘00s says “surely not!” Nolan Arenado, Jhoulys Chacin, and Corey Dickerson also say “hi.”
Each of these topics deserves a more through treatment. I don’t pretend to be settling any debates here. My goal is simply to compel you, the reader, to try to see both sides of the argument. It’s easy to argue that Dan O’Dowd should be fired. It’s tougher to argue that he shouldn’t be. I think we owe it to ourselves to understand and appreciate both sides of the argument before we make up our minds. I’ve personally tried very hard to do so, feel like I’ve achieved much of that understanding, and am now ready to explain why I feel like it’s…
Time to Let Dan O’Dowd Go
This isn’t about 2014. O’Dowd shouldn’t be fired because of anything that’s happened this year. I believe whole-heartedly that the General Manager is the single most influential person in his team’s ultimate success – more important than the Owner (and the resources he brings to the table), more important than the Manager or other coaches, more important even than the star player – but his impact is nevertheless a fraction of the whole. Bad general managing alone can’t produce a year like this one.
It is, however, about the last decade and a half. That’s a long enough time to erase your predecessor’s mistakes. It’s long enough to learn about the specific environment – human and physical –in which you operate. It’s long enough for all of the variables external to GM – and yes, this includes pure luck or lack thereof – to ebb and flow and balance out. A decade and a half is long enough for us to draw conclusions about the chief baseball decision-maker’s ability to make baseball decisions. There isn’t a GM in the sport who would expect to hold a job this long having produced the bottom-line results we’ve seen under O’Dowd’s leadership, including, I’m sure, O’Dowd himself.
To be clear, while I’ve come around to the idea that it’s time for O’Dowd to move on, I don’t begrudge Monfort’s hesitancy to dismiss him at other points when many fans were calling for it. In general, across the sport, I feel GMs are fired all too often purely for effect, to appease the fan base. The average tenure of a GM is preposterously short in my opinion; they are given insufficient time to assess the status of their organizations, develop a plan, build a human infrastructure to deliver that plan; and not enough rope to ride out natural fluctuations and establish a track record of success (or failure). There have been many points in the last ten years when the firing of O’Dowd would have been wholly understood by the baseball community… but nevertheless the wrong thing to do.
But now – a decade and a half into his reign – the right time has surely come. Monfort may look at the success of the early part of the season, before the club was completely overwhelmed by injuries no team in the league could survive well, along with the immense talent on the doorstep of Coors, and think to himself: “We’re almost there – I just need to give Dan a little more time…” But the thing is, Monfort will always be able to find evidence to his liking that confirms his premise that O’Dowd is the right man for the job. There will always be some past victory, however small, on which to dwell. Baseball is inherently unpredictable enough – and the margins small enough – that almost any outcome can be made to feel realistic and attainable if you try hard enough.
If this is the point that Monfort has reached: determined to exclude all evidence – even overwhelming evidence – that conflicts with his premise that O’Dowd is the best GM in the sport – then he ought to give O’Dowd an ownership stake, a lifetime contract, and let the fan base respond how it will. I say this not in jest. Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane has a similar arrangement. Beane has demonstrated far better GM acumen than has O’Dowd, but if Monfort has effectively ruled out replacing a GM that every other owner in the league would have already replaced long before now, he ought to formalize and make transparent to all the permanence of their working relationship. The Rockies fan base would be outraged, but it would at least be honest and fair. I would prefer this to the status quo.