Why Hiring A.J. Preller is the Turning Point
I’ve said for a number of years that I wish Billy Beane was the Padres GM. This is hardly a breakthrough, I think most people who understand the game inside the business of the game feel the same way. Most people think he’s just smarter than everybody else, but that’s not the whole story.
Being smart is great, but for your smarts to consistently win out over hard-working, intelligent competition, you can’t just cast in any direction, you have to have a core methodology. But in baseball, everyone copies your core methodology in short order, once it’s proven to work. That means the core methodology has to be to create an environment where trends begin, and where you always pivot in order to find the next trend by the time the league catches up. Beane’s greatest skill is keeping this environment charged.
Meanwhile, the Padres have been clueless about the reality of their own situation, grasping at straws (the kind of straws with soggy knees who are better suited as a DH). They have failed to develop any kind of method for themselves to target talent. This is why they’ve failed to sustain the brief glimpses of success they’ve had. Essentially, when you’re not trying out a theory and seeing if it works or fails, you can’t know what part of what you are doing is working or failing.
But the sequence of events leading up to the A.J. Preller era show that maybe that the Padres’ days of spinning their wheels are over. And Preller seems to be exactly the guy to get things moving. For me, it all started with an email from Ron Fowler:
“We are terribly disappointed in the team’s offense this year and staying the course (waiting for a turnaround) is becoming less appealing as the ugly losses continue.”
After ten years of virtually unwatchable offense, I had rarely heard anything but excuses. But when Fowler’s chubby fingers graced our internet with that digital caning of the club’s position players, I was finally hearing someone with the power to change things actually convince me they hated that and wanted much better.
More importantly this quote reflects an understanding of how bad things really are. This is new for the Padres and incredibly significant.
Josh Byrnes got canned and on the hunt for a new GM we went. The self-aware candor from the Padres continued as Mike Dee gave an interview about why the decision to send Byrnes packing was made (interview recapped here). He said great General Managers have a vision and that the Padres need to have a blueprint for success.
This reinforces that the original Fowler email might not just have been an angry swipe of the claws, but a considered and lasting understanding that building an organization that can achieve sustained success requires efforts to be guided by a thesis statement.
The hiring process for the new GM highlights another aspect of how the Padres have begun to establish they may have made a material change for the better.
In the final week of the hunt the field had essentially been narrowed to two names. Billy Eppler and A.J. Preller. As I anxiously gnawed on the backgrounds of each candidate I began to view the decision as a fork in the road. With Eppler, I became horrified at the possibility that this break in the clouds might just be a brief interlude of sanity before a comic thrust back into business as usual.
Any hope that things might have changed could have been drowned in the toilet if they had chosen Eppler, a man who has family ties to the Padres organization and is buddy-buddy with evil slug, Kevin Towers. Eppler’s most notable experience is as an Assistant GM with the New York Yankees, an organization that has spent the last 10 years masking spectacular failure in drafting and development by burning small continents of money.
This means Eppler has no experience achieving results of any kind, and could not possibly understand how to create the kind of ecosystem of ideas Billy Beane has cultivated and sustained all these years. Choosing Eppler would have been like playing the same track we’ve been blaring for decades on a different radio. I feared this most of all, because it would be “so Padres” to cluelessly pull the trigger on more of the same full-spectrum misery to which we have been captive, basically forever. The two candidates represented such different possible futures to me, I even started to become almost paranoid about how the name “Eppler” was like some taunting, demonic anagram of “Preller.”
But they did not choose Eppler. When I heard this news, I truly felt like I had been freed from something horrible I thought would never end. All the perceived change of the past few weeks gained more traction and I felt the deep, core tingling, hot juice blast of a better tomorrow. I, a man of 27, learned what if feels like for a girl.
Interviews with A.J. Preller produced quotes, which fueled my beautiful little ember of hope into a small flame. I don’t want to get bogged down in the particular quotes, as the interviews can be readily digested around the internet by you, dear reader, but the Padres Social Hour interview and the press conference to announce the hiring in particular, provided the kindling.
The most obvious thing about Preller is that he is not a groomed, TV-ready lozenge of bullshit, he’s a baseball guy. Obsessed with talking and watching the game, he acknowledged that advanced stats are to be considered equal building blocks as tools and approach in “talking about the game.” He strongly emphasized high ROI methods of player acquisition as the only means for an organization to create sustained success. The Padres’ market and current state of disarray both happen to demand this approach.
He spoke about the importance of knowing your own players. This is crucial to making sure you trade overvalued assets and hold onto those, which have more value than others perceive, as well as making better decisions about who you extend (like probably not Cameron Maybin, whose bat path resembles a very steep sided parabola).
He did something almost no people are good at, inside or outside of baseball, inside or outside of the Padres front office: he admitted a time when he was wrong. He explained that in Texas he had originally written off “make up” entirely, before realizing that guys with certain make up are much more likely to make the strides in development needed to become impact Major Leaguers. This shows he is testing a hypothesis and objectively analyzing whether it fails or not, and then reevaluating his position based on real life. There will be no hand-wavy strategies crapped out of a late night drinking session with an old frat buddy.
But the most important thing he did was talk about how you always have to find new ways to win talent and ballgames. He acknowledged that creating the dynamic I have so loved in Billy Beane’s Oakland Athletics, is a vital aspect of running an organization. He explained that you have to be the club generating innovative strategies, but that you also have to understand that the rest of baseball is going to swarm to that idea if it works. This means that you have to move on to the next idea by the time they get there. I call this the “head of the snake” mentality. By the time the body gets to where the head was, the head is farther along.
By revealing that his staff will be working hard to understand itself and the game better than anyone else, he made me feel, for the first time since 1998, that I can entertain the possibility of the Padres winning a World Series before I am bones in the dirt.
The ownership group gets it. They get it so well that they actually chose the right guy and hopefully, they give him the power to be that guy. If that is what is about to happen with the Padres, then welcome to the Enlightenment. Things are going to be different.