December 2011

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The Convergence Of MLB And The NBA

What MLB can tell us about the NBA and vice versa. GMs from both sports offer insight to MLBTR. 

When he was growing up in Massachusetts, long before he was paid to run a sports team, Sam Presti looked forward to nationally televised baseball games each week. Baseball runs in the water where Presti comes from, and the weekly contests featured players he didn’t see on his visits to Fenway Park. 

“We didn’t have cable and it was my chance to see National League teams that I never got to see,” he told me earlier this year. “I loved watching the Expos teams and the Cardinals, since I was introduced to a whole new group of players.” 

Today, Presti’s interest in baseball persists, albeit in a new way. The 35-year-old general manager of the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder still follows baseball for the enjoyment of the sport. But he also watches with a sense of curiosity and competitiveness that he shares with a growing number of his peers around the NBA. Perhaps, their thinking goes, basketball teams can learn from baseball’s brightest minds and best-run franchises.

It’s not that Presti’s teams have failed to compete in the NBA. Led by Kevin Durant (pictured), the second overall pick in the 2007 draft, the team finished its most recent campaign with a 55-27 record. Before joining the Thunder, Presti worked for the San Antonio Spurs, one of the league’s most successful franchises, and was instrumental in the acquisition of point guard Tony Parker. So when Presti chats with MLB executives -- and he knows his share of them -- we can be sure he isn’t quizzing them on Russell Westbrook's court vision or Kendrick Perkins' defense. Instead, he looks to baseball people for insight on topics that apply to both sports.

Kevin Durant“More than anything I think it helps you ask the right questions,” Presti said. “Questions about your game, your systems, your processes. I think that it’s healthy for us to ask the right questions. I think any time you’re watching another sport it definitely helps your imagination and creativity.”

There’s no shortage of creativity in today’s NBA. Many teams use objective analysis to supplement scouting reports and make decisions regarding personnel and strategy. For example, the perennially competitive Houston Rockets named Daryl Morey their general manager in 2007. A computer science graduate who grew up reading Bill James, Morey’s thirst for knowledge extends beyond the basketball court.

In that respect, he has a lot in common with Sam Hinkie. Now the Rockets’ executive VP of basketball operations, Hinkie works with Morey to construct the team’s roster, develop in-game strategies, and communicate with coaches. Before joining the Rockets, Hinkie consulted for two NFL teams, so he’s intimately familiar with the potential impact of inter-sport comparisons.

“There’s very little sharing that goes on within our sport for good reason,” Hinkie told me. “Every team is trying to do something and any foothold they might find, they don’t want to point out to anyone else.” 

But when it comes to sharing information across sports, teams aren’t so secretive. The resulting openness would be unthinkable within a single sport. And the big-picture topics sports executives explore with one another can have a significant impact on wins and losses. The potential for discussion is limitless.

“Psychology of individual players, how to prevent injuries, how to foster innovation within your organization in general, strength training,” Hinkie explains. “In a five minute conversation you pick up a lot where you think ‘that’s what they do, we should investigate more because it’s a similar challenge to the one we face.

In other words, they aren’t sharing statistical formulae -- those wouldn’t actually apply to other sports -- but the conversations are productive regardless. For example, Morey stays in touch with Cubs GM Jed Hoyer, who says sharing information across sports is considerably easier than doing so within MLB.

“No question,” he said. “Because if you have a good relationship with an executive in another sport and you talk about something technological it’s not going to impact his sport. I think it is sometimes easier.”

However, the search for a competitive advantage extends beyond the quest for more sophisticated technology and metrics. There’s meaning in statistics, as the modern-day fan and executive knows. Explaining this knowledge to the decision makers and players represents another challenge altogether.

“It’s being able to communicate those ideas to our coaches and our players as we try to actually take those ideas and drive changes,” Hinkie said. “I think [communication] is under-invested in, honestly. The quality of an idea relies heavily on your ability to get that point across.”

To suggest that basketball teams look up to baseball teams would be inaccurate. Though Bill James and others championed alternative thinking in baseball before similar movements gathered support in other sports, NBA teams have since developed advanced metrics of their own. But innovation in basketball often takes place privately, whereas there’s a tradition of public-sphere baseball analysis. 

Though crunching the numbers can be productive, execs can also learn from sports other than their own by watching the athletes themselves. Certain body types and skillsets thrive on a baseball diamond, while others are better suited to the basketball court, the hockey rink, or the cubicle. 

When Alex Anthopoulos watches athletes in other professional sports, he isn’t necessarily looking for the next Bo Jackson or Danny Ainge (Ainge, a former Blue Jays infielder and NBA guard who has become the Celtics’ GM, employs an analytically minded assistant GM in Boston). Anthopoulos’ scouting skills are unpolished when it comes to basketball or football, but he watches the sports nonetheless.

“I love scouting. I love evaluating. I love analyzing,” the Blue Jays GM told me. “I’m analytical probably to a fault. I probably overdo it at times. So I try to watch those other sports through a scouting lens even though I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know how to scout other sports.”

Not that it stops Anthopoulos from watching (he’s reportedly friendly with Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke, who also knows Hoyer). Even if he’s not a professional basketball scout, Anthopoulos can apply general scouting principles to sports other than baseball.

“I try to incorporate things that I incorporate in baseball,” he said. “So if I’m watching basketball, I’ll look at athleticism, body control. You have a delivery and arm action if you pitch. I look at your motion in the NBA, how you shoot, what your mechanics are, how that may impact the rotation and spin on the ball.”

It’s not just business, though. As a general rule, sports executives have the jobs they have because they enjoy sports immensely. But one of those sports has become a job, so watching other leagues can be way of enjoying competition for its own sake.

“I’m a sports fan,” Hoyer explained. “I enjoy watching other sports, since it’s not baseball -- it’s not work, and I can be on the couch and enjoy myself watching a college basketball game or a football game.”

Photo courtesy Icon SMI.


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Quick Hits: Oliver, Cubs, Nationals, Byrd, Aviles

Some Quick Hits for Friday night..

  • The Rangers never made a formal offer to Darren Oliver before the reliever agreed to sign with Toronto, writes Drew Davison of the Star-Telegram.  The 41-year-old's deal is for one-year with a club option for 2013.
  • The Cubs have made a good deal of moves so far this offseason but they've quietly made major changes to their scouting department as well, writes Jon Paul Morosi of FOXSports.com.  The team hired former Red Sox major league scout Kyle Evans to oversee Chicago's revamped video and advance scouting.  President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein also plucked amateur scout Matt Dorey from Boston but subsequently agreed not to hire any other BoSox front office personnel until December 2014.
  • Yesterday, ESPN.com's Buster Olney suggested that the Red Sox and Nationals could have interest in Cubs outfielder Marlon ByrdEric Seidman of Fangraphs believes that Olney was right to link the Nats to the veteran outfielder but argues that the club should be thinking bigger.
  • Cuban outfielder Guillermo Aviles is a name to keep in mind down the road, writes Ben Badler of Baseball America.  Aviles, 19 in January, stands at 6-foot-1 and scouts say he shows a good deal of promise.  The left-handed outfielder remains a resident of Cuba and its not known when or if he might look to make the jump to the Majors.



Prince Fielder Rumors: Friday

A player on the Nationals said the team was still in on Prince Fielder yesterday, even though GM Mike Rizzo recently said that Adam LaRoche will be their first baseman next year. Rival executives believe Prince will eventually end up in Washington, however. Here's are today's rumors about the best remaining unsigned free agent, with the latest news on top...

  • Prince Fielder and agent Scott Boras were in the Baltimore-Washington area when they took their ownership tour this month but did not meet with Orioles owner Peter Angelos, tweets Dan Connolly of The Baltimore Sun (via Twitter).
  • Roch Kubatko of MASNSports.com hears that there is no way the Orioles will do eight-plus years at $20MM+ annually for Fielder. The team is also wary of being used as "leverage" against another club, such as the Nationals.



Angels Notes: Madson, Pujols, Morales, Trumbo

Going forward, Angels owner Arte Moreno has made it clear that he wants to leave baseball decisions up to the baseball department as opposed to manager Mike Scioscia.  Here's a look at what the Halos might do next..

  • The Angels are considering free agent closer Ryan Madson, tweets Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com.  However, in order to stay under the cap, the club would likely have to backload his contract.  Madson's market has thinned out somewhat and nearly 32% of MLBTR readers polled believe that the right-hander will sign with the Angels.
  • Speaking of backloaded deals, Heyman has more details on Albert Pujols' ten-year contract.  Yesterday we learned that Pujols will earn $12MM in 2012 and $16MM in 2013.  Heyman adds that the slugger will make $23MM, $24MM, $25MM, $26MM, $27MM, $28MM, $29MM and $30MM in the following years, according to sources.
  • Every indication from the Halos suggests that they're willing to hold on to Mark Trumbo and Kendry Morales right now, but eventually they will have to move somebody, writes MLB.com's Alden Gonzalez.  If Trumbo can play third base, Alberto Callaspo or Maicer Izturis could be expendable.



Blue Jays Sign Aaron Laffey

The Blue Jays have signed left-hander Aaron Laffey to a split contract, MLBTR's Tim Dierkes has learned.  The Royals non-tendered Laffey earlier this month.    

Laffey, 26, turned down a pre-tender deal with the Royals in order to find an opportunity to pitch as a starter.  Three teams told Laffey that he could compete for a spot in the rotation and ultimately the pitcher decided that the Blue Jays presented him with the best opportunity to do that. 

Laffey made 47 appearances for the Yankees and Mariners in 2011, posting a 3.88 ERA with 5.1 K/9 and 3.5 BB/9.  In 49 major league starts, Laffey owns a 4.35 ERA with 4.3 K/9 and 3.6 BB/9.



Tigers Join Pursuit Of Matt Garza

The Tigers have emerged as a suitor for Cubs starter Matt Garza, according to Jon Paul Morosi and Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports.com.  The increased interest in Garza from multiple teams seems to indicate that the right-hander will be dealt before the start of Spring Training.

The Yankees are also known to be interested in Garza but according to one source, they are not currently engaged due to the Cubs’ asking price.  Garza’s rising salary could also be an issue for the Bombers as they approach the luxury-tax barrier.  The hurler projects to earn $8.7MM in 2012 with another year of arbitration afterwards.

Boston and Toronto have also been connected to Garza but sources say that there hasn't been much momentum towards a deal for either team.  It’s also unclear if the Red Sox have the prospects to land Garza after dealing minor league depth to acquire Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon.

Cubs GM Theo Epstein recently said that Garza is the type of pitcher that he would like to build around, but as the club looks to rebuild he'll listen on everyone.



AL East Links: Yankees, Red Sox, Hill, Madson, O's

The Yankees agreed to re-sign Andruw Jones and the Blue Jays agreed to sign Darren Oliver earlier today, and now let's round up some more news from the AL East...



Yankees Agree To Sign Andruw Jones

The Yankees and Andruw Jones have agreed to a one-year deal with a $2MM base salary and $1.4MM in incentives, reports Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com (Twitter links). The deal is pending a physical. The Yankees have a full 40-man roster and will need to clear a spot once the signing becomes official.

Jones, 34, hit .247/.356/.495 with 13 homers for the Yankees last year, doing most of his damage against left-handed pitchers: .286/.384/.540 with eight homers. He figures to again serve as the team's fourth outfielder, spelling the lefty hitting Curtis Granderson and Brett Gardner against the AL East's tough southpaws. Jones is a Scott Boras client.



Cubs Sign Yasiel Balaguert And Carlos Martinez

The Cubs have signed Cuban prospects Yasiel Balaguert and Carlos Martinez, reports Baseball America's Ben Badler. Both players are represented by Jaime Torres.

Balaguert, 19 in January, is said to have "modest tools" and a "long, uppercut swing from the right side and an aggressive, pull-oriented approach that leaves him susceptible to secondary stuff." Although he's played center, it's likely that he'll be relegated to left field down the line. The Marlins had interest in signing him earlier this offseason.

Martinez, 20, is a right-handed pitcher who has worked mostly out of the bullpen according to Badler. He has a "fastball that parks in the low 90s" and an "average curveball but it often gets slurvy, while his changeup is also a work in progress with occasional fade."



Minor Moves: Rich Hill

Let's keep track of the day's minor league signings right here...

  • The Red Sox have re-signed Rich Hill to a minor league deal with an invite to Spring Training, reports John Tomase of The Boston Herald (on Twitter). The 31-year-old left-hander struck out a dozen in eight scoreless innings with the Sox last year before blowing out his elbow. He's currently rehabbing from Tommy John surgery.









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