Ben Lindbergh: Jack Z’s Reputation: A Retrospective

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If you can remember what life was like two years ago, you can remember a time when Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik was widely regarded as one of the best GMs in baseball.

There was evidence to support that position. Zduriencik took over a team in October of 2008 that was coming off a 61-101 season and was weighed down by bad contracts from the Bill Bavasi years. He said things that sounded smart, and the moves he made appeared to be part of a coherent plan. Very quickly, he trimmed fat from the bloated roster, trading or releasing Carlos Silva, Jose Vidro, Richie Sexson, and Yuniesky Betancourt. In addition to undoing Bavasi’s bad moves, he made good moves of his own, acquiring Franklin Gutierrez, signing Russell Branyan, and picking up designated fielders like Jack Wilson and Endy Chavez who helped transform one of the worst defensive teams in baseball into probably the best. And as a result, the Mariners improved more than any other team in 2009, finishing at 85-77.

The internet noticed. In a post at FanGraphs on January 4, 2010, Matt Klaassen, trying to be “relatively uncontroversial,” picked five general managers whom he believed to be among the best. Four of those GMs were Andrew Friedman, Theo Epstein, Billy Beane, and Doug Melvin, who at the time had a combined 38 years of general managerial experience and whose teams, between them, had won seven Wild Cards, nine division titles, three pennants, and two World Series. The fifth was Zduriencik, who had one year of experience in which his team had won 85 games and finished third in the AL West.

I’m not trying to single out a particular piece or author here; to pick on someone from my own site, Joe Sheehan included Zduriencik in his top four GMs in a chat at Baseball Prospectus just a few days before that FanGraphs post appeared. I’m mentioning particular people so no one can say “Straw man!” and because it’s a good way to get rolling, writing-wise, but the point is that this was the consensus opinion, or something close to it, at least among saber-slanted internet types who were tickled when Tony Blengino talked about WAR.

So we’ve established that Jack Z was generally perceived to be an elite GM before the 2010 season, or at least I’ve said so and you haven’t disagreed strongly enough to stop reading. That’s the “before,” which means it’s just about time for the “after.”

On Wednesday, the Mariners made one-third of a three-team trade that seemed to benefit them less than the other two teams involved. Jeff Sullivan called the trade “brutal,” and Dave Cameron called it “Bavasi-esque,” one of the Unforgivable Curses of Seattle-oriented sportswriting. Calling the trade brutal and Bavasi-esque isn’t quite the same as calling Zduriencik himself those things, but dropping the Bavasi bomb on a formerly admired executive after a trade of a part-time player—however useful he was in that part of the time—seems like a sign that relations were already strained. “If Morse doesn’t play well and the club don’t make at least a little bit of noise,” Rob Neyer wrote, “Zduriencik probably doesn’t last the rest of the year. Nor should he.” 

Two years after Zduriencik’s popularity was at its peak, Friedman, Epstein, and Beane, his fellow 2010 best GM candidates, might still be in most fans’ top five. Zduriencik is a slow start away from unemployment. 

It’s not as though we collectively flip-flopped for the hell of it. Just as there were reasons to think Zduriencik was good at his job two years ago, there are reasons to believe he’s bad at it now. Three-fourths of Zduriencik’s tenure has come after that first, successful season, and given all that new data at our disposal, we’d be silly not to reevaluate our old assumptions. You may have entered 2010 with the prior that Jack Z was likely to make the Mariners a competitive team, but each loss and unsuccessful move by Seattle since has revised that probability downward. And Seattle has had a lot of losses and unsuccessful moves.

The Mariners haven’t come within 10 wins of their 2009 total in the three seasons since; in 2010, the year after Jack Z seemingly turned the team around, the M’s went back to being as bad as they’d been under Bavasi. And then there are the high-profile moves that didn’t, or haven’t, panned out: Chone Figgins, Justin Smoak, maybe Dustin Ackley, though it’s still too soon to say.

So was the consensus about Zduriencik correct two years ago, or is the consensus correct now? The answer probably can’t be “both.” Jack Z’s results might have been among the best in baseball in 2009 and among the worst lately, but it seems unlikely that his true talent—his underlying ability to make good moves—could have changed that drastically in such a short time. Maybe he was fortunate in the way his first moves worked out, and maybe he was unlucky later. Either way, we were at least a little wrong about how good he was before, or we’re at least a little wrong about how bad he is now.

Or maybe we’ve been a bit off the whole time. Because the truth is that we probably overrated Zduriencik in early 2010, and we’re probably underrating him now. The 2008 team he inherited wasn’t as bad as its record suggested, and the 2009 team he rode to the top of the GM power rankings wasn’t as good. In fact, last year’s team, which won 10 fewer games, had a better Pythagorean record. 

And be honest: How many of the Mariner moves that have backfired did you hate at the time? Miguel Olivo, maybe, which wasn’t so much a move backfiring as it was a move going predictably poorly. But who thought Chone Figgins would self-destruct as soon as he got to Seattle? Or that Justin Smoak would spend time in Triple-A at age 25? Or that Doug Fister would be so successful in Detroit? Add in all the other things, large and small, that Zduriencik has done well (the Felix Hernandez extension, the promising prospects, Oliver Perez, Brendan Ryan) and it’s easy to see how his decisions—defensible then and defensible now, except in hindsight—could have produced a contender.

Granted, Zduriencik has more baseball experience than we do, more information at his disposal, more smart assistants, and more time to spend thinking about good moves for the Mariners to make. He’s paid pretty well to be better at this than we are, so “baseball bloggers wouldn’t have done any better” isn’t an airtight defense. But there’s a temptation, I think, to treat every move a GM makes as more representative of his talents than it actually is, as if a good one can’t make a bad move, or vice versa. 

Is Zduriencik the GM of the first Cliff Lee trade, who gave up little to add an ace, or the GM of the second Cliff Lee trade, who got little back for one? The GM of the first John Jaso trade, who swapped a middle-inning malcontent for a useful position player, or the GM of the second John Jaso trade, who sold that player high but might have failed to extract an adequate price in return? He’s all of the above, just as a star slugger is still a star slugger when he goes 0-for-4 or hits a liner right at someone. Maybe Zduriencik has just had a few bad BABIP years.

If there’s a lesson in the rapid rise and fall of Zduriencik’s rep, it’s that we should remember to regress. We might have been too quick to believe in Jack Z two years ago, but we don’t have to repeat the mistake by dismissing him too quickly today.

Ben Lindbergh is the editor-in-chief of Baseball Prospectus and the co-host of Effectively Wild, the BP daily podcast.

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  1. oldtimefamilybaseball posted this
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