Around the time that his first tenure with the Mets wrapped up in 2018, I asked Sandy Alderson what he expected would be the next frontier of analytics in baseball. As the Johnny Appleseed of advanced metrics in the game, he was better qualified than anyone to answer.
It was Alderson who came to the position of general manager of the Oakland Athletics in 1983 with no background in playing, scouting, or otherwise becoming grizzled in traditional ways. He was the team’s general counsel.
At the time, he was a radical choice for a team’s top job. GMs chomped cigars, told old stories and guzzled scotch; Alderson immersed himself in paperwork.
To compensate for his lack of traditional experience, he became the first known executive to bring Bill James’ Baseball Abstracts, the pioneering books that introduced the sport to what would later be called sabermetrics, into the ballpark.
In doing so, Alderson became the father of analytics in organized baseball. He has worked in the game nearly every year since, watching and at times pioneering new trends.
For all of these reasons, he’s the one to ask where the game is going. Now that we’re well past any edge provided by on-base percentage, WAR and many other metrics that once represented new ideas, what’s next?
Alderson’s answer was surprising, and now provides a strong clue to the way he will run Steve Cohen’s Mets. The final frontier of analytics, he said, will not be a particular stat, but the human arts of implementation and communication. The underlying skills behind those are the abilities to listen and empathize.
In the Statcast era, every team has numbers on nearly every imaginable concept. Every team has a department devoted to parsing those numbers, although some organizations value analytics more than others.
There are few secrets left like the ones that Alderson and his successor, Billy Beane, used to Oakland’s advantage during the years that caught author Michael Lewis’ attention and inspired his book, Moneyball.
It still makes basic sense to divide baseball people into two groups: The old-school evaluators and the analytics department. That’s reductive but largely accurate. There remains built-in tension between these groups; in the simplest sense, the former can be insecure and resentful, while the latter can be dismissive and disrespectful.
The best organizations fuse these two groups together and facilitate a fragile peace.
Yankees GM Brian Cashman leans heavily on an analytics department led by Michael Fishman, but also on former players and scouts like Tim Naehring and Jim Hendry. Reggie Jackson was even part of their group at the GM meetings as recently as 2018.
Sometimes, Cashman takes the advice of his scouts, like when he traded for Didi Gregorius. Other times he leans more heavily on his analysts, like when they argued for trading Justin Wilson for Chad Green.
In searching for his own leader of baseball operations, Alderson must find a person similarly able to listen to both sides — ideally to the point where the barriers melt and the divisions aren’t so well-defined.
There are few people in baseball more skilled in this regard than Naehring. A former big-league infielder and scout, he has the credibility with coaches to sell them on analytical concepts. Analysts know that he is open to their ideas.
Listening with empathy is not rocket science, or at least it shouldn’t be, but Naehring’s ability to do it has made him a widely respected figure.
Because of that ability to understand and talk to both sides, Naehring might well be the executive most suited to implement Alderson’s final frontier of analytics. Unfortunately for the Mets, he remains uninterested in leaving the Yankees, as SNY reported earlier this fall. That is Alderson’s loss and Cashman’s continued gain.
But as Alderson conducts a largely secretive search — he wouldn’t even confirm to us that he interviewed former Marlins president of baseball operations Michael Hill, which he has — he would do well to hold up Naehring as the Platonic ideal of what he’s looking for.
Another example that Alderson knows well is already in the organization: John Ricco. While almost certainly not a candidate for the president job, Ricco will remain a key voice in Alderson’s inner circle. Like Naehring, he is respected by all sides because of his ability to listen.
Ricco might have become too valuable to the business side of the organization to move fully back into baseball ops — that is still being worked out — but he is the type of human that Alderson should seek.
The resume is not as important as the person. The Mets could hire a Harvard product like Hill or current Oakland GM David Forst, whose name remains heavily in the mix for the Mets job. They could hire an attorney and former agent like Jean Afterman, another Yankees exec the Mets almost certainly won’t be able to poach.
They can hire a former player like the pitcher and MLB executive Chris Young, long an Alderson favorite. Or a former college player and GM with a successful team in line for a promotion, like Cleveland’s Mike Chernoff.
Wherever the person comes from, he or she needs to be in possession of one skill above all others: Empathy. He or she needs to fill their departments with people who talk to players and scouts with an ear turned sharply to what the new school can do for them.
If Alderson wants to complete the revolutionary journey he instigated nearly four decades ago by reading Bill James, he needs — above all else — a listener.