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New Cubs GM must be more than just a sabermetrics whiz

Giants GM Brian Sabean warns against purely sabermetrics model evaluation. | JustSullivan~Getty Images

Giants GM Brian Sabean warns against a purely sabermetrics model of evaluation. | Justin Sullivan~Getty Images

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Updated: November 4, 2011 7:07PM

SAN FRANCISCO — Beware the propeller heads.

It might be the best piece of
advice Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts and his search crew can heed as they pursue their next general manager.

Ricketts has said he wants his new GM to have a track record of success as a top man in baseball operations, a trait many longtime executives in the game say is essential for a
regime trying to turn around a century of inertia.

But Ricketts also has made it clear he wants his new GM to have a strong analytical background in advanced baseball metrics, which might be fine — or might become a minefield to navigate if that becomes an overriding influence in the search.

Especially if top known quantities such as Brian Cashman, Theo Epstein and Andrew Friedman are unavailable, as multiple reports out of New York, Boston and Tampa Bay, respectively, recently have suggested.

‘‘It’s a delicate balance,’’ San Francisco Giants GM Brian Sabean, speaking before the Cubs’ 5-2 vic-
tory Tuesday, said of the trend to lean more heavily on sabermetrics as a scouting and evaluation tool than on skill sets and personality traits. ‘‘There’s certainly a time and place for it, and you have to check off that box.

‘‘Having said that, it’s a people game. Building your club is also about relationships and communication. We all know how to use statistics and all know how to use analysis to make an educated decision and look forward, but should it — or does it — rule the day, in my opinion? I don’t think so. I think most people would admit you need it, but there’s a feel that goes along with it.’’

Nobody has suggested that Ricketts is a propeller head, the term some traditionalists use to describe the generally younger, Ivy League-bred analysts who have joined front offices in increasing numbers in
recent years.

But Ricketts’ and Cubs president Crane Kenney’s apparent fascination with the Boston Red Sox and Epstein’s front-office model there suggests a possible bent in the deep-analysis direction made popular by Billy Beane’s ‘‘Moneyball’’ Oakland Athletics of the early 2000s.

If so, it’s probably useful to
remember that for every Beane and Epstein success story, there’s a flame-out story about guys such as Beane protégé Paul DePodesta (Los Angeles Dodgers) and Epstein assistant Josh Byrnes (Arizona

‘‘We use Sabermetrics; we use numbers,’’ Milwaukee Brewers GM Doug Melvin said. ‘‘But you’ve got to decide which ones you want to use. Sometimes the problem is there’s somebody coming up with a new formula all the time. It’s like in a science lab. Before you even know if the one works, they’re trying to find something else.’’

Sabean, the longest-tenured GM in the majors, said once the language and methodology are peeled away, a lot of the advanced analysis amounts to the same stuff that ‘‘goes back to the Branch Rickey era.’’

‘‘The overall foundation of the game hasn’t changed over time, and we get reminded of it as we get put into short windows of time as we try to retool and rebuild,’’ Sabean said.

He pointed out that pitching, fielding and team speed remain constant cornerstones and predictors
of success.

‘‘If you have [those] three going, it can cover a lot of mistakes,’’ he said.

In fact, relying too much on the numbers — whether it’s on-base percentage or UZR fielding metrics — can gloss over critical elements of traditional scouting evaluation.

‘‘The problem, the more that I see of this, is the numbers people all agree on the same thing,’’ Melvin said. ‘‘They all have some formula. The greatest part about our job is that scouts’ evaluations are different. So the challenging part is you’ve got to have a feel yourself as a general manager, having seen a lot of baseball games, to evaluate a player’s physical skills and how they fit into a club.’’

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