Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A defense of J.P. Ricciardi's legacy

Before we start too far down the road of defending J.P. Ricciardi and his eight years in Toronto, allow us to get this part out first: It was time for J.P. to go. He'd had his run, and he'd done his bit, but the team needs to go in a different direction and needs a new public face in the GM position.

So you can save all of your "you're an idiot for wanting to keep Ricciardi" comments. That's not what this is about.

But we find ourselves wanting to take up the cause for the now departed Ricciardi because the manner in which his tenure was described over the past four days and eight years just seems fundamentally wrong to us, and we'd at the very least like to inject a little bit of reason into the naked Dionysian orgy of elation at his firing.

There are significant elements of the Toronto and national sports media who have taken revisionist and reductionist view of Ricciardi's time in Toronto. Put simply, their knee jerk take is: "He failed, because he didn't get the job done, he didn't do what he said he'd do, and he made lots of mistakes."

It's odd to think that eight years of a man's work can be reduced and crushed into rubble in such an off-handed way. To us, it would seem to be a lot more nuanced than that, so we'd like to address those three notions.

J.P. made a lot of mistakes
There are plenty of examples that get trotted out here: Letting go of Carlos Delgado and stripping the team down, then making big money signings that didn't pan out, like B.J. Ryan and Frank Thomas. Giving way too much money to Vernon Wells and Alex Rios, and "bungling" the Roy Halladay trade bonanza.

The thing is that when you take a step back and look across the league for a bit of perspective, you see that there are plenty of teams that make "mistakes" in overpaying free agents, or letting guys go. But GMs in general and Ricciardi in particular don't have the benefit of hindsight to evaluate the relative merit of these deals before they go out with them. Inevitably, you're going to make mistakes because players are going to have career years or they are going to get old, or they are going to get hurt.

But even some of those signings that are treated as "mistakes" now are a little more difficult to criticize if you place them in their appropriate context and look at the performance over the contract.

Take B.J. Ryan, for instance. He was the marquee closer on the market, and the press and the fans were clamoring for something better than a closer committee led by Jason Frasor. At the time, it seemed as though the contract was a year too long for a closer with a funky delivery, but the Jays wouldn't have brought him in if that extra year wasn't included. It was a risk, and as we saw this year, it didn't pay off.

But let's not forget that nobody was questioning that signing in 2006, after Beej had saved 38 games and posted a 1.37 ERA and a 0.86 WHIP. And in 2008, after his Tommy John surgery, he posted a 2.95 ERA and a 1.28 WHIP with 32 saves. So while it didn't completely pan out in the end, he certainly brought value at the time.

And ask yourself this: What would the Jays have looked like over those two years without Ryan as their closer?

A similar signing was Frank Thomas, who was coming off a season where he was fourth in the MVP voting, and fit a need that the Jays had at the time: A masher in the middle.

Again, this was a signing that in the moment seemed like it might be for one year too many, but Thomas' performance in that first year (26 HR, 95 RBI, .857 OPS) was on par with expectations, and the aging slugger actually led the team in many of the relevant offensive categories (with the others being held down by fellow oldtimer, Matt Stairs.)

The point is that as a general manager, sometimes you need to trade off the long term financial implications in order to look after the here and now, and that is especially true in the AL East. The window to compete in the division opens briefly and slams shut suddenly, and you need to step up when you have the opportunity. You can't tear the team down and build it all back up gradually like you're in the NL West, because the two powerhouse teams above you are always going to have more money.

The biggest "mistake" of J.P.'s tenure was probably the Vernon Wells deal, and even if you set aside the fact that it might not have been Ricciardi's call to hand over that much money, he still needs to wear it because it was still his responsibility. But to understand exactly how a deal of that magnitude gets signed, you need to look at the other deals that were floating around at the time. The Gary Matthews Jr. deal, or the Carlos Lee deal, or Alfonso Soriano, or Carlos Beltran. In that moment, when no one was looking at a dramatic contraction in the economy in general and the money from the online components of the industry were flowing freely, there was a sense that a deal like Vernon's made sense in the context of the day.

Maybe Ricciardi wanted to bring Vernon back, and the Rogers brass or Godfrey felt as though they were prepared to hand over whatever it would take to keep him. Given the contracts being handed out to similar players, it stood to reason that someone would have made an offer in the range of $18 million per year or more to get Vernon, and letting him go at that time would have signaled to fans that the Jays weren't willing to compete to keep their own players.

It's easy to look back and pick this apart, but a man's gotta make decisions in the moment where he stands.

J.P. Didn't Do What He Said He'd Do
The Plan. That's what so much of the criticism of J.P. has come down to over the years. Did he have a "five-year plan" and did he stick to it? And if he didn't stick to, then what was the value of the plan in the first place?

Recognize this about some of the media types who took the most umbrage at the audacity of having a plan: Most of them don't have a plan beyond a week or the next series. They have editors in chief and managing editors or section editors or segment producers or executive producers to worry about the planning and and the long term view of keeping those who control the money happy, so the notion of some set of guiding principles and timelines and budgeting and a view towards where anything is headed is beyond their scope of interest. This leaves the reporter to react to the day-to-day events.

So the notion that a guy would come in with a "Plan" that he intended to execute would become laughable to some of those guys, and all the much more so when they were able to use it as a laugh line: "We're in year seven of the five-year plan! Hey-o!"

Moreover, there was an assumption that because J.P. came from Oakland that his entire worldview was predetermined and preprogrammed to be that of Billy Beane and his fancypants Moneyball tomfoolery. And so of course J.P. was going to institute a Moneyball regime in Toronto, because he was a Moneyball guy. Isn't that what he said?

What's missed in this assessment is that J.P.'s background was as a scout. He was not a number cruncher and he was not a sabermetrician. He was one of those guys who went out on the road for months at a time looking at kids and assessing them, and then cross-checking the assessments of others. If J.P. came from an organization where Moneyball practices (whatever the hell that means) were in place, he wasn't the driving force behind it.

(And for those of you who want a bit of an eye-opener, take a look at the handful of pages where J.P. appears in Michael Lewis' book. J.P.'s never the guy pushing stats. He's a scout.)

(Also, as the media bends over backwards to praise Alex Antholpoulos in the coming weeks, none of them are going to assume that he's an absolute disciple of J.P.'s...because he's a good Canadian boy and he deserves the benefit of the doubt.)

What J.P. had in mind for the franchise is up for debate, but it does seem as though he figured that Toronto could compete on the field without having to compete in terms of payroll. That meant cutting ties with Carlos Delgado and finding more economical alternatives.

But what J.P. might not have seen coming, and what none of us saw coming to the extent that it did, was the massive inflation of the payrolls of the Red Sox and Yankees in the next few years. The heart-breaking losses that both of the behemoths suffered in the early part of the decade led them to engage in an all-out price war for players.

When Ricciardi took the post in 2002, the Yanks spent $133 million in salaries. By the end of 2003, that number jumped to $180 million. (Using Biz of Baseball as the source.) The Jays' scaled back $66 million payroll was enough to keep them in the middle of the pack (13th overall) in 2002, and by 2008, their $98 million payroll was enough to keep them in exactly the same spot.

The payroll bumps that Ricciardi was permitted over the past few years in order to go after high-priced free agents wasn't so much a change of philosophy as it was a recognition of the change in the market. If there hadn't been immense inflation in terms of player salaries, the Jays may have been able to sign some of the same free agent targets without having to offer them more money than the Yanks or Red Sox.

Now that the economy has contracted and the payrolls have shrunk for every team other than the Yanks and Sox, there is a chance that some second tier free agents to fall to a mid-payroll team at a reasonable price. But one need only look at the monstrous signing season the Yankees had last off season to recognize that a gap is increasing between those two teams and the rest of the league, and the Jays don't have the luxury of getting by on 85 win seasons.

We're not sure what the plan was for Ricciardi, but if he chose to adapt and adjust it to the realities of the day, we can't say that we'd pillory him for a lack of consistency. Foolish consistency in a rapidly evolving world might make for a clearer narrative to follow, but it won't make for wiser business decisions.

J.P. Didn't Get the Job Done
Ultimately, this is true. If your notion is that his job was to fashion the team into a playoff team at some point in his tenure, then you're right, he didn't get it done.

But again, we come back to the context in which the Jays find themselves. They play in the division with the two most aggressive teams in the league, and there are no cheap playoff berths to be had. Moreover, they face those two teams 19 times each over the season while competing for a Wild Card entry with teams whose strength of schedules are vastly inferior.

The reality of assembling a "competitive" team in Toronto is that even good or very good teams can end up looking "mediocre". (Those two words are favorites of the sports punditocracy, and we've heard them endlessly to describe 86 and 82 and 87 win teams.) The teams that J.P. assembled in Toronto were far more competitive than he was ever given credit for, and would that their destiny not be tied to their geography, they might have made the jump into the playoffs.

Now that J.P. is gone, and a new regime is allegedly going to be in place at some point, their challenge will be the same. But given the unbridled, voracious appetite for winning baseball titles that their competition in the AL East possess, the New Boss is going to have to assemble teams that can compete each and every year, not just at the end of a prescribed cycle. And on the off chance that misfortune befalls either the Yanks or Sox, those competitive teams can pounce and take advantage and maybe slip into the postseason.

But even if the team is prepared to pony up and increase the payroll and look at making big moves to compete for a playoff spot, they won't return to the days of being a perpetual contender unless they are willing to establish themselves amongst the leaders in spending, as they were in the back to back championship days. Even with a bigger payroll and some good fortune, it is entirely likely that this franchise will continue to find itself in the position of winning 84 to 90 games per season and sitting in third place in the division.

Which is pretty much what J.P. did for most of his tenure.

37 comments:

Ari said...

Thanks for posting what many of us are thinking.

The Ack said...

That's it, I quit blogging. Holy fuck, this is brilliant. Spot on, man.

Side thought - shouldn't we, as "defenders" of Ricciardi (if only to counter the ridiculous criticize-at-all-costs-and-in-the-absence-of-logic crowd), be happy that a Ricciardi protege is now at the helm?

I've come to the conclusion that I think I am. I'm pretty sure I am. We get the benefits of what we saw as Ricciardi strengths, mixed with new ideas and a fresh look....and the JP haters get a new guy to heap praise on....because he's not Ricciardi.

Imagine the kudos for an 80-win season in 2010!

Of course, it won't simply fold into a tidy little package like that. There will be missteps in the Anthopoulos era, and maybe the media will turn on him quicker than they did on JP.

But I need hope, dude. I need hope.

Tao of Stieb said...

You know what I hope? I hope that J.P. gets a job elsewhere, builds a 95 game winner in the NL West or Central, then wins a World Series.

And then let the media in Toronto and across this country make heads or tails of that.

J.P.'s going to be fine. He'll go to a place where they appreciate a GM with a little personality. And he'll be revered.

eyebleaf said...

Tao, I salute you. This was absolutely fucking fantastic.

And I'm with you: I want nothing more than for J.P. to land on his feet, make the playoffs, and get a ring. He wants it. Bad. And he deserves it.

Long live J.P. Ricciardi, arguably the best GM the Jays have ever had.

Torgen said...

Either JP's teams were great but incredibly unlucky, or he poked a huge hole in pythag and the fungibility of Wins Above Replacement. Either one deserves praise.

SP said...

Jays bloggers put Jays beat writers to shame, and other bloggers to shame too. We have some of the best around. It's so great to have fan voices who consider context, nuance, facts--you know, stuff that real reporters should be doing.

I agree he needed to go and I agree he made mistakes. Some of those mistakes are mitigated by factors that narrow-minded people are too lazy to consider. I've been defending JP's record for a while now, so I don't really have anything new to add to what was said here.

SP said...

Reading this reminded me of a Peter Gammons article I read when Ricciardi was hired:

http://espn.go.com/gammons/s/2001/1114/1278229.html

In hindsight, some of the things said about JP in there sound almost comical and Onion-like, but Tao nailed it--JP was never really a sabermetrics guy. He was and always will be a scout through and through. He came in respected as one of the best talent evaluators in the game and probably is still considered that way.

eyebleaf said...

I think that is the legacy Ricciardi leaves behind: an incredible talent evaluator.

Ricciardi will win. It may not happen in the AL East, although I hope it does, but he will win.

Joanna said...

JP had good and bad, but it was time for a change. And if JP wins outside the AL East, it will, among other things, prove what a joke MLB has become.
So, maybe...Fuck Bud Selig.

But, good luck JP.

Ian H. said...

The stupidest remark I've heard over the past week was that the A.J. Burnett signing was a "bust". As far as I'm concerned, both the Blue Jays and Burnett both got what they wanted out of that contract.

And since when was 38 total wins over 3 years a bust for a starting pitcher?

BTW - great job, Tao. I will also quit blogging and take up knitting instead, because it doesn't get any better than this!

SP said...

Funny thing about AJ is that he was actually even better in those first two years than in the 3rd. He was just a lazy fuck in those first two years who couldn't handle pitching with pain, which is something every pitcher does. Then in his contract year, he nutted up and pitched his ass off just like he did in the 2005 contract year.

Tao of Stieb said...

JP took so much grief for the AJ contract when he signed it because AJ was a .500 pitcher who didn't deserve it...and then he took grief for putting in an out clause, because they needed to keep AJ because he was worth it!

Funny how that works!

eyebleaf said...

I am loving this. All of it. Seriously.

I'm not loving this, from Robert MacLeod in The Globe. In fact, I may be crying right now: "And you can expect more changes, including the removal of Brad Arnsberg as the pitching coach before the start of next season."

Cito might actually survive. Which blows the fucking mind.

Tao of Stieb said...

Cito in and Arnsberg gone is really crazy crazy stuff.

It makes me want to give Beeston a pink belly.

Mattt said...

That was one hell of an awesome post. I'd love to say that I've been thinking the same thing, which is true, but I never could possibly say it so concisely. Well done...

The Ack is Wack. The Tao is a Cow. said...

J.P was going good at picking up players off the scrap heap who turned into productive players.

He was great at pulling the wool over Halladay's eyes and convincing him to re-sign twice with the Jays with the promise that we would compete.

He was terrible in spending big money.

He was terrible in media / fan relations.

People talk about what a great pitching rotation he created but he backed into that rotation when he was left no choce after the Ohko, Thomson, Zambrano debacle.

They talked about how he created a great defence but he backed into that as wel. If he cared so much about defence why trade Hudson for Glaus?

So, overall 8 years of wasted baseball, not one meaningful game played, low attendance...this is JP's legacy. Defend it all you want.

Dyrti Whyt Boye said...

Tao, that's not JP's cock in your mouth! That's his nose!!

Anonymous said...

Very good post. I've been no JPR fan for the last three years, but I do remember the agreement and excitement that I felt after almost every one of his big signings. Wrapping up Hinske made sense. Signing Wells, Rios and Hill to long-term deals made sense at the time. Rolen for Glaus was a coup. Koske? Not so much.

How much did steroids mess up the deals? I think speculation has to be made that, at least for two-thirds of those signings that turned sour, that their sudden, rapid decline may have been due to a discontinued use of performance enhancers.

Whorehey (George) said...

40 Million.

How much JP paid out to players who were no longer playing for the Jays.

Or, more than the entire payroll of a few MLB teams.

Paul McCartney said...

JET!!

David Letterman is a Man-Whore said...

Ari-0 Speedwagon: speak for your self numbnuts.

~Dr. Zaius said...

Maybe I'm splitting hairs, but shouldn't the sentence:" The payroll bumps that Ricciardi was permitted over the past few years in order to go after high-priced free agents wasn't so much a change of philosophy as it was a recognition of the change in the market." be a bit different? There was a change in philosophy because the market place had changed. Not everyone in the AL East responded in the same way to the changing market - it's not like the Orioles or the Rays made big splashes in the free agent market once they realized the Yankees and the Red Sox were operating with their own printing press. Can you positively state that the Blue Jays operated the same way before they made these large free agent signings, but on a smaller financial scale?

Other than that little bit of nitpicking, the post was pretty good. Never understood those who thought Ricciardi was completely terrible, he made a few mistakes, I wouldn't have signed the Beej with his wonky delivery, but the plusses outweigh the negatives, not overwhelmingly though.

(Maybe you could have added another point about his drafting record, but that would have probably netted an inconclusive result. With regards to the draft, he did change drafting philosophy because the cupboard was pretty bare when he initially started and the desire to draft collegians was because they would get to the big leagues faster, hence the avoidance of high schoolers until the budget was increased - I wonder if Travis Snider would have been passed over had the purse strings remained tight. Once JP could spend some money on the big league roster he could actually draft high school projects because the wait-time to get the big leagues wasn't so much an issue with a larger budget team. I don't think it's any coincidence that with the increase in budget the philosophy via the draft had changed, and quite frankly, needed to change.)

Houston Oilers #1 said...

When is this site getting the Score stamp of legitimacy.

Still can't believe JOAAANNNAAAA!! and The Blue Jays Cunter hot it before Tao and Ack!

Torgen said...

The payroll bumps weren't a change in philosophy. The philosophy was to beat the big payrolls with a middle-of-the-pack payroll. What constituted a middle-of-the-pack payroll was what changed.

Anonymous said...

Rogers does business in Canadian Dollars. The Canadian Dollar went from being worth $0.67 US$ to being worth $1.05 US in the space of about 4 years. Rogers did not give JP one cent more in payroll to spend in their terms - they just let him spend the then current US$ equivalent because that's how the players get paid. There was no change in philosophy to debate - there was a massive weakening in the US$.

Idiots like Richard Griffin wrote glowing columns about the Rogers organization loosening the purse strings because they were too dumb to do the math on the conversion rate.

All that being said, the only signing I disagreed with at the time was David Eckstein. Otherwise I thoughty JP did a great job.

And, before I go, I've been wandering around the interweb since the beginning and blogs since they started, and that was one of the finest posts I have had the pleasure to read. Well done.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, I'm not buying this. I understand your position, and I agree that Ricciardi's most egregious 'mistakes' were not his alone and may not have been his at all--I'm thinking particularly of the Wells contract. However he had two egregious failings that, as far as I'm concerned, made him unsuitable for his position. One was controllable: he could have kept his mouth shut on numerous occasions when it would have been better for him and everyone else to stay quiet. The other was not controllable: he was fatally unlucky. On a number of occasions he made bold gambles, and not one of those gambles ever worked out. His quieter moves were more successful. Scutaro was a terrific pick-up. The pitchers he picked up on the back end of trades have worked out well and will continue to work out well. But his big moves blew up every single time. Ryan, Burnett, Thomas, Koskie, Stewart. All looked great on paper, all ended up costing the team big money and not helping the team win games. The law of averages suggests that at least a couple of these guys should have worked out but none of them did. No one needs a yappy GM with that kind of luck. It's better he's gone.

Isabella Reyes

~Dr. Zaius said...

@Torgen

How can you claim the payroll bumps weren't a change in philosophy when Ricciardi's first act of business was to strip payroll of fat contracts? I don't see how payroll contraction and payroll expansion are pretty much the same way to fill out the preposition 'to compete' on the baseball field. If the philosophy of competitiveness was the same, Delgado wouldn't have been allowed to leave for bubkus, among other things.

QJays said...

Bravo Tao - (congratulatory back slap to someone who I agree with ... followed by meaningless chatter)
I think some of the commenters make reasonable points too -- the one about attendance is, in part, an important one (JP didn't rub the audience particularly well), but I personally think that it really points out an ongoing problem of baseball in Canada, as opposed to a specific problem of JP. For example: why is it that the Leafs play to sell-out crowds when they've been a comparably worse team, while minor variations in the Jays record leads to significant variations in attendance? The baseball fan-base is not engaged in the same manner, so the evaluation of what is being done properly by most "fans" is a different one.

Not being a hockey fan, my impression of the Leafs is that they are a crappy team with ownership that clearly doesn't value its fans -- I can base that on their lack of appearance in the playoffs (which 50% of teams get to play in). That's pretty much it, and I know its horribly simplistic. Despite my knowledge of Burke's past record, if he doesn't turn it around quickly, he must be a terrible GM -- unless I base my evaluation on attendance, in which case, he must be amazing. Clearly the fans like what they see!

I think JP's curse is partly that he arrived when the World Series victories still seemed pretty recent in most people's minds, and maybe the Dome still seemed new too, or at least a place where winners played. Victory remained a possibility -- and in baseball (as opposed to hockey) that is crucial. But the same number of years again, and it's been a generation since Toronto has had a championship baseball team. So even if things were, in fact, pretty hopeless when JP arrived, they became increasingly hopeless to most onlookers despite any positives that he might have brought.

In short, your fine-tuned evaluation of JP's positives is great, but it is also understandable why a lesser-engaged fan-base is not listening to that evaluation. And to be fair, I think the attendance and play-offs problems are the main reasons why pretty much all of us agree that it was time for a change.

Oh, and I hope JP gets a ring too, but not as much as hope Halladay gets one.

Stedron said...

Looks like I'm a little late in the praise-fest, but yeah, you nailed it.

Graeme said...

Very well said. I wrote my own defense of J.P. in my blog as well. I, however, also bought into the whole "Ricciardi is bringing Moneyball to Toronto" thing, so thanks for setting me straight on that!

Tao of Stieb said...

Re: Attendance

Whatever your take on the numbers that Paul Godfrey cooked up, there were attendance increases throughout Ricciardi's tenure.

If you remember where this team was going by the time Gord Ash had finished effing it up, people were running away in droves from the SkyDome.

It was pretty depressing to see some of the smaller crowds this year, but the thing about them is that they were crowds full of people who dug into their pockets and bought tickets rather than getting them for free at the Rogers Video or wherever.

QJays said...

That may be, though like I said, I think attendance on it's own isn't an indication of how good a GM you have, and JP was a fine GM. I do know that the friends who bought their tickets for $10 from scalpers this summer said the dollar value printed on the ticket was something like $1.98. I think all the regimes have had ways of boosting attendance -- the honest fans get milked 'cause they do things the expensive way.

Colin said...

Isabella,

Not all of JP's big moves were failures. People like to throw out Burnett as a failure but nobody really says why it was a bad move. The trade for Glaus and then the trade for Rolen was a success. Ryan and Thomas ended badly, but people forget that those two performed well at first.

Oh, and Stewart was not a big move.

Jayszone93 said...

Well said my man... Well said... Also, the "5 year plan" was a Toronto made media term, I don't remeber JP ONCE mentioning or uttering the words "5 year plan"...

Kosher Guy said...

While JP's results were mixed and he did of course have many environmental factors beyond his control working against him, it was his arrogance and treatment of both players and fans that raised the ire of most people. You can't a) not deliver on your promise (5 years and then contention) b) lie to fans and players alike c) never admit you're wrong and still treat everyone around you like they're the village idiot and not be vilified. Whether Alex succeeds or fails will be secondary to how he builds relationships in how he's viewed by the fans and media of Toronto.

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