>Doug Melvin at SABR Day Milwaukee

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By Bill

Saturday, January 29 was SABR Day. Around the country, local chapters of the Society for American Baseball Research held special meetings meant to celebrate that wonderful organization and attract new members. And the one that went on in New York seemed overwhelmingly awesome, but I myself was pretty blessed to get to drive up Highway 94 to Milwaukee and the meeting of the Ken Keltner Chapter. There was great food and a handful of interesting presentations (including a reprise of the Peanuts presentation by Lar from last year’s annual convention), but the highlight of the event would have to have been the talk by Brewers GM Doug Melvin. (Picture to the right stolen without permission from Larry, because his came out better than mine.)

It was impressive enough that Melvin was there at all, but then he stayed and talked to us for nearly an hour and a half, starting with perhaps twenty minutes of entertaining off-the-cuff speech about the team and the offseason and then patiently and directly answering questions from the audience for an hour.

As you may know, I’m not actually a Brewers fan. Which might actually make my impressions of what he had to say more interesting (or that’s what I keep telling myself). Here they be:

  • The Brewers’ defensive ineptitude is something that TCM has covered here a couple times (but for now I can find only this one). Melvin attacked that issue almost right away. He implicitly acknowledged that the team’s stable of defenders itself hasn’t improved, but suggested that the additions of Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum would make them better: “Defense makes your pitching better, but I’m a big believer that pitching makes your defense better.” Melvin explained that he thinks that pitchers who can hit their spots can make hitters hit the ball to where the defenders are stationed. Which seems to go pretty directly against the whole theory upon which things like FIP and BABIP are based, and at any rate, it’s not clear that any of the Brewers’ top three have quite that level of control. That said, the 2011 Brewers staff is going to strike out a lot more guys than 2010′s did, which means fewer outs that need to be converted by that defense, so in that sense, it will be better. But that’s not what he meant.

 

  • Melvin talked a little bit about outgoing manager Ken Macha, and a lot about incoming manager Ron Roenicke. He said that he believes Macha is a very sharp baseball guy (I think most of my Brewers fan friends, and most A’s fans, are still waiting for evidence of this), but that he simply didn’t get along well with some of the players. On Roenicke, Melvin said that he’ll be very aggressive, much more aggressive than Macha was. Melvin quoted Roenicke as having told him that “we’re going to run into outs on the bases this year.” That is the very last thing I would ever want my manager to say. There’s some room for running into outs in a sound baseball strategy — game theory and all that — but if “we’re going to run into outs” is what you’re leading with, I think you’re probably too aggressive.

 

  • Everybody has some kind of speaking tick, right, like a sort of empty verbal pause? I’ve noticed, from our podcasts, that I say “you know” a lot. Melvin’s appears to be “and that” (or “‘n’that”). Every few sentences end with “n’that,” regardless of whether it makes any sense in context. Gives him kind of a folksy air that might not be there otherwise.

 

  • One thing that has always come through in interviews I’ve read of Melvin, and something that, having heard him in person now, I think is one of a few totally legitimate knocks on him, is that he complains a lot about the greed of the players and the difficulty of competing with bigger-market teams. During the course of the talk, Melvin came out in favor of a salary cap and an extra playoff team in each league. He thinks that draft slotting needs to be more formally enforced, that the system of giving teams compensatory draft picks for losing free agents needs to be revamped (but it sounded to me like he was saying teams should get more such picks), and that international players need to be incorporated into the draft. I disagree very strongly with every one of those positions, but that’s not the point so much as the “poor, poor us” attitude that seems to accompany it. Nevermind that some of the biggest free agent contracts this year have been signed by the Nationals and Rangers, or that the biggest international free agents of the last couple years have gone to the Reds, Twins, and Pirates, not the Yankees and Red Sox. It just makes Melvin (and some other members of the Brewers’ front office talk the same way) come off as a bit whiny, and really, in my opinion, doesn’t do them any favors.

 

  • I don’t remember how he came to talk about new shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt, but he did, and Melvin poked some fun at the advanced metrics and whatnot which (as he noted) suggest that Yuni is the worst player in baseball. As a counterpoint, Melvin offered this: in 2010, Betancourt had more RBI than Hanley Ramirez (and he did, 78 to 76). I have no comment on that.

 

  • Later on, I raised my hand and asked Melvin about advanced metrics, referring to his Betancourt comments. I asked him whether he thought that sabermetric analysis had any part to play in putting a team together, and if the Brewers are currently employing any advanced statistical analysis of their own. Melvin responded that yes, he likes a lot of the numbers and they have their place, and that the Brewers currently have four employees who work with advanced metrics for player acquisition purposes. Melvin (reasonably, I think) talked about the drastic disagreements between the various fielding systems, and then specifically mentioned FIP, BABIP, and park effects as advanced stats that he’s interested in…which is great, except that as I said above, FIP and BABIP seem to contradict what he was saying about good pitchers being able to pitch to their defense.

 

  • While still responding to my question, Melvin then kind of used park effects as a reason not to trust advanced stats, pointing out that the stadiums are all so different that you have to take that into account whenever you look at numbers. I wanted to pipe up and respond that, actually, differences between the parks are a big part of the reason we have many of the advanced metrics we do, that the whole point is often to adjust for that kind of thing and put all the numbers on a level with each other…but of course I didn’t. We can assume, at least, that the four geeks in the front office are well aware of that. 

So that’s it. But what’s missing here, necessarily, is how pleasant, engaging and funny Melvin was. It was great of him to spend so much time with us, and he was a lot of fun to listen to. Whatever little qualms I might have with the individual things he said, I think he’s doing a better-than-solid job with the Brewers, and has certainly surrounded himself with quality people to handle those little details.

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