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I’ve been on record several times now saying that John Schuerholz was secretly one of the worst GM’s in baseball for the past decade or so. I admit that this was probably somewhat of a hyperbole (after all, there were always guys like Dave Littlefield around). We can probably say now, looking back on his entire record, that he was adequate. And if people were just saying he was adequate right now, I wouldn’t be writing this post. But we are hearing things like “one of the greatest general managers ever,” and “best GM of the modern era,” so once again I have to step forward and be one of the only lone dissenting voices in the chorus of praise for Schuerholz.

schuerholz.jpgI don’t deny that Schuerholz made some nice trades and signings, particularly early in his tenure with the Braves, but he also made some real clunkers, so I think we can say that on the whole, his record in those departments was pretty average. The Braves did manage to homegrow quite a bit of talent from the farm system during his watch, so he definitely deserves some credit for hiring good minor league personnel and leading some fruitful drafts, but a lot of other people had a hand in those players’ development, and he also did some really questionable things like promote his son beyond all reason.

What we have to realize is that Schuerholz benefitted from three amazing blessings early in his career that had nothing to do with his abilities as a GM – Ted Turner’s money, the once in a century coincidence of three Hall-of-Fame pitchers all falling into his lap at the same time, and the miracle work of pitching coach Leo Mazzone. As the money dried up in the late 90s, Maddux and Glavine moved on in the early 2000s, and especially after Mazzone’s departure in 2005, Schuerholz’s weaknesses as a GM were increasingly exposed.

It’s interesting to see Mazzone get fired by Baltimore a day after Schuerholz quits as GM, for the two men will always be linked in my mind. The Braves won 14 consecutive division crowns, and Schuerholz and Bobby Cox received most of the credit, but I will go to my grave thinking that Mazzone deserves more credit than the other two combined.

Under Leo Mazzone’s tutiledge, scrap-heap nobodies became decent, replacement-level mediocrities became good, good pitchers became great, and great pitchers became gods. I’ve now read three different studies that sliced the numbers different ways, and all came to the conclusion that on average, pitchers who came to the Braves reduced their ERAs by about half a run compared to how they fared before and after.

built-to-win.jpgThis is a huge, huge advantage, and one that I don’t see how we can give John Schuerholz much credit for. Every year for 16 years, he would let all his good free agent relievers go, and sign a bunch of nobodies off the scrap heap, and yet the Braves led the league in bullpen ERA year after year.

If Leo Mazzone helped all pitchers by an average of 0.50 off their ERAs, I think it’s safe to say that he probably helped starters a little less than that, and relievers significantly more. I mean, seriously – Kevin Grybowski? Kerry Ligtenberg? Darren Holmes? Chris Hammond? Tim Spooneybarger? Kevin McGlinchy? Mike Bielecki? These are just few examples of the no-name relievers who came to the Braves and had Mariano-Rivera-like seasons, only to suck again as soon as they went to another team. And there were a number of starters who had similar miracle seasons only to suck as soon as they left – Denny Neagle, John Burkett, and Russ Ortiz come to mind most immediately.

Somebody please tell me, how does John Schuerholz deserve credit for miraculous pitching performance after miraculous pitching performance that happened during his tenure, no matter who he signed and threw out there?

Schuerholz employed a similar strategy with position players as he did with relievers. Each year he would let all of his good free agents walk, and pretty much not replace them in any meaningful way, but the Braves would still win the division anyway. Oh sure, he would occasionally pull a trade to fill a hole, if one fell into his lap, but by and large he would just sign some scrap heap guys and sit back and wait for a Braves prospect to fill the hole eventually. This meant that hundreds and hundreds of at-bats got wasted on these fill-in guys – terrible players like Dave Gallagher, Michael Tucker, Tony Graffanino, Keith Lockhart, Gerald Williams, Brian Hunter, Bobby Bonilla, B.J. Surhoff, Rico Brogna, Robert Fick, and Vinny Castilla in his dotage.

Yes, its true, all of those terrible, terrible players I just mentioned were everyday starters for a whole season or more during the Braves’ 14 straight division championship years. Now I know that most championship teams have a player or two who is less than awesome, but these guys were truly, honestly god-awful. Go look them up – their collective average with the Braves must be something like .225. And several of them played first base! Division titles were won in spite of players like these rather than because of them.

But that’s the kind of player Braves fans could expect to see Schuerholz sign the following season after one of their All-Stars left as a free agent. That’s the kind of GM he was. And this tendency only got more pronounced as the money ran out toward the end. Schuerholz just wasn’t that creative a GM.

raul_mondesi_braves.jpgIn fact not creative at all. It got so that in the past few years Schuerholz was so predictable in his behavior that I could call what he was going to do before he did it. Honest-to-god, I predicted he would sign Raul Mondesi to be his starting right-fielder in 2005 before he even did it. And I predicted that he would sign no relievers in 2006 and that the bullpen would fall apart without Mazzone, and it did just that. But most importantly of all, I predicted as soon as Mazzone left that the Braves run as AL East champions was over, and sure enough, it absolutely was.

The bottom line is, Schuerholz was like most other GMs. He did some things right, but he did a lot of other things wrong. He just happened to have the greatest pitching coach of our lifetime on his side, as well Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and John Smoltz, together on one team for a decade in the prime of their Hall-of-Fame careers.

To paraphrase Danny O in one of his past rebutals to my view, “at least you have to give Schuerholz credit for being a part of a winning formula all those years.”

Well okay, yes, but “the greatest GM of the modern era”? Not even close.

33 Responses to “Schuerholz was always overrated”

  1. Cashman and Gillick are better GMs than Schuerholz????????

    Ugh, I can’t even speak right now.

  2. Nick Kapur says:

    Zvee, as a Braves fan, can you honestly say you are happy with Schuerholz’s performance as GM the past 10 years or so?

  3. I am completely disgusted by this argument. Many people don’t even know that Schuerholz pulled off a trade for Barry Bonds, until Leyland found out and forced Pittsburgh to take it back. He signed the right guys for every job, and never overpaid. So Mondesi wasn’t great? he paid 1 million dollars for him. It was nothing. Might I add that Mondesi had lots of family problems emerge as the season started.

    Any Braves writer will tell you the everlasting impact Schuerholz has on the industry.

    Brian Cashman will never be considered a good or great GM until he isnt given an unlimited payroll.

    He has made his assistant GM’s known, and now that Schuerholz is ready to slow down, Dayton Moore left for KC where he has already made a big impact, and Frank Wren is now the GM of the best NL team of the 90′s.

    Whats wrong with John signing the lower impact players, that are apparently garbage because they have low OBP? Tell me what he didn’t do to deserve the recognition he gets.

    You are the only person I have ever heard to speak against Schuerholz. I feel you are only supporting this argument because you are against his philosophy of makeup. You are a moneyball guy, everything is based on stats. Considering none of your arguments are based on makeup.

    He brought up 17 rookies in 2005 and still won a division title. This year the team fell short, only because they were lacking a 5th starter, but Schuerholz did everything in his power to help the team.

    Injuries have plagued the team as well, had Hampton been healthy this year, the Braves would have won the division.

    Look at Buddy Carlyle, the previous holder of the longest time since last win for an active pitcher. He hadn’t won a game since the mid to late 90′s! Schuerholz brought him in, got 8 wins for a reviving team.

    Schuerholz has continued to judge talent perfectly. He will let players go just as he expects their downfall. Example: Ryan Klesko. Look at that trade, it was amazing.

    He had one of the greatest outfields in this history of baseball with Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, and Gary Sheffield.

    He got Andruw to sign a deal behind Boras’ back so that way he could remain in Atlanta. He did everything in his power to make the 1990′s Atlanta Braves, one of the best franchises ever.

    So he didn’t win many world championships, but in fact, he made it to 5 World Series in 10 years. And since then, his payroll has decreased dramatically, and that is completely out of his hands.

    He has been nothing but helpful to a once pitiful Atlanta franchise.

  4. Nick,

    Yes, I can easily say that I am COMPLETELY satisfied w/ Schuerholz’s entire tenure in Atlanta.

    Kevin,

    If you haven’t done so already, read “Scout’s Honor” by Bill Shanks…a good book about the Braves’ focus on “makeup”. It’s the anti-Moneyball.

  5. I live off of Scout’s Honor. Bill and I talk regularly about the Braves through e-mail.

    I just wanted to point out one other quick thing, the article is titled Schuerholz was always overrated. He wasnt always overrated, it was until the last 5 years once the team started getting into the double digits and losing their trio of pitchers that people really talked about John a lot. He never was overrated, just talked about a lot.

  6. Nick, thank you for answering my question on who could be considered the best modern general manager. Oh, wait, you didn’t answer that question! Instead, you told us who could have done a better job had they been the GM of the Atlanta Braves instead of Schuerholz.

    I always enjoy it when someone attempts to answer a question with a counterfactual. Ah, what better way to respond to me than with a point that cannot be proven! You truly skewered the Schuerholz supporters with that one. I’m not going to restate my entire argument (it’s all above, including cool typos!), but it’s quite clear, even with the mistakes Schuerholz has made, that no other GM has come close to his sustained level of excellence over the period.

    Yes, all the names you listed are certainly going straight to the Hall of Fame. Let’s see, Dumbrowski, Towers, Jockety, Ryan, Gillick, Cashman, Beane. As Dr. Evil would say, riiggghhhtttttt…. At the very least, most casual fans know Cashman and Beane, they’re probably better. Are those the two examples you want to use? Well, they would certainly lose some of luster if they were put under the same microscope you’re using on John S. Cashman is simply the tool The Boss uses to run the Yankees, and his record of drafting, trades, and free agent signings has been nothing to get very excited about. Beane should be given credit for the impact he has had upon the Athletics organization, and perhaps baseball in general, but when viewed through your bounded lens of trades, contracts, draft, free agents, etc., Beane has had significant failures.

    I’ve said my peace, and anything further would be pointless because I think you may simply be trying to goad me. Keep up the false logic – I’m sure FOX will have a job waiting for you.

  7. Sarah Green says:

    Actually Matt, though it pains me to say this, I think Cashman is actually pretty good. I think this gets overlooked because he has absolutely no financial constraints. But the Yankees almost never make a mistake in a trade, and you can’t give credit for that to Steinbrenner.

    Plus, I think Nick was honestly trying to answer your question. UmpBump isn’t a rant n’ rave-type blog where people try to “goad” others and have pointless smackdown-type arguments. We just all really like baseball.

    It seems there was also some confusion from the commentors on this post about whether we were talking about the best GM “in the modern era” or “in the current era.” Obviously, none of the names we’re bandying about right now are the best “in the modern era,” which is the phrase that Nick was objecting to in the original post, the rather mild point of which seems to have gotten lost.

  8. Just admit it. This article is false.

  9. Nick Kapur says:

    Kevin, it’s impossible for this post to be “true” or “false.” It’s my opinion, and opinions can’t be true or false.

    But feel free to disagree, as you clearly do.

  10. I just want to clarify my point that Atlanta’s 14 division titles are the proof of Schuerholz’s success not the “ultimate measure of success” in general. Obviously the ultimate goal of an organization is to win the World Series, which the Braves did accomplish. If a general manager consistently puts together a division champion his team will have a chance to win the World Series. The best team in a division normally wins over 162 games, the best team doesn’t always win in a playoff format. I believe that success in the playoffs is more dependent on the performance of the players and the coaching staff than the GM. You may say that other GMs are superior but they weren’t able to lose free agents and rebuild and still win division titles. Beane and Ryan have rebuilt but their teams didn’t win 14 divisional titles in the process and no one has had more room for error than Cashman. I’m still waiting to hear which players he let go that cost his franchise.

  11. Sarah Green says:

    Melissa, thanks for clarifying. I will let Nick answer the part of your question about the players that the Braves let go. But I will try to address the other points that you raised.

    You make a good point about the somewhat random capricious nature of winning in the playoffs. Thus, Schuerholz’s “average” of 1 World Series win per 17 seasons as Braves GM is a rather dismal .058. Yet, when you look at the total number of times the Braves made it to the series, his performance as GM looks better—five total trips to the series out of 17 season is a much better .294. So clearly, his legacy as a GM should reflect the total number of times the Braves went to the World Series, not just their one win. I think it’s clear that five trips to the Series is a major accomplishment.

    Nonetheless, when assigning credit for that accomplishment, you do have to take into account the contributions of Bobby Cox and the coaching staff, which is what Nick’s main point was. This is a rather crude comparison, but if you look at Schuerholz’s record with the Royals, it’s not nearly as good as his record with the Braves—two divisional titles in 9 years, and one World Series win. (One-for-nine is an average of .111.) Clearly, Schuerholz does not look like some brilliant clairvoyant when working with different staff. And, to go back to my point in a previous comment, he looks like less of a golden boy when in a less forgiving division than the NL East in the 1990s and early 2000s. So yeah, Schuerholz was a good GM, but he wasn’t a genius with a crystal ball, which is how nearly every media outlet has been portraying him since he announced his resignation. He was a good GM, and a great eye for talent, who had great people around him.

    And re: Cashman, I think he actually has very little room for error, what with the New York media breathing down his neck and Steinbrenner’s notoriously short leash/quick hook. He has a significant cushion of money to play with, meaning that he is better able to move past any error that he makes. But…he really just doesn’t make that many mistakes in the first place. If he did, he’d be outtah theah.

  12. Wow, great discussion.

    Nick and I have already exchanged our viewpoints on the subject of John Schuerholz’s GM abilities, so I won’t beat a dead horse. I’ll just sum it up by saying I respectfully disagree with him. (If Nick ever wants to write a contrarian book about Schuerholz I’m sure it’ll generate a lot of press.)

    I want to address a couple of things that were brought up by JoshuaPerry:

    Who did the Braves let go for Mike Hampton? Why it was the always deadly Tim Spooneybarger (now out of the majors) and a minor leaguer who has never made it to The Show. Braves got Mike Hampton and a bunch of cash. A whole lot of it. (I think Colorado is still paying a big chunk of his salary.) Yes, Hampton has been injured the last two years, but while he’s been healthy he’s gone 32-20 for the Braves and his Atlanta ERA is somewhere south of the number 4. I’d say that was a good deal for the Braves. (I wanted to include it as well as many other transactions in my retrospective post on Schuerholz but I didn’t want it to be too long.)

    Successful free agent signings since 1997? There aren’t that many (purse strings were set to “tight”) How bout:

    November, 1998: Signed Brian Jordan, who went on to have a career year in 1999.

    Aside from that, there’s not much. John Thomson had a good year right after he signed, but followed it up with two injury-riddled years. The Braves have re-signed a number of players in the past ten years, and have certainly made some deals for some big name guys (Hudson, Sheffield, for examples).

  13. BigDintheMT says:

    Key paragraph:

    “Schuerholz employed a similar strategy with position players as he did with relievers. Each year he would let all of his good free agents walk, and pretty much not replace them in any meaningful way, but the Braves would still win the division anyway. Oh sure, he would occasionally pull a trade to fill a hole, if one fell into his lap, but by and large he would just sign some scrap heap guys and sit back and wait for a Braves prospect to fill the hole eventually. This meant that hundreds and hundreds of at-bats got wasted on these fill-in guys – terrible players like Dave Gallagher, Michael Tucker, Tony Graffanino, Keith Lockhart, Gerald Williams, Brian Hunter, Bobby Bonilla, B.J. Surhoff, Rico Brogna, Robert Fick, and Vinny Castilla in his dotage.”

    And 14 consecutive division titles. Wow. He’s even smarter than I thought he was. He didn’t have the money to spend on 8 All-Star position players so he did what he could with what he had. That’s what made him great.

    And don’t forget – he brought in Maddux via free agency which, put together with Glavine and Smoltz (home grown talent, led to a majority of those titles.

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