Front Offices More Aggressive Than Ever in Looking for an Edge

Today every big league baseball team has wealthy ownership, smart professionals in the front office, and well-organized player development systems, making getting a leg up on the competition more difficult than it has ever been. The most forward-thinking organizations are always looking for a competitive edge. What can they do to identify, develop and deploy the best players? Simply being smarter than one's competitors may succeed in the short term but, in today's game, is not a model for sustainable excellence. There will always be better information coming along. Moreover, front office executives and scouts frequently move from one organization to another, making it extremely difficult to maintain inside knowledge.

Yet many organizations have succeeded over long periods, and knowledge seems to diffuse among the teams more slowly than one might expect. The most successful organizations recognize that they must discover and institutionalize a competitive advantage. Analytics, as popularized by Michael Lewis in Moneyball, was just one such example. Earlier, teams gained an edge by developing the first farm systems, finding new sources of players, figuring out how to best exploit the amateur draft when it came in 1965, understanding how to use free agency in the mid-1970s,or generating a financial advantage with a new stadium in the 1990s.

In today's competitive environment, the best organizations are working hard to find the next advantage. The Giants were one of the early proponents of marrying video technology with high speed computing to track the ball and players on the field, and many teams are developing yet undisclosed applications.

Several years ago the Giants put an organization-wide emphasis on the health of their players, particularly pitchers, and it paid off. In 2010 their top-four starting pitchers all started at least 33 games, and in 2012 the team's top five starting pitchers started 160 of the 162 games. Both teams won the World Series. (Matt Cain's 2014 injury shows that there we are far from finding a fool-proof answer to this industry-wide problem.) Preventing pitcher injuries has become a key focus of many teams' research.

In Chicago, Cubs president Theo Epstein has teamed with Bloomberg Sports to create a first-class player evaluation system. Other organizations are also working to develop sophisticated databases that can combine and track analytics, scouting information, and injury history. The Tampa Bay Rays assembled a non-traditional front office staff tasked, in part, with uncovering market inefficiencies and unearthing new insights for finding, improving, and utilizing baseball players. St. Louis resurrected the Cardinal Way, a concept whose roots date back to Branch Rickey in the 1920s. GM John Mozeliak created a baseball development department to house several projects and an internal website where the front office and field staff can have instant access to everything about every player.

These are only a few examples. Many other teams are doing things just as creative. Front offices are innovating and experimenting with new ideas and technologies like never before. While there is no substitute for watching the ball games, it's a great time to be a student of team building.