Soon after this year’s Winter Meetings, Atlanta’s Alex Anthopoulos made the first major trade of his tenure as the team’s general manager, sending Matt Kemp to the Dodgers for Adrian Gonzalez, Brandon McCarthy, Scott Kazmir, and Charlie Culberson. It was a good trade and an important step towards building the 2018 team. But most importantly it marks the start of new age in Braves history–and the end of the Schuerholz era.
A lot of us–myself included–thought that day came with the ascension of John Coppolella. Many believed that Coppy would throw off the remnants of the “Braves Way” that brought success in the 1990s but is largely archaic in the game’s new, data-driven environment.
But he didn’t.
Instead, Coppolella’s front office still resonated with echoes of the past. While he was a young, new face to many Braves fans, he was introduced to the organization back in 2006, just as its fourteen-season divisional dominance came to an end. He was hired, groomed, and promoted by the old guard.
Coppy wasn’t alone, though. John Hart was fairly new to the organization when he was named President of Baseball Ops to guide Coppy and the organization into its new age. But Hart earned his stripes in the ‘90s. He was a pioneer in his own right then (perhaps a forerunner to the modern analytics movement), but he was tasked with leading the team out of an era he was at the center of. Schuerholz, architect of the 1990s Braves, took an advisory role. His influence, though, was still great. The front office was caught between the old and the new.
Coppolella’s time, then, was more a transition period than a start of a new age. It wasn’t intended to be that way. Coppy was purportedly part of the young, cerebral GM trend led by executives like Theo Epstein. He made some solid moves and he built a strong farm system. The team was certainly more “modern” than before. Yet it never crossed the Rubicon.
Coppolella’s Braves flirted with baseball’s new, data-driven age. With Anthopoulos they can they finally embrace it.
Alex Anthopoulos was a good GM. He’s largely responsible for the resurgence of the Blue Jays. His emphasis on scouting paid off in the draft and the international scene. He wasn’t afraid to make a trade if he thought it improved his team. And when he left Toronto in 2015 the team was in remarkably better shape than when he started as GM.
Perhaps more important, though, is what Anthopoulos learned in Los Angeles. The Dodgers have one of the best front-office brain trusts in baseball–Andrew Friedman, Farhan Zaidi, Josh Byrnes, and an analytics department bigger than most FOs were in the 1990s. A lot of teams could learn a lot of things from the Dodgers, and the Braves are in a position to learn the most.
If analytics is at the forefront of baseball, getting data to players is at the forefront of analytics. A front office can develop all the cutting-edge analytical tools it likes, but they’re not helpful if they fall on deaf ears in the clubhouse. That’s one thing the Dodgers excelled at last year.
Anthopoulos undoubtedly played no small part, and he’s bringing that experience to Atlanta. He toldthe Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he plans to make data dissemination a priority. But he understands that data can’t be forced down players’ throats. Instead, they have to accept it willingly and truly want to improve. Anthopoulos mentioned that he already believes some Braves underperformed last year. If he can use data to turn this potential into success, Atlanta could see true breakout campaigns in 2018.
Most importantly, Anthopoulos’s analytical approach likely won’t face pushback from “the Braves Way.” The team already gave his approach a vote of confidence when it vested him with ultimate decisional authority, something Coppy never had. Even the old guard was on board with his hiring, and team CEO Terry McGuirk has been supportive of his efforts so far. Likewise, AA has been free to populate the front office with his own guys.
Without anything holding him back, Anthopoulos can create a new “Braves Way.” And if his strategy works, the Braves could follow the Dodgers (and Astros) as one of the game’s great sabermetric success stories.
(Image via screengrab, Fox Sports South)