Wednesday, November 6, 2002
The rise and fall of Mike Gimbel
By Rob Neyer ESPN.com
Bill James may be the most visible sabermetrician the Red Sox have ever hired, but he's not the first. James was preceded as a Red Sox employee specializing in the analysis of baseball statistics by a fellow named Mike Gimbel, who worked for the Red Sox from 1994-97.
"I got into sabermetrics because of Bill James' Baseball Abstracts," Gimbel said. "I always had my own statistical ideas, but I was very busy in other areas. Then I found the Abstracts in the early '80s, and I got them every year. And then when he stopped publishing them, in 1989, I was caught in a quandary. I just couldn't see going into a baseball season without some understanding of what was going on."
So Gimbel sat down and went to work. Using some ideas that had been floating around in his head, Gimbel did a quick study of the previous season's numbers and their ramifications for the coming season. When he was finished, he looked at the results and said, "I'll just write up a few pages explaining all this stuff, and give them to my friends.
Former Red Sox GM Dan Duquette was known for not returning calls.
But those few stapled sheets weren't the end of his project.
"Every single person I gave it to came back to me and said I had to publish a book." And after surveying the baseball books available at Barnes & Noble, Gimbel agreed. And so in 1990, he published the first edition of Mike Gimbel's Player and Team Ratings. The next year, Gimbel was reading Baseball America and discovered that Dan Duquette was expected to replace Dave Dombrowski as the Montreal Expos' general manager.
"That name sounded familiar," Gimbel says, "so I checked, and it turned out that Duquette had bought my first two books. So I called him, and we set up a meeting in Philadelphia. This would have been right around Labor Day. We had a discussion, maybe an hour, and he agreed to take me on as his consultant. He became GM in October, and I was hired."
The Expos had finished last in 1991. And according to Gimbel, "I advised Dan that essentially there were three areas we had to immediately deal with. At first base, [Andres] Galarraga had had three bad years in a row, but more important was both our starting and relief pitching."
To bolster their rotation, the Expos traded Galarraga to St. Louis for Ken Hill. To improve their bullpen, the Expos traded for a pitcher in the Dodgers' organization named John Wetteland.
"We still had the big hole at first base, though. And I spotted, over that winter, a guy in the Oakland system in Double-A. I wrote in my book, 'Why is nobody talking about this guy?' And when I saw that he wasn't invited to spring training, I advised Dan to go after him. We had the deal made ... and then at the last second, the Montreal guys said this guy can't hit at the major-league level, and we didn't get him.
"This guy's name was Troy Neel, and the thing that kept us from winning was Troy Neel.
Steam was coming out Duquette's ears practically the whole season, because Troy Neel would have won us the division. But that kind of made me with Dan."
When Duquette took over as general manager of the Red Sox in January 1994, he took Gimbel with him (not literally; throughout, Gimbel maintained his residence in New York and kept his day job).
By then, Gimbel says, "It was too late to do anything in Boston, because all the free agents had been signed. That team had three great players -- Roger Clemens, John Valentin and Mo Vaughn -- and almost nothing else. So in addition to getting rid of the Otis Nixons and Billy Hatchers, I wanted to trade Scott Cooper, because he could get you some talent, and you'd get rid of an albatross at the same time."
This opinion was not, of course, unanimously held at Fenway Park.
"I went down to meet Butch Hobson, then the manager. I wanted to discuss Scott Cooper, but I never really got that far. I got about two words out of my mouth -- 'Scott Cooper' -- and then Hobson immediately started going off in rhapsody about Cooper. What a great player he was, how brilliant he was on defense ... And my jaw is down to my knees. I'm looking at a guy who has no clue."
By 1995, though, Hobson was gone, as were Nixon, Hatcher and Cooper. Joining the Red Sox was Troy O'Leary -- one of Gimbel's favorite obscure minor leaguers -- and O'Leary proved himself a solid major leaguer. And not coincidentally, the Red Sox grabbed first place in early May and never lost it, finishing seven games ahead of the Yankees.
The Red Sox fell back to third place in 1996, but the spring of 1997 saw Gimbel make some progress; for the first time, he was listed in the Red Sox Media Guide, as "Consultant, Statistical Evaluation." Unfortunately, the spring of 1997 also brought about Gimbel's exit from the organization.
The previous winter, the Red Sox had not re-signed Roger Clemens, a free agent. In a now-famous statement, Duquette had described Clemens as being "in the twilight of his career."
"What happened was essentially this," Gimbel remembers. "We had tried to re-sign Clemens, but the media didn't care about that. At the same time we were bringing up this kid named Garciaparra to replace Valentin at shortstop, with Valentin moving over to third base, and the writers didn't understand why you'd move this star to a new position just to play some rookie. The media was really after Duquette, and they used me as the whipping boy to get at him."
After a profile of Gimbel was published in the Boston Globe on March 19, New England's legion of baseball writers engaged in a spirited competition to see who could invent the funniest way of describing him.
Gimbel was lampooned as "a computer-savvy Ed Norton" (Gimbel was employed by the Bureau of Water Supply in New York), "a Rotisserie-inspired stat geek," and "a Nutty Professor technocrat."
And that was just one article.
Granted, Gimbel didn't help himself when he mentioned that he was evaluating five or six different deals for Duquette ... all of them involving trading John Valentin. That didn't sit well with the writers. It didn't sit well with the manager or the players, either. As that wisest of all men, Mo Vaughn, said, "You can't evaluate this game through a computer or over the Internet."
Gimbel became something of a media figure ... but of course, it was for the wrong reasons and he knew it. "I literally had Sports Illustrated call me. They wanted to do an article, but I turned them down. Because I was in the fire now. The Red Sox ownership was not pleased with me, and I was just trying to keep my head above water. So I kept my mouth shut. They called for interviews, and I just hung up on them."
It didn't do any good. The Red Sox didn't trade Valentin, who enjoyed one of his best seasons while playing second and third base, and Garciaparra -- who Gimbel had raved about during spring training -- hit 30 home runs and took Rookie of the Year honors. Unanimously.
But the Red Sox finished fourth, and Gimbel's role wasn't what it had been. "Once the media stuff hit, the staff went over Duquette's head," Gimbel says, "and I didn't have as much influence. Dan was still using all my stuff, so we were still able to make some fabulous deals, like getting Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek for Heathcliff Slocumb. But my contract expired in November, and that was it."
Gimbel doesn't sound bitter when he talks about his exit from Major League Baseball, but neither does he make any apologies.
"Maybe I'm a little demoralized," he says, "because I know that I've got the best stuff that's out there. I don't think there's anybody out there who can match what I have. So yeah, since I've actually done it in Montreal and Boston, I'm totally convinced that I could go to Milwaukee and get them to at least challenge .500, right out of the box."
He's been in contact with just one major-league team since 1997, a team that certainly could have used him.
"The only one I actually met with was the Orioles. Frank Wren was the GM. I had sent him a letter during spring training, and then we met in May, I think. Wren agreed to take me on, but then Peter Angelos vetoed it, because my proposal was basically, 'You guys have to tear this team apart, trade B.J. Surjoff and all these other old players.' Angelos refused, so they wouldn't bring me on."
"I've made very few attempts to approach other teams," Gimbel continued. "It's a good-old-boy network, you know. And it's bewildering. I don't want to be a GM. I don't have time for that. I do evaluation. Without me, Duquette doesn't have the career that he had. I'm not taking anything away from all the other people. But those other people are all over baseball. There's an edge that you get, an edge that moves you from average to above average. That's my role."
Senior writer Rob Neyer, whose Big Book of Baseball Lineups will be published next spring by Scribner's, will be appearing here regularly and irregularly during the offseason. His e-mail address is email@example.com.