The Real Baseball Postseason MVP? The Braves’ Head of Talent Acquisition (i4cp login required)

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In Major League Baseball’s postseason playoffs, a player is chosen as the Most Valuable Player (MVP) in each series, culminating in the MVP of the championship round, the World Series. But at times it seems that the most valuable person for a sports team’s success wasn’t a player at all. Some years it was a coach or manager’s strategic moves during the games that made the biggest difference.

This year one could make the case that the key person wasn’t on the field at all—in fact, he wasn’t even at the ballpark for several of the final games due to coming down with COVID-19 (yes, he was vaccinated). That person is Atlanta Braves General Manager Alex Anthopoulos.

The general manager of a baseball team has many duties, but the most important—and the one they are most known for—is to essentially serve as the head of talent acquisition for the team. I don’t mean they are in human resources and head up talent acquisition for the entire corporation that runs the team. I’m talking about the on-the-field talent, most notably the players, but also including the team manager and coaching staff.

It was the strategic decisions made by Anthopoulos, including four key talent acquisition moves during the season, which were critical to the Braves ultimately achieving the pinnacle of baseball success in 2021.

A difficult start to the season

In many respects, the 2021 Atlanta Braves were improbable champions. Few baseball experts chose them at the beginning of the season to go all the way. And they got off to a bad start during the first three months of the season (which is nearly the first entire half) by posting 38 wins and 41 losses.

Things got much worse on July 10th, when their best player, outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr., suffered a season-ending right knee injury. The team was already missing a key starting pitcher (Mike Soroka) and another key outfielder (Marcell Ozuna, the National League’s home run leader in 2020), so this was devastating.

The end of July in Major League Baseball is the trade deadline: the last date that teams can trade players for the rest of that season. After Acuna’s injury, many baseball pundits wondered how far the Braves would sink in the standings, and whether they would become “sellers” at this deadline, meaning they would trade some of their best current talent to contending teams in order conserve cash and gain some younger players.

No doubt Anthopoulos considered this strategy of essentially giving up on 2021 and looking to the future. But instead, he took a different approach, acquiring several players who would change the course of the team’s season and ultimately play key roles in winning them their first World Series championship since 1995.

The talent acquisition decisions that made the difference

The key need that the Braves faced in mid-July of 2021 was upgrading their three outfield positions. Stars Acuna and Ozuna were out, and the other players they had been using at right field, center field, and left field were not performing well. Any young, up-and-coming outfielders that the team had in their minor leagues—the next generation of players that are being developed—were not deemed to be the answer to the problem. So Anthopoulos made the unprecedented decision to trade for not just three but four outfielders within the span of two weeks.

Like any skilled talent acquisition leader, Anthopoulos looked far and wide, ultimately making trades with four separate teams (Dodgers, Indians, Marlins, and Royals.) In each case, the Braves did not have to part with much in terms of current talent or future prospects, but the dividends for their 2021 season would turn out to be significant. The Braves won 18 games and only lost eight in August, and then won another 18 games with only 11 losses to finish the season with an 88-73 record. While not elite by baseball standards, it was good enough to win the National League East division, thereby giving them a spot in the playoffs.

The four new outfielders were each important to this dramatic rebound in their own way:

  • Jorge Soler had been slumping with the Kansas City Royals in 2020 and into 2021, but the change of scenery to Atlanta helped his performance revert to what it had been in 2019 when he led the American League in homeruns.
  • Joc Pederson had shown flashes of his high talent in years past with the Los Angeles Dodgers but was struggling in his first year with the Chicago Cubs. He did better the rest of the year with Atlanta, and also became a fan favorite—value that goes beyond the statistics the player produces.
  • Adam Duvall was hitting with good power for the Miami Marlins and continued to do so for the Braves while also playing outstanding defense (eventually winning a Gold Glove Award for fielding excellence).
  • Eddie Rosario was the most intriguing of the four new players; he wasn’t playing particularly well for Cleveland in 2021, and as of July 30th was injured and not due back in action for several more weeks. But once healthy, his performance during the rest of the regular season was much more like his previous results.

Beyond their importance for turning around the Braves’ fortunes in the second half of the season, the role of these four players in the playoffs and World Series was historic:

  • Duvall hit two homeruns in the World Series and provided his strong defense in the field.
  • Pederson produced more in the NL division and championship series than in the final World Series, but again drove fan engagement, including creating a new fashion trend for enthusiasts to emulate by wearing pearl necklace while playing.
  • Rosario put on a historic hitting show in the NL championship series, taking home MVP honors after getting 14 hits in 25 at-bats, including a double, a triple, and three homeruns.
  • Soler didn’t do much in the NL division or championship series, but then took home World Series MVP honors after hitting three homeruns, including a massive blast in the final game.

In summary, without these four new players it’s highly unlikely that the Braves would have rebounded so well in the second of the season, won the National League East Division, and ultimately the World Series championship.

Are you 4 players away from winning your World Series?  Three talent lessons from the champs

There are of course many differences between a Major League Baseball team’s roster of players, and a non-sports organization’s group of employees. Businesses usually have annual and quarterly goals that flow 365 days a year, whereas baseball teams have discrete seasons with an off-season of down-time.

Compared to the talent pipeline for a professional sports team, organizations must leverage a broad range of talent sources to fill an even broader set of roles. Nonetheless, there are several lessons that non-sports organizations can learn from Anthopoulos’ talent and team-building success:

  • Commit to strategic decisions. Sometimes in life it makes sense to hedge your bets. But more often, and especially when it comes to key talent decisions in organizations, more value comes from going all-in and committing the resources necessary for the strategy to be a success. Anthopoulos did that by acquiring not just three but four outfielders to address the team’s biggest talent need.

    Leaders can do the same by committing the resources needed for hiring, development, culture renovation, and employee engagement to execute successfully once a strategic decision has been made. Failing this follow-thru can doom an organization to mediocrity and stagnation at best, and in an increasingly competitive and fast-changing world, irrelevance and eventual non-existence at worst.

  • Fill out the team with diverse talent. Anthopoulos saw that bringing in not one but four outfielders would allow his team’s manager, Brian Snitker, to leverage each player’s strengths in different game situations, and also give them a fourth strong hitter who could serve in the designated hitter role—a necessity when playing against American League teams (most notably, in the World Series).

    Savvy talent leaders in organizations today need to do something similar, by hiring both as much quality talent as they can while also maximizing the diversity of their team in order to optimize productivity. The right mix of employees brings diverse perspectives, fresh and innovative thinking, and a blend of skills that provides flexibility and options as work needs evolve.

  • Hire for potential, backed by analytics. More than any other sport, baseball has a long history of leveraging performance statistics. This has only accelerated in the past few decades since the popularization of more advanced and modern analytics after the publication of the book Moneyball by Michael Lewis (and movie starring Brad Pitt based on it). Anthopoulos and his team of analysts no doubt studied the four outfielders they traded for and had good reason to think they would perform at their previous levels of excellence or better.

    Similarly, talent leaders at organizations of all kinds have an increasing array of people analytics at their fingertips to make better hiring and development decisions.

Research from the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) has found that using people analytics data to create profiles of high-performing employees, and then match those profiles to candidates when recruiting talent is a next practice (a strategy correlated to superior performance but not yet widely adopted by most organizations). Another recent trend in assessing internal and external talent is to rely more heavily on assessment results and to look for adjacent skills that analytics deem relevant. Doing so has the added benefit of minimizing any potential bias that a heavier reliance on formal degrees and strict job experience requirements can create.

After their World Series success, Atlanta Braves manager Brian Snitker said: “Overall, in my experience, this is probably the best I ever witnessed about how a general manager went after this. I always say the only thing [Anthopoulos] is guilty of is he never stops trying to make this thing better.”

If you can say the same about your organization’s talent leaders, then you’ve got a good chance of having championship-level success in your industry.

Tom Stone is a Senior Research Analyst at i4cp, and co-author of Now Taking the Field: Baseball’s All-Time Dream Teams for All 30 Franchises (ACTA Sports, 2019).

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