Thursday, September 4, 2008

Is Bowden the Worst GM of All Time?

Is it possible that Jim Bowden is the worst general manager in baseball history?

Well, no. He's not close to the absolute worst ever. There have been an awful lot of totally unprepared dogs among MLB's GMs over the years, and the very fact of Bowden's longevity as a GM for 15 years is evidence that he isn't that bad. But looking at the men who have held the post of major league general manager for as long as Bowden has, one could argue that he's almost the absolute worst of the last 58 years.

Since 1950, based on the Baseball America executive database and compilations at, 23 men have served as GMs in Major League Baseball for as long as Bowden's 15 years. Of that group, only three have lower winning percentages than Bowden's current lifetime .483: former Marlins and current Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski (.454), 1957-1975 Cubs' GM John Holland (.466), and, interestingly, Calvin Griffith (.480).

Griffith of course is the hated former Senators' GM, owner, and racist, who inherited the team from his uncle and promptly moved the team to Minnesota because, he later joked, "Black people don't go to ball games, but they'll fill up a rassling ring and put up such a chant they'll scare you to death," he said. "We came (to Minnesota) because you've got good, hard-working white people here."

Not long ago, it looked pretty likely that Bowden would sink below Griffith this season. However it now seems very unlikely that the Nationals will lose the 104 games that would be needed to drive Bowden's career winning percentage to .479. If Bowden's not fired this off season, however, I would put the over-under at about May 20 for him to sink below the Griffith Line.

And although Dombrowski has lost a higher percentage of his games than Bowden has, he's also done something that Bowden has never come close to doing: win a World Series. Dombrowski's Marlins won it all in 1997. Likewise, Griffith's Twins made the World Series once, losing to the Dodgers in 1969. And a Twins team almost completely built by Griffith won the World Series in 1987, three years after Griffith retired.

Only the Cubs' John Holland, who never made the playoffs even once, posting just seven winning seasons out of 19, clearly in every way exceeds Bowden's record of relentless failure.

First Last Years Winning %
John Schuerholz 27 0.562
Bob Howsam 15 0.560
Chub Feeney 20 0.547
Al Campanis 19 0.546
Frank Cashen 15 0.536
John McHale 16 0.533
Pat Gillick 27 0.532
Joe Brown 21 0.530
George Weiss 16 0.525
Buzzy Bavasi 29 0.524
John Hart 15 0.524
Hank Peters 16 0.523
Jim Campbell 21 0.519
Sandy Alderson 15 0.508
Bing Devine 19 0.506
Gabe Paul 22 0.501
Frank Lane 15 0.496
John Quinn 23 0.494
Roland Hammond 20 0.488
Jim Bowden 15 0.483
Calvin Griffith 35 0.480
John Holland 19 0.466
Dave Dombrowski 18 0.460


Nate said...

MMmmm... pointless.

Steven said...

Why? Because wins and losses aren't a relevant way of measuring GM-ing success?

I think it's notable that over the history of MLB, it's highly unusual for any GM to be so totally ineffective for so long and keep his job.

Mike said...

Dombrowski had the misfortune of coming on prior to the '02 season where the Tigers lost 106 and then of course 119 the next year. Certainly they still count, but it is an unusually high number of losses to absorb.

The interesting thing is that he has one world series win and another appearance despite having the worst winning percentage. Depending on what your criteria are, W-L may not be an entirely accurate way of measuring effectiveness, given the typical time frame and cycle of rebuilding. Dombrowski has shown, at two different places now, that if you stick with him something good happens around year 4 or 5. That something good doesn't get reflected in the aggregate W-L.

None of which changes the fact that Bowden needs to go.

Steven said...

@Mike--I agree that W-L record is overly reductive, and to really do a full, fair assessment of Bowden's performance (or any of these others) that you have to look at all kinds of context. Running the Yankees in the 60s is a lot different than running the Expos in November, 04. And I and others have spilled mountains of pixels looking at all the various points of context.

But one of the things that always bugs me in "does Bowden suck or not" conversations is that I think the debate almost always get obscured as you get more into the weeds. You can debate whether the Soriano trade was good or not or whether we should have traded Chad Cordero and Nick Johnson before the 2005 season or whether it he should be able to draft better or if the draft is just a total crapshoot with almost no skill at all as some extreme anti-scout statheads argue, but I insist that if a GM is doing his job well that overall the net effect will be translated into wins. And the longer any GM has had a job the more fair it is to apply that bottom line standard.

That's why I think it's kind of absurd for Nate to say that looking at Bowden's overall W-L record is "pointless." Or comparing it to what other MLB GMs have been able to accomplish over similar timeframes. No, it's not close to the full story, but to say that his bottom line ability to field teams that actually win games doesn't matter at all in how you evaluate him is just kooky.

Now my sense is that Nate has his own axe to grind, that Kasten and Lerner are the root of all evil, and so I think he interprets my focus on JimBo as somehow a threat to his "Lerners are CHEEEEEP" jihad, which is unfortunate. I think it's possible to have a critique of Bowden and Lerner/Kasten at the same time. I may be wrong about where Nate is coming from, but he's never had anything but dismissiveness in his comments here, so I just get the feeling that he has a closed mind to anything we have to say here.