Cleveland’s Inspired Front-Office Hire

On December 8, the Cleveland Indians’ Web site published a brief, 135-word story announcing James Harris as the club’s new farm director.

While filling such vacancies is typically not headline news, it was a modest announcement for one of the more inspired front-office additions of the offseason.

Why is it interesting?

Harris never played baseball professionally, in college, or high school.

In fact, Harris has never coached the sport at any level.

He has one year of experience in professional baseball, which was last year with the Pirates as a special assistant to baseball operations. He now replaces Carter Hawkins, who was promoted to assistant general manager in Cleveland.

Harris has spent his career in college football and the NFL. His hire by the Indians is another example of a growing trend of cross-pollination between sports. In the same city, the Cleveland Browns hired a former baseball exec, Paul DePodesta, to lead the team’s analytics efforts.

“I think a lot of it is the same,” said Harris to FanGraphs regarding the development of athletes in football and baseball. “Especially the experience I had in college football. You are starting with 17- and 18-year-old guys. You are trying to help them fulfill their potential. The only difference with baseball is it’s like college football and the NFL combined. Instead of going off to another team after college [football], you are developing [minor leaguers] for your major-league team.”

Harris has little trepidation about leading a farm system despite his limited experience.

“What’s cool about this is we have dozens of coaches that are fantastic,” Harris said. “They didn’t hire me to coach. They hired me to [develop players]. They didn’t need another guy telling them what they already know.”

Harris has an interesting resume.

After playing as a walk-on at Nebraska, he became the program’s director of sports nutrition. His duties included “body and frame analysis,” meal and supplementation planning, and counseling for Nebraska athletes, according to the university web site.

When former San Francisco 49ers and Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly was still coaching at Oregon, he brought in Harris to fill a similar role. Harris followed Kelly to the Eagles where, according to The Washington Post, players were subjected to urine tests, biometric testing, soreness and mood surveys. The importance of hydration and sleep were stressed.

Teams are becoming and more and interested in biometric data, player rest and efficiency. The cheapest way to add wins is simply to get more value from assets that already reside within the organization. After the Eagles fired Kelly in December of 2015, the Pirates hired Harris.

The Pirates were interested in Harris after meeting him while visiting the Eagles training camp. While I was with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Pirates general manger Neal Huntington said football is “light years ahead in teaching” compared to baseball.

Where is football ahead of baseball?

“In the review process, the reflection upon what you are lacking and what you need to do better from game to game,” Harris said. “That review process is better [in football]. You have more film and you wait a week to play another game. Baseball, when you are playing the next day, you don’t allocate those resources to review. There are still some things baseball can learn to evaluate… Everything you do on a football field, even in practice, is collected and evaluated. In baseball, that resource is not used as actively. We use a lot of film in baseball, but you don’t have much time.”

On a college football practice field, every drill, every movement, is taped. After practice, graduate assistants hurry back to the facility to edit video for coaches to watch later that evening. Coaching staffs and players have a week to pore over video, scheme and fundamentals.

It’s not just video, though. Harris said football is ahead of baseball in keeping players to standards of hydration and nutrition.

“In football you have a week to hydrate for your next game,” Harris said. “In baseball your hydration [process] has to begin after a game at 12:01 a.m.”

Of course that also means there’s opportunity for baseball organizations to gain a competitive advantage, and with the rise of wearable technology teams now are able to measure player’s fatigue and energy levels.

Indians general manager Chris Antonetti told that Harris will be involved in a number of different aspects of development.

“We’ve tried to do a lot of work organizationally in the performance service area, from mental skills, to strength and conditioning, to nutrition and medical areas,” Antonetti said. “James has a lot of experience in each of those areas, and as importantly, not only in the individual domain, but how you integrate those domains and how you help athletes produce at an optimal level.”

What did Harris take from his first year in professional baseball?

“I learned athletes are very similar,” Harris said. “That was very comforting to me. This is their life. They are sacrificing something they want – time with their family – for something they want more: success at this sport. They are sacrificing a lot of success… I didn’t know it would be the same.”

Cleveland’s choice is a creative and inspired one. It is one of the more interesting additions to any front office this offseason. And perhaps it is will be another small-market model to be followed.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Chris Topher
7 years ago

Interesting to hear Harris’s history with both the Eagles and Pirates. If I recall, Clint Hurdle’s inspiration for giving field players more rest days was the Golden State Warriors; Hurdle’s comments seem to be in a similar timeframe to Harris’s hire. So now Harris is bringing the GSW to Believeland!