A few weeks ago, Cincinnati Reds general manager Dick Williams was one of several executives to weigh in on the question: “How necessary is it for an MLB front office to pick a direction and stay the course?”
Williams gave an expansive answer, addressing the fact that he leads a small-market team in full rebuild mode. But while he covered a lot in his four-paragraph contribution, much was left unsaid. A lot has changed since he replaced Walt Jocketty as the Reds’ general manager 15 months ago. Many of the particulars have flown well below the radar, so I followed up with the former investment banker to get a deeper look at what’s been happening behind the scenes in Cincinnati.
Williams on rebuilding in a small market: “Rebuilding in a smaller market has its challenges. Because of that, we’re being extremely prudent with our investment dollars. When some of the bigger-market teams are going through a rebuilding phase, they can do a one-year signing of a guy making $8-10 million. He’ll be a good contributor to that club, then be a flip candidate to bring back prospects at the trade deadline. Smaller-market teams can’t go out and do a bunch of those deals when they’re in a rebuilding phase.
“Attendance tends to drop off more quickly for small-market teams in a rebuild period and that can have a big effect on revenues. Bigger-market teams… usually have a higher and more solid attendance base, so they can sort of weather the down times a little better.
“A lot of times, when you come out of a rebuild, you’ll start with what you might call ‘go-for-it signings.’ Smaller-market teams have less leeway in terms of hitting or missing on one of those. It’s more painful on a relative basis for us to miss on a big-dollar contract.
“Over the last two years, we obviously haven’t been in a position to go for it, but that’s going to change. In another couple of seasons, we expect to be competing again for some of the higher-dollar free agents. We’ll have to be really careful about that, because of our relative payroll size.”
On allocating money to infrastructure and amateur talent: “Last year, we went through a thorough analysis of our business. We met with each department head and effectively examined where we thought dollars would have a better return on investment than at the major league payroll level. Then we went back to ownership and said, ‘This is our next couple of years, this is what we’d like them to look like, and this is where we’d like to take money out of major-league payroll and put it to use in other areas.’
“The highest dollar amount was allocated to amateur-talent acquisition. That’s not infrastructure — I’ll hit on that next — but it’s something we felt strongly about. It was by far — I think it was three times — our largest annual investment. We had a high first-round pick [second overall], we had our biggest draft pool, and the money we spent in the domestic draft was our most ever. With [TJ] Freidl as an undrafted sign, we ended up exceeding our domestic draft pool. Internationally, we also exceeded our pool. When you add up our bonuses and penalties in the domestic and international markets, we went further than we’d ever gone. Add all of that together, and you get the highest amateur talent expenditure we’ve had in any year.”
On growing a Pacific Rim presence: “In the scouting world, we went around the horn and evaluated what we needed to do to grow infrastructure. For the first time, we have a Pacific Rim presence. We have a coordinator who is based on the west coast — he’s in Seattle — and we’ve added an area scout based in Asia. We’re looking to add one more.
“Our Pacific Rim coordinator is Rob Fidler, who came over from the Cardinals. Then we hired Jamey Storvick, who is based in Taiwan. When we do add another area scout, he’ll likely be stationed in Japan. This will give us a lot more information than we have had. Historically, it was mostly about the posting fees and the profiles of the players coming out, and it wasn’t an area we felt we needed to be spending a lot of money on for a scouting infrastructure, because we couldn’t afford the few players who did come over. Now, with more players coming out, and the acquisition costs coming down — and the fact that there’s a secondary market for players — there are more opportunities for us. We want to have a lot more information on these players.”
On Latin American and domestic scouting: “We have a plan in place to expand our scouting in Latin America. Like everybody, we’re working on how to be reactive to the situations in Cuba and Venezuela, and what opportunities are going to presented in each. Both have been made difficult, but that could change.
“We’ve made facility improvements – a new weight room, training room, classrooms, housing, and training facilities — in our Dominican program.
“Domestically, we’ve added two national crosscheckers. We’ve also added a second area scout in Texas, where we were one of the few teams that had only one. Part of that had to do with where our crosscheckers were set up, but now we have two dedicated to Texas. Another thing we’ve been adding is entry-level scouts on the pro side. With that, we’ve kind of been beefing up the bottom end of the pyramid. Independent-league and rookie-league coverage are also being increased.”
On advances in player development: “Player development is another area where we’ve made significant investments. One thing we’re doing is adding a fourth coach at every level. Big-leagues staffs are up to eight or nine coaches, depending on how you assign responsibilities, and in the minor leagues, where guys have their biggest development curve, it’s been a fraction of that. Historically, it was a manager — he was also the trainer, the bus driver, the clubbie — and then we got to a point where there was a hitting coach and a pitching coach.
“Some teams — like we’re doing — have added a fourth coach. Maybe it’s to serve as a third-base coach, so the manager can stay in the dugout instead of having to go out and coach the bases. Or if [the manager] does coach third, you still have someone in the dugout working with the players. The hitting coach is occupied with the hitters, and the pitching coach might be down in the bullpen, so now you have more of a game-strategy presence in the dugout — a game-awareness coach.
“We’re doing a few other things, as well. We’ve added front-office staff to deal with the increasing information. We’ve added additional full-time strength coaches, and we’ve improved our trainer and physical therapist-to-player ratios. We’ve invested in continuing education for our training and strength staffs. We’ve sent selected players to leadership training.”
On nutrition, rest and recovery, and optimizing performance through technology: “It’s obviously a different environment in the minor leagues, where you can effectively tell guys what you want them to do. In the major leagues, it’s typically more of a voluntary exercise – although we prefer when they opt in. For example, this year, when we opened camp, on the very first day we talked to them about sleeping, and the different products we can make available to them to monitor their sleeping. We can evaluate ways to help them improve it, if it’s an area of concern. That’s something we’ll implement in the minor leagues. We’re tracking their sleeping, especially when it comes to the bus rides and the scheduling, trying to optimize performance based on rest-and-recovery principles.
“We’ve put a lot of money into nutrition. This something we’ve done more and more of in recent years, but this year was kind of a quantum leap with the amount of money we’re spending on pre- and post-game meals at all of our minor-league affiliates.
“I think most teams would tell you they’re active in these spaces. It’s certainly become an increased focus for us. There is some wonderful new technology available, and everybody is trying to figure out which ones work and take advantage of it. Which ones the players will gravitate to is part of that.”
On analytics and sports science: “We’re continuing to grow our investment in analytics and sports science. In the analytics world, we have a growing staff — we’re up to 10 people who fall under that umbrella now. That includes a couple of, basically, full-time contractors we use on some of the back-end programming.
“Sam Grossman, who started with us in 2007, runs our analytics department. He had been our lone wolf, but over time we’ve given him a lot more resources to work with. We were up to about five or six by the time I [became GM in December 2016], and with my urging, we’ve hired a few more full-timers just this spring.
“We created a new sports-science department, led by a guy named Charles Leddon, who used to be at the Andrews Institute [for Orthopedics and Sports Medicine]. He was working as a baseball trainer in our minor-league system, and we felt he had a good background, both on the field in a practical baseball environment, and the deep research-and-development. He’s tasked with a lot of the… we get called on every day by people who have biomechanical-measurement devices, biometric wearable technology, new products in virtual reality, vision training — we get a lot of different products pushed our way, and Charles is helping to weed through them to get us affiliated with the right technology partners to implement some practical solutions.
“This has been a year of significant change for us in terms of dedicating resources to those types of initiatives. Fortunately, we’ve had the support of ownership to undergo these projects. We presented the alternatives, and the vast majority were approved and implemented. We’re going to continue to go forward with them.”
On changing the culture in Cincinnati: “I spent most of [Thursday] in a seminar by a Harvard Business School professor who was discussing organizational behavior and culture — things like building organizations and on-boarding people. That was interesting, because while I didn’t consciously start out in this job and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to overhaul a culture,’ I certainly haven’t been shy about proposing things. That’s probably a little bit of a product of me coming into baseball in an atypical way.
“My first job in the game came when I was 35. My jobs before baseball were in investment banking, politics, and finance, so I kind of started fresh with no preconceived notions about how things should be done. I was able to ask a lot of questions and challenge people. I think that’s been a good ingredient to the soup, so to speak. You can’t build a baseball front office with all people who come from outside the sport, but having someone come in who is willing to challenge the status quo can be a positive. It can help free people up to think outside the box.”
On rebuilding allowing for more innovation: “We were in a radically different place in 2012 than we are now. We had an established core in place, both position players and pitchers, and we had a seasoned manager in Dusty Baker. Coming into that spring, it was 95% determined how we were going to break camp. There were very few open topics.
“We have a lot more opportunistic view right now. We’re in a position to be much more creative with the players we have. For lack of a better term, this is a flatter roster. By that I mean the difference between the established everyday player and the new young rookie. Back in 2012, it was kind of the haves and have-nots.
“Looking at where we are now, across the 40-man roster, we’re much closer-grouped in age and service time. There are more guys who are open to different things and will do whatever it takes to get to the big leagues, as opposed to a veteran core that is maybe set in their ways. They’re a young, impressionable group, and we’re exposing them to data, analytics, new technologies, new ways of doing things.
“Some things are only crazy if you approach them from the perspective of, ‘What was done before was totally sane.’ That makes the new stuff sound crazy, but maybe we should challenge the notion that everything we were doing before was sane. Maybe there are better ways to do certain things.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.