Dick Williams on Transitioning the Cincinnati Model

The Cincinnati Reds front office underwent a makeover a few weeks ago. Dick Williams, a 44-year-old former investment banker, was appointed the club’s general manager. Walt Jocketty, who is heading into the final year of his contract, moved from GM to President of Baseball Operations.

Williams, who had been the assistant GM, will continue to work under Jocketty until the latter steps down at the end of the 2016 season. Not a lot is expected to change over the next 10-11 months, but it will be interesting to see how differently the Reds operate once Williams is handed the decision-making reins. Jocketty has a business background of own, but he’s also 64 years old and cut his teeth on scouting. By today’s standards, he’s very much an old school executive. Professionally speaking, Williams was weaned on analytics.

Williams talked about his philosophies during last week’s GM meetings in Boca Raton.

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On working with and learning from Walt Jocketty: “It’s hard to work for a guy for eight years and not learn from him as you go. Walt has been an executive of the year for a couple of different teams. He’s been here for 20-plus years and has a ring. I’ve learned a lot from Walt.

“I got into baseball a little later in life. I was in my mid 30s. I had close to a 15-year business career in investment banking and private equity. My background isn’t totally unique in baseball front offices, but it’s somewhat unique, and it’s shaped a lot of who I am and how I think about problems.

“Walt and I have been a good team, and it’s been a combination of our two skill sets. We talk things out and come to conclusions together. Sometimes we agree going in and sometimes one of us convinces the other. He’ll continue to be one of the inputs in the decision-making process, along with the staff I build up and the scouts he’s brought in over the years.”

On melding scouting and analytics: “What I like about our department is that our analytically oriented guys are genuinely interested in understanding and appreciating scouting. I think that’s critical to making them more complete, in terms of giving advice to me. And vice versa. I think our scouts have evolved to the point where they’re much more comfortable asking questions of the analysts.

“We really want to blur that line. A lot of teams talk about integrating it from, ‘Hey, I want to take the scouting decision and the analyst decision, and weigh those.’ What I want is to see more interaction between the two sides, even before you get to a recommendation. We’re evolving that way. We have some good young guys on our staff; Nick Krall and Sam Grossman, and others, have been to scout school. They’ve sat in the stands and written scouting reports.

“I feel like the whole analytical community needs to make sure they understand what goes into scouting. Those scouting reports can’t be replaced as an input into the bigger system.

“None of us really know what everybody else is doing, but I would put our analytics up against anybody. Our goal is to provide as much information as our decision-makers can use. We’re constantly hiring – building our team – and we’re constantly improving the outputs we get from those different models. It’s an evolution, and it’s going to continue to be an evolution.”

On projection models and injuries: “The exercise of building a projection model has you asking questions like, ‘What are the important variables?’ Then, over time, you go back and analyze why they maybe deviated from reality. Is there a deviation that can be explained by a flaw in the model? Is there a deviation that can be explained by some experience that a player had? It’s an iterative process over time.

“Whether you’re using aging curves or historical injury experience, your projections should, at a macro level, take into account the possibilities of injuries. If you’re talking about team performance, when you aggregate those player stats for next year – when we’re looking at our projected means – there’s a component that accounts for injuries.

“For one player, it’s a binary… he may miss most of the season, which makes my projections way off for that player. But when taken into context of the team, the fact that I’ve weighted these guys based on their age, based on their positions, based on their injury history – what I think might happen – as a team, those projections should be close to accounting for what happens.”

On weighing scouting reports and data: “When you project a player, there’s a statistical component, but you also take into consideration the scouting reports. Both can theoretically tell you something about the future. We like to play with the weights that you apply to each. Intuitively, if you have a 17-year-old Dominican playing in the summer league down there, the statistical information you have on that player isn’t going to be incredibly predictive. With them, scouting is more important.

“When you have a 10-year big leaguer, statistics become way more relaible. When you go from 17-year-old Dominican to 35-year-old big leaguer – along that continuum it’s very subjective as to how you weight them.

“There are times where a player is on waivers and a scout has a gut feel about him — he really wants us to make a claim – and we might go with that. There are other times where the statistical analysis indicates something so strongly that we’d go with that, even if it’s not supported as much by the scouting reports. There are times we have the flexibility to step outside.”

On lineup construction and roster building: “I’m still formulating my philosophy on lineup construction. It’s evolved over time. It’s such a function of the players you’ve got, so I’m a little hesitant to force my philosophy before dealing with the realities of what I have. We’ve seen it: there are different ways to score runs. When Theo (Epstein) was asked about the best way to build a winning roster, he said that whoever wins the World Series, that will be the way to win a World Series until the next one. Everybody will spend their offseason trying to be like that team.

“I think that it’s important to stay with your beliefs, but there is no one answer to solve this riddle of putting together a successful, World Series team. There are certain basic tenets that you have to hold in order to put yourself in a position to win, and some things we’re all going to keep pretty secret. There are also a lot of variables that are hard to control.”

On if the Reds waited too long to begin rebuilding: “It’s easy to apply hindsight. We had a window of very good success and I think the fans, ownership, the players, wanted to extend that window as long as possible. The deadline is when we made some of those moves. It’s always tough to make certain types of trades and move on.”

We hoped you liked reading Dick Williams on Transitioning the Cincinnati Model by David Laurila!

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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.

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John Galt
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John Galt

Great interview. Thank you for sharing!

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