One great thing about the baseball Winter Meetings is that you have access to all 30 managers (this year that number is 29, as the Baltimore Orioles are currently sans a manager). A formal media session is held for each, and with 30 minutes of allotted time, a multitude of questions are asked by the collection of writers on hand.
I asked the following question, using roughly the same words, to a dozen of the managers: “We’ve seen some non-traditional coaching staff hires as of late, with pitching and hitting analytics being the driver. What are your thoughts on that?”
Here is what they had to say (answers edited slightly for concision and clarity):
David Bell, Cincinnati Reds: “I love having different perspectives in everything we do in this game. Having different opinions and perspectives, from people with different backgrounds and expertise, helps the decision-making process. You’re creating an advantage for yourself. I think it’s an exciting time in the game because of that. And it’s a great time to be a player, because you have all these different resources to pull from to make adjustments a lot faster. You can maximize who you are as a player.
“I do see it as a balance. There are certain parts of this game we all love that aren’t going away. The competition. The hard work. The teamwork. We just have more resource to make all of that work better. It’s important to communicate, and to work together with all departments, and really have no ego, and be able to work really well together.”
Bud Black, Colorado Rockies: “I like the creativeness of thinking from the people who were making hires. I think it shows that it’s not a closed box; it’s opened for whoever might have a skill set that a certain team is looking for, to give it a shot. I think that’s great.
“From a coaching perspective, there’s a teaching component that is real. The coaches that I have, I want them to be regarded as teachers — I want them to teach our players. I think there’s a leadership component that comes with being a good coach. The ability to individually lead men. And I think there’s an aspect of coaching that is motivational, to be able to inspire players. There are those three aspects: teacher, leader, motivator.
“I look at the qualities of that person as a coach. To have those … that’s sort of the baseline of where I go from. There’s also the knowledge, the credibility that where they’ve been, to be able to get through to players.”
Kevin Cash, Tampa Bay Rays: “We just hired a process and analytics coach in Jonathan Erlichman. I think all teams are looking for an edge right now. The traditional way of thought is a great way, but if you can bring that thought with maybe those innovative, out-of-the-box thoughts, you’re getting the best of both worlds.
“I think that mindset … some of those guys that don’t have the playing experience, they get shunned out of the game. I think if you’re really doing it right you want that perspective. They have no experience of playing the game on a nightly basis, but they’ve sat … for us to have hired a guy that has sat and watched a lot of our games from the suite, or done a lot of games on the computer and projection-wise, to bring that in house to have those conversations on a daily basis, is only going to make us better.”
Craig Counsell, Milwaukee Brewers: “What every organization is hoping for is that coaches are communicators. They share information. It’s about communicating information — information in one sense analytical, or information from past experience, or information they’ve gotten from their eyes. Major league coaches should be the people that can best communicate information to players.
“That’s a pretty big umbrella. In the past it’s been largely coaches from different levels, or former players. But I do think it’s right that it should be people that can best communicate the information. That’s opened it up a little bit. I think that’s the way it should be.”
AJ Hinch, Houston Astros: “I remember the days where I was not necessarily the traditional hire. That’s changed a little bit. I guess it all depends on your definition of traditional. I think teams are more and more interested in various backgrounds and different paths to get to different jobs in our game.
“There’s a freshness to it, but there’s also a lot of importance to maintaining the experience that other people in the game have been able to accomplish. I still see the hiring process as being a blend of trying to find the perfect match and the perfect partner for whatever job you’re seeking for as a team.
“It depends on the person. I think that’s more popular nowadays because of the boldness of front offices to try and find their match, and ultimately the belief that you can be successful, depending on how that hire balances out, what you’ve got going on in your own organization.
“I think the days of players being spooked by where the information is coming from is probably over. We’re in the era of information. Players are more and more open to whoever delivers the message, whoever is the expert in the information. If it can help them get better, if it can help them get paid, if it can help them perform better, players are more accepting of that.”
Torey Lovullo, Arizona Diamondbacks: “You’re trying to put the best people in the best positions no matter what their backgrounds are. If they’re going to have the ability to teach and get in front of people, whether they played the game or not, it’s not going to matter.
“I think it’s a special place where baseball is heading. You could have landed on Mars and lived there for 25 years, but if you’re going to help us score runs or prevent us from scoring runs, we’re going to consider hiring you if you’re going to fit the position that we need.
“I might be kind of a traditional guy — I played a long time ago where there was more of the cowboy mentality — but I’ve transitioned into today’s game. I know that if you get as much information as possible to make the best decision moving forward, or give yourself the best teaching tool possible to relay to a player, it’s going to give you a distinct advantage.”
Dave Martinez, Washington Nationals: “I think you see where the game is headed. There are a lot of smart people that obviously think certain people can do their job. It all depends what you’re looking for, and on the people up top who are running everything. I think it’s good for the game. It’s the way the game is going.
“If you look back three or four years, the players have been accepting. Analytics is here. There is a lot of information, and they’re using it. I know our players use it. Other teams have used it. Everybody has their own philosophies and theories.”
Bob Melvin, Oakland A’s: “It’s how you present what you want to present to the players — as far as analytically — whether it’s launch angles or whatever. You have to have the right personality to be able to do that. You have to understand which players you can give a lot of information to, and which players you give a little to.
“We feel like our staff is pretty good at it. Darren Bush and Scott Emerson do a good job with the pitchers and position players. I think at this point in time we’re happy with what we have right now, but the more you see it, it’s kind of a trend that you’ll see more of. Some of the other organizations do it already, and I think they’ve had some success. If you get buy-in from some of the premier players — certainly in the case with Houston, when you get a Justin Verlander who buys into that — it’s going to be easy to sell it to some of the other guys. I think it’s the personality of the person that you’re bringing in, but also the guys that you hook.”
Rick Renteria, Chicago White Sox: “I think that any ownership has the right to pursue the hiring of any candidate to any position that they wish. I do think — I’m assuming, and I could be wrong — that they’re not doing it without a thoughtful process as to how they’re going to move their organization in a particular direction. Good for them. They get hired. They’re asked to do a job. That’s on them.
“As far as where we’re at, you know, I think we do a really nice job of trying to combine both elements of old school and new school thought processes and try to manage the understanding of all that to give us the best possible output. But in terms of the hirings that are being done, everybody has the right, every ownership has the right to pursue and go in the direction they like if they believe it will move them forward.
“The reality is, the game of baseball is really as simple as you want it to be. And we want to take advantage of all those skills, including the long ball, but also try to make sure that these guys understand that you’re managing situations.”
Dave Roberts, Los Angeles Dodgers: “To get coaches that are in tuned with analytics and information … it’s there, so as an organization we need to find coaches that can be open to it, understand it, and disseminate it to the player. We have a lot of young players now, and as a result we’re getting a lot of young coaches and a lot of turnover.
“Some of them are non-traditional coaches, but at the same time, there still needs to be that coaching/teaching tool. It’s something where analytics is such a driver on the pitching side, the defensive side, the hitting side. I think it’s going to be a trend that’s going to continue. I think it might kind of correct itself, but in the next few years it’s what we’re going to see.”
Chris Woodward, Texas Rangers: “I’ve talked to a lot of people about this over the last little while. I wouldn’t say I’m a heavy proponent of all analytics, of all data, but I guess my best analogy would be to say, ‘When you have information available, why not use it?’ If I was going to gamble, if I was going to put millions of dollars at stake, why wouldn’t I use every bit of information that allows me to have an advantage?
“The thing that I want to kind of dispel with our players is the idea that our front office and players are separate. I’ve played for, and coached for, organizations where a lot of players had that belief, that everything was kind of designed to go against them as opposed to help them. I want our players to know that everything we do is designed to help them. Every number we crunch, we’re going to use to our advantage and they’re going to use it to their advantage, whether it’s from analytical data, biomechanical data — everything to make them more efficient and better players. They’re going to adopt that.
“I would love it if I was a player right now. I would be all in to understanding it. Not only understanding your weaknesses, but also your strengths. What do I do that’s better than everybody else in the league? And why am I having so much success? That way we can have sustained success and not just in the short-term.”
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.