Kevin Towers is smarter than the so-called experts. That isn’t meant sarcastically. The Arizona Diamondbacks’ GM knows what he’s doing, and has both the background and track record to prove it. Skeptics panning his recent moves don’t have his 16 years of experience as a big-league general manager, nor have they been a minor-league pitching coach or scouting director.
Why did Towers trade highly-regarded pitching prospect Trevor Bauer for a young shortstop many feel has a limited offensive ceiling? He has addressed that question myriad times, but a truer understanding goes beyond the specifics of any individual deal. It lays in his overall philosophy, which he discussed shortly before taking time off for the holidays.
David Laurila: You’re a former scouting director. How do you approach player evaluation as a general manager?
Kevin Towers: First and foremost, you trust your scouts. Not only their evaluations, but their intuition and projections on players. Of course, now we have so many resources, like the analytics. We certainly look at that end of it as well.
When I’m making a deal, the first people I go to are my key evaluators. They’ve probably looked at more potential acquisitions than I have. I take in all of that information, and very rarely you’ll have a situation where it’s a [total] consensus. As a GM, you listen more than you talk. You weigh everything, then ultimately make a decision. Hopefully you have support from everybody on the decision, but while some are going to like it, some won’t. Others are probably on the fence.
DL: Do you don your scout’s cap and make your own evaluations?
KT: Absolutely. I think that’s probably my greatest strength. I came up in the game as an evaluator, specifically on pitching. I’ve always felt I was a better evaluator of pitchers than position players, not only as an amateur, but as a major-league executive and as a scouting director.
It’s always nice to lay your eyes on them. Ideally, it’s in person, but if not, at least on video to get an idea of their mechanics. You want the entire picture, so you need to talk to people who have maybe coached the player. The intangibles the players’ possess are important. Makeup, character, aptitude. Are they able to apply the instruction that has been conveyed to them? A lot of things all go into the decision-making process.
DL: Does your experience as a pitching coach play a big role in your assessments?
TW: Not only as a pitching coach, but from things I was taught as a pitcher coming up in pro ball. I wouldn’t say I was the most mechanically sound pitcher. I was blessed with a great arm, and great movement, but there was a lot to my delivery that needed to be worked on. Because it wasn’t clean, I had several instructors who gave me a lot of good information that I stored.
When I was a young scout in Texas, I spent time with veteran scouts and picked their brains. I was fortunate enough to break into an area where I was around Dee Phillips, Billy Capps, Ray Crone, Jim Hughes, Boyd Bartley, Danny Doyle… some of the great scouts of our game. I was just a sponge for info, especially in regard to looking at amateurs. What are the good things to look for? What are the negatives? What you can project and what can’t you project? What are the red flags?
DL: Do the Diamondbacks do biomechanics studies and risk assessment on pitchers?
KT: We do look at that. I think that’s probably an ongoing process, much like defensive metrics. It’s a process that’s getting better. I think we’re able to measure defense a little better, which is a huge help. But yes, workloads, stress on the arm, deliveries, opening up… things that could be warning signs. You need to take them into account when evaluating a pitcher, not only in the present, but in the future.
DL: Do park factors play a role in your personnel decisions?
KT: Yes. That’s something that was brought to me by Theo Epstein, years ago, when we were in San Diego. I never used to look at park factors. Back in the mid-90s, when I looked at the Atlanta Braves short-season-A club, they all had ERAs under 2.00. I remember Theo saying, “Don’t get deceived by that; that’s one of the best pitchers’ parks in baseball.” The parks they pitched in made those prospects look even better. That weighs heavily with position players as well.
Chris Young was pitching in Arlington Stadium when I acquired him in the Adrian Gonzalez deal. I looked at his FB/GB rate and he was more of a fly-ball pitcher. Coming to us, that would play better in Petco than it did in Texas. Conversely, here in Arizona, ground-ball pitchers are probably more effective. That played a lot into the Trevor Cahill acquisition.
Between LA, San Francisco and San Diego… all three are pretty good pitchers ballparks, but we play 81 in Chase. We probably lean more toward an offensive player, but we also wanted to build this team around bullpen, defense and pitching. When you look at the NL West — and I’ve spent almost my entire career in this division — it’s usually won with arms. It hasn’t been won as much with offense, unless you go back to 1995-1996 Colorado Blake Street Bombers. It’s usually won with pitching, so to win in the west, you have to pitch in the west.
DL: You recently acquired Tony Sipp. What made him desirable?
KT: I’ve always been a big believer that you need guys with different looks in your bullpen. You can’t have a cookie-cutter bullpen where they all have the same repertoire and pitch the same way. Sipp has a little bit of funkiness and deception to his delivery, and historically he’s had very good numbers against left-handed hitters. He’s kept them around a .200 average. He can also get through an inning, because he’s been fairly effective against righties.
He’s got a nice cutter; it’s more of a cutter than a slider. He’s different than Matt Reynolds. He’s different than Brad Ziegler. David Hernandez is different than J.J. Putz. What we try to do is have a different bullpen with different arm slots, different deliveries.
DL: Is bullpen depth more important now than it’s ever been?
KT: I think it is for the majority of organizations. You see more organizations… I wouldn’t say rushing, but young pitchers are coming into the game a lot sooner, with fewer innings under their belts in the minor leagues. With the intense lineups they’re facing, and the workloads — 33 or 34 starts instead of 25 — you can’t expect them to go that deep in games.
There is more importance on strengthening your bullpen. You get five or six good innings out of your starter and then shut it down with your bullpen. There are a handful of organizations that have veteran staffs. Tampa Bay comes to mind. They probably focus more on having those eighth and ninth inning guys. They’re not as worried about middle relief, because they have workhorses that can get them deeper into games. But for most of us, that’s not the case.
A lot of games are lost in the sixth and seventh inning, so you’re seeing more focus on strengthening middle relief and not just the back.
DL: Your pitchers had the second-best walk rate in the game this year. Was building that type of staff a specific objective?
KT: I don’t like pitchers who walk hitters. It puts pressure on your defense. The less walks you have, the better your chances of getting through innings. More walks lead to overworking your bullpen, sometimes just by having to get somebody up, just in case.
When you have low walk rates, it’s easier for a manager to manage his bullpen. He doesn’t have to worry about protecting that individual pitcher that’s out there. If he’s starting to walk people, most managers fear things could get out of hand. He hasn’t found the strike zone, so he has to get a righty up, a lefty up. That weighs into usage of your bullpen, even if they don’t get into a game.
Strikeout-to-walk ratios are very important to me. Not just in the big leagues, but the minor leagues as well. Fastball command is paramount. You have to have it up here to be successful. In most years, the successful staffs are the ones that have low walk rates.
DL: Under [scouting director] Ray Montgomery, your drafts have been heavily up-the-middle. Does your overall player-acquisition philosophy follow that same formula?
KT: Absolutely. That’s our focus, not only domestically, but internationally. A lot of guys that start off up the middle end up on the corners, and the ones that start as corner players fade out of the game. Up the middle, it’s usually foot speed, athleticism, first-step quickness. Those are attributes that play on both sides of the ball. Your successful organizations typically build that way, especially in the National League.
DL; Was the expectation that Didi Gregorius will remain in the middle of the infield a big factor in acquiring him?
KT: Absolutely. That’s a lot of what led us in that decision-making process, looking at what the free agent market is for middle infielders — the lack thereof. Not only free agents, but internationally and domestically in the draft.
Talking to Ray [Montgomery] about what the pool of those types players will be this year, and next year and follows going forward. There’s just not a lot of inventory, and to find a shortstop or a catcher, or a centerfielder, that you think that could stay at those positions… they’re very hard to acquire. Sometimes you have to overpay for them, because of that lack of inventory.
KT: I think it just depends on the makeup of your club. If you’ve got an offense like Texas, you can live with an Elvis Andrus who doesn’t hit for power, or even a huge average, but has ability to get on base. He can obviously play quality defense, For a club that lacks offense in your outfield, or your corners, then maybe it becomes a little more difficult.
I think there’s always a place for those guys. In a perfect world, you’d like to have a team where you don’t have to worry about getting a lot of offense from your shortstop. You just want somebody to save runs for you. You want them to save outs, as well as pitches for your pitcher out there on the mound.
DL: To close, what type of philosophical changes did you implement when you came to Arizona?
KT: I don’t know that I’d refer to it as changes, but my emphasis has always been on pitching, and probably more than anything, the bullpen. That and the bench. A lot of that really came from when I was in San Diego, with a small market and not a lot of financial resources. One thing we could improve was our bullpen and our bench. I didn’t go after the front-line starters, and didn’t have the ability to go after the everyday position players. I really focused on bullpen and bench, both of which play a big part in a team’s success.
When I came over here, I’d say bullpen was probably my biggest focus. It was a priority, because if we have a chance to win after the sixth inning, we can’t blow games. We need to win the games we should. It won’t happen every time, but it should the majority of the time.
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.