Q&A: Reid Nichols, Milwaukee Brewers Director of Player Development

Reid Nichols is in charge of a Brewers system heavy on youth. The majority of Milwaukee’s top-rated prospects aren’t yet old enough to drink. Their ceilings are high, but they face long climbs to Miller Park.

Nichols has been the organization’s Director of Player Development – his official title includes Special Assistant to the GM – since 2002. His 13 years have featured numerous success stories, with the likes of Ryan Braun, Khris Davis, Yovani Gallardo and Jonathan Lucroy progressing through the minor-league ranks. As Brewers’ fans are well aware, other highly-regarded prospects have failed to meet expectations.

A big-league outfielder from 1980-1987, Nichols was the farm director – and for one year the first base coach – for the Texas Rangers before coming to Milwaukee.

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Nichols on interdepartmental cohesion: “From my end it’s kind of been the same with the player development side. Our basic philosophy is to help make that bridge from the minor leagues to the major leagues as smooth as possible. Baseball is baseball. Nobody’s trying to recreate the game.

“I’m in the draft room with the projections of both of our rookie teams. I discuss that with our scouting director and the cross checkers, so they know who’s playing where. The first five to eight rounds, they pick the best player available. I stay out of that – they spend months working on their draft board – but I do tell them what we have and who is going to play.

“If we have a good shortstop, I’m going to say, ‘If you guys draft a shortstop, know we have this guy and he’s going to play most of the time here – unless you get a stud, then we’ve got to do something about it.’ Maybe there’s a position change for a year or two. We did that with Scooter Gennett. He came in as a shortstop and we had to flip him around back and forth between short and second.

“We have manual with every one of our areas – hitting, catching, running, infield, outfield, pitching – and our (scouting department) has it and knows what we’re teaching. The managers get the (scouting) reports that tell us all about the players coming in. We try to let the players – in their first year – go as far as they can go, doing what they’ve been doing. They’ve obviously done something to get drafted and we don’t want to interfere with that unless we need to. When they get to instructional league – or if they’re struggling during the season and come to us asking for help – we’ll try to make a change. We work more on the mental side when we first get them.”

On development plans: “We kind of divide our system in half (at) Double-A and focus our teaching that way. Our rovers travel mostly to the lower levels. At Double-A and Triple-A, there is more focus on winning and a little less on player development.

“There is still development in Double-A and we have a really good manager there in Carlos Subero. He’s a great teacher in all aspects of the game. Rick Sweet does a great job of handling out Triple-A team. So, there’s not a lot of need for us to spend a lot of time in either place. Our guys are really focused on the lower levels and getting that foundation.

“Our players all have a game plan, on paper, that we put in their hands. They know what they’re working on with every person who touches them. When they come into spring training, they get it and know what they’re working on in the spring. When the season opens, they get an updated version and know what they’re working on as they get into the season. If there are times things need to change throughout the season, that’s done. Then, at the end of the season, in instructional league, they get an update on the areas they’ve improved on and where they need to continue working.

“The communication is really good as far as what everybody has to do. A guy won’t go from our high-A team to our Double-A and suddenly find they’re doing something else with him. They know exactly where he’s coming from and what he needs to work on. We’ve had changes in personnel, and some are better at it than others, but the staff we have now is very good at communicating with our players.”

On 20-year-old outfielder Tyrone Taylor: “The only thing I’ve really talked to him about is his breaks in the outfield. They could have been better. I worked with him a little on starting to move a bit sooner – not waiting – and on getting a better line to the plate so he can see the ball go through the hitting zone. We had him work on his breaks during batting practice. He’s a good outfielder, and he will be a very good outfielder when he starts getting those breaks down.

“We didn’t have a roving outfield guy last year – outfield and base running — and I think it kind of worked out for the best. because all of our instructors took it on themselves to help. I think we got better in both areas because of it. Without having an instructor in that area, I was a little more open about saying something to (Taylor), but mostly if I saw something I would go to (minor league hitting coordinator and former outfielder) Jeremy Reed and ask, ‘what do you think?’ and let him handle it. I try to be hands-off, so I’d trust his judgment.

“I probably saw Tyrone a total of 30 days through the season. I try to make four or five trips to our lower clubs. I only make a couple of trips to Double-A and Triple-A. My focus is on the lower levels and making sure we get the foundation laid correctly.

“Tyrone is a Johnny-Damon type, with maybe not quite the speed – maybe a half a step slower – but he’s got a good arm. He’s got really good tools.”

On 20-year-old shortstop Orlando Arcia: “We’re really deep in shortstops and, in my view, he’s one of the best. He played in Brevard last year. The kid’s got eyes in the back of his head. He’s very aware of everything that’s happening on the field.

“He’s a quiet leader, but there are times when he steps up. I think he’s got it in him to lead a team. He’s going about it the right way now. He just loves the game and that’s kind of infectious. When he’s on the field, he brings everybody up a little bit.

“He’s an average-to-above runner, He an above-average to well-above-average fielder. He has an average arm. His instincts for the game… you know, I’d probably compare him a little bit to a young J.J. Hardy.”

On 19-year-old 2014 CBA pick Jake Gatewood: “He came in a little timid, but started opening up toward the end of the season. He’s a good shortstop and while he only hit .206 this year, he’s going to be a good hitter. He’s going to be a good player, he’s just young. When he came in, I thought he was hurt. We were hearing 60-65 arm, and he was showing a 45 arm. It took him awhile to get his feet on the ground and get comfortable. I don’t know exactly what it was – we couldn’t figure it out – but then he really came on toward the end. He became what the reports said he was.”

On pitching philosophy: “Early in their careers, we ask guys to throw strikes down. We don’t want them trying to throw to the corners. We want them to command their fastballs down in the zone and mostly, with very few exceptions, we don’t let them throw two-seamers. We want them to throw four-seamers with command. That makes them work on their command instead of trying to trick the hitter.

“Early on, their secondary should be their changeup. Then, if they’re a guy that can spin the ball – it’s a gift they have – we won’t take it away from them. But changeups are very important.

“We work more on the mental side and getting their line to the plate better, taking some stress off their shoulders – minor changes to help them stay healthy and start thinking correctly. A lot of times, pitchers coming out of the college ranks are trying to trick hitters. Our philosophy is more to go after them and throw strikes. We like to get early outs on the ground.”

On 18-year-old 2014 first-round pick Kodi Medeiros: “He’s an interesting guy. The catchers have a hard time catching him, because his ball moves so much. He’s got a little bit of a funky delivery where he lays it out in kind of a low three-quarter (arm slot). But he’s gonna take some time. He’s going to have to command the ball. You can’t trick the hitters like… I guess I keep going back to that. We want the guys to command the ball, because that’s the only way they’re going to be successful in the big leagues. There are very few guys who can just rear back and throw it and get away with it.

“I can’t tell you for certain, but I’m pretty sure he was throwing a two seamer (when he was drafted). He’s throwing four-seamers, because that’s pretty much our policy. But he’ll get (the two-seamer) back. He’ll have it whenever, and even though we tell them not to throw it, they still mess with it. We know he’s throwing it, but our focus is commanding a four-seam fastball, throwing strikes down in the zone.”

On defensive shifts: “We pretty much shift at all levels, but the only time we really do it is when we have data that shows a hitter is a dead pull hitter. We don’t shift just to shift. We want our shortstops to learn how to play behind second base because they’re going to have to do that as they go through the system.

“There are times we’ll take infield and put the shift on. We practice the shift during batting practice and when they take their ground balls. Our roving infield instructor, as he travels around, makes sure they get their standard work on routine plays – that’s our focus – and we’ll work on the shift as well.”

On hitting against the shift: “Hitting is hard enough when you’re just trying to do the things you should be doing. When you try to change that because they’re pulling a shift on you, you’re going to end up having a problem. You don’t want to come out of your everyday approach. Our approach, hitting-wise, is middle the other way – work up the middle and then shrink the zone to where you’re looking for the ball. Don’t swing early in the count unless it’s the pitch you’re absolutely looking for. You know, a fastball in your sweet spot. If it’s not there, you’re not swinging. We like our guys to work the count. Jeremy Reed has done a great job here. He’s really had an impact on the players, especially on their mental approach.”





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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Jim S.
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Jim S.

I recall that Reed was a pretty good outfielder about 10 years ago. Interesting article.