Q&A: Terry Ryan, Twins general manager

Few people in baseball understand the ins and outs of scouting and player development better than Terry Ryan. His expertise in those areas helped turn the Minnesota Twins into a model small-market franchise — six playoff berths from 2002 to 2010 — and it will be needed if the team hopes to revisit its first-division status. He returned to the general manager’s chair in November after serving for four years in an advisory capacity.

Ryan talked about his approach to scouting and development — and included his thoughts on statistical analysis — at Target Field in late June.


David Laurila: How would you define what is typically referred to as “The Twins way?”

Terry Ryan: There’s no such animal. It’s just the right way. It’s not the Twins Way, or it’s not the Baltimore Orioles Way, which used to be regarded as tremendous development and scouting, and how they go about their business. Our way isn’t any different than any other organization; we just believe that it’s the right way to play the game. That stems from the days when Tom Kelly was in our system — in the minor leagues and major leagues. Just play the game right. Get an out. Make the routine play. First-pitch strikes. Run balls out. Hit the cutoff man. Take the extra base. That’s just the way we’ve always described how we want to go about our business. But it’s not any different than the other 29 clubs. We do stress a lot of those types of things — there’s no doubt — but so do other teams. It’s just the right way to play the game.

DL: How willing is the organization to adapt to the needs of individual players?

TR: Every player is different in how you treat them and how you develop them. How much work they can handle. How much playing time they can handle. What they should do nutritionally. How much and what kind of rest you have to give them. Every player is a little different, up here and in rookie ball. After you get to know those guys… you know, some guys can’t play a day game after a night game. I don’t know why that is, but it happens. So you adjust. Sometimes a left-handed hitter doesn’t handle left-handed pitchers well. OK, you sit him. Those are the types of things where as you go through a player’s developmental stage. I never like to stereotype a guy, but things do start to take shape.

DL: If a young left-handed hitter has trouble with left-handed pitchers, should he be given an opportunity to change that?

TR: I would get him to change that in the minor leagues. I wouldn’t want him sitting. The only time I’d want a lefty sitting is against a righty. That would be my preference. Let’s teach him to hit left-handed pitchers. Now, once they get up here and get a track record — but people change. I can remember the day when Paul O’Neill didn’t hit lefties too well. Then the Yankees got a hold of him and he hit them plenty good. There are plenty of examples like that. Players don’t look like — maybe it’s one year, and it’s cyclical. Some years players do not hit lefties very well, and then the next year something clicks in and they look comfortable up there. We can talk in generalities, but things do change. Give a player an opportunity to change, and to change your mind.

DL: Is there a specific Minnesota Twins hitting philosophy?

TR: Well, that’s depending on the player. You can’t cookie-cut hitters. Morneau is gonna have a different approach than Casilla. Casilla is going to be different than Plouffe. Willingham is different than about anybody we have. He makes this stadium look pretty small. But, I don’t think we believe in cookie-cutting guys. We believe in making sure that we use the whole diamond, but so do all hitting instructors. There are guys that cannot hit the ball to the opposite field. OK. Well then, why would you force him to do that? You know, we do not take many strikes. If there’s a strike there, we encourage our hitters to go get it. Get good pitches to hit, and go ahead and take a whack at it.

DL: Is that the approach beginning in the low minors?

TR: Absolutely. How’s a guy going to learn how to hit down in Beloit if they don’t get after strikes? So we encourage them to go hit. Get a strike and hit it.

DL: There is a perception that your organization drafts and develops strike throwers, but not hard throwers.

TR: Well you can’t make a guy a hard thrower — more than likely — unless he already possesses arm strength. You can get a young, frail-bodied guy and once he develops and matures and so forth… and we got plenty of hard-throwers. But we do like strike-throwers. There’s no doubt about that. Number one, usually when you get strike-throwers, that means they’ve got pretty good mechanics and pretty good deliveries. That usually means they stay healthy. Everybody likes that. So, if there’s a hard-thrower out there, we like him. We’ve had a lot of success with the Radkes of the world. Santana threw hard. You show me a hard-thrower that’s available and I guarantee you we’ll take a good look at him.

DL: What is your approach to the draft?

TR: You’re looking for people to get up here. You’re not looking to fill needs in the minor leagues, for the most part. You do get to a point of the draft where you say “We need a guy at Beloit who can play the outfield.” OK, we’ll go get him — but later on in the draft.

We draft people that our scouts recommend. And if they’re recommending them, they got their name on them. They’re going to be accountable whether the guy succeeds or fails. Whether or not he’s a good teammate, or whether or not he’s a runner, or whether or not he’s wasting people’s times. Whoever that area scout is, is going to be accountable for that guy. If they’ve got their name on him and they say he’s a draftable guy, we’ll take him and put him into the system. We expect accountability. When they get out there, be on time and be a good teammate, and be good in the community. Give us a good day’s work and effort. That’s kind of how we go about drafting. We listen to our people out there in the field and then we select.

DL: How do go about evaluating your scouts?

TR: Well, they pretty much make that assessment pretty easy. When they send us their guys over the course of a couple years, you start to get a pretty good cross-section of what they’ve sent you. Now you can’t — a 31st-round draft choice that a scout signed, that’s pretty deep. How is he fitting in? Has he got a chance? Has he helped the organization get better? If a scout sends us guys that don’t want to get with the program too often, those are the types of guys that — each one of our scouts has a direct supervisor that’s in communication with him constantly. They’re the guys that funnel the information to that supervisor. Has he got his stuff in? Is he thorough? Does he got the medical? Does he got the signability? Is he taking me to see guys that don’t have a chance? Those are how you evaluate scouts. Usually the supervisor has the best grasp of what kind of scout we’ve got.

They also graduate into professional coverage. That’s when I start to get involved, because I read the reports daily. If their numbers and their verbal and their role don’t add up, they get calls. It doesn’t take too long to figure out “Listen, this guy doesn’t know what he’s doing. We better get him pointed in the right direction.” That’s how we evaluate scouts.

DL: Some fans are guilty of judging scouts only by who they signed, with no knowledge of who they recommended.

TR: We have their list, obviously. But there’s nothing more frustrating to have an area scout say, “I had him right there, but we didn’t get him.” Well, you didn’t have him in high enough, then. We don’t ever want to hear that. That’s an excuse. “Oh, I had all those guys in. We didn’t get any of them, but I had them in.” That’s protecting your hind side. That doesn’t work.

DL: What is your role in the draft?

TR: Not too much. I watch and listen. I do go to see some [players]. I see some. Just enough to be dangerous. That dabbling in the scouting world is a dangerous situation, because you don’t have a very good cross-section of what’s out there. I can do the skills, and I can do the makeup, probably. It doesn’t take any genius to go out and run a stopwatch or look at a radar gun or mechanics, and evaluate the skills. If you’ve been around, you can do that. But where does he go country-wise? Is he up here, or is he down here? I don’t see enough to be able to slot him in very well. That’s when it’s dangerous. That’s why I stay out of it and let our scouting department make the choices. They are the ones that live and die with it 365 days out of the year. I’m only a dabbler and that’s not good. Last year I was much more involved, because I wasn’t the GM.

DL: In your address at the SABR convention this morning, you cited the importance of drafting catchers, left-handed pitchers and shortstops.

TR: They’re the toughest thing to find. You go out into any minor league organization and look at the catchers, and they’re just not there. You can look at the amateur world, and if there’s a good catcher on the board, he’s going to go early.

DL: [Giants scouting director] John Barr said the same thing when I interviewed him earlier this year.

TR: Well, John Barr and I are close. I hired John Barr. He was here for a few years. Good man. But if you’re out into that world, and you say, “Well this guy looks like about a fifth-rounder,” in the real world that’s about what he is, a fifth-rounder. But then he’ll go off in that third round before you can blink, and you’ll say, “Dang it, I’d have like to have him, but he wasn’t a third-rounder.” Well, that becomes a pattern. Catchers are so difficult to come by, so you have to pay attention to them. Sometimes, you have to reach up and get them. Same with left-handed pitchers. There’s no doubt. Good left-handed pitchers are going to go, and go quick.

DL: Are catchers valuable even if they’re unlikely to reach the big leagues?

TR: Yeah, but even beyond that, you’re going to need catchers because catchers get hurt so often. But also, if they have the ability to call a good game and run a staff, they also have a chance to make other people around them better. All players, in any position, that do that would be valuable. But catchers take such a pounding and there are so few of them that do progress to the major leagues that are complete players — guys that can hit it over the fence, hit for some average, are athletic enough and are durable enough to catch 125 games up here. Those guys are few and far between. All you’ve got to do is look at the major league rosters.

DL: Another thing you mentioned at the SABR conference is that you’re not a big fan of drafting pitchers because of their changeups and curveballs.

TR: If he doesn’t have a fastball to go with it — there are players up here in the big leagues who live and die on a changeup. Trevor Hoffman was one of them, but he also — back in the day — threw pretty hard. People might disagree with me on that, but if you’re going to push a guy that’s got a great curveball, or a great changeup, I’m going to want to hear a lot more about him before I’m going to start getting excited. It’s nice to have a great curveball, but if you don’t have a fastball that you can locate, or keep hitters honest with — those guys usually don’t come up here and become dominant starting pitchers.

DL: What about once they’re in the system? I assume having a quality off-speed pitch becomes important.

TR: Depends on who they are. If a guy can’t throw a changeup — it’s a tough pitch to develop. Most guys that have changeups show up with a changeup. They’ve got a good feel for it and confidence in it. They can throw it to the right-hander and they can throw it to the left-hander. It’s got action and they’re not afraid to throw it on 2-1 or 3-1. Radke was the example I’ve talked about. Radke could throw a changeup anytime and anywhere he wanted. But he also threw hard enough and he could also spin a ball good enough to make the changeup effective. If he didn’t have much fastball, or he didn’t have enough breaking ball, hitters will kill that changeup. I don’t care how good it is. There are pitchers that are good up here that have the best changeup in the world — but if you don’t have something to go with it — the hitters will just sit on that thing and destroy it. That was my point today. I don’t want to get a scout too excited about turning in a first-round pitcher because he’s got a great curveball. He better have a fastball first. Forget about the curveball.

DL: You also talked about how you’re not a believer in developing one-inning relievers.

TR; What good does that do you? There’s an old saying, “Anybody can pitch one inning, unless you’re the ninth.” That’s a different animal out there in the ninth. Anybody can pitch one inning. That’s a specialist and we don’t want to develop specialists up here. We want guys that can give you some length to your pitching rotation and to your bullpen. We don’t believe in one-inning relievers, I can tell you that. We don’t have any of those guys.

Most of the people that are up here — that are relievers in the back of the bullpen — were starters in the minor leagues. Look at the rosters. Look at the [former] starters that are closers right now. So why would you do that? It just doesn’t make any sense. Let them start in the minor leagues and let them pitch innings in the minor leagues. Those guys are ultimately the guys that are the one-inning guys in the back of the bullpen.

There are some legitimate closers that were closers in the minor leagues, but not too many. We had Jesse Crain here, and he was a reliever, but he was more than a one-inning guy for us. He had three pitches when he came out of University of Houston, and we contemplated making him a starter. We decided not to because we thought his delivery and his arm action, and so forth, was really conducive to the bullpen. I’ve always been of the belief — and I’ve never had anyone argue with me — to let these guys go two, three innings in the bullpen in the minor leagues. Develop their pitches, develop command, develop control, get an out pitch, pitch through some problems. That’s how you develop pitchers. I might be wrong, but no one’s ever really argued with me about it. I’m more than willing to listen.

DL: How do you balance continuity — something you place a lot of value in — with adaptability? It’s obviously important to recognize trends and change with the times?

TR: We’ve got some smart guys in this organization. They’re not afraid to get out there. We’ve got some smart people that have open minds about how they want to go about their business. We’ve changed dramatically over the years. We don’t do things the way we were doing them in the ‘80s or ‘90s at all anymore. We’ve changed. We’ve changed people. Not necessarily changed human beings, but changed jobs. We’ve made scouts into field coordinators, we’ve made managers into scouts, and stuff like that. We haven’t remained stale.

We’re open. If something comes on the front that sounds good, I’ve got some guys underneath me that are pretty smart and they’ll start implementing it. If we see it being a good situation, we’re wide open. We believe in a lot of things, but we also know that we don’t have all the answers. OK, bring it aboard. Statistical analysis. We never messed with that too much back in the ‘70s, but we did in the ‘80s and the ‘90s and the 2000s. We’ve been looking at that forever.

DL: Whether people know it or not.

TR: People don’t want to hear that out of the Minnesota Twins. But we’ve been looking at that forever. Way before some. We’re not as deep as some, but we do believe in certainly doing our work, and that stat page is one big piece to the puzzle of putting players together. Our scouts, and our people, will tell you if I’m looking at a player, and I go down and look at his line, and it doesn’t add up, I’ve got to give him a call quick. I tell him, “This doesn’t make any sense.” His role, his skills and his statistical history, and you’re going to tell me this? How do you get there? I believe in that.

All forms of information are good. I’ve drilled that into our people. Bring it on. All forms, let me sort it out. If a scout or a statistician is going to be smart enough to do that, he probably ought to be in a different world. Because I don’t know that any general manager in the game wouldn’t take that type of information and try to predict what players are going to do. That’s kind of what projection is in scouting. You’re going to project on a kid that’s 22 up here more than you are a kid that’s 28. And you’re certainly going to project a player that’s 28 more than you are a player that’s 38.

I read all that stuff, and sometimes it’s so much information that I do get paralyzed reading it and taking it all in. You can spend as much time as you want on everything that is available. It’s almost mind-boggling how much stuff is out there. I mean, I read you guys’ stuff.

DL: Any final thoughts?

TR: Well, how our club does things is we try not take shortcuts. That’s the quickest way to failure for me. There aren’t any shortcuts. It’s development, scouting, acquisitions, international. It’s psychological, nutrition, weightlifting, teachers, hiring good people. All of that stuff. If you hire good people, you’ve got a chance.

We’ve got pretty good people here and we’ve struggled, so now you start to look at it like, “OK, what are we doing wrong? What should we change?” We’ll make some changes as we go through this thing, but I don’t believe there are many shortcuts in getting to the point here of getting back to a winning club. You get good people, and you get decent players. You teach them and point them in the right direction, and you’ve probably got a pretty good chance to get it right. It’s fairly simple.

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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11 years ago

Really good stuff. One of my favorite interviews.