Dick Williams gave a lengthy and eye-opening interview to David Laurila, published at FanGraphs yesterday. Williams talked about improvements the Reds are making based on a top-to-bottom review of the organization he conducted in 2016, his first year as Reds general manager. Read this closely:
“Last year, we went through a thorough analysis of our business. We met with each department head and effectively examined where we thought dollars would have a better return on investment than at the major league payroll level. Then we went back to ownership and said, ‘This is our next couple of years, this is what we’d like them to look like, and this is where we’d like to take money out of major-league payroll and put it to use in other areas.’”
Again: Take money out of major-league payroll and put it to use in other areas with a better return on investment.
One could look at Williams’ statement with healthy skepticism and read it as simply a rationalization for ownership cutting payroll. As putting lipstick on a poverty plea.
But Williams continues on in the interview to detail a wide – breathtaking – array of specific new initiatives where more resources have been committed. Areas range from obvious to obscure. The Reds committed millions more to the amateur draft and international player acquisition “three times our largest commitment” and implemented a “quantum leap” in pre- and post-game nutrition for all the minor league affiliates.
Other areas of new spending include: Latin American scouting, domestic area scouts, scouting rookie and independent leagues and adding a fourth coach for all the minor league affiliates. Alongside a new, optimistic perspective on the Asian player market, the club has initiated a scouting program and hired several staff for that role. Anyone watching the Dominican Republic dominate the World Baseball Classic realizes the importance of a first-class presence on that island. The Reds have added “a new weight room, training room, classrooms, housing, and training facilities” for their Dominican program.
The organization is investing in science and medicine, including adding a specialist in biomechanical device evaluation, supplementing the full-time strength coaching staff, more trainers and physical therapists, and paying for continuing education for those staffs. The Reds are offering research-based advice to players in the areas of rest-and-recovery and nutrition. The Reds analytics department is now more than just Sam Grossman. Grossman’s staff numbers in double digits and continues to grow. Turns out you can buy plenty of cool stuff with free agent salaries.
The Williams’ interview is truly humbling for those who have equated the commitment of ownership with the size of the team’s major league payroll. The Reds new president leaned on his non-baseball background to produce vast change. Williams believes his outsider background gave him a helpful perspective.
“My first job in the game came when I was 35. My jobs before baseball were in investment banking, politics, and finance, so I kind of started fresh with no preconceived notions about how things should be done. I was able to ask a lot of questions and challenge people. I think that’s been a good ingredient to the soup, so to speak. You can’t build a baseball front office with all people who come from outside the sport, but having someone come in who is willing to challenge the status quo can be a positive. It can help free people up to think outside the box.”
Innovation is never easy, particularly here. Cincinnati has a well-deserved reputation as being a buttoned-down city. For years, the Reds ball club has operated in a conservative manner befitting its hometown. From the capital letters we use to spell Opening Day to the mustache on Mr. Redlegs, Cincinnati Reds baseball oozes tradition. Nostalgia for the Big Red Machine is coin of the realm.
But like any coin, there are two sides to tradition. One is warm sentimentality. The other is debilitating paralysis. Change requires a new way of looking at a problem. Adherence to tradition can stand in the doorway, block up the hall, and get in the way of new ideas.
More Dick Williams in FanGraphs, channelling his inner George Bernard Shaw:
“Some things are only crazy if you approach them from the perspective of, ‘What was done before was totally sane.’ That makes the new stuff sound crazy, but maybe we should challenge the notion that everything we were doing before was sane. Maybe there are better ways to do certain things.”
Music to the ears of this Bob Dylan fan.
The Wheel’s Still In Spin
The Reds rebuild hasn’t been part of a brilliant, long-term master plan. The sudden, noisy collapse of the Cincinnati Reds in 2015-2016 was the product of old-fashioned stubbornness and creaky management. There’s never a great time to be weighted down by older ways of doing things, but the Reds organization picked a bad moment to fall in love with its own players and howl like King Lear at the shifting currents of baseball.
Outside, the battle was raging. Professional baseball was remaking itself by the terabyte. The Reds competition in the NL Central adopted modern analytical approaches. The Cardinals, Cubs and Pirates stocked their front office leadership with people committed to new thinking about baseball. The Reds stuck to the old road, rapidly aging. They resisted change so long the front office had to manage its own generational transition at the same time it was turning over the major league roster. The fits and starts we’ve witnessed the past two years were predictable fallout.
Walt Jocketty has now been replaced by Dick Williams. The FanGraphs interview is all the evidence you need to recognize the times have a-changed at 100 Joe Nuxhall Way. The front office remake is noteworthy itself. But with far greater impact than the personnel turnover is the sea change in thinking. We should welcome the sweeping generational transformation.
It may not have been planned even a couple years ago, but the Reds are taking advantage of the rebuild-enabled pause in major league payroll spending to do other important things. Williams and his young front office team are making a large bet with Castellini money. They’re wagering a small-market team can find a stronger rate of return – measured by winning games – spending its ample dough at the margin on inputs other than major league salary. Given the bloated nature of player paychecks, that doesn’t seem crazy, to use Williams’ word.
Dick Williams says in the interview this phase won’t last long. Ownership cash will soon start flowing back to the major league payroll. Tens of millions of dollars. That’s when the new front office will have to demonstrate that curiosity and its chosen metrics can assemble a successful major league roster. That’s not the same as identifying improvements in Dominican weight rooms and minor league coaching staffs.
We talk about The Next Good Reds Team all the time. But there’s an important question to answer before it’s realized: Can the front office’s non-baseball skill set succeed at pure-baseball decisions? Will they have the right judgment in deciding between pitching and hitting, between speed and power, between contact skills and patience, between pitch velocity and spin rates? We’ll have to wait and see. There’s no telling who that it’s naming.