People who only read headlines will jump to the conclusion this post is critical of Nick Krall. I want to be as clear as possible that isn’t the case. I’ve expressed on more than one occasion my support for promoting Krall to the job of Reds President of Baseball Operations or keeping him as the Reds GM.
By all accounts, Nick Krall is a smart, hard-working guy; tops in the baseball side of the Reds organization. He’s been impressive on the occasions I’ve met him in person. Krall has been deeply involved in Reds planning, so keeping him in charge is a plus for continuity.
Though it’s fair to ask how important continuity is in this case.
The answer to that depends on your opinion of the steps the club has taken the past couple years. I have been supportive of the direction and leadership of Dick Williams, Krall and David Bell. In that sense, there’s value in staying that course. On the other hand, if the Reds had chosen to use this shot to attract a strong President of Baseball Operations to replace Williams and left Krall in his number-two job, I could have been convinced a new voice at the top wasn’t the worst development.
But the reason I’m concerned about the Reds announcement this morning that Krall would be in charge of baseball operations but retain the title of General Manger has nothing to do with Krall himself. It has to do with Reds ownership and the missed opportunity to make the front office stronger.
Stated as a plain economic equation: Baseball organizations attempt to maximize various assets subject to a budget constraint given by ownership. We usually think of those attributes as belonging to players. The club tries to assemble as much pitching, hitting and defensive talent as it can. You could break down those qualities further into power, hit skill, plate discipline, arm, range, running speed, etc. Team owners hire front office employees to choose players and develop those qualities.
The successful ones are those that assemble the most talented players.
But now more than ever, a baseball organization’s most important asset is the intellectual firepower of the folks in the front office.
That’s because winning major league games today is a complex endeavor. Much of that is driven by the explosion of information that wasn’t available even ten years ago. Pitching success depends on technology, development and instruction of new skills on things like spin rate and movement that couldn’t be measured a few years ago. Precise defensive positioning is vital to efficiency in turning batted balls into outs. Hitters use new ideas about launch angles and pulling balls to produce more runs.
Those gains depend on information. Major league front offices not only have to collect the data, they have to figure out what of it is reliable, predictive and important. In turn, becoming a hub and synthesizer of that information has made the front office powerful. The GM or PBO have always made decisions about player acquisitions and final roster makeups. But now they collaborate (some dictate) with managers on lineups, playing time, even in-game decisions.
The two teams about to play in the 2020 World Series have super-smart and capable front offices. They produce in minute detail the game plans for winning. Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash recently said that a dugout staff that makes decisions by gut is a staff that isn’t prepared.
Given the growing importance of the front office for the ultimate product on the field, it makes sense for an organization to allocate sufficient resources there. Major League owners spend an average of $150 million annually on player salaries. Add benefits, salaries for coaches, scouts and player development and you’re looking at close to $200 million or more. Over a season, the front office makes countless choices on how that money is spent. You need decision-makers as smart and insightful as possible.
That’s the asset of intellectual firepower.
Getting rid of the the President of Baseball Operation title to save $1-2 million is pound foolish.
But that’s what the Reds did today when they announced they were not conducting a search for a new President of Baseball Operations or General Manager. Instead, they simply erased the top line in the organizational chart and called it a day.
Under the ownership of Bob Castellini the Reds have suffered from extreme insularity. Here are a couple important examples. Instead of conducting a broad search for a General Manger in 2008, Castellini just asked his pal Walt Jocketty to do it. When it came time to replace Dusty Baker in 2013, Castellini and Jocketty interviewed only Brian Price and patted themselves on the back for how efficient they were. They didn’t look at anyone else.
At minimum, the Reds should have conducted a broad search to figure out if Nick Krall was the best guy available. But even if you plan to put a thumb on the scale for your own person, go ahead and conduct a search. Call in several of the brightest young executives in the game for day-long interviews. Establish a network with them. Get a feel for how your assistant GMs stack up. Each candidate interviewed would show up with specific, elaborate plans. Pick their big brains on how they would improve the Reds. Maybe, just maybe, one would strike you as better than Nick Krall and compel you to reconsider.
Or make Nick Krall the Reds President of Baseball Operations and have him run the process. He’d learn about and interact with those smart, innovative, up-to-date assistant GMs from elsewhere. Let him offer the Reds GM job to the one he thinks would help the most.
But nope, the Reds summarily forfeited all that.
Nick Krall may be the exact right guy to lead the Reds baseball operations. The Reds don’t know that because they didn’t check. Most important, by in effect not replacing the time, effort and ideas generated by Dick Williams, the club subtracted from its vital and scarce resource of brainpower.
It’s not because they’re cheap. They sacrificed the opportunity to learn about or improve themselves because Bob Castellini once again didn’t see the point of looking beyond his own office building. It’s starting to feel like 2014 again.
That’s a worrying development if you’re a Reds fan.