Giving Dick Williams his due credit

As the 2023 Reds are finding out, surprise first-place teams are magnets for local and national publicity — and not just coverage of the breakout or new players. The folks who work at 100 Joe Nuxhall Way have also drawn their share of attention. Nick Krall and his front office folks deserve the recognition they’re receiving. Players Krall brought to the roster can be found across the diamond. Spencer Steer, Jake Fraley and Will Benson are products of his trades. Matt McLain and Andrew Abbott arrived via amateur drafts overseen by Krall. Each of those players has made important contributions to the resurgent Reds.

Reporters who have searched for angles beyond player acquisitions have thrown spotlights on changes in the way the organization is run — at upgrades where through lines connect to on-the-field improvements.

Charlie Goldsmith of the Cincinnati Enquirer covered the new approach the Reds now use in Latin America that led to finding Elly De La Cruz. Travis Sawchik, a terrific baseball writer, highlighted how the Reds have improved player development. He credits the club increasing the number of coaches for every affiliate from three to four, as well as an organization-wide commitment to technology, like high-speed cameras for pitchers. Sawchik mentions the Reds hiring smart, modern coaches such as Derek Johnson and bringing in Kyle Boddy from Driveline.

Positive stories like these sure are informative and encouraging for Reds fans. Most of us who follow the team and watch the games know the players. Finding out about fundamental club changes that promise a better future is also exciting.

But in reading these new, upbeat articles on how the Reds operate, something stood out to me.

None of them mentions Dick Williams.

Son of Reds ownership

The product of a multi-generational connection to Reds ownership, Dick Williams ran the club after Walt Jocketty and before Nick Krall. He is the son of Joseph Williams Jr., the current chairman of the organization. His uncle Thomas is vice chairman and treasurer. Dick’s grandfather, William Williams Sr. and his brother James were team owners themselves dating back to 1966.

Despite forty-plus years of lineage, Dick Williams didn’t slide into the Reds boardroom straight out of college. After graduating from the University of Virginia and working in investment banking and venture capital, Williams joined the organization in 2006 at the age of 35. Ten years later, the Reds named him President of Baseball Operations. From the four years of October 2016 until October 2020, Williams ran the baseball side of the Cincinnati Reds. He quit a week after the team had appeared in the postseason for the first time in seven years.

As the 2023 Reds gallop to the top of the standings ahead of schedule, it’s fair to ask what credit, if any, does Williams deserve for the success. After all, it’s been (but only been) a short while since he was leading the front office.

Organization modernization

It turns out that many of the organizational changes that are producing wins today were implemented by Williams.

The new approach in Latin America that discovered Elly De La Cruz?

It started in 2018, the year De La Cruz signed with the Reds. Williams was behind it. In Goldsmith’s article, Krall himself put his finger on the timing. “About five years ago, we changed a lot of different things about what we do.” C Trent Rosecrans wrote at the time those changes were vital to Williams’ rebuild plan. Beyond De La Cruz’s home in the Dominican Republic, Williams also re-built scouting stations in Venezuela, Panama, Colombia, Mexico and Nicaragua.

Moving from three coaches to four for each affiliate?

Williams made that move his first year in charge. It was January 2017 when Zach Buchanan reported on the club’s new investment in minor-league development.

The organization’s expanded use of technology?

That began in 2019. That spring, Bobby Nightengale reported how the data revolution had arrived to Reds pitching. Prior to that, Reds players had to visit Driveline in Seattle to access that technology and instruction. In 2019, Dick Williams brought it to Goodyear. By 2020, every spring training mound had Rapsodo, Edgertronic and an intern with an iPad behind the mound to relay real-time info about each pitch.

Derek Johnson?

The audacious hiring of Johnson out from under division rival Milwaukee in 2018 was one of Williams’ most significant and long-lasting moves. Rosecrans tells the story of how Williams took a private plane for an in-person … pitch … to Johnson at Fleming’s Steakhouse in Nashville. Many at the time considered Johnson the top pitching coach in MLB. He’s modernized the Reds pitching program from rookie ball to the big leagues.

David Bell?

That October, Williams also won a tough internal fight to hire David Bell as manager. Bell had been with several up-to-date, successful organizations in a variety of jobs, and he knew the importance of and how to bring data to the players. Whatever you might think of Bell’s in-game managing, he’s overseen a profound improvement in getting helpful information to players about their performances.

And, of course, it was Williams who made the innovative move to hire Boddy.

Don’t take my word for the importance of all those moves. Hear the words of a big league player. Tejay Antone has been in the organization since being drafted in 2014. Here’s what he wrote in February 2021 about the impact of the changes implemented by Williams: “Wow, what a difference it is today. I can’t thank our front office enough for investing in the development side and being in the forefront of not only technology but having the right people in place to relay and educate us players about what the technology is saying. A lot of players are begging to be with the Reds because of our player development. I’m not sure I would have made it to the big leagues if it wasn’t for people like Eric Jagers, Kyle Boddy and many others.”

Player acquisition

You can also find Dick Williams’ fingerprints on the Reds current roster.

Williams oversaw the drafts that snagged Hunter Greene (2017), Jonathan India (2018), Nick Lodolo (2019) and Graham Ashcraft (2019). Williams signed Elly De La Cruz. Williams traded Adam Duvall for Lucas Sims in 2018. Williams signed TJ Friedl who had slipped through the 2016 draft.

Beyond direct acquisition, Williams built the value that allowed Krall to acquire much of the young player core. In 2017, Williams dealt Dan Straily for a Class-A pitcher in the Marlins organization named Luis Castillo. It wasn’t the kind of trade you would have expected from Walt Jocketty. The season before, Straily had led the Reds in pitcher wins, innings pitched and posted a sub-4 ERA. Five seasons and 137 big league starts later, Castillo brought the Reds Noelvi Marte, Edwin Arroyo, Levi Stoudt and Andrew Moore from the Mariners.

Before the 2019 season, in another lopsided trade, Williams acquired Sonny Gray from the Yankees. Williams then worked out a bold, three-year extension with Gray plus a team option. Gray pitched three years and made 68 starts for the Reds. That extension and option had created enough value to allow the Reds to trade Gray for 19-year-old pitcher Chase Petty.

Williams didn’t trade for Eugenio Suarez, Walt Jocketty did in 2015. But Williams did negotiate a below-market seven-year extension with Suarez through 2024. The team-friendly nature of that contract allowed the Reds to trade Suarez and Jesse Winker to the Marlins for Jake Fraley, Justin Dunn, Brandon Williamson and Connor Phillips.

Due credit

Dick Williams wasn’t perfect. His business background that proved valuable in a top-to-bottom overhaul of the Reds also produced a short learning curve. Like every GM, Williams missed on a few free agents. Overall though, Williams deserves credited for undertaking the huge challenge of transforming the organization from a creaky, out-of-date operation into one of the game’s most modern.

Unlike Jocketty, who saw his own role as simply the personnel manager for the big league club, Williams adopted a broader view of the PBO portfolio. He scrutinized every neglected corner of the organization with the clarity of a venture capitalist. His background in the business world gave him insight into the value more data can provide.

Williams impressed industry peers with his intelligence. He was open, candid and coherent with the media. I was part of a group of bloggers who Williams met with at GABP before a game during the 2018 season. At the time, the Reds were starved for starting pitching (sound familiar?) and you could tell Williams was frustrated. We asked if he was thinking of adding one or two starters. He replied: “How about three?” A few months later, Williams had acquired Sonny Gray, Tanner Roark and Alex Wood. Shortly after that, he dealt for Trevor Bauer, who would win the first Cy Young Award in Reds history and lead the Reds back to the postseason.

But maybe the most important quality Williams possessed was the clout with ownership to push through needed change and take the big swings. Remember, Williams flew to Japan to scout Shohei Ohtani and show the club’s interest in having him play for the Reds. Ohtani who decided to play on the west coast, has become the best player in the the game. Williams put together what he thought was a strong proposal and took his shot. Williams didn’t prevail in every battle with the Castellini family or the free agent market, but he made an enormous difference.

To be clear, I’m not saying Dick Williams deserves all the credit for the 2023 Reds or that Nick Krall is taking recognition he doesn’t deserve or that journalists are intentional in omitting Williams from their stories. The 2023 team has been so successful there’s ample praise to go around.

So, why bother to write this post? After all, Dick Williams has been gone from the Reds for almost three years. Out of sight, out of mind, so they say. It’s that way with a segment of fans. It can be that way with sportswriters. I didn’t want it to be that way here.

If Reds ownership provides the necessary support for this promising team over the next few years and the front office more often makes smart decisions rather than poor ones, the winning should continue. In that case, while we’re celebrating, let’s give folks their due credit, including Dick Williams.

Steve Mancuso

Steve Mancuso is a lifelong Reds fan who grew up during the Big Red Machine era. He’s been writing about the Reds for more than ten years. Steve’s fondest memories about the Reds include attending a couple 1975 World Series games, being at Homer Bailey’s second no-hitter and going nuts for Jay Bruce at Clinchmas. Steve was also at all three games of the 2012 NLDS, but it’s too soon to talk about that.

3 Responses

  1. Chris Miller says:

    1000% See we agree on lots of things. 🙂

  2. Brian Van Hook says:

    It just seemed like the front office couldn’t backtrack fast enough from some of what Dick Williams. Maybe it was a change of philosophy, or just the refusal to spend money to keep it up. Frustrating either way.

  3. Zirkle Blakey III says:

    I appreciate the look back at Williams’ tenure. Lots of positives…. They shouldn’t be forgotten.
    Unfortunately I think he saw the handwriting on the wall and left before the ‘turn’…..