Tuesday, November 09, 2004

When H.R. Stalls You Out:
Dave Dombrowski Dredges Detroit Development  

Earlier this week, Dave Dombrowski, the interesting general manager of the Detroit Tigers, juggled his scouting operation, sending his scouting chief, Greg Smith, to a new position looking over talent in areas the team hasn't really mined before (Japan, Korea, Australia), and bringing in a couple of outside contributors who have had good results to take his place. Smith had been a holdover from the previous regime. When Dombrowski took over before the '02 season, he kept Smith on.

Smith's drafts, especially in the high-impact early rounds, had yielded very low results, according to this Detroit News piece. So while the team showed a little life this year, it was at a high cost with the addition of free agents such as Ivan Rodríguez, and the core difference-makers were those free agents or veterans acquired in trades. While a team can be successful reaping the benefits of players other teams drafted, it's a relatively expensive and difficult-to-sustain model. Teams with budgets need to develop their own contributors, an important lesson for non-baseball organizations.

But the key lesson is that in an endeavor where the talent is the product, you can only be as good as the talent you recruit. If a team's scouting department isn't effective, if your organization's H.R. department is not finding (or allowing through) the best, you can never be better than mediocre.


According to this story (courtesy Baseball Primer):

There were a lot of reasons why Smith was demoted last week and why two sharpies who had been working for the Red Sox — and earlier, for the Florida Marlins — are now in charge of straightening out a historically awful Tigers farm system.

But these two names stood as big reasons why Smith was exiled: Scott Moore and Brent Clevlen.

They were the first players the Tigers drafted in 2002, Dave Dombrowski’s inaugural draft as president and general manager. Detroit had the first round’s eighth pick and took Moore, a high school infielder. Clevlen, a high school outfielder, was the team’s second-round choice.

Here are their numbers from 2004 at Class A Lakeland: Moore played 118 games, had 391 at-bats, and hit .223 with a .322 on-base average and .384 slugging percentage. He hit 14 home runs, had 56 RBI and struck out a whopping 125 times. Clevlen was almost Moore’s equal: 117 games, 420 at-bats, .224 batting average, .300 on-base percentage (gasp) and a .350 slugging percentage. He had six home runs, 50 RBI and struck out a sickly 127 times.

Ouch. Dombrowski always has believed that, when drafting early in the first round, you need to not only grab a certified big-leaguer, you better select a future All-Star.


Thumb back through the Tigers’ drafts since 1979 and you are left in disbelief. Only rarely did anyone make it to the big leagues; all too often, players who should have been in Detroit ended up with other clubs.

Meanwhile, other clubs — Minnesota, Cleveland, Montreal, you name it — drafted and developed talent that always seemed to elude the Tigers’ appraisers.

The ugly stuff had to end. Dombrowski might have waited too long, for whatever reasons, to make changes. But this situation had to be altered radically, and immediately, if the Tigers hope to become anything other than a perennial insult in the years ahead.

Was Smith solely to blame? Perhaps, perhaps not. The story also notes:

Some of us had refrained from openly questioning his tenure, which began under Randy Smith in 1996, because you can’t always be sure who is doing the selling when a player is selected. There are national scouts, regional scouts, cross-checking scouts, and front-office bosses who all have their input. Attempting to discern who most promoted whom can be risky business.

Randy Smith was not only the man who pulled the trigger on draft day during his six years as general manager in Detroit, he did a great deal of the final-stages scouting. Dombrowski does less on-site evaluation and leans on heavier input from trusted scouts.

The key word there is “trusted.” And the suspicion — confirmed, it would appear, by last week’s decision — is that Greg Smith had too much to say about too many draft picks who annually washed out of the Tigers’ anemic farm system these past eight years.

Some of us likewise wondered if Mike Ilitch, the Tigers’ owner, would decide at some point — in conjunction with Dombrowski — to throw more money at their scouting system after so many years of abject failure. As much as money might help remedy an embarrassing legacy of bad judgment, scouts with greater wisdom plainly had to be a bigger part of the Tigers’ reformation. It looks as if Ilitch and Dombrowski made their move last week in shuffling Smith and replacing him with David Chadd, a respected Red Sox scouting director who worked with Dombrowski in Florida, and James Orr (Red Sox and Marlins pedigree, as well), who becomes assistant scouting director.

Dombrowski, on arriving, didn't bring in his own scouting people, but stayed the course with the old. As managers, when we start in a new organization, we generally focus on areas we know best or are confident are areas in which we have the highest impact. Dombrowski is not a scouting guy, though he came from a pair of organizations (the Marlins and the Expos) with histories of good scouting.

He might have not made it a priority because he didn't know a lot about scouting himself. He might have not made change there a priority because he might have taken it for granted (¿have you ever worked in an organization where something straightforward like the shipping/receiving or A/R group just didn't work; remember how surprised you were because you had always taken their efficacy for granted?). Or he might have just been passive. Any one of these three are a potential weakness you should be alter to when you start a new job. The first reason, delegating or deferring decisions in areas outside your expertise, is the least damaging. The other two can be fatal.

MBWT (Management By Wishful Thinking) is one of the most pervasive forces sapping managerial effectiveness. Passivity is an enemy of effective management. That's not to say you have to be tweaking every aspect, process, job description, piece of equipment, marketing plan all the time. But you do have to address known limits to your group's effectiveness.

Dombrowski couldn't wait any longer to take a chance on something new in a vital area. Can you?

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