Q&A: Daniels displays business expertise as young, successful MLB general manager
December 16, 2016
After becoming baseball’s youngest ever general manager at age 28, Jon Daniels was just getting started. The Texas Rangers executive, now in his 11th year at the position, has been at the helm for the most successful stretch in Rangers’ history, including back-to-back American League championships in 2010 and 2011.
With a free agent class that looks to be as volatile as ever, Daniels and his staff are beginning to get geared up for the 2017 season following their first round exit at the hands of the Toronto Blue Jays two months ago.
What is the biggest aspect of business you learned from Cornell/early business days that helped you to the position you are today?
More than any class, or any single experience like early jobs, it was just kind of the people I was around. You hear the phrase ‘right place, right time’ used as far as getting an opportunity and making the most of it, but I think it’s really about the right people. I was fortunate to be around a lot of the right people growing up, whether it’s my family, or different teachers or friends, the circle of people that I was around in college and in early jobs, I learned a lot of things from. Probably more than anything, just the value of relationships, the value of unique people in your life, that’s probably the single biggest thing that’s shaped me.
So would you say your ability to make it up through the Rangers’ organization so quickly was due to not only the circumstances of the organization at the time, but just the connections you had and the people that shaped you?
I think so. It was a genuine curiosity and desire to learn, a willingness to ask a lot of questions and be open to knowing what I didn’t know. That was a big thing. But all those things and the circumstances of the organization played into it.
From the start of your career in baseball until now, what would you say is the biggest thing that has changed in the last 15 years?
The two biggest things that have changed are technology and just the economics. The sheer scale of the dollars spent both at player level [with] big league contracts, internationally and operations, we have a much bigger staff that cover a lot of different things. With the revenue increase, everything is bigger. There’s a bigger scale, bigger consequences for bad decisions, the economics of the game have changed dramatically. The other piece is technology, both on the business side, but especially on how we measure the game, what attributes we value in the game, in players, and on the medical side, with medical technology, certain injuries [and] surgeries were a death sentence at one point, but now guys back bounce from. The economics and technology are broad areas, but have changed over a period of time.
You mentioned the attributes of players that you value. As far as high school guys in the draft, especially pitchers, what would you say is the attribute you value the most?
How easily they do it, whatever it is they do, whether they’re more of a stuff guy, a velocity guy, a breaking ball, just how easily they do it versus how hard do they have to work to reach back for whatever it is that they’re having success with. The guys that do it easier, as they grow, as their bodies mature, it’s going to help them. The guys that it’s harder for them, they have to work harder, there’s less upside projection [for] their ability to learn, add a pitch later on. The guys that it comes easier for at a younger age, it generally bodes well for their ability to get better as they go on.
With technology changing the way you look at these players, do you think the eye test is still a valuable tool for these young guys that you are evaluating?
I do. When you talk about the eye test, there are different ways to look at that. You can certainly measure a number of things with technology, with data, but it lacks the context that a personal relationship [gives]. When you go in and have history with a young man, or you know what’s going on with his life, his family, his work ethic, his aptitude, his intelligence, those are a lot of separators that it’s hard to factor in when you only use technology.
When you’re looking at these 18 or 19 year olds, what would you say is an indicator of someone who will be able to develop their game more than others?
There’s certain things that you look at, almost like an NFL combine standpoint, to have some physical measures, but then you always want to know do you you expect there to be more physical growth, are they mature physically, how athletic are they, what does their family look like, how do they do in other sports, and all the other separators that we just touched on. Aptitude, intelligence, desire, how much they love the game, how much they want to play, there’s probably no bigger indicator than that.
A lot of times in the high school game, you have these star pitchers and they pitch them until they have thrown well over 100 pitches. At what point do you think the best interest of the kid’s future should be placed over the best interest of the team at the time?
Some of it depends on the kid’s long-term goals. We need to protect kids in general. That being said, a young that wants to play in college, or a chance to play professionally, there’s some different factors there than a guy who’s not going to play again after his senior year. I don’t want to take risks with any kid, but I would argue that there’s less at stake if their athletic career is coming to an end soon. But I’d almost put the kid’s long-term interest over the short-term at an amatuer level.
It seems like year after year we always continue to see the Nomar Mazara, the Joey Gallo, just somebody pop up as seemingly the next big guy for the Texas Rangers. How do you keep your farm system always stocked? Is it mostly on drafting well, or picking up these guys through trades?
It’s a mix. You need to find a way to access players at all times. You can never have enough depth, never have enough options. Our success has been a mix between trades, free agents, and the draft, I think it’s really important that you continue that you continue to access players from all three.
As a kid, did you play any other sports?
I played intramural basketball.
Was baseball your favorite sport growing up, or was it basketball?
It was pretty close between the two, but probably baseball. I just played basketball because it was so easy to do.
Did you ever consider a career in the management side of basketball?
No, in college I considered football, because of the nature of the salary cap and how those things play out.