Dear Mr. Castellini,
First, I want to express my sincere gratitude for everything you have done for the Cincinnati Reds and the city of Cincinnati. Your generosity in check writing and spirit has revitalized the franchise. You have earned the respect of Reds fans. The club’s accomplishments since 2010 have made us proud once again of our team.
You promised to bring back winning and you did. Now we’ve come to expect it. Which is the way it should be in Cincinnati.
However, the time has come for you to make important decisions about the direction of the organization. And they aren’t easy decisions. Speaking as a season ticket holder, someone who was raised in Cincinnati during the Big Red Machine era and who devotes a sizable amount of time and income to the Cincinnati Reds, I’m offering you my unsolicited advice.
It’s time to allow the general manager to start building a roster that can compete in future seasons. While many people were calling for a fire sale this past offseason, I didn’t. I was glad you gave this group of players another year. The roster was deeply flawed, but in the end, if the core players had stayed healthy, who knows what the team could have done. But the injuries to Devin Mesoraco and Homer Bailey have been body blows the team’s post-season aspirations couldn’t survive.
That said, I am not part of the “blow up this team” crowd. The organization can still be built around Joey Votto, Devin Mesoraco, Todd Frazier, Homer Bailey and the group of young pitchers that is just about major league ready. Other players, who are either at the end of their contract with the Reds or unlikely to contribute to 2017 and beyond must be aggressively shopped for trade value.
But Mr. Castellini, it is not enough just to change a few players. The Cincinnati Reds are in need of a fundamental paradigm shift on the baseball side of the organization, just as you have already accomplished on the non-baseball side. The team has fallen behind on the playing field of ideas.
At its foundation, baseball is still the same game – hitting, pitching, catching, throwing and running. It’s still two teams, three outs and nine innings.
But the understanding of what it takes to win a major league baseball game has undergone dramatic change in the past ten years. Unfortunately, your organization is operating based on principles that worked in the past but are now out of date. Evaluating hitters based on batting average began during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency and using ERA as a measure for pitchers started more than twenty years before Alan Turing invented the computer. New aging curves, the relative scarcity of hitting and the importance of getting on base are a few examples that are part of the revolution in thinking that has occurred. With the explosion of new information, the rate of change will accelerate in coming years.
You must hire a new front office, one that comprehends and endorses these new ideas — you need more than the fig leaf of a tiny analytics department. The people who make decisions must have an advanced grasp of the new information available and the right criteria to use to evaluate baseball players. Outside experts rank the Reds toward the bottom in terms of modern thinking.
In your other businesses, would you hire a Chief Technology Officer who didn’t understand cloud computing? Would you hire a Director of Marketing who was indifferent to social media?
Walt Jocketty was a great general manager 10 years ago, perhaps one of the best in the sport. But he has been unwilling or unable to adopt new thinking when it comes to managing a baseball operation. At a time when your organization is about to enter a period of profound transformation, it is difficult to imagine a person less well suited to see the Reds through the multi-year transition to modern professional baseball.
The core of a great team has existed in Cincinnati since 2010, comprised primarily of players already in the organization before Mr. Jocketty joined the Reds. For the past several years, he has been unable to make moves to take the Reds to the next level. The principle of accountability that led to Dusty Baker’s firing demands a similar fate for Mr. Jocketty.
You can judge Mr. Jocketty’s recent failure by his own words. He said numerous times during the off-season that the key was to acquire hitters with better on-base skills and with fewer strikeouts. He proceeded to put together a roster full of new position players with terrible on-base skills and who were among major league leaders in strikeouts. If any of your employees told you that Brennan Boesch could hit or Kevin Gregg and Jason Marquis were still major league caliber pitchers, you should no longer trust that person.
More alarming than Mr. Jocketty’s ineffectiveness at meeting his own stated goals is the Reds actual deficiency in these areas. Your general manager has allowed this to happen. He has let your team fall behind. On-base percentage became a competitive advantage for the Oakland Athletics five years before the invention of the iPhone. Yet it was just last winter the Cincinnati Reds seemed to discover its importance.
To be clear, this is not about an eight-game losing streak. It’s about a several-year pattern of ineffective management of the roster and inability to make trades or wise free agent signings.
Financial or other constraints are no excuse for a general manager. Every team operates with constraints of some type — whether they be financial, personnel, or ownership demands. It is the job of the general manager to think creatively and operate within those constraints to figure out moves that can improve the team.
You only have to look at our competition in the NL Central to see how baseball organizations are succeeding by adopting modern analytical approaches to the game. The St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs have been exemplary in stocking their front office leadership with people who are wholeheartedly committed to modern thinking about baseball. You see the trend toward hiring young, modern-thinking general managers throughout baseball.
But you don’t even need to look outside of Cincinnati to learn that lesson. Your own organization — the non-baseball side — proves exactly what can happen when new ideas and modern thinking are applied to running a major league baseball team. They have made coming to Great American Ball Park a wonderful, positive, family-friendly experience. It’s obvious your non-baseball staff is studying other organizations and willing to implement new ways of interacting with customers.
The contrast between the baseball and non-baseball sides of your organization could not be starker. The bottom line is this: How can you look at what has happened to the Reds the past few years and be satisfied with the way the team has been managed?
Even though time is short before crucial trades have to be made, you can’t replace Walt Jocketty with another old-school general manager and expect change. Attack this problem like you did with hosting the All-Star game. You led an assault on Minnesota last summer. You and your staff absorbed all the lessons. Your ticket office already copies the best practices of other organizations. Take a hard look at what has worked on the baseball side in Chicago, Pittsburgh and St. Louis.
Take the time to hire a young assistant general manager from one of the growing number of organizations who operate with modern principles. Then turn the baseball side of your operation over to that person.
You don’t have to worry about the fans. We will continue to support the team, just as fans have in other cities. We understand change. We see it all around in other organizations. Sure, we love our veterans, but we also love exciting new young players. Look at how Cubs fans have reacted to Kris Bryant. The two times this year when I went out of my way to attend a game at GABP were the debuts of Michael Lorenzen and Raisel Iglesias. You can market new players.
But to help bring the fans along, you also need to change the voice of the organization. The radio and television broadcasters — who work for you — must also understand and accept the changes in the game. They can help explain it to the fans. How can fans understand the critical role that on-base percentage plays when the voice of your organization never discusses that concept? Communication plays a vital role in a successful paradigm shift.
Other organizations include modern player statistics in their graphics. Their announcers introduce new concepts of how to think about baseball to their fans. In contrast, your announcers resist modernization with all their might. (Chris Welsh and Jeff Brantley are notable exceptions.)
I know that’s a lot — new players, a new general manager and a couple new broadcasters. But other organizations, ones without the head start yours has, have done it and come out the other side stronger and poised for a brighter future.
Start the process now. When the world arrives for the All-Star game, it’s more important that the Reds have taken steps to prove they are moving in the right direction than it is to have a few players in a Reds uniform for that one game. Being stuck and floundering in an outmoded paradigm is far more embarrassing than seeing Aroldis Chapman for fifteen minutes in a Red Sox uniform.
These decisions you face offer a profound opportunity to shape a positive legacy as owner of the Cincinnati Reds. You can take a historical franchise and move it forward. You would be the person who cemented the Reds as perennial contenders for championships. You’ve already done the hard part with your financial investment. Now you have to make your investment more productive.
People I’ve talked to who know you say that you are a fiercely loyal person. Some have suggested you’ve resisted trading players or allowing them to leave as free agents because of this quality. Right now, you have an opportunity to turn that sense of loyalty — loyalty to the Cincinnati Reds organization — into a powerful asset. It can steel your determination to make the hard decisions that will set the club on the right path.