Exclusive Q&A with Mariners GM Justin Hollander
Justin Hollander wanted nothing more in 2022 than for the Mariners to end their 21-year postseason drought, so seeing Seattle earn an American League Wild Card berth was a satisfying end to the regular season.
On the final weekend of the season, Hollander – who manager Scott Servais called “the glue guy” of the Mariners’ front office -- was promoted from assistant general manager to general manager and executive vice president. Working with president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto, Hollander will continue as an integral part of the Mariners’ front office as the club seeks its first World Series title.
MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand sat down with Hollander last season to discuss his years with the Angels, what it’s like working with Dipoto at the Trade Deadline and much more in the latest edition of Executive Access.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
MLB.com: You grew up in Dayton, Ohio. Who was your favorite team as a kid?
Hollander: I may get by some bad looks from people in Dayton, Ohio, but I actually grew up an Oakland A's fan. They were kind of the “it” team, with Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Rickey Henderson, Dave Stewart and Bob Welch. That was my favorite team growing up, then probably the Braves because of the Superstation. Dale Murphy was my favorite player of all time, and I would get to watch him every day. Baseball didn't exist nationally like it does now; you could watch Cubs games or Braves games. I would come home from school and watch the Cubs, then I would watch the Braves game at 7:05 on TBS.
MLB.com: Did you know at an early age that you wanted to work in baseball?
Hollander: I had a very good feel early on that I wasn't going to play in the big leagues; when they stick you in right field in Little League, it’s not a great sign. I used to tape “Diamond Notes” – Peter Gammons’ segment on SportsCenter – and re-watch it over and over again. In 1987 or 1988 Spring Training, he did a story on the Sandy Alderson A’s and how they're the thinking-person's team that had this lawyer running baseball operations for them. They interviewed Sandy about the value of getting on base and I thought, “Oh, this is a job that people have that I could have one day.” From then on, I was determined that this is the job I want. I want to run a baseball team.
MLB.com: You attended Ohio State University, getting your degree in business administration and marketing. After getting your law degree from the University of San Diego in 2004, you landed your first job in baseball. What was it?
Hollander: I was looking for some way to kill time while I was studying for the bar exam, so after I graduated law school, I sat in a press box in San Diego as a data stringer for MLB [Advanced Media]. For the next several years while I was working as a lawyer, every firm I worked for, I was very clear that on nights that I work, I have to leave at 5:30 to get to the stadium. If there's something going on that I need to come back for, I'll come back postgame, but this is a priority for me.
That was one of the best decisions I've ever made because I met so many people in press boxes, introducing myself to writers and scouts and people in front offices that happen to come through. It was about swallowing my pride, not being shy and telling them this is what I wanted to do. It was a great way to network and meet people.
MLB.com: You began your front-office career with the Angels in January 2008 as a player development and scouting assistant. What did you learn most in that first job?
Hollander: They told me I was going to be the guy who was going to do the dirty work. I was the only baseball ops assistant, so I handed out Minor League meal money, did the advanced scouting reports on the data side, ran every errand – and I couldn’t have been more excited about it. I was leaving a semi-lucrative profession to basically start over in a minimum-wage job and I couldn’t wait.
There was a sharp learning curve. The way you talk about players; not fast and loose, not hot-takey, not deciding before you’ve ever seen someone whether they were good or bad. I think about some of the opinions I had when I walked in the door about who was good and who was bad, and I'm embarrassed. I was really lucky to have great directors who really did take an interest in me and pushed me to stretch my wings.
MLB.com: In November 2011, you were promoted to director of baseball ops, a role you held until you were promoted to director of player personnel in 2016. Did the latter interest you more?
Hollander: That promotion corresponded with Jerry [Dipoto] coming in as the general manager and hiring Scott Servais and Matt Klentak as our AGMs. They had very different skill sets, so I learned a lot from both of them at the same time. Scott had been a farm director for a long time, so I learned a lot about on-field development, staff-building and things of that nature from Scott. Matt had been with the league office and the Orioles, and there's probably not a better administrative eye and mind that I can think of in baseball.
To sit next to Matt and watch him handle rules administration, handle roster construction, you just learn a lot. Matt always described the director of baseball ops role as something akin to, “All the other directors are up high on a ladder; when something falls, catch it.” As we got to know each other and understand how the front office fit together, it was very clear my niche was in player personnel. Making trade suggestions, making waiver claim suggestions, Minor League free agency, contract extensions, who might be available on another team, building prospect lists.
MLB.com: After your nine years with the Angels, Jerry – who was now the Mariners GM – hired you in September 2016 as director of baseball operations. What have you learned most working with Jerry?
Hollander: I would say it's making sure that you've done the work. Like don't just assume that a player is A or B; go look, go see what he actually is, go see what he’s actually done before you hot-take an opinion. There are no quick, snap judgments with Jerry, and that is something that has really helped me over time. I take a deep breath and make sure that, before I say something, I have actually looked, taken the time to understand all the viewpoints about the player whether it's the performance history or the scouting take. That is something that I've really taken to heart over the years.
MLB.com: Jerry made 39 trades in his first 17 months as Mariners GM, a number that has only grown larger. Are you ever surprised by an idea he has?
Hollander: No. We work really well together in that way; both of us trust each other enough that I can say, “I don't think that's a good idea,” or he can tell me, “I don't think your idea is a good idea.” And we're just as likely to come back like five minutes later with an offshoot like, “I know you didn’t like that, but what about this?” Some of the “Trader Jerry” stuff gets overblown. We weren't making trades to make trades; we were making trades because we were trying to marginally improve the roster a little bit at a time.
When we started to rebuild in 2018, that necessitates you make trades. You have good players and you're starting over, so holding the players at that point doesn't make a lot of sense. We have sort of leveled off on the trading frenzy over the last couple years. My wife is not always thrilled when my phone rings during a family event, because she knows I'm going to step out and it could be for two minutes or it could be for two hours. But I’m not really ever surprised because I do think that all of us constantly are looking to make the organization better.
MLB.com: What is your favorite part of your job?
Hollander: This will sound really cliché and I apologize, but it’s the people that I get to work with every day. We have so much fun together. Anyone who's worked in baseball operations knows that you spend more time with the people that you work with every day than anyone else, including my wife and my kids. If you don't get along with people, I would imagine it would be a really hard thing to deal with.
This group that we're with now is among my favorite groups that I've ever worked with. They're good people, they care; we work hard and we have fun together. Everybody is engaged in trying to make the Mariners better and to help us get over the hump. I really do think of them as my best friends; I think I would miss it so much – more than the game itself – if I didn't get to work with these people every day.
MLB.com: Least favorite?
Hollander: The schedule. Me feeling guilty, missing things at home, not being as good a dad as I want to be, not being as good a husband as I want to be, putting my wife in bad spots when there's a family event that she knows I'm not going to be able to go to or if I am, I'm going to be on my phone the whole time.
My son's birthday is July 29, so every year I'm like, “OK, let's blow out the candles. Jerry's going to call.” It’s every wedding, Bar Mitzvah, party and college-friend trip that you miss when you do this job. Those are really hard, and our families and friends put up with a ton because the schedule never stops. It's 365 days a year.
MLB.com: Putting aside the fact that your son's birthday is July 29, what is the Trade Deadline like for you?
Hollander: I try to downplay the “Trader Jerry” thing, but I do work for Jerry, so I've never had a dull one. For whatever reason, my office has become the hub where people just come in, plop down on the couch or in a chair and we just start brainstorming ideas. Those discussions are always really fun. It’s kind of why we all do the job – for the action. To see if we can find a way to make the team better, make a big deal close and do something interesting for the organization.
It’s stressful because you want to make good decisions in the short and long term, but there is really nothing better than being in a pennant race and figuring out, “How can we get this guy? What can we do to get that guy? Can we get a third team involved?” Jerry's great; there are really no bad ideas. He lets every idea play itself out. It is really rewarding at the end, when you get through it and you've done something big. Each Deadline is totally different, because the teams are always totally different.
MLB.com: We know business can often be about relationships. How crucial is it to have strong relationships with both agents and rival executives alike?
Hollander: I think it's incredibly important. Ultimately, those negotiations – whether they're trade negotiations or free-agent negotiations – are sort of a test of trust. If they don't believe a word you're saying, if you have a history of not doing the right thing, then it's really hard to get through those barriers. They just won’t believe you and it's very hard to make progress.
I'd like to think I have a really good relationship with the other front offices that I deal with and also with the agents just by telling them the truth. If nothing else, I can tell you the truth and if you do it over and over and over again, they'll believe you and you'll probably have a really productive relationship. Sometimes telling the truth means you can say yes and sometimes telling the truth means you can say no, but if you tell the truth over and over and over again, I think it does go a long way.
MLB.com: Seattle has never won a World Series. What would it mean to the city to win it all?
Hollander: Seattle is an unbelievable sports town. There are a lot of things about Seattle that are unbelievable, but they love sports. They care about their teams. When you give them a reason, they show up and they're loud. It’s like a college football-like environment. If it happens, I think the entire postseason run would be like a college-football-rivalry weekend for a month straight. It would be a whole new level of fandom.
I think we would change a whole generation of baseball fans by doing that, because you can't not have fun in that sort of environment, you can't not fall in love with the players who make you feel that happy. I think it would change baseball and change the sports dynamic in the city for probably a generation.