Mike Rizzo dreamed of a long, successful career in the Major Leagues, but after a three-year stint in the Minors, it wasn't meant to be. The next best thing? A long, successful career as a Major League executive, one he achieved after years of grinding his way through the scouting ranks on his way to his current job of general manager and president of baseball operations for the Washington Nationals.
Rizzo's father, Phil, was a longtime scout and was an inaugural member of the Professional Baseball Scouts Hall of Fame, so it's not surprising that scouting is in his blood. He embraces analytics, but Rizzo believes scouting is as important as it ever has been in the game. Under Mike Rizzo's watch, the Nationals have morphed from a 100-loss team into a National League power, winning the NL East title three times in the past five seasons.
:: General manager Q&As ::
MLB.com recently had a chance to sit down with Rizzo in his office overlooking the field at the brand-new Ballpark of the Palm Beaches to discuss his father's influence on him, his controversial decision to shut down Stephen Strasburg in 2012, the scouting vs. analytics argument and what he expects from the Nationals during the season ahead.
MLB.com: You were the 554th pick in the 1982 Draft, playing three seasons in the Angels' Minor League system before being released. What made you decide so quickly that your future wasn't as a player?
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Rizzo: They often make that decision for you. That's what happened in my case. My dad, he's been in baseball for a long time. We had a decision when I got released -- I had an opportunity to play for another couple Minor League teams. We kind of sat down and my dad said, "Really, you're tool-wise not really capable of being a big-league player. Instead of being a lifetime Minor Leaguer, then get out of professional baseball and you have nothing to show for it and you've got to go get a job, you're an intelligent college grad and you can do some other things in the game that you love." At that point, I decided to go in a different direction, and I was lucky enough to get a coaching job at University of Illinois, finished my degree there and then began my scouting career after that.
MLB.com: After your coaching career at Illinois, how did you land your first pro job?
Rizzo: Again, I was very fortunate. I played my years for the California Angels in the Minor League system. The scouting director at the time was Larry Himes. Larry coincidentally got the job as the general manager for the Chicago White Sox the year that I was released. I coached for a year and a half at University of Illinois, and when he got that job, he called me. He thought from my playing days together that he liked my baseball acumen, my attitude and energy, that type of thing, and offered me a job as an area scout.
MLB.com: This job is obviously a lot more than just scouting, but how does that scouting background help you in the GM chair?
PODCAST: Listen to the full interview
Rizzo: I'm confident when I see what I see. I know when I look at a player, I have a confidence about that. I know that player. The background of having a Rolodex of players in my mind to compare current players to is invaluable. I was an area scout for 12 years, I was a cross-checker, I was a scouting director, I ran a farm system and I was an assistant GM, so I've done advance scouting, pro scouting. I've done most jobs on the baseball end of it, and I think that not only gives me a good foothold on seeing players and evaluating players, but I also know how to manage the people in these jobs because I've felt their pain. I've gone through what they're doing, the trials and tribulations of being a scouting director, a farm director, that type of thing. I think that it gives me credibility in their minds knowing that I've done what they do and appreciate what they do. I think that it gives me kind of an added perspective of how things should work.
MLB.com: You started the 2009 season as the interim GM here after Jim Bowden's resignation. The Nationals were 43-78 when you were made the full-time GM that August. Were you surprised at all by the timing?
Rizzo: No. That Spring Training, the '09 Spring Training, I was kind of doing a lot of the duties that a general manager would do. Stan Kasten and I were in lockstep with that. I thought I had prepared myself for this job my whole scouting career, I was always trying to be thinking as a GM would think. When I was named interim GM, I knew I had a great opportunity to put my fingerprints on the roster and try and change things for the better, bring some respectability and a winning culture to the franchise.
MLB.com: A 93-loss season followed in 2010 -- after which you received a five-year extension and a promotion to executive VP of baseball operations. In a game where results matter, how encouraging was it to know the organization had that much trust and faith in you?
Rizzo: They've always supported me greatly. What they saw was our franchise going in the right direction. We had developed a plan, we had developed a strategy and a timeline to get to our goals, and they saw that the implementation and the process that we used was solid and it was working. In that situation, you have a great executive in Stan Kasten recognizing -- and ownership recognizing -- that we had a good thing going. This was just the start of it.
MLB.com: Your decision to shut down Stephen Strasburg at the end of 2012 obviously received plenty of attention. Did you ever second-guess yourself after that whole process?
Video: Rizzo on his decision to shut down Strasburg in 2012
Rizzo: You know, I never did. I was so comfortable with it. Knowing Stras the way I did, knowing the situation the way I knew it, knowing the health and the risks and everything he went through, I felt it was the right thing to do. I was committed to it, I was passionate about it, I had the support of ownership and of the manager at the time. Believe me, we had a manager at the time in Davey [Johnson] that if he didn't agree with it, it would have been well-known that he didn't agree with it. I was surprised by all the attention that it got, but I also was prepared that there was going to be some negativity attached to it. Like I said, I sleep like a baby with that decision.
MLB.com: Do you think scouting has become less important league-wide, or do you just think the importance of analytics has caught up to the importance of scouting?
Video: Rizzo discusses Nationals' use of analytics
Rizzo: I think it's all a package. You have to have analytics, you have to have eyeballs on the player. I've learned things from the analytics that you can't see on the field, but I also see things on the field that you can't analyze. It goes hand in hand. You have to be in lockstep or you're going to be left behind. We have a cutting-edge, experienced scouting staff here, but we've got Ivy Leaguers crunching the numbers and giving us their ideas on how to better this team. The teams that mesh those two things together comfortably are teams that are going to be most successful.
MLB.com: MLB's Statcast™ has made some of these metrics more publicly available to fans. Do you think that's good for the game for fans to have access to some of these things?
Rizzo: I think it's great for the fans. Knowledge is power. It makes everybody a pseudo general manager. Opinions are great. Conversations and discussing the game only improves the game. If these publicly accessible analytics help do that, then I'm all for it.
MLB.com: With the season a few weeks away, what would you say right now is your team's biggest strength and biggest question mark?
Rizzo: We're a team that's been built since 2012, we've won a lot of games by pitching great, playing great defense, being very athletic. I think that's our strength, still. We've got ourselves a really good, talented rotation. We've got ourselves a hard-throwing, reliable bullpen. We've got ourselves athletic, talented, efficient position players. I think that kind of solidifies where we're at as a team this year. We're always looking to tweak and improve, but I think the team that you see here is a very talented team that we've painstakingly kind of reassembled over the last couple of years.
MLB.com: What stands out to you most about Trea Turner as a player?
Rizzo: To me, there's a lot of players that have come along that can run like him. Most of those players are really fast runners that are learning to play baseball. Trea Turner is a baseball player -- he knows the game, great baseball IQ -- that happens to be able to fly. That is what, to me, is the most gratifying part of getting him in a trade. We got ourselves a baseball player, one. Beyond that, a baseball player with this special tool of speed, also the tool of bat and arm and glove and intangibles. He really knows his game and there's a bright future for the kid.
MLB.com: You obviously liked Daniel Murphy enough to sign him last year. Could you ever have expected the kind of year he put up for you last year?
Rizzo: The final statistics, no. But he came as advertised to me. He's a guy that, I've said it all offseason, it was a remarkable season for Murphy and one aspect for me, I did not see him give up one at-bat all season. It did not matter the score, time of night, what inning it was, how many games he'd played in a row. He never gave up an at-bat. To me, that tells me everything I need to know about Daniel Murphy.
MLB.com: What has been your best moment as GM here?
Rizzo: I think getting the champagne poured on me in 2012 when we made the playoffs for the first time was probably the highlight of it. I love the day-to-day grind -- that's the best part of this job. You come into the office and they're long days and they're grueling days and it's a grinding season, but it's baseball every day.
MLB.com: Washington has always been considered a football town first. But you've had success in recent years while the Redskins have been up and down. Do you think D.C. can ever become a baseball town first?
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Rizzo: I think it's a baseball town now. It may share the stage with the other sports, but it's a baseball town. Game 5 last year against the Dodgers, it was the loudest I've ever been a party to -- and I was at Game 7 of Yankees-Diamondbacks. The place was rocking and rolling. I see the neighborhood around the ballpark is really thriving. I see the city wrapping their arms around us and us, during baseball season, really becoming a baseball town. I'll tell you what, there are some rabid fans out there that know the game and that are really into the Nationals.
MLB.com: The old cliché is that the season isn't a success unless you're the last team standing. Do you subscribe to that theory?
Rizzo: Yes, I do. I do. We've had several good seasons, but we just haven't had the ultimate season, yet. I also adhere to the philosophy that there's only one team happy at the end of the season, so 29 are unhappy. We strive to be that team. Our goal is to have a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue after the season, and we won't rest until we get there.
Mark Feinsand is an executive reporter for MLB.com.