In Part 1 of MLB.com's two-part Q&A with Thad Levine, the Twins' senior vice president and general manager looked at the state of the franchise and what he's expecting in 2017 and beyond.
Levine also spoke about a number of other things during the wide-ranging interview, including his childhood friend Paul DePodesta, his take on analytics, the keys to turning around a struggling franchise and how a trio of retired players could play a major role in that process. That, and more, is included in Part 2 below.
MLB.com: You and your father bonded over the Orioles when you were a kid, and I read that he used to send you several trade ideas each week while you were in Texas. What's his initial take on the Twins so far?
Levine: This has basically been our career, the two of us. When I was a kid, he took myself, my sister and my mom to baseball games in what was Memorial (Stadium) at the time. It was a tremendously great bonding experience. It was an hour-and-a-half drive each way from Virginia to Baltimore and we'd watch the game together; a lot of bonding took place during that time.
As I've gotten through my career, this has really been my time to give back to him. As much as he took me to games when I was a kid, I get to take him to games now that he's a little bit older. I'm guessing he put up with a ton of my questions when I was younger watching Orioles games, so I now put up with all of his questions -- some of which, I will say, are self-serving, as he is a very avid fantasy baseball player. Some of his trade proposals, I think, may benefit his own team equally to the Twins.
He's excited about the Twins. He's excited about the young players on the Twins. You may not be surprised to hear the lion's share of his roster are Rangers right now, so I think he's in the trade market, seeing if there's a way to acquire maybe a Buxton or a Dozier to be named later in return for an existing Ranger.
:: General manager Q&As ::
MLB.com: Paul DePodesta was a youth soccer teammate of yours as a kid. … Paul has been with the Cleveland Browns now for a little more than a year as the chief strategy officer. Do you think this could become a trend in the future -- where executives from one sport jump to another -- or do you think he is a unique case?
Levine: I don't think it's a unique case. I think it's something that baseball as a whole probably should be a little more open-minded to. I think two fallacies we have is: 1) the concept that the supply-and-demand curve is so favorable to the employer in baseball that we could literally have 100 people lined up outside the door for any one job. In practice, people are at a competitive advantage, and so you need to treat them as more valued people in your organization than just that.
2) I think we feel as if there's something endemic to our sport where you have to only fish off the pier of people who have worked in baseball before at the director-or-above level. I think teams are going to start looking outside of our industry to try to draw people in who have been successful in other walks of life. So I would surely think other industries may look to baseball to some of the people who have been more successful to try to drive their franchises in various industries.
MLB.com: Jon (Daniels) was the youngest GM in the league when he got hired. You worked with him for a long time; he's been there for over a decade. What did you learn most working under Jon?
Levine: That your boss can be your best friend, probably. The environment he created was so ripe for sound decision-making because he had a unique ability to synthesize recommendations from a vast number of people but never hold anyone supremely accountable for the recommendations they made. He and I talked openly about, sometimes we're wont in the game to talk about, "Well, this decision is a no-brainer." I think what we learned very early in our careers when we made some colossal mistakes on the backdrop of "this" being a no-brainer is it's never a no-brainer, because that implies the other guy is an idiot. Nobody else in the industry is an idiot, so if it's a no-brainer we're missing something because we may be the ones who are the idiots.
I think he did an excellent job of getting a lot of information from people and then distilling it down and making consistently sound judgements. Furthermore, he just created this exceptional environment where we were all collegial, we were all friends, but we all pushed one another to excel and held each other to a very high standard of accountability. I think I really learned working for him that, in sports, we're all very knowledgeable about the concept of chemistry in a clubhouse or locker room, but we never talk about that with regards to the decision-making unit. Jon Daniels cornered the market on high-end chemistry among the decision-making unit. As a result, we didn't make all perfect decisions by any stretch; we had our fair share of mistakes. But we made more good decisions than bad, and I think it stemmed from the chemistry that he created amongst his inner circle.
MLB.com: You have said you're "more of a centrist than a leftist or rightist" when it comes to analytics vs. scouting. There are some that believe sabermetrics have become more important than scouting; there are some who believe the opposite. Do you think scouting has become less important league-wide than it used to be, or do you think analytics have simply just caught up to scouting in terms of importance?
Levine: I think when we refer to scouting now, maybe it means something different than it did 15 to 20 years ago when we really were referring to a gentleman in a straw hat sitting with a gun in his hand, a pad of paper, a pen and a stopwatch. I think now, we ask so much more out of our scouts. I think, as you see oftentimes in industries, that that the pendulum has swung so vastly in the other way where everyone now is talking about analytics.
I think there are a few teams who have reduced decision-making by and large to formulas, but I think what you're seeing more universally across the game -- and this is why I refer to myself as a centrist -- that analytics are a piece of the puzzle, which maybe 15 years ago it wasn't. Or if it was, it was a minute piece and it's now more of a prominent piece. But it's nothing more than that. I think the teams that are really excelling right now are still incorporating analytics in addition to all the scouting, in addition to all the health and nutrition and sleep studies, every sort of advanced peak performance metric you can factor into decisions. It's just lending itself to a lot more sound decision-making.
• PODCAST: Listen to the full interview
MLB.com: MLB's Statcast™ has introduced some of these metrics to the baseball world -- the fans' world -- in the last couple years. Do you think that's good for the game that fans are taking -- at least some fans -- are really getting into the analytic side of things and looking at the game through a different lens than they used to?
Levine: Absolutely. Any time you can capture the interest of a new sect of fans, it's helpful to the game. They've done so much to try to make the interest level to the next generation of fans, and I think that is appealing at that level. I think we should continue to do more of that, but I think it's been a great effort. The sport as a whole has been known to be a little bit behind some of the other sports in being progressive, and I think this is an effort that they made to be progressive and I think they're getting rewarded by fan interest. Hopefully that will stimulate more to move forward.
MLB.com: You guys come in and the two of you -- and everybody working with you -- says, "We're going to put our fingerprints on this and we're going to mold this team the way we want," but at the same time, you inherit a roster of players, you inherit a farm system. How much time does it take to turn the team over into the vision you have? How long do you think that process takes?
Levine: It's an excellent question, because you think you know a franchise based upon reading copious scouting reports and watching video and watching games. But in practice, until you get around the individuals that represent the heartbeat of the franchise -- both in the front office, player development and scouting and then, ultimately, the players -- you don't really know that organization. That probably was one of the biggest challenges Derek (Falvey) and I had.
In our previous roles, we were kind of embedded with the team, so we had a little bit more institutional knowledge there. So that's been the biggest transition; walking into a place where not only do I not know where the copy machine is, but I also don't know what makes Jorge Polanco tick. So that's been really our focus. The good news from our perspective is that (owner) Jim Pohlad from the outset effectively gave us the refrain of, "Don't make the right decision that's present right now; make the right decision." So this has not been done against the backdrop of artificial urgency, which I think can cloud decision-making processes and harry you to an end which is not productive.
So we've been able to really take our time. His philosophy on being patient, married up with the fact that by the time Derek and I actually got these positions, it was kind of past the hiring process for other teams, so we were going to need to wait a year, anyway, which is perfect. That allows us to evaluate all of our systems, technology, people and try to do our best to augment them and put them in the right positions as we're trying to kind of redefine the Minnesota Twins way.
MLB.com: You guys brought in former Twins Torii Hunter, LaTroy Hawkins and Michael Cuddyer as special assistants this winter, joining other ex-Twins such as Rod Carew, Tony Oliva, Bert Blyleven, Jack Morris and Kent Hrbek. What role will they play? Why was it important to have such names from the franchise's history involved in that way?
Levine: We're trying to convince those guys to keep playing, but they seem reluctant.
MLB.com: LaTroy might.
Levine: They look good, but they're reluctant. It was born out of past experiences that Derek and I had. Derek with John McDonald, I think primarily, and Jason Giambi in Cleveland, and my experiences with Michael Young and Darren Oliver, to name a few in Texas. I think one area where people who have less of a playing background can really be shortsighted is the benefits of having someone with a playing background as a counsel.
First and foremost, those three guys are going to be as involved in as much of our decision-making process as they care to be involved in, because I think their perspective is essential to us making well-rounded decisions. So far, they've all come to Spring Training, they're all going to come back to Spring Training. LaTroy and Torii have been out on the amateur trail taking a look at some of the amateur players; Michael has a keen interest in getting to know the inner-tickings of a front office, so we're going to expose them to as much as we possibly can. LaTroy has a passion for pitching and has expressed a desire to get involved in pitching instruction.
This is not superficial; this is not some sort of ornamental job where they get to say they're affiliated with the team and they go to a few luncheons. These guys are rolling up their sleeves. The reason we engaged with them was because of the passion they expressed toward the franchise, which was very palpable when you talked to them. Hopefully we're scratching an itch that they have, but one thing I know is certain is they have already helped us immensely in some of our conversations that we've had with players and ones that we'll have in the future.