It's usually hard to get excited about a new baseball hire that isn't someone in the dugout. The Indians' hiring of James Harris as farm director got me excited, even though I'd never heard the guy's name before they snagged him.
With a background in the NFL, James Harris, our new farm director, has brought unique viewpoints. https://t.co/B1IhJplZaB pic.twitter.com/Vmne0dNpbj— Cleveland Indians (@Indians) January 3, 2017
Here are some of the unique viewpoints Harris brings to the position:
- A biometrics and nutrition background
- Counseling and mentoring
- Experience with developing young athletes
- Diversification of front office personnel on several fronts
The hiring happened a month ago. Because the holidays descend upon my household like a dragon upon a pile of dwarvish gold, I only just found out about it due to this excellent piece by FanGraphs newcomer Travis Sawchik and the wonderful Facebook algorithms that know I click on every article involving the Indians.
As Sawchik notes, Harris has focused on biometrics and nutrition at the University of Nebraska, the University of Oregon, and with the Philadelphia Eagles, plus a stint this year in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. For those interested, here's Sawchik discussing the Pirates' sports science initiatives on The Ringer's MLB podcast back in August. As noted in the podcast, and in co-host's Ben Lindbergh's revelatory co-written book about taking over a independent league team, "The Only Rule Is It Has to Work," biometrics, nutrition, and mental health are areas where baseball organizations are probably underdeveloped.
This is especially true of minor league players, who rarely make much money and don't usually have much of a meal stipend, as noted by Curtis Granderson in this USA Today piece from two years ago:
"I think the biggest [issue] I've noticed is the meal money — especially now since there's a big movement toward eating healthy, maintaining weight or either gaining weight or losing weight," Granderson said. "In the cities you're traveling to, your options are very limited. So trying to make 20 or 25 dollars stretch, on top of the fact that you're not getting a meal at the stadium at certain levels, makes it very difficult for you to do the things that the team requires you to do."
While giving minor leaguers more money would be the most beneficial proposition for young players, programs to feed and educate them on healthy nutrition habits is another piece to the development puzzle that may be neglected or inchoate.
Harris also has been noted as counselor and mentor to student-athletes at both the universities where he worked. LGT community member YoDaddyWags shared this fantastic article about Harris's time with the University of Oregon, where he created an open and supportive environment for college kids. He was involved in conducting "mood surveys" with the Eagles and Pirates, which are intended to give teams better data about performance and psychology.
But one of the most fascinating aspects of the hire comes from the fact that, on paper, Harris is a very unusual front office member. Obviously, he's been pretty much exclusively a football guy before 2016. That in itself is an interesting, outside-the-box move that mirrors, of course, the "Moneyball" hire made by some other team in town.
Baseball Prospectus writers Kate Morrison and Russell Carleton (a former Indians employee) wrote an in-depth and eye-opening series on front office demographics last summer. One of the issues they highlighted was the predilection of organizations to hire Ivy League grads:
Of the front officers on our list for whom we were able to find college data, we found that 16 percent had walked across the stage at an Ivy League school, although only 0.4 percent of all college students in the United States attend one of the eight Ivies.
A problem with this is that it fails to diversify thought and perspective. And although it's difficult for many people to talk about, front offices also face limited diversity by race and gender, especially on the actual baseball operations side of things. It's important to talk about these factors until they aren't factors anymore, and one day I fully believe they won't be factors.
The Indians have been known as a creative, somewhat unorthodox, and forward-thinking organization since the advent of Moneyball. Hiring Harris is another step in building a new culture, moving away from traditional strategies, and getting someone highly qualified but overlooked on your team. It'll be years before we know how adept Harris is at his job. Honestly, we the public may never have a good idea of how much impact he has, but as long as the Tribe is at the forefront of innovation in baseball, success is rarely far behind.