Managing a Champion: Red Sox Assistant GM Speaks to HBS Students

Most would agree that the stars of the Boston Red Sox – 2004 World Series Champions – are the ball players. But a talk given April 12 to HBS students by Red Sox Assistant General Manager Josh Byrnes revealed that the real stars just may work in the front office, despite the fact that their pictures aren’t front and center on the home page of the Red Sox website.
With an unassuming, down-to-earth demeanor, Byrnes began by describing his first meeting with Senior Vice President and General Manager Theo Epstein:

“I really didn’t know Theo that well – it’s a smaller business so we knew of each other – but it was a bit of a blind date, a bit of a Billy Beane marriage. I talked with Theo and I was very impressed with his intellect and his vision [for] the Red Sox. And then I came over here in a lateral move, which is often frowned upon in the industry, but I think yesterday (among many other days) sort of validated why I came.”

Byrnes has a crystal clear view of what the Red Sox are all about. “Three points. One is business. We’re here to make money, or at least break even and increase the franchise value over time. Two is baseball. It is an interesting sport. There’s an art to it there’s a science to it. It’s a long season and it is competitive athletics….And [third], it’s entertainment.”

Developing World Series Champions
Each year, the Red Sox face a difficult strategic challenge; how to build a team that will beat the Yankees when they can’t match their payroll. However, it doesn’t appear that the front office wastes a lot of time worrying about that. What they do spend their time on are track records, according to Byrnes. Although they can’t control Curt Schilling’s ankle, for example, they can find and hire pitchers with outstanding skills so that even a bad ankle doesn’t doom the team to a loss.

One of the Red Sox’ secret weapons are their talent scouts. Discovering a star when he is unknown can save millions. Byrnes and others try to impress a long term perspective on young players, that winning is a long-term effort, and the last game does not necessarily define the player. But it’s difficult.

“There are a lot of people who are anonymous scouts and minor league staff who work very, very hard for very little pay,” said Byrnes. “I think we don’t want to take away their motivation level, we just want to direct them properly. In general we get very emotional, and if we had lost yesterday there would be a totally different mood in our office today, as irrational as that sounds. We are wins and losses business, and even in Greenville South Carolina where our Latin players are kind of making it for the first time, we go down there and they’ve lost two in a row and they’re sort of hanging their heads, not realizing enough that this a progression of a five year development that you’re going to have in order to make it.”

Byrnes was also willing to share a little behind-the-scenes thinking about Alex Rodriguez. “A lot of the A-Rod song and dance was again sort of combining all three, the business, the baseball [and] the entertainment,” said Byrnes. “You know NESN is part of our umbrella and it’s good to have hall of fame talent on your broadcasting. So that was part of it. We felt that we could lose Nomar and/or Pedro as free agents after 2004. A-Rod is a pretty good face to have a product, at least we thought so at the time. If we’re going to lose a player of that Nomar’s popularity, you might as well bring a better player, [or] so we thought at the time.

The Start of the 2004 Season – Analysis
Byrnes was unphased by the team’s initial lackluster performance. “So it didn’t work and we went into [the] season and this team with all these expectations and all this uncertainty and played poorly for three months… And it finally gets to the point we sort of knew this team [was] incredibly talented [but you could] see watching through statistical analyses that the team was underperforming at alarming levels. As far as relationships of cause and effect, we should have been scoring more and preventing less. We should have been winning more and it just wasn’t happening.

Ultimately, you know the best thing to do in the short term is to get back to the balance and a deep roster that is a bit more adaptable in different situations. Teams like the Angels made us look old and slow. You know what? We needed a little more defense, a little more speed on this roster.”

The Team Settles In
“The team had by far the best record after August 1 and then carried it on through the playoffs. Sort of “idiot” culture, right? The perception is that it drives us down sometimes. It really seemed to show off when the pressure was at its greatest. If you remember, last year in August we were winning at a great pace, – so was Texas, so was Anaheim, and so was Oakland. So we played in late August and early September successive series against Anaheim, Texas, and Oakland. Then, in the playoffs, we were 11 and 3. These guys were 19 in 4 in the most pressurized games that you could possibly have. Maybe long hair will do that to you.”

“But with that, I think some of the things we do [are that] we always remind folks of our philosophy …. We do have very specific job positions on the front end and we let the players and staff know what we expected of them. With that we have our reviews [and] we give credit. There are a lot of people who contributed to the World Series last year, and we want to make sure they receive proper credit. It’s a lot of people.

“I think the great thing about our job is that a lot [of] interesting people work here and we’re extremely passionate about it. It’s the highs and lows and the wins and losses. We try to be long term thinkers, we try to be unemotional. [But] our first week was tough. We have high expectations for ourselves.

“Yesterday a lot of people were just totally energized. It was the right time to be reminded how great the fans are here. It’s a unique business in that respect. About 11:00 o’clock yesterday morning the electricity of the ball park reminded us again. And we know that we’re going to get this thing going in the right direction.”

Byrnes followed the discussion by going to the Grille with a group of students for some informal Q & A.

April 25, 2005
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