Dombrowski Does It Again
While Larry King and Mary Hart were rooting for the Dodgers from their front-row seats at Chavez Ravine and a big swath of the American sports public was either ambivalent or asleep, dozens of major league scouts joined millions of sports fans in New England and quietly pulled for the Red Sox in the 2018 World Series. In part, that show of support reflected a healthy regard for David Dombrowski, Boston’s president of baseball operations, as the personification of everything that talent evaluators hold dear.
Dombrowski’s 42-year tenure in baseball has heightened his sensitivity to the role of scouts and their contribution to roster construction and organizational culture. At 62, Dombrowski has been around long enough to remember when personnel men would pound the table in support of a player and the analytics-makeup balance wasn’t tilted so heavily toward the numbers. He’s part of a dwindling fraternity of executives who’d rather pick up the phone and pick a scout’s brain than simply dash off a text for a response.
But it would be a mischaracterization to refer to Dombrowski, the Baseball America Major League Executive of the Year, as some reluctant relic who has begrudgingly come to grips with launch angles and spin rates. He gained an early appreciation for the value of statistics as a 22-year-old assistant to White Sox general manager Roland Hemond during the “Disco Demolition Night” phase of his career in the late 1970s. And he’s remained a firm believer in the need for balance in the decision-making process.
“Without scouts, we would be lost,” Dombrowski says. “The information they gather for us. Their opinions. Their background information. That’s irreplaceable for me. But you also have to be contemporary, and we build analytics and information into everything we do. We try to use both equally, and everybody is on board with that.
"Surprisingly, there was a lot more use of those things than you think when I entered the game. We just didn’t have the terminology for it. I remember Roland Hemond telling me after the draft, ‘You need to continue to follow these players and read the statistics on a weekly basis when they come across our desk. For pitchers, follow things like hits-to-innings pitched or strikeout-to-walk ratio. For hitters, look at their extra-base hits and be aware of what ballpark they’re playing in. The PCL or the California League might be more conducive to offense.’ He told me, ‘Don’t tell anybody you’re doing it. But these things are really important to follow.’ ”
For his attention to detail, open-mindedness and ability to stay relevant across generations, Dombrowski has earned the admiration of his peers and a big leg up towards Cooperstown.
When Chris Sale struck out Manny Machado to clinch Boston’s fourth title in 15 years, Dombrowski joined Pat Gillick, Theo Epstein and John Schuerholz as the fourth executive in history to win a title in both leagues. His greatest-hits catalogue features a 1997 championship with the Marlins, two World Series appearances as general manager of the Tigers and this year’s piece de resistance—a franchise-record 108-win regular season capped by an epic roll through October.
Dombrowski had the advantage of a $206 million Opening Day payroll this season and an array of young talent bequeathed him by his predecessor, Ben Cherington. He signed David Price to a seven-year, $217 million deal in December 2015 and sent Yoan Moncada, Michael Kopech and two other prospects to the White Sox for Sale the following winter.
But people inside the Red Sox organization cite Dombrowski’s ability to delegate, nurture and see the big picture as equally vital to Boston’s recent success. Allard Baird, Boston’s senior vice president of player personnel, thinks back to the early November day in 2016 when the Red Sox announced promotions for Zak Scott, Ben Crockett, Gus Quattlebaum, Jared Banner and Mike Rikard—the latest wave of young executives with a lot to offer and significant room to grow.
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"He could have come in and revamped the whole baseball operation,” Baird says. "But in Pat Gillick fashion, he ended up identifying good people, taking his time to figure out what they did and where their strengths were, and then promoting them and giving them responsibility and letting them do their jobs. Whether we’re talking about new wave or old, that’s probably not done very often.”
After the Red Sox won 93 games and bowed out against the Astros in the 2017 Division Series, Dombrowski made several changes to help put the team over the top and bring Boston its fourth title in 15 years.
In October 2017, he put his faith in Alex Cora to replace John Farrell as Red Sox manager, even though Cora’s managerial experience consisted of two seasons in winter ball in his native Puerto Rico. Cora earned raves for his ability to reach all corners of the clubhouse, and he dispensed with the growing pains typically associated with a rookie manager.
Amid speculation that the Red Sox might fill their first base void with a nine-figure deal for Eric Hosmer, Dombrowski signed Mitch Moreland to a two-year, $13 million contract last offseason. He then waited until late February to sign J.D. Martinez, whose five-year, $110 million deal now looks like a bargain.
Dombrowski’s in-season additions were surgical and effective. Steve Pearce, acquired in a June deal with the Blue Jays, made a big early impression and won the World Series MVP award. Nathan Eovaldi, who came over from the Rays by trade in late July, was a flat-out monster in October.
Amid rampant skepticism that Boston’s bullpen was up to the challenge, Dombrowski placed a bet that Ryan Brasier, Matt Barnes and Joe Kelly, among other candidates, could bridge the gap from the starters to closer Craig Kimbrel in October. Things couldn’t have worked out any better.
"It’s very difficult to find anybody who’s better at preparing for and reading the free agent market, along with the trade deadline,” Baird says. "I think Dave does that second to none.”
The Red Sox staked their claim to greatness by winning 119 games overall and dismissing 100-win teams in the Astros and Yankees before eliminating the Dodgers in five games in the World Series. And now Dombrowski joins a short list of two-time winners of the Executive of the Year Award that includes Doug Melvin, Brian Sabean and Billy Beane. Dombrowski won previously in 2006 as GM of the Tigers.
"Any time you win an award like this, it’s very nice, but it’s really an organizational award,” Dombrowski said. "Your scouts and player development people play such a big part in it. The scouts are out there recommending those players. So it’s really a combination of everything.
"There’s a lot of talk now comparing our team to other teams in the past. But the satisfaction is more, ‘You won the world Series.’ If we had won 93 games and won the World Series, I’d be just as thrilled.”
Now that the clubhouse celebration and the victory parade are behind him, Dombrowski is already thinking of ways to address the back end of the bullpen and firm up the rotation behind Sale, Price and Rick Porcello.
The expectations and the scrutiny are as higher as ever in Boston. But Dombrowski’s history indicates that he has it covered—from every conceivable angle.