Scott Harris spent the past few weeks interviewing with Tigers officials for the opportunity to lead their baseball operations department, a process that team chairman/CEO Christopher Ilitch said was as much a recruitment on their part as an interview on his.
So it was a surprise that in his first public appearance since taking the job as Tigers president of baseball operations, Harris — who spent the last three years as Giants general manager under president Farhan Zaidi — sounded like he was interviewing for the job again, this time for the public.
“I would say to the fans, this is an exceptional opportunity and responsibility,” Harris said at his introductory press conference Tuesday at Comerica Park. “But this isn’t my team. This isn’t the front office’s team. This isn’t the players’ team. This is Detroit’s team, and we recognize that these players and [manager] A.J. [Hinch] and his coaches will be in living rooms more often than most family members every night, when the TV is on.
“We know that this team means more to the fans and the city than I’ll ever know, and so we’re going to be mindful of that with every decision we make. We’re going to be mindful of that when it comes to making impactful decisions than can change the trajectory of this organization. But we’ll also be mindful of that with the smaller decisions that seem trivial and insignificant but ultimately can produce huge returns.”
It was an impact statement that reflected the ability Harris learned to tailor messages to specific audiences during his studies earning an economics degree from UCLA and an MBA from Northwestern. He would have made a strong first impression on that alone, but he also went into specifics about how he sees that happening, and why he thinks he can help turn the Tigers into contenders.
Within five minutes of the press conference, he laid out his vision for building the organization and his concepts on how to do it, messages he laid out to Ilitch, Hinch and Ilitch Sports and Entertainment president Chris McGowan.
1. Bring in and develop young talent
“We need to acquire, develop and retain young players,” Harris said. “It’s not a unique strategy. Most organizations in baseball are trying to do that. But it’s exceptionally important for us and we need to absolutely lean into that over the next years.”
Harris joked that he spent Sunday watching online as the Tigers’ Double-A Erie club faced the Giants’ Double-A Richmond club, unsure of who to pull for. He has outside observations on Detroit’s farm system but didn’t want to get into specifics until he takes a closer look and talks to people involved.
Still, it was notable when he talked about what needed to be done to get the Tigers back to contention, he mentioned Drafts and international signings in the same sentence as trades and free-agent signings, even while saying he doesn’t believe in long-term rebuilds given baseball’s year-to-year variables.
“I think if we keep our heads down, we make smart baseball decisions and we string one after another together through winters and Trade Deadlines and Draft opportunities and international signing opportunities, we’re going to look up and we’re going to have a darn good baseball team,” Harris said. “So that’s my intent from Day 1, and that will remain my intent through my tenure here.”
2. Create a culture of development
This not only applies to the young talent aspect, but includes veteran players, coaches and officials. It fits a person who, while with the Cubs, spent a Spring Training taking red-eye flights between Phoenix and Chicago on weekends for his MBA classes.
“I believe everything can change and improve,” Harris said. “My evaluations can improve. Our in-game strategy can always improve. Our roster construction can always improve. Our development can always improve. Our decision-making can always improve. But so can the players, too, at all levels of the organization.
“When I think of Detroit, I think of trying to create an environment that inspires players to want to get better and to put in all the work that they can to get better. It also means creating an environment around those players — support staff, technology, coaching, development — environments that inspire these players to get better. So when I think of the Tigers of the next few years, I think of free agents who may look to go to various places across our great game. When they think of Detroit, I want them to think of an environment where they are confident they can come and get better, they can perform at a higher level, they can lengthen their careers, they know they are going to be surrounded by people in this organization that are going to get the absolute most out of them.”
3. Dominate the strike zone
If you were wondering the fit between Harris and Hinch, who have never worked together, it is this. Hinch has preached the race to two strikes for pitchers and disciplined at-bats and contact for hitters. In Harris, he has a kindred spirit who can help him build and foster a roster to those ends.
“I believe that the strike zone disproportionately influences just about everything you see on the baseball field,” Harris said. “It dictates pitch counts, it dictates count leverage, it dictates length of inning, dictates the load you’re putting on a pitcher’s body and how many pitchers you’re going to have to use throughout a series. It also dictates the quality of contact that you’re giving up and how much contact you’re giving up, which therefore influences the quality of defense that you can build and execute behind the pitcher. It touches essentially every part of our game. So we’re going to start there.
“We’re going to start with the strike zone. We want to dominate the strike zone on both sides of the ball, and we want to acquire, develop and retain players that can give us a chance to do that.”