Can a 41-year-old Princeton grad with zero front-office experience lead a rebirth of the Texas Rangers? There you go. That’s your opening day story line for Major League Baseball in North Texas.
Well, besides President Joe Biden appearing on ESPN last night to call the Rangers’ plan to open 40,300-seat Globe Life Field at full capacity for Thursday’s opening day game “not responsible” and “a mistake,” as COVID-19 infection and hospitalization rates rise nationwide.
Now back to baseball: after four straight losing seasons, the Rangers should be really bad again in 2021. At least they’ll have a chance to make some history—it would be the first stretch of five straight losing seasons in the franchise’s 49-year history.
Don’t sweat it, Rangers fans. These things tend to be cyclical. Before the Rangers’ current swoon began in 2017, the Rangers made the playoffs in five of the previous seven seasons and came teeth-grindingly close to winning the 2011 World Series. But two last-place finishes in the last three years prompted the Rangers to seek a new voice. Enter Chris Young, all six-foot-ten of him, who was named Rangers general manager in December.
Jon Daniels, the architect of the last decade’s Rangers playoff teams, will no longer hold both president of baseball operations and general manager positions. Instead, he’ll focus on larger, unspecific baseball-related issues while Young will handle the day-to-day business. Both men acknowledge that such an arrangement could become awkward, but both say they’re committed to making it work.
If all you look at is the Ivy League degree, Young’s hiring has a familiar look in a sport that has been transformed over the last two decades by a generation of executives who weren’t plucked from the pool of former players, scouts, and managers. These new guys have degrees in economics, engineering, political science, and history. Their backgrounds are all over the map, from Wall Street to NASA, and they’ve brought a different approach to a sport once anchored in the past.
“Baseball has become the smartest industry on earth,” said A’s executive Billy Beane, the godfather of this data analytics era. “We have these brilliant people turning down six-figure salaries from Wall Street or Silicon Valley because they wanted to work in baseball.”
They’ve changed the game, and dramatically, with a focus on data and science that has affected how players are evaluated, rosters constructed, and games won. Defensive alignments that bunch five players on one side of the field have become common. Hitters are taught to swing for the fences (a record 36.1 percent of plate appearances ended with a home run, strikeout, or walk in 2020). Starting pitchers max out their velocity from the start of games and are often conditioned to aim for three innings instead of seven.
The Rangers were not at the forefront of this revolution, and it’s not clear that Young’s hiring will change their more traditional approach. Despite the new GM’s Princeton degree, his background is unique in another way. The former pitcher’s view of the game has been formed by practical experience, not mathematical models. He’s a mere two springs removed from wearing a uniform. While playing for five teams in thirteen seasons, he was traded three times, released four times, and missed the 2013 season with a neck injury that required surgery.
He was also a World Series hero for the 2015 Royals and established himself as both a generous teammate and a fiery competitor. He played for the Rangers in 2004 and 2005, a two-season stint that ended with Daniels trading him to the Padres shortly before spring training in 2006.
Young seemed on his way to making the Padres roster two springs ago when he was abruptly released. On the drive back home to Dallas, he realized he’d given the game all he had, at least on the field. “At some point your second career has to begin,” he said. “The fight wasn’t there any longer. I just know it wasn’t in me.”
His agent telephoned to say multiple teams were still interested. “And the commissioner’s office called,” he said. MLB deputy commissioner Dan Halem, who’d met Young months earlier, was committed to bringing him on board. When they met, Young quizzed Halem about the job. Would it be ceremonial? Would his voice matter? Halem convinced him the role would be substantive, and a few days later, Young joined Major League Baseball as vice president of on-field operations, initiatives, and strategy. That long title gave him an array of responsibilities.
“He’s really good at explaining the players’ viewpoint on things,” Halem said. “We had a job we needed to fill, but we created a much more expanded role because of who he is.”
He seemed at ease in the new job from the beginning, working rooms, shaking hands, and making small talk with MLB officials, team executives, and reporters. He’s one of those people who never seems to meet a stranger. But at some point in that first year, he realized how much he missed competition.
“I don’t think I really understood how much I missed it,” he said. “It has lit an internal fire. My MLB [headquarters] experience was unbelievable. But I fall back on this: I’m a competitor, and I want to win.”
Daniels had approached him about joining the Rangers in 2018. At the time, Young took the MLB job over a return to North Texas. When Daniels called again in December, Young was ready. To return to work for his hometown team—he was a two-sport star at Highland Park High School—is all he could have hoped for. Now it’s logical to wonder how Young’s playing experience—instead of, say, Wall Street—will influence him in this new role.
“I’ve worn a lot of hats in this game as a player, and then also having the Major League Baseball experience,” he told me. “You know, I think that I have great empathy for everything that a player experiences.
“I experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows and, and pretty much everything in between. It doesn’t mean that I’ve had front office experience, and so there’s a learning curve that will still take place. But the league experience that I got and understanding different organizations top to bottom, winning cultures, and there were some things that I think that helped prepare me for it.”
Over his career, Young had to deal with disappointments and learn to fit in, time after time, with new teams and new teammates. Perhaps more than anything else, he has a firsthand understanding that the game is more difficult than almost anyone outside it understands, and that the line between success and failure is razor thin.
“He’s been part of everything the game has to offer,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said. “And that’s going to give him a lot of credibility.”
Young understands that the best teams are about more than talent, that leadership is crucial, and that team building can create resilience that carries rosters through the peaks and valleys of a season. But he also understands that the Rangers must use every tool of the data age, tools that small-market teams like the Tampa Bay Rays have used more efficiently than other franchises.
But plenty of other ball clubs—the Yankees, Dodgers, Astros, Brewers, and many more—have robust analytics departments and are constantly looking around the corner to unearth ways to improve.
“That’s the evolution of sports,” Young said. “I think that all decision making has changed in every sport over time.” At Princeton, Young finished his history degree with an eighty-page senior thesis titled “The Impact of Jackie Robinson and the Integration of Baseball on Racial Stereotypes in America: A Quantitative Content Analysis of Stories About Race in the New York Times.” He wrote chunks of it on bus rides while playing for the Class A Hickory Crawdads in the South Atlantic League after being drafted by the Pirates in the third round of the 2000 MLB draft.
“The way the public gets their information is from the media,” Young told the Kansas City Star in 2017. “So it shows, one, the impact media has on the ideas of the general public. And then, secondly, a movement like the integration of baseball can change those attitudes of the general public as well.
“As athletes, we have an opportunity, a platform to impact the lives of others, and Jackie Robinson no doubt did that and changed the world for the better.”
Young pitched in 271 regular season games and made five postseason appearances, four of them for the 2015 Royals. His finest hour came in game one of that World Series, when he was inserted in the twelfth inning of a 4–4 game and delivered three shutout innings in a game the Royals won in the bottom of the fourteenth. Four days later, Young started game four on short rest and allowed two runs in four innings as the Royals won 5–3 and positioned themselves to clinch the title the next night. Moore called Young “the MVP of the staff” that season.
Now there’s this next chapter—back home, in a role that’s unlikely to feel comfortable at first. “My wife (Liz) says I’m in a constant fog with so many thoughts,” he said. “But I will tell you this, I love it. And there has not been one second on this job that I have not felt energized and driven to help the Texas Rangers win a championship.”