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June 15, 2008
Trey Hillman has a world of experience. He was manager of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters from 2003-2007 before taking the helm in Kansas City, and the 45-year-old Hillman has spent better than half his life in the game. Signed by the Indians in 1985, Hillman spent three years as a player, three as a scout and minor league coach, and 12 as minor league manager in the Yankees organization before his five seasons in Japan. A native of Amarillo, Texas, Hillman was named as the 15th full-time manager in Royals history last October.
David Laurila: How would you describe Trey Hillman's relationship with the game of baseball?
Trey Hillman: The way I think about the game, and try to approach it every day, is with the combination of what I use as a manager. The bottom line is to try to put these guys in the best possible situation to perform day in and day out. There are a lot of variables to take into consideration. There are the matchups, obviously, injuries, days of rest needed. Sometimes it is personal issues that I know about with certain players that other people don't know about, and it's not their business. Sometimes players will end up letting you in there as far as what's going on away from the field; sometimes it's a mental blow with what they have going on mentally away from the field as well as physically on the field.
DL: Do you ever take a step back and try to look at baseball from the perspective of a fan rather than that of an insider?
TH: Yeah, I do. I like to think that I have a respect--I certainly don't have the full handle on it--but as far as the big picture goes, this is fan-generated; it's an entertainment business. I take a step back quite often and think about what we do as a whole, and what we do as the Kansas City Royals. We try to be fan-friendly for the masses, not only for the people of greater Kansas and the Missouri area, but on the road as well.
DL: What did you learn about baseball during your time in Japan--not about Japanese baseball, but rather the game itself?
TH: Better communication skills. I paid a lot of attention to body language before I ever went, but being there helped me to hone those skills. I'm not as good as I want to be, but I'm certainly better than I was before I left. I'm talking about how players feel and how they react to specific situations--specific messages and reactions to things that their teammates do, whether it's in the clubhouse or on the field.
DL: You've been quoted as saying that Japanese players are in better condition in terms of their lower-half agility. Why is that, and what does it mean on the field?
TH: They work at it harder, and what it means on the field is that overall--and there are always individual cases where it's not true--is that as baseball athletes, defensively they're in better control of their lower halves and can control the athletic movement of their lower halves better and more consistently. They work on their daily agility more; they stretch more and they do more core-strengthening exercises. The deal with the Japanese baseball players is that they don't get off the field long enough during the offseason to build the muscle mass that American players do. They feel guilty if they're not on the field the majority of the offseason. The American players will actually get off the field for at least two-and-a-half, sometimes three months, and they get in the weight room before getting back on the field in spring training. The Japanese athletes stay on the field the majority of the offseason.
DL: Is statistical analysis utilized in Japan in a similar fashion as here?
TH: It is, and that was one of the most challenging parts. It actually simplified my approach with left/right matchups and individual matchups through history. And it was very difficult to get the statistics, because everything had to be translated; everything was written in Kanji, Hirigana and Katakana. It was a big burden for our interpreter to translate that on a daily basis or even for a series, but it was statistical information I liked to have.
DL: What is your view of the media in baseball and the way the game is covered?
TH: It's our voice to the general public, but there are times that I wish the media as a whole was more accountable. They want accountability from us--and I'm very big on the word accountability--but there have been times already that things have been misperceived and the correct questions weren't asked to find out the correct perceptions of things that happened in a ballgame or during a practice. I think that part of it is sad. It doesn't happen often, but it does happen from time to time. Overall, I have a fond opinion of the media. They work hard. They're here from almost the time we get here until well after the time we leave sometimes, filing their stories and researching information to provide to the general public.
DL: Among the writers covering the Royals are Joe Posnanski and Rany Jazayerli, each of whom is extremely well-versed in statistical analysis. Does the way they cover the team impact you in any way?
TH: Do they impact the way I manage? Is that your question?
DL: I'm referring primarily to whether you pay more attention to their work given the analytic approach they bring to the table.
TH: No. I am glad that we have people who have backgrounds and understand statistical analysis, certainly. I do think that gives them added credibility. Sometimes I try to factor in numbers and matchups with gut feel and knowing personalities, and hopefully I'm able to read situations correctly most of the time, but it doesn't affect the way I manage or run a ballgame.
DL: In a more general sense, does what is written in publications like Baseball Prospectus impact the way you think about the game?
TH: You do learn; you definitely learn by reading about things like statistical analysis. A lot of what I've learned about on-base percentage has been hands-on learning, and learning different ways with different personalities to try to help guys understand what OBP means. Publications like Baseball Prospectus, and all different kinds of publications--I read a lot of baseball information, but when it's things that are opinionated--as long as it's fair. Sometimes statistical analysis, just by itself, I don't think is a fair evaluation. Sometimes they are, sometimes they're not. I try to judge what I think is applicable to what I do with the Kansas City Royals and our personnel.
DL: To what extent do you want your players to understand statistical analysis and probabilities?
TH: I try to keep it as simple as possible, because when you're playing this game it's very easy to go through a paralysis by analysis. So I keep it really simple. For our offensive approach, we handed out a few statistical analysis equations and statistics to show our players that the number one thing that impacts on-base percentage is bases on balls. It's something that I want our players to understand. I certainly don't want them to memorize the numbers; I just want them to understand, as a group, how it can help our run production.
DL: What is your opinion of pitch counts and innings?
TH: I think that pitch counts, and numbers of ups and downs, have a major impact on the health of a pitching staff, both from the starting standpoint and a relief standpoint over the course of 162 regular season games. It's a manager's direct responsibility to continually monitor pitches. I don't think there are any black-and-white issues as far as numbers of pitches; I think it goes to body type, ability to stay in shape in between starts and the ability to monitor how many pitches there are in the bullpen sessions in between starts. There's whether or not you trash the bullpen altogether once you're past the All-Star break or maybe three quarters of the way through, depending on accumulation. A lot of that has to do with how well the individual athlete maintains his body during the offseason, giving himself a chance to pitch as many innings as possible, healthily. And, of course, the pitching coach handles the mechanical part to make sure that he remains mechanically sound.
DL: What are your priorities in putting together a coaching staff?
TH: The number one priority is for that coach to come to the ballpark every day looking to put the players in their group in the best situation, and that requires a tremendous lack of ego on a coach's part. I like coaches that want to put the player in a position where they don't need to coach, rather than coaches who want to put a player in a situation where they feel they have to have him day in and day out. I like them to teach the players to coach themselves, and then monitor it.
DL: How much impact can a manager have on wins and losses, and does more of that impact come from in-game decisions or from what happens off the field?
TH: I think that most of the impact a manager can have is with the plan going into spring training and making sure that you keep it consistent once the season starts. You don't back off the plan, whatever it is, offensively, defensively, or pitching. Once the season starts, the biggest impact the manager can have is the consistency of his demeanor and the consistency of his moves during the game. I think that a manager has to work, and needs to work hard to keep the peace every day with some of the things that happen in these guys' lives and the pressures that people put on them. And, more importantly, there's the pressure they put on themselves. My job, bottom line, is to protect my players.
DL: Who is Trey Hillman when he's away from the ballpark?
TH: I'm pretty much the same guy away from the field. I'm passionate about my family; I'm passionate about the game of baseball; I'm passionate about my relationship with God. I love people. Away from the field, I try my best in every situation to never elevate myself because I'm involved in one of 30 jobs in the United States, in the entertainment business, through professional baseball. I'm just a regular guy trying to do a job and trying to be the best I can for the other people I'm in charge of.