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How did Dave Dombrowski learn to evaluate players?

Dave Dombrowski says he still keeps score at the games he attends.AP

It starts now.

Dave Dombrowski's place atop the masthead of the Red Sox baseball operations department owes more than anything to his history as one of the game's top evaluators, and to the idea that he is the right man to spearhead the team's necessary offseason roster reconfiguration.

Dombrowski's track record on major league deals is strikingly successful over decades, headlined in his Tigers tenure by deals for Miguel Cabrera and Max Scherzer. After a two-year stretch of poor returns on the vast majority of big leaguers whom they acquired, Red Sox owners identified Dombrowski as the right person to make the trades and signings necessary, starting this offseason, to lead their team back into contention.


How did Dombrowski earn that trust? How did he acquire the necessary expertise to gain a reputation as one of the game's most successful talent evaluators?

"I was really lucky," acknowledged Dombrowski.

Dombrowski got his break in baseball with his hiring by White Sox general manager Roland Hemond in 1978. At the time, major league baseball was at a crossroads in its approach to scouting.

The formation of a Central Scouting Bureau in 1974 had led a number of organizations to slash their scouting staffs while outsourcing the search for talent to save money. An ominous Chicago Tribune headline, "Computers are replacing baseball scouts," captured the sea change at a time when teams were laying off scouts by the dozen.

Under Hemond, however, the White Sox resisted that approach, believing that they received a comparative advantage through the efforts of individuals who had spent decades scouting for them. In 1978, the White Sox had an unusually large staff — which, Dombrowski recalled, featured eight full-time scouts and about 30 front-office workers. Those numbers represent a fraction of the size of modern front offices, but were on the high end of employees for teams in 1978.


There were numerous sources of counsel available to Dombrowski. Yet the size of the White Sox front office was also such that the aspiring GM could gain an understanding of the roles of everyone in the organization, including the owner (Dombrowski sat in on meetings between Hemond and White Sox owner Bill Veeck) and, most significantly, Hemond, who ensured that Dombrowski got a proper grounding in talent evaluation.

"My first spring training, 1978, at [the White Sox' Sarasota home] Payne Park, I asked Roland, 'How do you learn about this game? How do you learn to evaluate players?' " Dombrowski recalled. "He said, 'I'll give you one thing: Watch the game.' He said, 'Take a look right now . . . Three-quarters of the people aren't watching the game. You watch the game. You never miss a pitch.' To this day, I still keep score of every game I go to because it keeps me in the game. I never miss a pitch."

Hemond offered more than advice. He presented Dombrowski with opportunities to watch the game — and to be around individuals who had spent a lifetime in it.

"[Hemond's] philosophy was that you were never going to learn what you need to do in this game by sitting here in the office. You need to get out," said Dombrowski, who took delight in the 18-20-hour days that represented both his work and education. "I spent a lot of time with [Hemond]. I asked him tons of questions about players at the big league level. He'd ask me about my thoughts on players, getting a pulse of what the trade value on players was, which he said was one of the most important things a general manager can know, what the value of a player is.


"But then in addition to that, he would send me with our scouts, our amateur scouts. I was 21, and they were 65, 68, 70 some of them. I was blessed with having a mentor like Roland who said, 'You need to do this. This is how you're going to learn about the game.' "

Dombrowski went on the road for weeks at a time with baseball lifers. At the ages of 21 and 22, he spent two- and three-week stretches with scouts such as Walt Widmayer and Fred Shaffer. He joined minor league affiliates for extended stretches that included inglorious bus trips between cities. Dombrowski received tutorials in how to evaluate pitchers and minor leaguers from Paul Richards, a legendary manager and front office member for several organizations. He traveled through Puerto Rico, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic with White Sox Latin America scout Angel Vazquez.

It was a hands-on crash course at all levels. Dombrowski saw enough games that he started to understand the finer details of what he was seeing. Yet his abilities as an evaluator were cultivated not just by his days at the park but also by the opportunity to sit in on late-night conversations, particularly during spring training, when members of the organization would meet informally after day games.


"You were around baseball people who spent five or six hours just talking baseball. They'd have a couple drinks and start talking and arguing about throwing across your body, what was good, what wasn't good, what you can fix, what you can't fix, the consistency of delivery and release point," recalled Dombrowski. "It was phenomenal conversation."

Those are the long-ago conversations that, in concert with more than a quarter-century as a head of baseball operations for the Expos, Marlins, Tigers, and Red Sox, inform how Dombrowski analyzes players, in a fashion that the Red Sox hope will allow them to emerge as a vastly better club in 2016 than they were the past two years.

Alex Speier can be reached at alex.speier@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @alexspeier.