The general manager for the Milwaukee Bucks and general manager for the Milwaukee Brewers chat about sports management.

Sport as Science

Jon Horst, general manager, Milwaukee Bucks
David Stearns, general manager, Milwaukee Brewers

Milwaukee had a heck of a pro sports year in 2018, and for that we can thank our young tandem of general managers, David Stearns and Jon Horst. Stearns’ overhaul of the Brewers’ roster last winter included trading for eventual MVP Christian Yelich and assembling an unconventional, under-the-radar pitching staff that carried the team to within one game of the World Series. Horst has overseen a coaching change that, along with key roster additions and subtractions, has converted the Bucks from young, talented underperformers to legitimate contenders to reach the NBA Finals – at least through the first quarter of the season.

The two GMs are also friends, and patriarchs of young families. Horst, 35, and his wife have a 5-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son; Stearns, 33, and his wife welcomed baby Nora on the eve of the Brewers’ postseason run. (“I haven’t been getting a lot of sleep,” he says.) Their mid-November conversation began with how sports analytics – once an invisible force shaping the product on the field or court – is becoming increasingly visible to fans.  – Moderated by Chris Drosner

A condensed version of this conversation was published in the January 2019 issue of Milwaukee Magazine’s cover story: Let’s Talk It Out.

Sport as Science: Jon Horst and David Stearns

DS: In baseball, we’re fortunate that we have play-by-play data going back 70 to 75 years or so. Literally everything that has happened on a major league field has been documented for that time. And when you start with that trove of information, it can lead to a lot of really exciting discoveries. In the case of baseball, that’s what’s happened over the last 20, 25 years, and it’s made its way into the public domain. In baseball, it really started with the Bill James Handbook and the following that he got, including a lot of people who are now working in front office in baseball. And then in the late 90s, maybe early 2000s, a publication called Baseball Prospectus became very popular among fans and among people who follow the game and wanted to learn a little bit more about the game, and not surprisingly there are a whole lot of people who wrote or worked for Baseball Prospectus who are now working in the industry and helping to run front offices. And since then it’s really exploded. The book Moneyball came out, which opened a lot of people’s eyes to the inner workings of how front offices work and in particular how the Oakland A’s were using information to make decisions. There are websites now like Hardball Times, Fangraphs and many others that provide some more advanced metrics to fans so that fans can get glimpses into what the teams are using. It’s really just been a progression over the last 20 years into how information, big data, and advanced analytics have informed our decision-making process within baseball.

JH: From the basketball perspective, it’s probably like a younger, less mature version of a lot of what you just said. For us it kind of started, or at least a lot of people would point to, Dean Oliver, Basketball on Paper and “Four Factors” in his ability to kind of use base statistics, the stats that we’ve been able to trace through history, and come up with some key advanced metrics that teams – or, some teams –started to live off of and trust, and have an indicator of overall offensive and defensive impact in a more granular sense. The shift that’s happened in the last 10 years, or really the last three or four years, is this tracking data and the ability to get deeper information beyond the base box score stats and to really start understanding: our hockey assists, second passes, defensive positioning, rebounding positioning, or mid-range shooting vs. long-ball shooting or at-the-rim shooting.

So this tracking data that we’ve brought in with services like SportVU and Second Spectrum has allowed us to go deeper and try to get some more granular insight. Here with the Bucks, we’ve tried to use it to help support the coaching staff’s style of play philosophy, and to try to find value on the margins in roster construction, in finding guys that might maybe don’t show up in a base statistic. Like Brook Lopez – there’s rebounds per game, but his overall impact on the team’s rebounding shows up because we now have this tracking data and we can see if Brook is on the floor and he’s is in the right spot, the impact on our rebounding is significant.

I think we’re clearly baseball behind as a sport based on the amount of historical data we have. And the sports are just different. The way the data is able to be used between basketball and baseball – and really hockey and football for that matter – it’s just not apples to apples. In basketball in particular we’ve done a better job than some of the other sports in trying to learn from what baseball has done, but also apply it in a way that’s most applicable to our sport.

DS: Some of those tracking technologies that have infiltrated basketball also have made meaningfully impact in baseball over the past decade. We now have Statcast, which is now in the public domain and if you’re watching a major league broadcast you’re very much aware of some of the metrics that tracking technologies and camera systems and Doppler radars around the ballpark allow us to capture. And having those specific and granular sets of information has changed the way that we make decisions and changed the types of information sources that we’re looking to.

MM: Is there a divide between organizations or perhaps executives who embrace analytics and those who don’t?

DS: In baseball, my perception is that to the extent there was a divide a decade ago, it has disappeared, or at least diminished. We have so much information now and it’s all, or at least lots of it, is incredibly valuable, so, frankly, in order to get to an upper level of an organization, you need to know how to handle the information and value it. Across the league now, every organization is doing its best to make use of the massive amounts of data that are coming our way. Everyone’s handling it a little bit differently, and that’s where some competitive advantage differences come in, but everyone recognizes the value of it. I don’t think there’s quite the same resistance that maybe was articulated in Moneyball when it came out in the early 2000s and maybe that persisted for a little while after that.

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JH: Again, being behind baseball in some ways, I think that in the NBA we’re still at different levels. I think there are teams that still don’t utilize fully the amount of data that’s available to them, or don’t even have the amount of data available to them that other teams have. That’s still a competitive advantage within our league, with the amounts of data that we have and then beyond that, how teams are using it. Within organizations, though, you either have organizations that at the top, and therefore down throughout, value analytics and value the insights that we can glean from all of this data, or you have organizations that the top that don’t, that are more traditional and more scout-focused and kind of gut-focused.

We try to not view analytics and scouting as separate disciplines but to use them both as tools and to identify different talents and look at it from different angles and hopefully get to the same point. The value for us in our organization and others that are doing it well is not necessarily where analytics and scouting and all the other filters that go into making decisions agree, but where they disagree. And it kind of opens up the conversation. Maybe it takes a little bit longer, but ultimately helps us get to a hopefully better conclusion.

MM: How important is it to have like either a field manager or a coach who sees kind of eye to eye with you on the importance of these kinds of decision making?

DS: Alignment isn’t just between front office and field staff, it starts with ownership. And so we look to create organizational alignment from ownership through the front office and to the field staff and through our entire player development apparatus. That is really important. Alignment doesn’t always mean agreement, but it means a willingness and a desire to ultimately pursue truth and pursue the right answer, and a lot of times that takes debate and discussion and openness to get to the right answer. So we look a lot for alignment on overarching beliefs and philosophy, but not necessarily agreement on every decision. Having varied perspectives, varying viewpoints, makes us better.

JH: That’s extremely well said and it’s exactly how you know Coach [Mike] Budenholzer and I try to work. It starts with us at the top and ultimately goes down throughout our staff, and at some level even on the business side, and their value in utilizing data in their decisions and in just trying to be collaborative and integrated in most things that we do. Starting at the top with [Bucks president] Peter Feigin and Bud and myself, and then working on down throughout the organization.

DS: That’s a great point. A lot of times sports organizations are divided and siloed between business and then the actual sports-specific operations groups. And that’s something that I know the Bucks have tried to break down and we’ve tried to break down as well with the Brewers –have an organization that is working as one. If the business side is learning something, they can share it with us, and as we learn new techniques or gain new pieces of information on the baseball side, that we’re open to sharing them with the business side as well.

MM: How well do you guys think that the general sports fan understands what a general manager does?

JH: Yeah. Not very well.

DS: That’s a good question. I don’t know that some people who work within the industry understand what a general manager does. These, like most executive jobs, regardless of industry, I believe it becomes a lot of personnel management, strategy management, philosophy management. So I think there’s maybe an external perception that when you get into one of these jobs you’re making a ton of player personnel decisions and it’s purely talent evaluation. That’s a part of it, but the truth is we’re relying on our staffs to make a lot of those evaluations and our jobs really are to put our staffs in the best position possible to make those evaluations and make recommendations to us.

JH: I’m often asked what’s been the biggest surprise in having the role, and it without a doubt is the limited amount of time that we actually have to focus on what we’re really held accountable for, which is the talent that we put on the roster and the roster that we construct. It’s because of what David said: There’s so much of managing staff, putting out fires. Without being specific, just yesterday we were dealing with two significant injury situations, dealing with a coach that had been ejected, dealing with a minor league franchise disciplinary issue, dealing with minor league franchise transactions to get players back and forth, and then by the way let’s talk about some strategy and philosophies that we want to do to try and improve the team based on the start. So, often it’s so hard to focus on those things that we’re ultimately responsible for or that people view this position being ultimately responsible for.

But it really is like David said about putting your staff in the best position to succeed and best position to give you well-thought-out recommendations. In our organization, relative to basketball on average, we have a maybe slightly above-average-sized group in number. And all those people, we trust and give them freedom to do their work and freedom to have a strong opinion and ultimately want to filter up and get the best information possible and bring the best recommendations possible so that I can make a great decision with Coach and then take it to the ownership. In our group on a daily basis, there’s interaction with 10 to 15 people daily, whether that be department heads on the medical side, the coaching side, scouting, analytics, cap strategy, our D-League group, the business side.

DS: It’s amazing how much organizations have grown. We have about 170 people within baseball operations who ultimately report up through baseball operations. That includes people who work here in the front office in Milwaukee, coaches and scouts and medical staff and trainers all over the country and scouting staff and development staff really all over the world, Latin America and Asia. And so we really have hundreds of people working all around the world to try and get us every win we possibly can here in Milwaukee. On a daily basis, clearly I don’t interact with all of those people, but I do interact with all those bosses, and we’ve got a great group here in Milwaukee who do a great job of managing that staff and ultimately getting information and discussion and recommendations up to me.

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MM: So it’s a lot more complicated than running a fantasy baseball team?

JH: [both laugh] Yeah, just a little.

DS: I’ve been fortunate that so far I’ve been a better executive in baseball than I was as a high school or college fantasy baseball manager.

JH: I played fantasy football for about three years and I’m horrible at it. I don’t know how good I’m doing at running the Bucks yet, but I think we’re doing a pretty good job and we’re gonna keep getting better. I just delegated it. One of my guys who’s really, really valuable to me at running the Bucks, I just said, “I need you to run my fantasy football team,” and now we’re like 9-1.

DS: I grew up a huge sports fan in New York City and followed the four major sports regularly. Now my fan list has narrowed a little bit. I probably just spend my time when it’s outside baseball focusing on the local teams, but I definitely try to catch Bucks games when they’re on and I’m at home, and similarly most Sundays I’m tuned into the Packers. I think we all have a respect for what our counterparts in other sports are doing, and it’s fun to see the success that the Bucks are having this year.

JH: Yeah, I grew up playing and loving all sports in the Detroit area, so for me it was the Red Wings, Tigers, Lions, Pistons – die-hard in all of those teams and in support of those teams. In this role your bandwidth does shorten significantly, and your focus has to be completely on what you’re doing, but I find myself outside of the Bucks really just trying to focus on the Brewers and the Packers and what those guys are doing and rooting for [Packers GM] Brian [Gutekunst]. It’s fun really I think for the state and for David and Brian and myself to be similar in age, and similar in opportunity with these state-loved franchises. I think it’s good for the state to have three competitive, successful sports franchises.

DS: I think there’s a mutual respect, to understand the challenges that even if it’s a different sport, we’re all facing some of the similar challenges. As we watch each other do the job and go through both those really rewarding moments and really challenging moments, we can probably relate a little bit more. It’s unfortunate that our seasons don’t align particularly well, so the time we actually get to spend together or talk is probably limited by the fact that when I have a little bit of down time, Jon’s going full force and same thing the other way around. But I think there’s probably a level understanding when you know what the other guys going through and you feel like you can relate a little bit.

When Jon and I first met, we had a fairly in-depth conversation about the various challenges and roles, and part of that certainly touched on the information sources and the information available to each of us. I think we also know what we don’t know, so I think we’re a good resource and a good sounding board [for one another], but we also understand that a lot of it is sport-specific.

JH: David and I have had some great conversations, and some of that was specific to analytics and how they use it, how things are structured in their group, and quite frankly I think there’s probably a lot more that we can learn from them right now than they can learn from us in that area. We’ve also had conversations about sports psychology and just general structures for scouting staffs, and I think that the more that we get to know each other, the more we spend time with each other, there’s a lot we can learn from each other. There’s some overarching themes and insight and philosophies that can be helpful.

DS: We text fairly regularly, more to just check in and to let each other know that we’re following what the other guy is doing. That support is definitely helpful.

JH: We were really good friends until about six weeks ago [when Nora was born], now I haven’t heard from him. I’m just joking, but from my perspective there’s a strong level of respect for David and what he’s done. Between Brian and David and I, we’re one of three people in the state that do what we do, and it’s not easy. But the time that we spend together beyond just our jobs, talking about family and just kind of background things, there’s a lot of similarities. I’m looking forward to hopefully being in the state together for a long period of time going forward and continuing to build that relationship.

MM: Where you guys ended up was very similar, but the backgrounds and the paths are quite a contrast.

DS: Yeah, no question. I think that’s representative of the very different ways that you can get to these positions. A lot of young people who are just starting out in the industry ask me what path they should get on, and the truth is, there’s no set path. We all really scratched and clawed to get into the industry and then made ways through different organizations and different levels and acquired different skill sets and got to where we are now. But you can learn in a variety of different ways from a number of different people, and that’s true in any sport out there.

JH: Yeah, scratch and claw to get in. Work for great people and great organizations at different levels and learn everything you can along the way. And really just be prepared for whatever opportunity presents itself, and when that opportunity presents itself, do the best you can using the skills and the things that you acquired along the way. The intricacies behind that for David and I are very different, but probably for any executive in most any role, those are pretty common themes.

“Let’s Talk it Out” appears in the January 2019 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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