A Look Into Cards Minors Ops with John Vuch

The St. Louis Cardinals Director of Minor League Operations takes us behind the scenes for a look into his very important job.

In the many years that I have had the pleasure of associating with John Vuch, Cardinals Director of Minor League Operations, the focus had almost always been the same – me posing questions about this player or that, or once in a while a team or coach, and him politely and professionally offering answers.

 

What I realized is that I've never asked him in-depth questions about his job, one of the most important behind the scenes assignments in the entire organization, and how he got it. That is the focus of this interview.

 

Vuch is in his 23rd season in Baseball Operations and his 32nd overall season with the Cardinals. The St. Louis native began working for the team in 1979 and was promoted to his current assignment, reporting to Vice President of Scouting and Player Development Jeff Luhnow, in December 2006.

 

In simplest terms, Vuch is responsible for the daily operations of the Cardinals' farm system, and is also involved with the club's minor league player personnel decisions. As you will learn more about below, he also has home in-game duties at the major league level that include serving as official MLB statistician.

 

John was awarded the Harry Mitauer Good Guy Award by the St. Louis chapter of the Baseball Writer's Association of America in 2009, a well-deserved award.

 

Vuch graduated from Oakville High School and the University of Missouri-St. Louis with a bachelor's degree in Business Administration. He and his wife Maria reside in south St. Louis County with their children Jack (15), Hayley (12) and Anna (9).

 

 

You've been with the Cardinals a long time. How did you get into minor league operations and how did some of your earlier experiences help you?

 

I worked with the Cardinals on a gameday basis throughout high school and college, and then worked for three years in our Sales Department, handling season tickets, group tickets and party rooms.  But my main interest was always in the baseball side of the organization, so I was fortunate that our Sales Director (Joe Cunningham) and our Farm Director (Lee Thomas) were good friends.  Joe had mentioned to Lee that I was interested (and had knowledge) in the baseball side, and it turned out that Lee had an administrative person that felt that there was better opportunity for advancement in the Sales Department, so I was basically "traded" to the Player Development department in exchange for the other employee.

 

I don't think there's really anything that fully prepares you for what takes place every day in Baseball Operations, but obviously I had grown up playing baseball my whole life, so I had a decent feel for the game from that perspective.  I had always been a fan of the game, so I had an appreciation and understanding of baseball history, and the Cardinals in particular.  I also had started playing Strat-o-matic as a kid, and understanding strategy from a statistical perspective, along with reading Bill James in my later teens gave me a comfort level with utilizing and understanding the statistical side of it.

 

How often do you visit the various minor league affiliates and what do you do while there?

 

In addition to seeing all of our players and staff during spring training, I try to get to each of our clubs at least once or twice over the course of the year.  While I'm there, I'll observe our players and try to pick up things about their abilities and makeup that may not be conveyed through the daily game reports that we receive.  I'll also spend a lot of time with the staff, getting a more detailed feel for their impressions of the players.  I'll also check in with the front office of the affiliates, to make sure everything's going smoothly from their perspective, or if there's anything we can do from our end to make sure the partnership is going well, or to discuss with them any concerns we might have from our end.  But ultimately the main focus is for me to get my own first-hand impressions of our players under game situations.

 

How do you get involved in player movement between teams both from paperwork and logistics perspectives?

 

From a paperwork perspective, once we've decided what move we're going to make, I'll enter the transaction into the MLB computer system to make it "official".  After that, I'll, send out an internal email to our Player Development department as well as our scouts and others involved in Baseball Operations, so that everyone is kept up to date on where our players are headed.  As far as the logistics of the move itself, our Athletic Trainers do a great job of handling much of that work in terms of setting up the flights. Either the ATCs or the affiliate front office will also set up hotel reservations if a new player is arriving to one of our clubs.

 

Roughly what percentage of time is a player moved because of an injury vs. when the organization wants a player to face more advanced competition?

 

It really varies from year to year depending on the health of the players.  Obviously when there's an injury that is going to require a DL placement, we have no choice but to fill that hole, whereas we can be more selective about when we want to promote a player based on their performance.  There are also occasionally times where we'll assign a player downwards in order to get them more playing time, or if they're struggling at their current level .  I haven't really analyzed what percentage of moves fall into which category – we'll try to be aggressive with players that have demonstrated they have "mastered" a level, but when there are injuries there will be occasions when we have to move a player a little faster than we would have otherwise preferred. 

 

How much of what you do is administrative and how much do you deal with MLB headquarters?

 

All of our transactions, contracts, etc go through MLB, so we deal with them quite a bit.  On the internal administrative side of things, much of what I do has to do with creating and maintaining our budget, and trying to ensure that we're operating within the budget during the season.  Our affiliates do the meal money preparation for their clubs, but we handle all of the Extended Spring Training and Rehab meal money internally.  Also, I'll deal with all of our staff expense reports, as well as making sure that the bills we receive get charged to the proper budget.

 

Who do you talk more with and why, a team's minor league coaches or their front office staff?

 

I speak with our managers/coaches/rovers much more than I do the affiliate's front office staff.  I'll speak with most of our managers several times per week (if not daily), whereas I'll speak less frequently with the front offices of those affiliates. 

 

How do you find new coaches when needed?

 

We get a ton of resumes, as well as a lot of referrals for potential coaching openings, so Jeff and I try to whittle those down to a manageable number.  Additionally, there are former/current minor league players that may be nearing the end of their playing days that we may have identified as potential coaches after their career ends.  At that point, we then identify the top few candidates, and will conduct phone interviews and/or in-person interviews before making a final determination.

 

How much time is spent on off-field issues in general? What are some examples?

 

Ideally we'd spend very little time with off-field issues, but when dealing with 200+ young men in their late teens and early 20's, it's almost inevitable that there will be an occasional issue.  Fortunately most of our time in that area has been spent with implementing preventive/cautionary measures, but we'll get the occasional call about a curfew violation or something along those lines.  But generally, the number of late night/early morning phone calls about an off-field issue tend to be pretty rare.

 

Do you end up interacting with player's families? If so, what is a common example?

 

I'll occasionally see some players' family members either during spring training or when I'm visiting one of the clubs, but otherwise I really don't have a lot of interaction with the families.  Our scouting department deals much more with the families during the scouting/signing process, but once they're in our farm system, we usually deal with the players themselves or their representatives.  We may get the occasional call from one of our high school player's parents with an insurance question or something like that, but not very often.

 

How visible and active are agents for minor leaguers?

 

We deal with their agents/representatives much more often at the higher levels of the minor leagues, especially when negotiating for minor league free agents.  At the lower levels, not too many players have agents, but there are some who do.  We treat our players the same regardless of whether they employ a representative, so it's really a matter of the player's personal preference if he wants to have an agent at the minor league level

 

Do you have responsibility for helping Latin American players adjust to the USA? If so, what is involved?

 

All of us in Baseball Operations have an obligation to make our international players feel as comfortable as possible, and help them adjust to life in the United States.  We have English classes for our Spanish-speaking players, and we give particular attention to the younger players at our rookie levels, assisting them by placing our GCL players in our team hotel, so they don't have to worry about trying to find apartments or other housing, and our Johnson City club finds their players host families.  We're aware how difficult it would be for a 17-18 year old kid from the United States to go to a country where they don't speak the language, so we try to make the adjustment as easy as possible for them.  Additionally, our International Department (headed up by Moises Rodriguez) does an outstanding job of preparing our young international players for what is expected when they come to the U.S.


When a player is released, who delivers the news? If/when you are involved, do you find it difficult or unpleasant?

 

For releasing players, it really depends on the time of the season.  That's something that we always want to do in person, so if it's in-season, that task normally falls to the team's manager, unless one of our front office people happens to be in town with that team. 

 

During Spring Training, since we have our entire staff on hand, we usually have a larger group in the room when we inform a player of his release. Typically Jeff and I will be there, as well as his team's manager, and if applicable, the pitching coordinator, catching coordinator, etc.  It's probably the toughest part of the job, because in many cases it's the end of a career for a young man who has spent the majority of their lives hoping/preparing to become a professional baseball player.  With that in mind, it's impossible not to have it affect you.  It's certainly not a task that is enjoyable for anyone involved, but ultimately we all know that it's an inevitable part of the game for the vast majority of players. 

 

While it's never easy, it's somewhat easier when you know it's a player that has finished their education, or if you know that they have career options outside of baseball.  The releases that are really tough are those where the player isn't education-oriented or hasn't developed many skills outside of baseball.  On a human level, you worry about their future, and (assuming the player is not being released for disciplinary reasons), I always urge them to feel free to use me for a personal reference when looking for work. 

 

If the player wants to continue his playing career, we always provide them with information for the other ML affiliated clubs, as well as independent league information, and we also notify the other clubs about which of our players have been released in case they have a need.  We try to make it as painless and respectful as possible, but there's never a good way to tell somebody that they're no longer in the organization's plans.

 

From what part of your job do you gain the greatest satisfaction and why?

 

Probably the most satisfying part of the job is seeing a player make his Major League debut.  Knowing how the odds are against any individual player making it, it's always a good feeling to see a player's hard work rewarded with them realizing their dream.

 

Also, it's a testament to how hard our minor league field staff works in helping the player develop his skills to a major league level.  Anytime a guy starts in our system, and works his way to St. Louis, it takes an organizational effort – from the scouting department that brought him into the system to the player development guys who work with him at the minor league level, there are a lot of people whose fingerprints are on the player.  But ultimately, the vast majority of the credit goes to the player himself – we've seen a lot of players derail themselves and fall short of that goal, and the ones who make it have had to do an incredible amount of work to get there.

 

A little-known part of your job is to estimate the distance of home runs hit at Busch Stadium. How did you get the job and how do you make the estimates?

 

When I first started in Baseball Operations, I was going to be at all of the games anyway, but didn't have any specific game duties, and would watch our games from the press box, so I volunteered to do whatever was needed.  At the time, MLB was coming out with a HR distance measuring program called "Tale of the Tape", so they gave me that job, along with a couple other stats/scorekeeping tasks to do during the game.  I think the first year I did it, was '89 and a pitcher, Scott Terry, hit the two longest HR's that year.  Being the HR distance measurer for the Cardinals of that era was sort of a "Maytag Repairman" type role, but then when the McGwire era rolled around, it started being a little more high-profile for a few years. 

 

At the old stadium, we used the chart which was developed by the IBM surveyors, which assigns values for various points in the stadium based on the trajectory of the HR (towering, medium, line drive).  If a ball lands between two measured spots, we'd just do a simple interpolation to come up with the figure.

 

When we moved into the new ballpark, we needed to develop our own chart.  Our senior quantitative analyst, Sig Mejdal (who had formerly worked for NASA) and I literally went into the park with a tape measure, and took the heights of various levels, the width and vertical increase of a row in each section, and put together a quick sheet where we can calculate the distance for all of the HR's.  For all of our measurements, the figure we give is the distance the ball "would have traveled" had it returned to field level.  In the last few years, there have been other outside methods of measuring that have been attempted, but ours holds up as well as anyone's.

 

Last question. What do you do in your personal time to get away from baseball?

 

The job takes a lot of time, and the hours can get crazy at times during the year, but I'm fortunate to get to do something I love to do for a profession.  Between email, cell phones, texts, computers, etc, it has made it much easier to work from home in the evenings, so in the off-season, or if we don't have a home game, I try to make an effort to get home in a timely manner and then knock out more of the work after the kids go to bed.

 

Away from work, I enjoy spending as much time as possible with my wife and three kids.  They all have busy schedules, with school, sports, etc, so there's not a lot of time for any of us to sit and relax, but I enjoy going to their school functions,  games or serving as an assistant coach whenever the schedule allows.  The main thing that's important to me away from baseball is to be a husband and father – I know my family makes a lot of sacrifices that enables me to do my job, so as much of my free time as possible goes to them.

 

I still get out and play in a softball league when time permits, and play tennis and work on other sports with my kids when we're at home.  I love to read, but find that really the only time I have to knock out books with any consistency is if I'm on a plane.

 

 

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brian@thecardinalnationblog.com. Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog.

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