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Saturday, December 08, 2007

A Pair of GM Interviews

One of the interviewers I always make a priority to read, and I'm not just saying this because he's a colleague, is David Laurila at Baseball Prospectus. Whether it's catching up with a former player, talking to a scouting director, or even a general manager as he did last week with the Pirates new GM Neal Huntington (pictured right), Laurila is a must read.

What makes Laurila's interviews so good, and the skill most important for any interviewer I would guess, is that I find he asks the questions I would ask only in a way that never seems to offend the interviewee and cause them to shut down. And of course he has a great way of transitioning from one topic to another making the interviews pleasant to read.

That said, here's a just a brief excerpt from the Huntington interview that illustrates both skills as Laurila both asks about what can be a hot button topic in statistical analysis and does so by piggy-backing off of a series of questions on the Pirates new manager John Russell.

DL: In a recent interview you talked about how the front office will be utilizing statistical analysis to evaluate talent. To what extent do you expect John Russell and his coaching staff to utilize that type of information?

NH: From an advance scouting standpoint, to try to gain an advantage, it will be vital. John and I have talked about that extensively, and we expect him, along with his hitting and pitching coaches, to use that information objectively and creatively. During the course of the season I expect that John and I will on the phone frequently, if not daily. We’ll talk about a multitude of issues, with the use of statistics being one of them.

DL: In the same interview, you said, “we’ll rely on the more traditional objective evaluations like OPS, WHIP, Runs Created, Component ERA…” Have we reached the point where those metrics can now be considered traditional?

NH: I think so. Cleveland--led by Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff--does an excellent job of objectively evaluating players, and we hope to build upon that model in Pittsburgh. We look at “traditional” metrics as well as more advanced metrics any time we are breaking players down. As a matter of fact, as an organization I want us to go to the next level of metrics. I hope that we can get to the point where we’ve built an environment to create and utilize them in-house. We have a lot of work to do, but we have an outstanding statistical consultant on board, and we’re creating a computer system to help us not only store, track and access data but to also analyze the data that has been collected.

DL: Can you touch briefly on some of the more advanced metrics you alluded to, and the role you expect them to play in your evaluation and decision-making process?

NH: In terms of advanced metrics, we are trying to utilize equivalences and adjusted performance numbers as well as percentile ranks to deepen the objective evaluation of the player. An interesting development has been the objective evaluation of defensive performance and the overall impact on a player’s value. The overall role will be as a supplement to our subjective evaluations to provide us with the best information to increase our probability for success.

So here we learn that Huntington is being aggressive in pursuing analysis to the extent of commissioning the construction of a new system for the organization, that it incorporates advanced metrics, and that at least in part it deals with advanced scouting data, an area that you don't always hear about in terms of analysis where the focus is often more on player projections and translating performance across levels of competition. And so it would appear that Pittsburgh is entering the realm of the more sophisticated teams in terms of quantitative analysis. The rest of the interview is enlightening as well with thoughts on player development and a couple specific prospects.

In a second GM interview, Baseball Digest Daily's Joe Hamrahi hits the high points in an interview with the Dodger's Ned Colletti. As you might imagine the focus was on the cadre of young players the Dodgers have and what their opportunities might be in 2007 given the unfortunate decision in the 2006 off-season to load up on veterans at their expense. When asked what he might have done differently in 2007 given the chance Colletti said...

That’s a great question. I’m sure there are (some things). One thing I know I wouldn’t have done differently. I’m glad I didn’t trade 3 or 4 kids at the deadline. I think that decision will prove to be valuable for a very long time. People ask about the young players all the time. Teams need young players.

Well, yes, one would think that was obvious and of course by the trading deadline there were few people encouraging the Dodgers to give up Andre Ethier, James Loney, Matt Kemp, Andy LaRoche, or Chad Billingsley for a rent-a-player. Earlier in the interview Colletti seemed very excited about the finish of Loney in particular but there too it's not as if there weren't solid reasons to believe Loney would be a contributor long before that as indicated by his PECOTA projection and his .385/.442/.603 line before the break in limited time.

But now it appears as if either Kemp or Ethier will lose time in the wake of the signing of Andruw Jones since one doubts that Juan Pierre and his large contract will be the victim. Sometimes injuries have a way of making these kinds of problems moot as the season approaches but it'll be interesting to see what Colletti's next move is.

Finally, in relation to the signing of Jones some have wondered what the difference between Jones and Pierre might be in terms of opponent's baserunning given that Jones has among the best and Pierre the worst reputations for their throwing arms.

In an essay titled "Expanding the Cannon: Quantifying the Impact of Outfield Throwing Arms" for this year's Baseball Prospectus annual, I take a look at exactly that question and the results for Jones and Pierre confirm the common wisdom. In 2007 Jones was worth +4 runs over average in terms of throwing runners out and stopping them from advancing. The combination of his positioning and arm meant that runners advanced just 31% of the time, tops among centerfielders with 100 or more adjusted games played at the position. On the contrary Pierre found himself at the other end of the spectrum and rated a -7 for his arm as opponents advanced 47% of the time - easily the worst at his position. Suffice it to say that 2007 was not an aberration as the essay also includes 2005 and 2006 leaderboards and totals for the same time period. By simply replacing Pierre with Jones (and not considering how much Pierre might play in left where his arm will hurt the team far less), the Dodgers stand to gain around a win only considering outfield throwing. When you add the larger offensive impact, you're talking about a significant difference...

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