PHOENIX—The first event of Day Two of the SABR Analytics Conference gathered three of the game’s youngest general managers for a panel discussion with moderator Brian Kenny. Jon Daniels of the Rangers, Jed Hoyer of the Cubs and the recently-promoted Rick Hahn of the White Sox discussed everything from the place of analytics in the game to the importance of scouting to future areas for competitive advantage.
Hahn said the White Sox employ five full-time data analysts, Hoyer said the Cubs plan to hire six, and Daniels, GM of the two-time American League champions, said Texas has no one dedicated solely to the job of analyst.
"We’ve talked about adding a full-time data analyst," Daniels said, "but for now we’re pretty organic in the way our front office functions. We want people to think outside the box and be fluent in different areas.
"We don’t have one guy locked in a back room building a database."
Daniels said all Rangers acquisitions must be vetted by scouts, from minor league free agents and waiver claims to $100 million decisions like Yu Darvish in 2012.
"We had 40 in-person looks at Darvish in Japan," Daniels said. "We watched every start on video and had 12 different guys see him."
That’s not to say Hahn and Hoyer don’t value first-hand looks.
"We want the numbers we project for players to be similar to scouts’ evaluations," Hahn said. "We try to translate those numbers into runs or into an index (along the lines of Baseball-Reference’s OPS+), but ultimately we want our scouts to advocate for guys. We just want to be able to challenge them with data to see how they defend their guys."
Hoyer cautioned against an over-reliance on data-driven scouting. "You have to ask the right questions when developing your own data," he said. "We’ve had lots of proprietary stuff we’ve tried to come up with, but most times we’re not comfortable with the results. When we dig down deep enough, we just don’t trust the numbers and what’s left is just noise."
All three GMs said they relied on granular statistical data to prepare advanced scouting reports for his team’s next opponent.
"We try to boil down three or four things to pass on to manager (Ron Washington)," Daniels said. "They may be skeptical at first, but once players see that it works, they believe in it."
Despite the stress inherent to the position, all three GMs said they enjoy their jobs.
"If you make sure the processes are good—in terms of scouting, analytics, scouting, drafting, player development, medically—then you can sleep at night," Hoyer said
Both Hahn and Hoyer admitted to reading passionate-but-informed blogs to gauge fan sentiment. "Their info is incomplete, but I like to see how they analyze decisions," Hahn said.
On the topic of the game’s next competitive advantage, Hahn gave an interesting answer. "I see the next wave of competitive advantage coming from recruiting and keeping the best scouts," he said. "Having more outstanding scouts and more differentiation on that side of things could give a club a large advantage."
• Conference celebrity Bill James, the forefather of modern analytics based on his far-reaching influence, reminisced about his early days in SABR in the late 1970s during his speech on Day Two. He said that SABR’s original vision didn’t even encompass the hard-core performance analysis with which the organization is now synonymous.
"In baseball there’s a hard core of bricks at the center—the statistics—while questions float around the fringe. Vast areas of ignorance lie in between," James said. "If you connect the string between the questions and the data—that’s my image of what we do."
As a senior adviser for the Red Sox since 2003, James has a unique perspective on the modern front office, the use of analytics and the role of scouts.
"We will always need scouts to project numbers across wide gaps from college baseball to the major leagues," he said. "A player must improve to make it to the majors, and scouts make the assessments as to which players can make those improvements."
James said that even the best on-field managers are stretched thin, and that as a basic rule, "People are very bad at calculating cost-benefit analysis in real time.
"Managing the clubhouse is much harder than managing the team. Case in point: We spent more time worrying about the clubhouse than the team last year—and it’s always going to be that way."
James saved his most iconoclastic idea for Day Three's panel with Joe Posnanski, invoking it in the context of minor league operations expenditures by the Red Sox, which he estimates to be nearly $200,000 a day during the season.
"The minor league system is archaic, with all the travel and the bus rides," James said. "It would be more efficient if every club wasn’t trying to develop players independently. I’d like to see players not attached to teams until later in the process.
"That way we wouldn’t have major league teams constantly messing with minor league rosters. It’s hard to sell a product to fans in minor league cities when there’s no focus on winning.
"The system now promotes selfishness, with everyone competing for attention."
• Baseball America readers may be most interested in the topics discussed at Day Three's player development panel, which featured input from Indians director of baseball operations Derek Falvey, Pirates director of player personnel Tyrone Brooks and Giants director of minor league operations and quantitative analysis Yeshayah Goldfarb.
All three supplied interesting answers to the leadoff question: If you could change one thing about the player-development system, what would it be?
Falvey would want to see more focus on baseball and less on all the bus travel, echoing James’ earlier sentiment to reduce transportation costs. Brooks would like to see more coaching and instruction available to meet the needs of every single player.
Goldfarb made the case for increased minor league roster sizes, which, just like the majors, limit teams to 25 players in the full-season leagues. "We’re flying guys around the country just to fill in when somebody gets hurt," he said. "Generally, we see two movement types, those caused by injury and those due to a change in level, whether good or bad.
"Larger rosters would protect the health of players."
On the topic of developing young pitchers, Goldfarb singled out the role of Giants vice president of player personnel Dick Tidrow as a key for the organization.
"Tidrow already has a really good feel on how he might develop a pitcher before we even sign him," Goldfarb said. "He sees the process through from after the draft through the minors and can often determine if a pitcher is athletic enough to change his delivery or arm action."
All three executives agreed that changes made to the latest Collective Bargaining Agreement have benefited player development in at least one regard: the earlier mid-July draft signing deadline.
"Just getting players out there is so huge," Goldfarb said. "Now we have players sign, get in shape and play a month before instructional league. That makes a big difference for players because they know what to expect next year.
"If a player’s first exposure to pro ball is spring training, with four fields and 170 players, they feel like they get lost, like they’re not as special. But if they go out and play after signing, they experience the team atmosphere and winning as a group. It makes a difference.
"Our first-rounder (in 2011), Joe Panik, signed right after the draft and as a result got 350 plate appearances farther along in his career."
When it comes to projecting future power for a player, all three panelists agreed that it shows up early in batting practice, if nowhere else.
"For a player like Pablo Sandoval, even at a young age you could see the power in BP, even though he would hit about eight home runs during the season," Goldfarb said. "The unique thing with a player like him is that he’ll see progress in the power department sooner if he’s a good hitter.
"Big strikeout guys who never control the strike zone, they often don’t make it because they’re not hitters first."
Goldfarb also said that self-assessment and coachability are huge assets. "It’s important for players to know the adjustments they need to make. The coaches have been working in baseball—in some cases for 30 years—and they know the things players need to change, because what they’re doing won’t play at the next level once major league pitchers adjust to them.
"You can use stats to show players they need to shorten their swing or make more contact. For example, a 26 percent strikeout rate in A-ball will tend to only get worse as you move up. And you don’t see guys like that in the big leagues unless they have elite power."
Falvey closed the session by emphasizing the importance of a player’s competitive makeup.
"You can separate players by that insatiable desire to get better—they need to find ways to improve—and that trait shows up in the minors early on," he said. "Those are the best players."
• The player agent panel brought down the curtain on the Analytics Conference, with agents Gregg Clifton, Casey Close and Rex Gary devoting most of their time to reminiscing about the arbitration process that pits player against club.
Proof that the process works, they said, was evident this year because not a single case actually went before the arbitration board. The specter of going to trial is often enough to broker a deal between the two sides.
The use of analytics to make one’s case in arbitration has come a long way, but Gary said that ultimately the simple stories resonate best in his cases because the arbiters hearing the cases generally are not savvy baseball fans. To them, the most important factor is whether the player’s team wins or not.
"I like to tell a story and tailor it to my audience of three arbitration labor-law attorneys," he said. "In my arb case for Nick Johnson following the 2003 season, my argument was on-base percentage. The club's case was health, and we were ready for that.
"Because we have only an hour to present, every bit of info I use needs to mean something. If I start talking about coefficients, I’m done."
Johnson ultimately lost his case and earned $1.25 million in his first year for the Expos in 2004.
Close sees similarities between the Angels decision to renew Mike Trout’s contract at $510,000 for 2013—on the heels of an MVP-caliber rookie season—to his client Derek Jeter’s situation with the Yankees following his rookie 1996 season. New York initially renewed Jeter at the $150,000 minimum before reconsidering and upping that amount to $540,000.
Close said that, in fact, baseball’s rising minimum wage has made clubs more determined to compress salaries for so-called zero-to-three players who are not yet eligible for arbitration. The Angels, in particular, say they do not want to set a precedent with Trout, that they have an established pattern of doing business.
Asked about future repercussions that Los Angeles may face by renewing Trout at his 2012 salary, Gary said, "I think Trout will remember. Players learn the concept of leverage early, and they never forget it."
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