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Sunday, September 06, 2009

My conversation with Neal Huntington and Dan Fox

Ok, that's going a bit far. I was in a room with 50 other people for the Baseball Prospectus event at PNC Park, and they answered two of my questions during the Q&A (the first and last questions of the night!). Like a typical amateur blogger, I was completely unprepared--I brought a camera but not a notebook or recording device (and I didn't use the camera much), and didn't put much thought into composing my questions to be comprehensible (and thus they almost certainly weren't).

But here, at least in spirit, is a summary of the exchange. Please do not interpret any of these things as quotes...but I think, at least, they are not misrepresentations. If anything, I sounded less coherent, and Huntington sounded more coherent. If someone out there who attended can submit any modifications or additions, please do so. My goal is for this to be as accurate as it can be. Maybe there will be some audio on a BPRadio podcast later on where we can confirm some of this.

Me: I'm a big believer in scouting (at this point, Will Carroll made fun of me for being a Reds fan--it was funny). But how do you know that a scout is a good scout? I've asked this of other people and you hear "well, some of these guys have been doing this for a long time and know so much about the game." But what is your process for evaluating a scout to find out whether they really know what they are talking about, or whether they are full of it?

Huntington: It's a good question, and one that has been asked since the advent of scouting departments. It's always going to be subjective. But for me, the way you can identify a good scout is in how he breaks down a player. In my mind, there are probably two different kinds of scouts. The first one sees a player and within a minute decides he likes a player...and then proceeds to dig deeper and find support for that decision. To me, that's more the "old school" type of scout. My preference is for the other type, who will be very methodical in breaking down a player, piece by piece, and then at the end of the process will come to a decision that (motioning with hands) all of these things are adding up and therefore he likes the player.

Me (later, after some discussion of trades and prospect valuation): So how is it that you do break down a player? I mean, I write a blog, and we've gotten to a point that we can do a reasonably good player valuation in our basement (by this, I meant, that we have some objective numbers and methodologies to use when evaluating both MLBers and prospects, like seen here). But I'm wondering if you can talk about the process that you use to take all of your information and assign a number to your player, be it dollars, wins, or whatever unit you want to use. Clearly, you've made a lot of trades lately, and therefore must have this sort of thing down.

Huntington: I don't think we really do ever assign a "number" to a player. We have a lot of internal discussions about how we value a player, but it doesn't come down to a number to the point that there's a dollar figure put on a guy. At least not yet. Dan (Fox)'s information definitely comes into play with this, however, and often helps reign in some of our more outlandish positions.

Fox: Let me just add that something along the lines of what you describe is something we're working towards. But we're not there yet.

(Let me just say, I have absolutely no doubt that Fox, at least, is well aware of the sort of trade evaluations that people are doing in the amateur circuits. In fact, it is very clear from my conversations last night that he and others like him around baseball are constantly poaching the best ideas, methods, etc, that amateur researchers come up with and putting them to good use. My feeling is that they must still do something along the lines of what we do, but that they bring in a lot of other approaches as well to come to a decision on value. ... It's worth noting, however, that when SFiercex4 broke down the Pirates trades this season, he found that they received almost dead-on even value. So, either we're doing something that other teams are doing, or at least we're doing something that is an accurate way to predicting the decisions that teams will come to.)

Some other tidbits from the conversation:

* Huntington thinks that there has clearly been a big shift towards teams putting great value on their top prospects, more so than ever before in the history of baseball. He actually thinks that teams may be over-valuing prospects at this point. (I think they are probably being valued accurately, for the most part, but this is the first time this has happened in baseball history and so it is jarring).

* He also thinks that the competitive balance this year is disappointing. He continues to think that they can succeed, but it's going to be more of a challenge that it would have been 5 years ago. A salary cap would help, he thinks.

* Dan Fox stated that the ultimate goal in baseball analysis, data collection-wise, will be to have a complete digital record of a ballgame: tracking the ball and player position in real time. And we're almost there, as evidenced by the "GPS" software demo we all saw videos of earlier this summer. The question then will be how to mine it; that's where the next great advances in baseball statistics will come from. I hope the public will have access to those raw data...if nothing else, it's in baseball's best interest to let us do that research.

* The Pirates have a no-touch policy for the first six months a player is in the organization. After that time, they may try minor tweaks, but rarely will make huge changes to a player. There was lots of discussion of Tim Alderson in this regard.


As for me, it was a really fantastic evening. I got to meet and interact with a lot of folks that I've corresponded with and/or read over the years, including Dan Fox, Eric Seidman (chatted with him most of the game that followed the Q&A session--terrific guy), Will Carroll, Brian Cartwright, and, of course, the newly minted Pizza Cutter, Ph.D. Wonderful experience.

Furthermore, let me say that Neal Huntington is an incredibly impressive person. I'm sure most GM's are when you meet them--I remember Chad having a similar impression of Wayne Krivsky when they met for an interview early in Krivsky's tenure. But he seems like a very direct, no-nonsense person who had a very clear idea of how he felt was the best way to get his organization back on a winning path. It helps, I'm sure, that I agree with him. He talked a lot about the joint role of scouts vs. stats, and about making sure that the process is right, even if mistakes are occasionally made....something I've been talking about a fair bit of late. This kind of venue is precisely the sort of experience that could make a Pirates fan out of someone. I doubt I'll ever quit the Reds, but I sure like the Pirates front office.

I'll add some photos later on, though I didn't take photos of people--didn't want to be the Paparazzi.

Update: Here's Shawn Hoffman's recap of the event. For the record, Brian, I never ridiculed the Pirates' record. :)

If anyone else sees an event recap, please let me know--I'd like to link it.