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February 6, 2006

Prospectus Q&A

Mark Newman, Part Two

by Jonah Keri

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Continued from Part I

Baseball Prospectus: In looking at a database of MLB executives, your name isn't in there for 2003. There were reports that you had a falling-out with George Steinbrenner--are they accurate? What led to you leaving your position, and what did you do during that time before you came back?

Mark Newman: There wasn't a falling-out at all. I wasn't in the office for about seven months, and that's because I asked to do something else for a while. I'd spent 11 straight years working every day with no vacations. This business is demanding. This business in this environment is very demanding. As it turned out I got a chance to do something great, to see things I hadn't seen before. Around the time of the 2003 draft, I went on the road, did some scouting, spent time with scouts. It was fun, as much fun as I'd had in a long time professionally. After the 2003 season, I came back to the same role I have now. You could call it a sabbatical, while doing a little of everything: I studied the top 100 hitters in the major leagues to see where they came from, what their plate discipline was like as minor league hitters, how they produced in their first year as major leaguers. I did a lot of other basic research stuff. I got to see bunch of players, spent time on the road and in ballparks and just had a really good time.

BP: Spending that much time with scouts had to be eye-opening. You mentioned how tough it is just to evaluate the Yankees' drafting, scouting and player evaluation skills. In trying to build a draft database, do you focus only on what the Yankees have done, or do you also look at other teams' performance?

Newman: We look at players drafted by other teams too, definitely. One thing that makes it difficult to evaluate, though--whether it's our own players or others'--is that you may have nailed the pick in terms of finding a high-quality prospect, but then the player gets hit by a bus. We never intended to place our evaluation solely in the objectivity basket. But ultimately we have to attempt to be as objective as possible, because the quality and caliber of an organization is directly related to its people.

For the scouting director, the draft is his body of work, but area scouts, for instance, don't get to select players. There's nothing more significant than the people we hire for scouting. One particular type of player they might not evaluate all that well, we can have them go through training programs. And then we have to evaluate what our own training programs look like in the first place. Decisions on hiring, training and retention all grow from evaluation. Even the most basic questions are still up for debate--we're still working on what a good hit rate is, for both scouts and scouting directors.

BP: So how do you quantify scouts' contributions, then?

Newman: Just starting by taking an approach of objectivity is a big first step. For amateur scouts, we can look at their body of work over the course of a season, evaluate the list of reports they're turning in. The quality of that list isn't apparent right away. So we try to do one-year, three-year, and five-year evaluations--it takes a while to see how well these players turn out. If you get an 18 year-old high school kid from Dayton, the most important group is probably going to be the five-year look back.

Then you set a threshold for what is an acceptable evaluation, and look at whether a particular scout was below or above the acceptable level. I know people I have great respect for, who say there's no way to objectively evaluate scouts, so we should do it subjectively. But again, what's an acceptable hit rate, subjectively or objectively? If there are 50 rounds in the draft, you need to focus on a usable number of rounds, since the players in the late rounds are long shots. So you can look at the top three rounds for the cross-checker, since that's the focus of his job. Then you might look at the top five or six rounds for area scouts, where there's still a reasonable chance that prospects will emerge.

BP: We're seeing more and more people take a hard look at the demographics that lead to the best draft success. Rany Jazayerli of Baseball Prospectus did a series last year looking at how high school hitters and pitchers vs. college hitters and pitchers turned out in the draft, for one. Do the Yankees go into the draft with a specific idea of what kind of player they want, or are you just looking for talent, whatever its source might be?

Newman: We do slice the data to see where players came from, whether it's high school or college. One thing I recall my father saying to me is that "a man who has one foot in a fire and one foot in a block of ice is at average temperature." Those are the kinds of difficulties we face in drawing meaningful conclusions from data sometimes. He was not anti-data; he was simply arguing for deeper understanding and urging me not to jump to conclusions too quickly.

We have to remember that tools are important, that makeup's important. Some of the issues we've had would have been difficult to quantify. In 1997, we had a first-round pick, Tyrell Godlin, who didn't sign. We had David Walling, who had a great start to his career (8-2, 3.14 ERA, 82 K, 18 BB in 80.1 IP at Staten Island in the New York-Penn League in 1999). He gets to Triple-A, and a couple months later he quit.

BP: The Yankees had a pretty poor draft record for quite a few years. The results look more promising in the last few years. What's changed?

Newman: Three or four years ago our system wasn't good--you have to get back to the early- to mid-90s, when we were having good drafting years and had a strong system. We're seeing some promising players with Philip Hughes, Eric Duncan. We're making a conscious effort to rebuild the system now, and a big part of that to stop the outflow, not just improve the inflow. Last year we saw [Brad] Halsey pitch with some success, [Dioner] Navarro with the Dodgers looks like the starting catcher this season. In order to rebuild our base, we have to be more careful about trading. There was talk of us moving [Robinson] Cano and [Chien-mien] Wang, but we think they'll be a big part of our future. Of course the other side to this is that even when we don't sacrifice draft picks to sign free agents, we tend to draft pretty low due to our success. Last year when we took C.J. Henry it was the highest we'd picked since we got Derek Jeter.

BP: A team that relies so heavily on veterans like the Yankees is going to eventually run into the challenge of dealing with an aging core. We've seen players like Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada and others come down quite a bit from where they were earlier in their careers. What was missing from the 2005 team, and what needs to be done to improve in 2006 and beyond?

Newman: The biggest thing we need to do this season is give up fewer runs--we need to pitch better and field better. I think we'll be fine on the runs scored side with the offense we have, but runs allowed needs to improve. Transitioning to the future will help, where players like Wang and Cano can contribute to run prevention by adding pitching and defense where we need it. Cano especially has to continue to grow, so we can improve our up-the-middle defense especially.

BP: You said how measuring defense gives you a "double headache." What steps are the Yankees taking to identify whether a player is a plus or minus on defense? What's your take on Derek Jeter's defense specifically, which has caused some big debates on both ends?

Newman: We're trying to find metrics that lead us to the truth. We still believe that a lot of the truth about defense is best evaluated in the traditional sense. We still haven't seen a metric that's better than traditional scouting. Looking at skills--hands, arm strength, positioning relative to the opposition--those will always be cornerstones. The statistical data about Derek suggest he's not a good defensive shortstop, but we believe he is. When you watch him, see him every day, he has the hands, the range, the arm. But at the same time, we need to--and are--working on ways to more objectively evaluate defense. The fact that it's difficult to know doesn't mean it's impossible. We've had a bunch of smart people working on it in a lot of places. We had a guy come in this summer named Victor Hu, who's graduating from Harvard, studying math and statistics. We had him work on defense, how many runs a player saves over course of season defensively. We talk to him every 10 days or so. We've got (former Manhattan actuary) Michael Fishman in New York, and a few other guys working on it too.

The whole BABIP business, how pitchers can't impact BABIP, that's an area we're trying to explore. We're doing a lot of work on who those few plus-BABIP guys are. One of the interesting things is cross-referencing statistical analysis with scouting reports--finding out which combinations of BABIP and scouting-related pitching factors yield particular results. We want to apply this analysis to the type of pitchers we select at all levels. If anything, one result of this research is that I think we have a better handle on what we don't know. That's valuable--frustrating, but valuable.

BP: How do the Yankees go about determining payroll? If a player costs, say, $10 million as a free agent, does the team think in terms of paying him 40% above sticker price due to the luxury tax--in this case $14 million?

Newman: Paying over sticker price is definitely an issue for us and one we do look at. But ultimately it's not an issue for us if we feel this player will play a big role for our ballclub. Yes, a $10 million player, given the luxury tax situation, will cost us more than $10 million. We know what the cost is, George Steinbrenner knows it too, and he gets to decide whether or not to sign the checks. The Boss has built an unbelievably valuable asset, logo, trademark, brand by aggressively reinvesting in the team.

Jonah Keri is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jonah's other articles. You can contact Jonah by clicking here

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