Continuing from Part I of the discussion…
Baseball Prospectus: What’s your ideal situation for the closer position?
Brad Kullman: I’d try to set up a bullpen where you have two reliable, consistent set-up men, ideally one left-handed and one right-handed, and two co-closers. I don’t like to wait until the ninth to bring in my best pitcher if the key situation might be Bagwell or Berkman in the 8th. Then if the pitcher that gets that big out in the 8th is on, maybe you let him stay in and close down the 9th. Or maybe he doesn’t have it today, so you bring in your other closer. Or maybe your set-up man comes in up three runs in the 8th, does well, and finishes the 9th. Of course you need the talent to make all these options available in the first place.
BP: Just scanning your bio…it says you “oversaw the conversion of the Reds’ paper-based scouting information system to a computer-based operation in which every scout was able to utilize laptop computers to input their reports and transmit them to the office.” It also says how you’re in charge of information flow throughout the organization. What changes have you seen since you put the new system in place?
BK: When I first started, all the farm directors and scouts would send in faxes from all the over the place. By the time you sorted through all that stuff, our day would be gone and it would be time for that night’s game. Now with our computer system we monitor pitch counts, pitch types, first pitch strikes, stats that were much tougher to track quickly before–there was definitely no way we could have done it in real time before. Obviously there can be still be a decision made somewhere that might not be what we ideally want. But we can at least know about it quickly and work fast to prevent against it happening a second time.
BP: Do the Reds have certain basic scouting tenets you rely on in terms of drafting and evaluating talent in general? In other words, is there such a thing as a Reds philosophy?
BK: Going back to the 60s we had a lot of people come from over from the Pirates who were trained in the Branch Rickey way. That’s where you run tryout camps all over the country, looking for two things: guys that can throw, and guys than can run, the two skills that can’t be taught. The theory was if you get enough guys like that, you eventually find a hitter like an Eric Davis, and you have a superstar–assuming you could then teach that hitter how to hit and hit for power.
Unfortunately, the one thing we’ve encountered in recent years is that with expansion, and the much higher number of teams now, you can’t have the same extensive farm system that Rickey did. You can’t just throw a bunch of tools players in the pot and hope you’ll get top hitters out of it. You might just end up with a bunch of runners and throwers.
So we’ve tried to teach some of the scouts that have been with us for a while that hitting is something we need to scout for, in addition to other tools. It’s tough because we’ve had tremendous success with our old philosophy in the past, if you think about the (Big Red Machine) years. But you have to change as time goes forward. Jim Bowden’s done this, where he’s really emphasized hitters, and we were able to draft guys like Larson, Dunn, and Kearns.
BP: How much latitude do you get to go pursue different, unorthodox approaches in trying to help the team?
BK: The great thing about working with Jim (Bowden) is he’ll be supportive of you, and he’ll give you room to grow and learn. He’s open to new ideas, and supportive of good ones. He may shoot you down at times, but you never feel bad about exploring something different. We have to and we can be the smartest organization out there, making the most efficient use of our resources. That means not saying no to any idea out of pocket. Anything that might be brought to the table can be considered, whether it’s an idea for a trade, drafting, how to go about developing talent we have, or finding a player in another organization not looked at highly by others who we think we can help, and see that player’s talent grow to its maximum.
BP: We heard about a brain study you’ve been doing, along those lines of unconventional approaches. How did that get started, and what does it entail?
BK: A guy named Jon Niednagel has done some fascinating work, studying the human brain and how it relates to motor skills. He’s worked with Sammy Sosa, lots of NBA players. Jon saw a high school videotape of Tracy McGrady in high school, and right then he said ‘Whoa.’ He could see the motor skills on this grainy high school videotape, relate them back to the brain and see something special. In the testing scientists have done with cadavers, they’re able to do things like press part of the motor cortex and make a toe wiggle, so they know certain parts of the brain make certain parts of the body move in certain ways.
He was involved in the interview process that hired Bob Boone. Jon did interviews with Boone, Willie Randolph, and Ron Oester and gave his findings. He looks at how people deal with pressure, with new ideas. With players, their personalities, their motor skills are all related. It’s the same idea: You look at how people work in game situations, how they might handle losing.
BP: Have you seen results using brain typing?
BK: We have a left-hander named Justin Carter in the system. He developed a problem, to the point where he couldn’t even play catch with the pitching coach in the outfield, or throw BP. We had to put him on the DL. We tried a bunch of things, and nothing seemed to work. We had Justin do an interview, and sent a tape of the interview to Jon–this was the first year he was working with us. Jon said, ‘I think I can help him,’ even though he hadn’t seen him throw. I flew out to California for a Cal League game. Carter’s there, throwing side sessions, and it’s so bad, he’s nowhere near the mitt–he even threw one out of the park down the line.
The next day, a pitching coach, another coach, myself and Carter met Jon on a Little League field in Laguna Beach. They sat in the bleachers for about 20 minutes, with Jon just asking him questions. He’s still talking to him, and he asks if they can go play catch. He’s just talking to him, asking if Justin has any brothers or sisters, real idle chatter. Meanwhile he’s playing catch casually for the first time in a month. The coach puts on his catcher’s gear and I put on a batting helmet, and we have Justin throw. And he starts putting it over the plate, no problem. Justin’s not necessarily a top prospect, but we got him up and pitching again. Right now, we feel having Jon available gives us a competitive edge–we just have to try to figure out how to use it, whether that’s in the draft or in other areas.
BP: It seems like you’re big on studies. Again from your bio, it mentions how you commissioned a 30-year study on pitchers…
BK: That all goes back to my personal vendetta of proving a four-man rotation can work (laughs). For the study, we went back and looked at the Reds’ drafts for 30 years. Using the book by Craig Wright, we looked at measures like how many pitches per batter each pitcher faced. We took the first couple rounds of pitchers taken in each draft, looking at college and high school pitchers, pieced together their probable workloads for every year, and their degrees of success.
We found that with all those early-round picks, the Reds haven’t really developed any top pitchers from any of those picks. Don Gullett and Gary Nolan, both had Hall of Fame-type talent at the beginning of their careers, but for different reasons didn’t really have the star careers you might have expected. If you look at all the top picks, only about six pitchers in those 30 years had some kind of significant success.
If we draft a guy like Chris Gruler or Ty Howington, you have to ask, ‘What are you hoping to get?’ You want a consistent 15-game winner, not a guy who just gets a cup of coffee, or a flameout case like Jack Armstrong. We have to ask ourselves, ‘What happened?’ And how do we want to approach drafting pitchers, especially high school pitchers, in the future? Yes, we just drafted Gruler, but if you ask me now, I want to find another alternative to drafting a high school pitcher with a high pick if at all possible.
BP: We know the Reds have worked on creating a defensive ratings system. Can you describe it a bit for us?
BK: We use spotters to see if a guy could have made the play or not, similar to the way STATS, Inc. does–(Assistant Director of Baseball Administration) Geoff Silver and a few interns do it. We’d use TV announcers if we could. But if you’re watching the whole game, you have to do things like use your peripheral vision to see if a player gets a good first step on a ball, and that’s hard to do. Andruw Jones makes balls look routine because he has a great first step. Even if you look at a replay, it never shows the first step, and you’re worried about other things anyway.
STATS, Inc. does its own defensive rating, but they don’t take it to the next level. We use defensive ratings and run them through a run expectancy table. Geoff and I talked about utilizing this kind of system three years ago. It can be subjective, but so’s batting average to an extent, when you account for the decisions of official scorers. But the basic idea is: Did a player make a play because of great positioning, or because a coach positioned him, or is he a great athlete? And overall, which defensive players help a team and which ones hurt a team?
BP: So how do you combine the data you get from spotters with using run expectancies?
Let’s say we bring in Graves in the 9th inning with a one-run lead. The first batter hits an absolute screamer. Aaron Boone makes a great play and robs him of a double. The next play is a routine bouncer, he makes a bad throw for an error and the runner is safe at first. We pose the question to baseball people: If Aaron Boone made those same two plays every day, what kind of fielder would he be? And they say he’d a terrible fielder, because he’d finish with 162 errors.
Using run expectancy, if a fielder took away a double and gave up a one-base error, versus the average player who makes the routine play but gives up the double, you’ve got a plus third baseman. I grew up when the big debate was Concepcion versus Bowa. Bowa had a better fielding percentage, but Concepcion had more range–Concepcion would be the more valuable player. Or take another example: At a key point in a game, the pitcher allows a double play ball, but the fielder bobbles the ball, they only get one out and a run scores. The pitcher gets charged with an earned run, since we’re told we shouldn’t expect a double play. Using spotters and a run expectancy chart, we can say that the double play should have been made. So the fielder gets penalized.
The idea is to add up all these runs saved and runs allowed and get a clearer picture of what the fielder has done. Frankly we wish STATS would do this, so we could give interns different things to do. But doing this in-house does give us another edge on the competition.