Baseball Prospectus: We talk a lot about people who came up within the game–scouts, ex-players–who have embraced performance analysis. Flipping that around, what has your in-house performance analyst, Keith Law, learned from you that he’s been able to incorporate into his job?
J.P. Ricciardi: Keith likes to read into the numbers; he does a lot more breakdown than I might not do. He’s not the end-all, be-all on decision-making, he’s a contributor to the team. We like to think we’re open-minded enough to listen when someone brings something to the table. Keith does a good job of looking all the way down to minor league free agents and colleges, of using the numbers to find talent.
As for what he’s learned from us: Having never played the game or really been around the game, there a lot of things that in his end of the world he didn’t get to see. You can forget the human element there. But then you come in and get to know people and what makes them tick, and that helps you get a better understanding of how the game works. Sometimes from far away you don’t get to see that, to know that. He’s learned a lot from us and brought a lot to the table.
BP: In as much detail as you can, describe some of the concepts behind the defensive rating system that Keith has worked on for the team. Given the lack of quality defensive measures around, do you see this as another area where you feel you can gain an edge on the competition?
Ricciardi: The defensive stuff, I’ve got to be honest–I don’t hold much value to it. I think it’s more important to watch a player play. Numbers are more indicative from a hitting standpoint; a hitter can go up and down, and you lose focus on the bigger picture. The numbers are important for smoothing all that out. But in the field, I think it’s more important to watch players, to see which balls they can get to and can’t get to.
I know you guys talk a lot about whether Jeter is a good shortstop or not. But I’ll tell you, if it’s the bottom of the ninth, I want the ball hit to Derek Jeter. I’ve never seen the guy not make a play he was supposed to make. By watching him play, I know I want the ball hit to him. Maybe that’s the scout part of me. You look at someone like Hinske. He makes the routine plays, and that’s very important.
Defense is probably the one area where I disregard the numbers. A lot of people that aren’t around the game, that’s where the arguments come from. They don’t see players play everyday. We paid (Mike) Bordick $1 million last year–he might have been worth $5 million from a defensive standpoint. If you don’t see that every day, you’re not going to get the full picture. Certain guys make plays every day.
BP: As we’ve seen in L.A. this summer, making the right moves can create headaches with the media. Given the sometimes hostile position of the Toronto media toward some of your decisions–Rich Griffin and Geoff Baker come to mind–how do you work towards being a winning franchise without running into serious PR issues? Is it possible to co-opt the local media through access and education?
Ricciardi: I didn’t get this job because of those guys. I spent my whole life in baseball, and that had nothing to do with those guys. You know the old expression–when you start listening to those people, you’ll soon be sitting with those people. I’m going to do things the way I think is right. My responsibility lies with ownership and the organization, and I have to do what I feel is best. I have a long-range plan, and I’m building this thing for the long haul. We had a really good year last year, then this year we’ve had a tough season, but there’s been no balance at all in the coverage we’ve gotten. The media don’t have to be accountable for a lot of what they say. They can say one thing, then change their minds the next day.
BP: Fair points, but the local media is also how a lot of fans get their information on the team. Isn’t there an argument to be made that if you can reach out to the fans, you’ll draw more of them to the park, more fans mean more revenue, and more revenue increases your ability to build a winner?
Ricciardi: The bottom line is putting a winning team on the field–that’s what makes people come to the park. You can share your ideas and plans as much as you want, but fans won’t show up until the team plays well on the field, that’s just how it is. Last year we had excitement, because we played well. This year there’s less excitement, because the results haven’t been there on the field.
BP: When you talk about some of the budgetary challenges the Jays face, how much of that has to do with currency issues, being in Canada? Obviously the exchange has improved, but is this still a problem for you? Also, do you ever find you have trouble recruiting a player to sign in Toronto compared to New York or Cleveland or Detroit because it’s a foreign country, even if Toronto’s not actually all that different from U.S. cities?
Ricciardi: I have not run into any of that at all. First of all, the guys we’ve targeted as free agents, we may not have a lot of choices because we may have to do some bottom-fishing anyway. They’re happy to get a good deal, or it may have been a good fit for them. And Toronto’s a great city; there’s nothing about Toronto that would make you think you can’t get the same things you can in the U.S. Toronto would have to be considered among the top five, seven cities in the league–outside of New York, Boston, Chicago, L.A., it’s really as good as it gets. Plus the fans don’t bother you here. In Boston they’ll tackle you and want your first-born.
The biggest thing for us is that we get better as an organization and as a team. As we do get better, we’ll have more resources. They brought in Jack Morris, Paul Molitor, Dave Winfield as finishing touches to the puzzle in the ’90s. Once we get to that point, we might be able to do something like that.
BP: Given the challenges you face as an organization and some possible frustration that may be there from having a lower payroll, what kind of relationship have you been able to maintain with management?
Ricciardi: (President and CEO) Paul Godfrey is a great guy. He’s a doer, really positive and upbeat. He understands our limitations, but he’s always looking to make the team better. We had a kid from Taiwan we really wanted to sign a year ago. We laid out the reasons we really wanted him, and he didn’t hesitate, he just said, ‘go ahead and do it.’ He’s a great person who wants to see the Blue Jays do well. These jobs come down to who you work for, not what it says on the front of the uniform. He’s the reason I took the job here–I would never have done it if not for him.
BP: You’ve had three years, and obviously this season, your third, has been the team’s least successful. Do you feel like 2005 has to be a good year, maybe even a playoff or strong contention year, for you to keep your job?
Ricciardi: I signed a five-year contract here because I said it was going to take a long time. I could have walked into Boston and had all the money in the world to work with. But I felt I had a great opportunity here. They gave me a contract with the idea that we were a long way away. I said it would take four or five drafts to restock farm system.
At the end of ’07 when my contract is up, I don’t even know if I’ll want to be a GM anymore. I like some things about the job, and I dislike some other things that are not so fun. I like building, the aspects of the job that involve building. But if they came in and said ‘we don’t like the job you’re doing,’ that’s fine, I’m a big boy. I don’t do my job in fear, and I’m not going to lose sight of the long-range plan. At the end of ’07, if we’re still a $50 million club, then maybe the reality for us is we’re an 86-to-90-win club–that might be the best we can do on $50 million. In the Central that might get you into the playoffs, and in the West that might get you close some years too. Here in the East, it gets you a lot of ‘thattaboys’ and third place.
BP: What are some of those tough parts of the job you talk about?
Ricciardi: When you win…it’s what we’re all made of: The bottom line is to win. That’s when everything in the world seems right. But when you lose, everything in the world seems wrong. I don’t know if I want my personality to be one where everything in my life is driven around a win or a loss. When you lose, it eats you up, it’s hard to take. My personality is that I don’t like to lose. And there are a lot of things beyond your control that can be the difference between winning and losing. Would I like to have A-Rod, Nomar, Jeter? Sure. But it doesn’t mean I’m a better or worse evaluator if I don’t have access to those guys. It’s a reality of the job, and something out of my control.
Being away from my family is probably the hardest part of the job. The most important thing for me in life is being with my wife and kids. You can talk about people saying ‘you were a good general manager,’ or ‘you were a good scout.’ But it’s different when people say you’re a good father, or a bad father. If I fail in that role, that will hurt me a lot more. I never sat here and said that my driving goal was to be a GM. I like the creativity I can bring to the job, the scouting aspects; my heart was and always has been in scouting and player development. But in two, three, four years if someone said I wouldn’t be the GM anymore, that wouldn’t break my heart.