Neal Huntington has a challenge in front of him, but the 10-year veteran of the Indians front office has a plan in place to help resuscitate a moribund Pirates franchise that hasn’t had a winning season since 1992–a plan that includes the utilization of performance analysis. Appointed as the team’s new general manager in September, the 38-year-old native of Amherst, New Hampshire brings not only an extensive scouting and player development background to Pittsburgh, but also a deep understanding of sabermetrics.
David Laurila: Since you came on board, there has been a lot of talk of your bringing “the Indians model” with you to Pittsburgh. How do you view it?
Neal Huntington: I don’t think that we’re trying to recreate the Indians model, per se. The people I worked with in Cleveland certainly played a prominent role in my professional development, but our leadership team–our major league scouting and player development staffs here in Pittsburgh–have a variety of experiences, abilities and philosophies. It is our intent to draw on the best of our collective thoughts and build a system that is best applied in Pittsburgh. One thing about the Indians, A’s, Red Sox, and others is that they are innovative in their use of objective measurement as an evaluative and developmental tool, and that’s something of which we recognize the value. We’ll be similar in that we’ll incorporate it into what we do, but we’re not here to try to recreate the Indians.
DL: Regarding the personnel moves you’ve made since taking over, you were quoted as saying, “I knew we had to make some changes, but I didn’t realize the extent of the changes that were going to be necessary.” Can you elaborate on that?
NH: I came to the Pirates superficially aware that things hadn’t been going well, but beyond that I didn’t know what to expect. Once I got on the job, I spent a lot of time gathering information–learning who was good, what was good, and what needed to be changed. Unfortunately, upon evaluating the information I had gathered, I found there was a greater need for change than I had anticipated. While I respected each of the prior department heads individually, I made the difficult decision that in order to change the culture and build the strongest, most cohesive baseball operations department, leadership changes were required. That said, there were and are a lot of good people in the organization. We are working diligently to add more quality people, enhance the development of our staff and players and to implement a systematic approach to player evaluation and development.
DL: One of the first moves you made was to fire Jim Tracy. Why was that move made?
NH: I have a lot of respect for Jim. He and I put a lot of effort into seeing if we could make it work. He’s a good game-manager, with a successful track record, but ultimately we both determined that it wasn’t likely going be a good fit. I felt that we needed to go in a different direction, so we let Jim go and hired John Russell.
DL: What does John Russell bring to the table that Jim Tracy didn’t? Ditto the other candidates that you considered.
NH: I prefer not to compare Jim and/or the people we interviewed–but what we wanted for the Pirates was a manager with experience who brought intensity and a passion for the game. We wanted someone who will instill discipline, and a sense of pride for who we are, what we do and how we will play the game. John has those qualities, along with being an extensive communicator and a quality instructor and evaluator.
DL: Do you feel that being a good instructor is an important quality for a manager at the major league level?
NH: Absolutely. I think it’s very important, and it’s not directly market-size related, either. Teaching is very underutilized and undervalued in professional league baseball, especially at the major league level. Players should always be being worked with, being taught and learning. Given our market-size, we will typically be bringing in younger players that will need continued instruction at the major league level, but the importance of teaching isn’t symptomatic to just Pittsburgh or our market size. To sustain a veteran player’s level of performance and/or value, a club should always be working with him to keep him on top of his game.
DL: Managers seldom stay in one place for an extended period of time, and are often recycled within the game. How interchangeable do you feel managers are?
NH: I feel that the right general manager and manager can work together for a long time, and I believe we will do that in Pittsburgh. Managers make decisions every night that have a real impact on whether or not the team wins that game. The manager and his coaching staff also see a lot of things that the front office doesn’t, because they’re on the field and in the clubhouse. The field staff adds a valuable component to the evaluation process. Managers who can communicate, instill discipline, teach, and lead effectively are hard to come by. If a club can get a manager with those qualities they should work to keep him place as long as possible.
DL: In a recent interview you talked about how the front office will be utilizing statistical analysis to evaluate talent. To what extent do you expect John Russell and his coaching staff to utilize that type of information?
NH: From an advance scouting standpoint, to try to gain an advantage, it will be vital. John and I have talked about that extensively, and we expect him, along with his hitting and pitching coaches, to use that information objectively and creatively. During the course of the season I expect that John and I will on the phone frequently, if not daily. We’ll talk about a multitude of issues, with the use of statistics being one of them.
DL: In the same interview, you said, “we’ll rely on the more traditional objective evaluations like OPS, WHIP, Runs Created, Component ERA…” Have we reached the point where those metrics can now be considered traditional?
NH: I think so. Cleveland–led by Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff–does an excellent job of objectively evaluating players, and we hope to build upon that model in Pittsburgh. We look at “traditional” metrics as well as more advanced metrics any time we are breaking players down. As a matter of fact, as an organization I want us to go to the next level of metrics. I hope that we can get to the point where we’ve built an environment to create and utilize them in-house. We have a lot of work to do, but we have an outstanding statistical consultant on board, and we’re creating a computer system to help us not only store, track and access data but to also analyze the data that has been collected.
DL: Can you touch briefly on some of the more advanced metrics you alluded to, and the role you expect them to play in your evaluation and decision-making process?
NH: In terms of advanced metrics, we are trying to utilize equivalences and adjusted performance numbers as well as percentile ranks to deepen the objective evaluation of the player. An interesting development has been the objective evaluation of defensive performance and the overall impact on a player’s value. The overall role will be as a supplement to our subjective evaluations to provide us with the best information to increase our probability for success.
DL: Can you elaborate on subjective evaluations?
NH: We are building an environment in which we will utilize the subjective and objective information at our disposal and weigh it accordingly to create a complete evaluation of a given player. By subjective, we are basically talking about scouting reports, what our evaluators see, and what they can tell us about the progression or regression of individual players. In a perfect world, the data provides one perspective, and the evaluators provide another. We will balance and blend the perspectives to make an optimal assessment of value. I place a lot of value in numbers, but there are some things that can’t be quantified, and there are times scouting reports are needed to understand the elements behind the numbers. For instance, you could be looking at a pitcher in A-ball with high strikeouts and low walks. This pitcher features an 82 mph fastball which leads to frequent contact (low walks) but also has a decent changeup and a big-breaking curveball that he uses as a chase pitch to get a lot of strikeouts in A-ball. A scout is likely to recognize that while Low-A hitters will chase the breaking pitch out of the zone, hitters at the higher levels–especially in the major leagues–won’t chase and will make him throw his soft fastball over the plate where it is likely to get hit hard. The scout’s observations will confirm that the strikeout numbers at the lower levels are an exploitation of immature hitters and likely will not translate as the player progresses toward the big leagues. When scouting amateur players, there are key statistical indicators that have to be weighed more subjectively because of the level of competition. We want the data, because it will tell us something, but we also want the scouting reports to augment that data.
DL: One of the people you brought on board as an advisor is Chuck Tanner, who at age 79 would be regarded as more of an old-school baseball guy. What are you looking for him to bring to the table?
NH: First, there is his positive energy, his passion, and his vast knowledge of the game. There is also his infectious personality, which is something that will be great to have on board. He is also a quality evaluator with a vast amount of experience. Chuck has been around the game a long time, and he understands what it takes to play at the highest level. Additionally, he is very willing to embrace new things–new ideas. Chuck likes to talk about how he used to have an advance book in his back pocket when he managed. He used to break down the numbers and matchups in the 1970s, so he was quite innovative for his time.
DL: After being hired, Tanner spoke of how the Pirates have been hindered in recent years by a lack of fundamentals. Do you feel that there’s a relationship between talent level and the ability to execute fundamentals, and will that be a factor in your personnel decisions?
NH: The easy answer is that you want players with both talent and ability to execute. We want talent–big, strong athletes with tools–but we also want guys with aptitude and a positive attitude. If someone has aptitude, we can teach him. Some guys overachieve because of their ability to maximize the skills they have, while others are incredibly talented but aren’t as fundamentally sound. With the latter, we want to attack those shortcomings. We want to work with them to improve their fundamentals, because we can’t just walk away from talent. We want to believe that we can make a difference with a player–that we have the coaching in place to make that difference and help a player turn potential into performance.
DL: It happened prior to you joining the organization, but can you comment on last season’s acquisition of Matt Morris, primarily your philosophy regarding similar moves?
NH: Our philosophy is that every move we make will be logical, rational, and well-researched. They will also be for the long-term benefit of the Pittsburgh Pirates. The quick fixes that have been taken in the past–that you see happen around the league with some teams–are not something we’ll be interested in here. Free agent signings that make a small, incremental difference in on-field performance don’t have much of an impact on wins. Those decisions are decisions we need to try and avoid, especially when they come at the expense of money that could have been better utilized in player acquisition and development. If the extra pieces added could lead to two or three wins being added and are the difference between making the playoffs or not, that’s a different scenario and that short-term move has long-reaching positive impact. That would be progress, so the expense would be justifiable. But if you’re talking about potentially 78 wins instead of potentially 76, it is difficult to justify.
DL: Do you feel that the team is in a position where it can afford to take a step back in the win-loss column next year in order to build a stronger long-term product?
NH: We’re in a unique situation. We have lost 90-plus games each of the past three years, but we have an interesting core of guys with two years left on their contracts. We have a good young pitching staff, and an outstanding young closer in Matt Capps. We feel that we have some talent here and have an opportunity to win, but we want to be in a position to be consistently competitive every year. What we don’t want to do is win 82 games next year and then go backwards because we weren’t thinking long-term. If you look at teams like Colorado, Milwaukee, Arizona, and Cleveland, it has been the depth of their systems–the players they’ve developed–that has helped them to take a step forward. It hasn’t been players they’ve brought in from outside the organization. They’ve filled needs from within, and we need to get to where we can do the same thing. Improving our scouting and player development systems is a big part of what we’re looking to do.
DL: You’ve already made changes in your scouting and player development departments. What are your philosophies in those two areas, primarily in regards to the amateur draft?
NH: The first-year player draft is one of the key areas for a major league organization to acquire talent. We will draft the best player available. We will use all resources at our disposal to evaluate a player’s ability, determine our internal value for that player, and make the best selection. Once a player enters the development system, he will have a written player plan to ensure a consistent development approach that identifies his mental, physical and fundamental strengths and limitations, how we will reduce or eliminate those limitations. We will devote all possible resources to help each of our players reach their potential as a player and as a person.
DL: With multi-tool players like Andrew McCutchen in mind, are the Pirates willing to fast-track elite prospects and let them finish their development at the major league level?
NH: Regardless of the level, we will move players based on their readiness. We won’t rush a player because of his prospect status or where he was drafted. The players will show us where they should be playing. They’ll do that with their approach and how they’re meeting the level-to-level criteria that we’ve established for them. Until a player shows us that he is ready, we’re not going to put him into a position that isn’t in his best interest–or in the best interest of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
DL: What do you see when you assess the park factors at PNC, and how much will you tailor your roster to conform to them?
NH: We’re researching and studying that now. We can’t totally customize our team to our home park though, because we also play 81 road games. We do want to be successful at home. The natural approach would be to make sure we have left-handed pull power, because of the shorter right field, but we also need athletic guys, especially in center and left, because of the distances to center and left-center. We’re looking at it, and it will play some role in our thought-process, but it is only part of the equation when we are constructing a lineup.
DL: The Tigers are moving Carlos Guillen from shortstop to first base next year, which will reduce his offensive value relative to his position. What is your opinion of that type of move within the defensive spectrum?
NH: The obvious answer is that the longer you can keep a bat at a key defensive position, the better. The bat will have a superior impact than the glove in most cases, and at most positions. Victor Martinez and Jhonny Peralta in Cleveland are examples of that. But while bat-performance frequently outweighs the defensive level, you have to acknowledge that at some point you may need to make a change as the skills of the players evolve, and as your team evolves. It can also be club-specific. Maybe a club can carry a plus defensive but weaker-hitting third baseman because they are stronger than average offensively at second base or shortstop. Basically, you weigh the bats and gloves around the diamond and put together the best lineup possible. As a rule, you want to keep a good hitter at a premium defensive position as long as possible.
DL: Do you see Ryan Doumit as having an opportunity to be your regular catcher in 2008?
NH: Ronny Paulino will go into spring training as our starting catcher, and we’re hoping that he can get back to where he was offensively and defensively in 2006. We plan to give Ryan every chance in the world to earn playing time as a catcher, but we have to make sure that he is capable defensively. We know that he can hit, so it’s a matter of assessing his whole game–as it is with Ronny–and making the decision from there.
DL: Looking at your roster, as of late November, which positions do you see as being set going into the 2008 season, and which are less settled?
NH: A late-November look at our roster sees a club that is maturing and has players that have earned additional opportunities to develop and perform. We will always be open to upgrading and adding depth.
DL: Looking at both on-field success and building credibility with your fan base, do the Pirates need a marquee player?
NH: The best way to build a strong fan base is to win. I’m not a big believer that an organization is built around one player. I believe in having a depth of quality players throughout the lineup, one through nine, and having a deep pitching staff. I’m not a marquee name-believer. I feel we need above-average players across the board, and that’s what we’re working to put together in Pittsburgh. When we do that, we’re going to have a competitive, winning team.