A new era of Mariners baseball began when Seattle hired Jack Zduriencik as their general manager following the 2008 season, an era that will include an increased emphasis on statistical analysis. Helping to lead that charge will be Tony Blengino, who previously served as Milwaukee’s assistant director of amateur scouting under Zduriencik, and now holds the title of special assistant to the general manager, baseball operations. A chief financial officer and author of the book Future Stars, before joining organized baseball in 2003, Blengino will head Seattle’s newly created Department of Statistical Research. Blengino talked about his new role, and how the Mariners hope to build a championship-caliber team through a perfect marriage between traditional scouting and statistical analysis.
David Laurila: How would you describe your role within the Mariners’ organization?
Tony Blengino: My role is basically to be Jack’s right hand in player evaluation of all types, be it at the major league level, putting the big-league club together, or working hand-in-hand with our pro scouting director, Carmen Fusco, our amateur scouting director, Tom McNamara, and our Director of Player Development, Pedro Grifol. Basically, any type of player evaluation that goes on, I’ll be right there, next to Jack and helping him to make decisions.
DL: How does that differ from what you did in Milwaukee?
TB: Well, in Milwaukee it was obviously limited to amateur scouting, in terms of a formal arrangement. Now, Doug Melvin also heard lots of voices from people on the staff, so I had my input there as well. Here it’s a little more direct, because I’m one step removed from the chair making all the decisions, while in Milwaukee I was a little bit farther away.
DL: Is there an actual statistical-analysis department in place, or is it essentially your voice?
TB: It is something we’re going to grow organically over time. We’re bringing our advanced scouting in-house this year. We’ve hired a guy named Andrew Percival, who worked as an intern for the Brewers a couple of years ago, in video advance scouting, and he’s going to get our video advance scouting off the ground. In addition, we have a couple of consultants. Tom Tango has actually just come on with us as a consultant, and also Mat Olkin, who has had a relationship with the Mariners for a period of time. So they’re not in the building, per se, but they will also have their voices heard. And with the video advance scouting department we’re going to have, we’re going to have some interns that will be on board helping to break down the game with advance scouting reports. Over time I’m hoping that we can really attract young talent to the organization. I saw the good that did in Milwaukee. Some of those guys, in the three years I was in the office there, have gone on to be amateur scouts, pro scouts, and have gone on to work in front offices in various capacities. I’m hoping that we can develop a flow of young talent into the Mariners organization as well.
DL: In addressing the increased emphasis on statistical analysis that you and Jack Zduriencik are bringing to the Mariners, you were quoted as saying, “We have to take care that we do it right.” Can you elaborate on that?
TB: Well, I don’t think that you just rush in. The context of that comment was basically, do you put a full-scale department together all at one time, or do you grow it organically over time? And I think the best way-I need to have time to think; I need to have time to bring my own talents to the fore. If I’m spending all my time hiring and just putting this department together, that takes away from my ability to bring the talents I have to the table as well. At the end of the day, I have to be freed up to be thinking as much as possible and not spending all of my time administrating. I think that if we bring this department along gradually, it gives me the best chance to do that, whereas if all of a sudden I say, ‘OK, here’s a big budget number, go ahead and put your department together,’ I’m spending all of my time building a department and not enough time thinking and helping the Mariners make decisions on a day-to-day basis.
DL: In previous seasons, the Mariners have hired an outside consultant to provide statistical information. How interested are you in the data they provided, and how will you use it?
TB: Mat Olkin is the consultant who was on hand, and he was used in a certain way by the previous management team. And I think I would probably change that over time. I think that I bring a lot of things to the table that they were maybe looking to Matt for, so I can probably look to Matt for other things. It’s a matter of the Mariners maybe not having had someone with my skill set in the front office before, and that kind of frees you up to look for more long-range, big-picture-type projects from a consultant, rather than asking them for basic statistical analysis that I can answer myself.
DL: Consultants and the Major League Scouting Bureau both provide data that is less biased than what is typically found in-house. Is that statement true or false?
TB: I think that we’re looking for all types of independent information. I would agree that a lot of the material you get from the Scouting Bureau has value. Any information that you take in has to be in the appropriate context, and I just think it’s great for different independent viewpoints to all be heard. At the end of the day, someone has to make a decision after all of that information is brought in, and Jack is the ultimate decision maker; I obviously have some decision-making responsibilities as well. But we want independent opinions, and we want people in our office to disagree. We want some degree of conflict. If everyone agrees, and says the same thing about each transaction, you have too homogenous of a group together. You need to have people coming at issues from different angles, and I think that we’re in the process, in the short time we’ve been together, of having that.
DL: With statistical models in mind, just how much proprietary information exists within big league organizations?
TB: I think that it has grown significantly in the last few years. And I think that conventional wisdom is that offensive statistics have kind of been honed to the point where there’s a lot of agreement, and that defense is kind of the final frontier with a few teams coming at it from different perspectives. And I do think that is the case. There is proprietary information out there, and this year there is more than there was last year, and there was more last year than the year before. Will it ever be 100 percent of the teams all coming at defense, or any other issue, from 30 different directions? Probably not. But I think that you do find most teams attacking the issues, but maybe coming at them from slightly different perspectives, and we’re in the process of doing that as well.
DL: Among established defensive metrics, which do you feel are most meaningful?
TB: I like the Hardball Times revised zone ratings [RZR] and out of zone plays [OOZ]. I think you can take their statistics and couch them a certain way, and get some really good indicators. There are a lot of other ones out there as well, like the Plus/Minus and the UZR, and I think they all have value. I think it all comes down to being able to come up with a measure where you have a baseline that you’re comparing to, and I think that with the Hardball Times metrics you can come up with a baseline fairly easily and know what you’re talking about, whether a guy is above or below average at a certain position, and watch trends over the years fairly easily. So I think that there is value in a lot of the different metrics, and I think they’re being advanced on an annual basis. It comes down to the user and what he’s most comfortable working with, and that he has a logical premise that his analysis is based on.
DL: How important is defense to winning baseball games?
TB: I think that defense is very underrated, still. I think that player salaries over probably the last quarter century have been so tied to offense, and defense only in the last few years has really begun to be paid attention to on a large scale. And it takes a while for the marketplace to turn the dollars and cents, to react to that. So I do believe that defense is undervalued in the marketplace, and a good way to pick up additional wins for your club is to go out and try to significantly improve your defense. How long will that continue to be an area of opportunity? Who knows, but if people suddenly fully value defense, that means they’re going to start to undervalue something else. It’s just a matter of being constantly on guard, and reacting to changes in the marketplace from a valuation perspective and being prepared to take advantage of it.
DL: You have a scouting background. In which ways does that impact the work you do as a statistical analyst?
TB: Having come in with Jack as an area scout in 2002 with the Brewers really puts some perspective to it. You can’t do stats alone, and you can’t do scouting alone; the two don’t exist in vacuums, they need to be brought together. Players need to be looked at not only for what they’re doing right now, but for what they can do in the future. There are lots of really good college players who are not going to be good professional players because their athletic tools aren’t going to allow them to be. So I think that getting that grassroots scouting experience put everything in perspective for me. You’re going out looking at lumps of clay in the amateur market, and yeah, they need to know how to perform and play the game, but without that tool set they’re not going to be able to develop the skill set. So it really is vital that statistics and traditional scouting work hand in hand for an organization to succeed, and I think you see that with the most successful organizations in the game; they do both well.
DL: Do you see a big difference in how individual teams handle that balance?
TB: From the most statistically oriented team to the least, I think there’s a large gap. But if you look at it, every organization uses statistics in some manner. There are probably 10 where there is a heavy influence, 10 in which there is a significant amount of input but it isn’t a critical-mass type of input, and there may be 10 where statistics have relatively little weight. But I guarantee you that all 30 teams use statistical analysis in some manner, and that all of them probably have for a longer period of time than people would want to admit. Branch Rickey has brought a lot to this game, and reading back over his history, statistics were a big part of the way he did things many, many years ago. And he had a lot of coattails in this game, so it’s been going on for a long time. It’s just only become relatively sophisticated and been picked up by the baseball media, and with Moneyball being the obvious example, by the mainstream media. But it’s been there, and always will be there, and yeah, there’s a difference between team one and team 30, but everybody uses it to some extent.
DL: Assuming that the 30 teams can be split into three groups, as you suggested, do we have enough evidence to show which group has it right?
TB: I don’t know, because one of the 10 that doesn’t might scout better than anybody else. We could sit here and talk about college and high school and the draft; certain teams are high school oriented and certain teams are college oriented. Some teams do the college thing well, while some do the high school thing poorly, and vice versa. It’s a matter of doing what you do well. You can be relatively non-statistically oriented and scout so darn well that you still have significant success. I think that what you’re looking for is an ideal scenario where you have a strong scouting department, a strong statistical capacity in the organization, and a front office with the capacity to bring the two together. Also, a strong financial backing in the organization so that you can go out and make a difference at the major league level with bringing talent in, and in the draft with bringing talent in. When you have that scenario, with all hands on deck, that’s the dream scenario.
DL: Looking at players within a minor league system, to what extent can statistical analysis be used to project future success?
TB: The farther away you get from the major leagues, the less valuable that statistical information is. You can take college stats to some extent as long as you have scouts vouching for the tools of the player. Then you can project them with at least some degree of accuracy as to how they’ll perform in the major leagues. In the minor leagues, statistical data is even more valuable. But there are so many star players in the major leagues who were drafted out of high school where statistical information is totally worthless. So, I think that the key is to know the context in which you’re getting the statistical information, and the farther away from the major leagues that data is, the more you have to take it with a grain of salt. If you’re in Double- or Triple-A and are young for your league, and you’re performing, you have a pretty good chance to be a successful major league player. If you’re in A-ball, there are some hoops you have to jump through; going from High-A to Double-A is a big difference-maker for me. In college, if you’re a lights-out performer really standing out in some key statistical areas, then you’ve got indicators for success, but you’re such a long way away that you can’t get too excited about it. It all depends on how close you are and whether you’re meeting some very lofty statistical criteria.
DL: During the Winter Meetings, the Mariners made news with a three-team, 12-player trade. What was your role in that deal?
TB: Well, there were so many individuals having input, and the stats on the minor league prospects involved in the deal-it was both statistical things that stood out and youth-relative-to-the-league that stood out. In addition to the statistics, we also relied on scouting reports from both our pro and amateur staffs. As for the major league pieces of the deal, Gutierrez is a guy that we think still has a chance to hit; some markers in his statistical record suggest that he still has a chance to be a pretty good offensive player. And the defensive metrics clearly state that he’s one of the best defensive outfielders in the major leagues. Add in the fact that you still have four years of control, and we thought that Franklin Gutierrez was a very valuable property. We felt that we were able to add quantity and quality in the deal, and to help ourselves in both the short term and long term. J.J. Putz is a really good player, and we felt that we had to have that deal to be able to move him. I mean, he’s two years removed from being a dominant closer, so we felt that we needed to have short- and long-term goals met for us to justify moving him, and we did that.
DL: A few years ago the Red Sox almost moved Jonathan Papelbon into their starting rotation. With Brandon Morrow and Aaron Heilman in mind, how do you view the relative value of utilizing a quality arm as a starter or as a closer?
TB: I’ll preface my answer by saying that an elite closer has tremendous value, but at the end of the day it is very hard to find starting pitchers. If teams sit down and goes through their organization-through their minor league clubs, player by player-and you go through all of your pitchers, you’re going to have so many guys where you say, ‘this guy is a reliever,’ ‘this guy is a situational guy,’ ‘this guy is a swing man.’ You have very few guys you’re going to look at and say, ‘That guy is a 180- to 200-inning starting pitcher,’ and when you have those potential guys, I think you start by saying, ‘Okay, can this guy start for us?’ If the answer is yes, you give him every opportunity to start. If the answer is no, or even maybe, and you have a chance to have a dominant closer, then you have to give that a look as well. So you have to look at each pitcher differently, each one as an individual. But if you can get an effective 180- to 200-inning starter, and that pitcher has the arsenal of pitches to do it, the makeup to do it, and the physical durability to do it, I think that all things being equal you have to give him a chance to start.
DL: A year ago, the Mariners gave up a number of highly regarded prospects in the Erik Bedard deal, feeling that they could compete for an AL pennant in 2008. The move was panned by statistical analysts who recognized that the Mariners had greatly outperformed their talent level in 2007 and would have been better served building for the future. How did you view their situation?
TB: I thought that it was clear going in that, with all due respect, they overrated their team from the last year. They gave up more runs than they scored in 2007, and by all indications were about an 81-win club. Obviously, when you win 88 and come as close as they did, the natural reaction was, ‘We’re this close.’ But looking at it from the outside, and again, they had access to a heck of a lot more information about the individual players-the personalities and makeup of the club-but from the outside, I had the impression that it was not a team that was a piece or two away. That seemed to be borne out by the results. Were they truly a 61-win team [in 2008]? No, I think they probably underperformed relative to their talent last year and were better than a 61-win team when we came in. But I do think that it is one situation in which statistical analysis having a voice at the table last year may have made a difference in the way that the Mariners tackled 2008. Moving forward, I think the key is that you have to know your own players first. Before you know the rest of the league, you have to know your own team, and the value of each of your own players, and that’s what we intend to do: start everything from a framework in which we know what we’ve got and what we need to get. Then we go out to attempt to get it with whatever excess talent we have to spare. It’s an ongoing battle to maximize each roster spot, and to maximize the flexibility of your roster construction. There are all types of little battles that you need to win every day in order to win the big battles at the end of the day.
DL: How about the 2008 Milwaukee Brewers? Did they meet your expectations?
TB: Working with the Brewers, and being a part of that, was so rewarding. Where that team has come from not that long ago, and doing it the right way, through the draft and with homegrown players-then when you have an opportunity to make that move with the depth in your minor league system, you can go after a CC Sabathia. He was the player that put the Brewers over the top last year to get them into the playoffs. At the end of the day, for the Milwaukee Brewers, there were two innings in that series against the Phillies. There was one bunt play where, if the Brewers would have converted it, it would have saved all the Phillies’ runs in Game One from being scored. And in Game Two, if we could have gotten Brett Myers out, none of their runs there would have been scored. That team went on to win the World Series, so that’s how close the Brewers were last year. If you get in, you can win it. It showed, to me, that building a club from within like that, and then when you had to go out and get wins 90 through 92, or whatever they turned out to be, in the marketplace-the depth of our minor league system in Milwaukee allowed us to go out and get those wins in the marketplace. For me, that was extremely professionally rewarding and I was thrilled to be a part of it. And I think the Brewers’ success, along with Tampa Bay’s success and Minnesota’s ongoing success, shows that if you have a plan, even if you don’t have the financial hammer, you can win in this game.
DL: You’ve been a member of the Society for American Baseball Research for a number of years. Do you have a favorite era of baseball history?
TB: There really isn’t any era that I’m a bigger fan of than others, because from 1901 forward-one of the great things about baseball is that you have the statistical record. Again, I’m talking about the context in which you put events in the game. No other sport has the ability to put the events into context because of the 100-plus years of statistical records in which the rules of the game have changed so little; you can compare players across eras. That said, if I had to pick one era of the game that I think of as a Golden Era-and it would probably be a little bit different than most people-I think that 1970s baseball was fantastic. There was the speed, power, and athleticism of the game, and the percentage of African Americans in the game has declined since then. Back then, every team had African-American stars on the club, and you had the best combination of power and speed that you’ve had in the history of the game. It was just thrilling to watch. You had guys who were below Hall of Fame level who were exciting to watch, guys like Willie Davis and Billy North. You had 20/40 guys and 25/25 guys; it was the speed of the game and the power of the game. I remember the 1971 All-Star Game. I was an eight-year-old kid, and I think something like seven or eight Hall of Famers hit home runs in that game. The game was just larger than life to me back then. But now, looking back at it from a historical context, I don’t think there’s been an era in the game where you had power and speed existing in such great quantity as it did at that point in time.
DL: Which players not in the Hall of Fame stand out to you as being most worthy of enshrinement?
TB: Yeah, there are a couple of guys who really jump out at me, Bert Blyleven number one. I mean, you can make a case that he’s one of the top 15 pitchers in the history of the game, so for him to not be in the Hall of Fame, that’s a joke. I think that people tend to remember him as the guy who gave up a lot of homers late in his career, instead of the 20-year record of dominance that he put up. As for position players, Ron Santo and Gil Hodges are two guys that come immediately to mind. And there are some other players who have been eligible for a short period of time, like Tim Raines. One that has always bugged me is-I don’t understand how Ron Guidry only lasted on the ballot for one or two years. If you compare his career totals to Sandy Koufax, they’re almost identical. And Ron Guidry pitched in a hitters’ era with DHs. I’m not minimizing Koufax at all; he was a great pitcher and deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, but I don’t see how he can be an inner-circle all-time great while Guidry is off the ballot his first time.
DL: With Jim Rice as an example, should worthiness for the Hall of Fame be based solely on statistical value, or does reputation have its place as a criterion?
TB: I think there’s a balance in there somewhere, because it is a hall of FAME, not simply a hall of excellence. So it is a gradual change, and I do think that the statistical influence on the Hall voting is very interesting when you look at it. I read a piece in The Hardball Times about Steve Garvey, and to me, Garvey is a perfect example of a player who, while he was playing, he had a lot of RBI and he hit for a high batting average, and those were the things that people looked at. Now, with more sophisticated analysis, people realize that there is more to life than just batting average and RBI. But maybe the pendulum has swung too far against them and he’s getting less support than maybe he deserves. So it’s a balance; it’s an evolution, and the statistical community at least has a seat at the table now. You see more statistically oriented, non-traditional media voters getting votes now. It’s good to see all voices being heard, but the pendulum will continue to swing back and forth, and you hope that a good balance will be struck. Right now I think there are some deserving candidates on both the main ballot and veterans’ committee ballot. Hopefully the pendulum will swing enough to get those guys in.
DL: A number of years ago you wrote a book called Future Stars. What do you know now about the game of baseball that you didn’t know then?
TB: Tons. Going out and doing grassroots area scouting, you find out so much about what is necessary physically, mentally, and emotionally to play this game. Getting into prospects’ homes and getting to meet kids, watching them train in the offseason, and watching them develop as ballplayers, there is so much more than just the pure numbers or what meets the eye if you go out and see a player one time. I really got so much out of being responsible for an area and for being responsible for the development of amateur players over a period of years, just picking up some of the things that separate some of the guys who, at the end of the day, you believe are going to make it from the ones you don’t. I’m thankful for having gotten the opportunity to do that, and it laid the groundwork for what I’m doing now for the Mariners, and what I hope to do in the future.