The Arizona Diamondbacks‘ front office is among the most forward-thinking in the game, and one of the best analytical minds in the organization belongs to Shiraz Rehman. Currently the club’s Director of Baseball Operations, Rehman earned a bachelor’s degree in Finance and Accounting from McGill University, and an MBA from Columbia Business School, prior to joining the D’backs in 2005. Rehman sat on the baseball analytics panel at last weekend’s MIT Sloan Sports Analytics conference. Afterwards, he talked with Baseball Prospectus about the importance of statistical analysis in the Diamondbacks’ organization.
David Laurila: What is your role with the Diamondbacks?
Shiraz Rehman: Technically, I’m the Director of Baseball Operations, so I guess that means a lot of work on arbitration, contracts and contract structuring, and some of the negotiations. I do some statistical and financial analysis to help support team decision-making on acquiring players-trading for players, signing new players, etcetera. I kind of oversee our research efforts, and the development of our technological tools that we use across our department. I handle our entry-level hiring. And then, most of my responsibilities on a day-to-day basis revolve around the major league team. That would be major league transactions, waivers and rules compliance, 40-man roster management, etcetera. I work with the major league staff and players to get those kinds of things executed.
DL: How would you describe the role analytics play in the organization?
SR: I’d say it’s rather large. Rather than having this particular discreet department that does analytics for us, which operates in a silo, I think that our goal is that everyone in the front office possesses the ability to sort of blend both the subjective and the objective in their decision-making. We do have certain folks that play more of a role in objective statistical analysis than others, but I’d argue that “analytics” is a term that can apply to any level of information gathering that we undertake, be it scouting, player development, payroll, or specific areas that focus around the major league team and/or game-planning.
DL: There is a difference between looking at numbers and looking at the right numbers. How much time goes into parsing out which is which?
SR: A tremendous amount, and that’s a very good point, because it’s typically garbage in and garbage out. I think that in a lot of the research we see, whether it is from the internet, or from ideas that are e-mailed to me, or some of the work that we do, we’re careful to evaluate what the data is that we’re looking at, rather than just jumping to a conclusion because we see a result and assume that it’s 100 percent correct. We’re charged with-let’s put it this way: Armed with data, intellects do a great job of objectively coming to a conclusion about what happened, which can be particularly useful. What is often our job is to figure out how something happened, and I think that being particular about what numbers, and data, you’re using helps you to refine your conclusion in that context.
DL: What is your approach to studying predictive data?
SR: It obviously depends on the particular task that we’re trying to solve. I think that some of the predictive data, in terms of projections, that is out there and available in the marketplace, is pretty good. We kind of use that a fair amount. We’re always looking to establish predictive relationships between statistics or trends. I think that’s something that is pretty important to us, it just often becomes difficult to tease out which variables end up impacting a particular issue larger than others. Usually it’s a pretty multi-varied process that is pretty complex. As with most things, it incorporates both subjective and objective measures.
DL: In today’s panel discussion, you said that leadership is 98 percent subjective. When you look at certain veteran players around the game, isn’t it rather clear that they possess a strong leadership component?
SR: I think it’s important to draw a distinction between classifying something as subjective, and suggesting it does not exist, because there’s no question that certain players provide leadership and help bring out the best in those around them over a long season. I’m not sure about an exact percentage, but the question posed in the discussion was specifically surrounding how you would measure it. I’m not really sure that it is possible, but it is probably one of the areas where we’re looking to make more strides as far as analytics. How can we quantify that leadership or team-chemistry quotient? Can we measure it based on the impact, or marginal difference, in other teammates’ production when that player is around, on the field or in the game? That’s one way we try to do it, but it’s a bit of uncharted territory, and as a result provides a good example of decisions we make that rely a little more on our subjective observations. By no means can everything about a player be expressed as a number, and as an industry we must be careful not to exclude a variable from any type of analysis simply because it’s the toughest to quantify on paper.
DL: Do you feel that a player’s impact on his teammates can be quantified?
SR: I think it can be, but I haven’t seen a definitive, comprehensive way to do it yet. Something that we do a fair amount of trying to understand, even when we were assessing Jon Garland this year, is what that relative impact is. As an example, there’s the value of what Jon Garland can bring as a starting pitcher, as a stand-alone asset with what he brings to the table for our team. Secondarily, what is the value of adding those innings into the 14 hundred-plus innings that we’ll need over the course of a year, and how does that make our bullpen better, by us arguably having to rely less on them? We look at things like that.
DL: Another thing you mentioned in the panel discussion was aptitude versus athletic aptitude.
SR: I was actually just talking about that with Helen [Zelman; Diamondback’s baseball operations assistant] and one of our scouts. In terms of looking at and projecting amateur players, [we often] look at their athleticism, we look at their performance and physical tools, trying to assess whether or not they’ll be good professional players. And one of the harder parts is assessing what kind of aptitude they have to learn as they progress up the professional baseball chain. People automatically gravitate to things like, ‘What is their GPA at Georgia Tech?’ or ‘Where did they go to high school and were they on the honor roll?’ But sometimes the difference between athletic aptitude, the ability to take something you watch happen, or something the coach asks you to do, and immediately do it, might be different than if you can solve an equation for X.
DL: Do you feel there is such a thing as a “closer mentality”?
SR: I think it definitely exists. Some players are simply more armed with the tools and approach that is required to pitch in more leveraged situations. The question that exists in my mind the most would be, “Can it be learned?” Some people would submit to you that it is sort of a binary either-you-have-it-or-you-don’t thing. I think it definitely exists, but I wonder if it can be learned, or acquired, over time.
DL: How would you assess the closer situation in Arizona right now?
SR: We’re looking to go into the season with Chad Qualls as our closer, and I think he did a great job at the end of the season once we had installed him into the regular closer’s role. We’re looking forward to seeing how he pitches this year, and I think the reality is that we’ll probably be the kind of club that maybe rides the hot hand a little more. If for some reason it doesn’t work out with Chad, I think we’ll be interested in evaluating all of our bullpen components to see who pitches the best in that role. But as it stands right now, I think Bob [Melvin] is comfortable with Chad Qualls in that role.
DL: Justin Masterson, in Boston, is a good example of a young pitcher whose ultimate role has not been decided. Where do you stand on the relative-value-of-a-starter-versus-a-late-innings-reliever question?
SR: I think you make every effort you can to keep a guy who has a chance to be a starter, a starter. As he ascends the development track from A-ball to Double-A to Triple-A to the big leagues, a lot of those answers tend to sort themselves out. I, personally, would always rather have a major league starter than a major league bullpen arm. I think when you get to a Papelbon question, where it’s a dominant closer versus a starter, that’s a little tougher. But given Masterson’s repertoire, with him being a heavy-sinker type guy, he has the possibility to be sort of an innings-eater, ground-ball machine as a starter-to the extent he has enough secondary pitches to get through a lineup two or three times. To me, that has more value than working out of the pen.
DL: Does your ballclub have any similar decisions to make right now?
SR: I think you always have those, every year. Max Scherzer is a guy we’re hoping for big things from. He’s obviously a decorated amateur player who has come through the system very quickly, and we’re hoping he can start for us this year, and we’re expecting him to. But with Max, or any other prospect that we’ve got, we’ll be faced with the choice, at some point, of deciding if his body can maintain those innings, if he can be a starter in the major leagues who takes the ball 30-plus times, or is he best served out of the pen? I think that whether it’s with some of the guys on the 25-man roster bubble this spring, like Billy Buckner, Juan Gutierrez, Yusmeiro Petit, or Travis Blackley, or with some of the younger players within your system, like Esmerling Vazquez or Cesar Valdez, you’ll always have that question. You are probably always motivated to leave open the possibility of starting games for as long as possible, irrespective of the particular role they may be asked to play in the short term.
DL: In looking at the construct of a team, just how important is defense to the Diamondbacks’ organization?
SR: I think it means a lot. It is one of the frontiers where, when people talk about inefficiencies in the marketplace, it is arguably something that doesn’t get priced as well as it could. Whether it is Josh [Byrnes’] acquisition of Orlando Hudson three years ago, and the value we got out of that trade, or in understanding the value we receive out of Chris Snyder above and beyond his OPS. Maybe there is an opportunity to acquire guys who are defensively gifted players that the market doesn’t value as much as they should.
DL: Going by The Fielding Bible rankings, the Diamondbacks were a little below average in team defense last season. How meaningful is that to you?
SR: I think that defensive metrics, on the aggregate, have improved significantly in recent times, thanks to the work of John Dewan, Bill James, and others. But in fairness, they are probably still imperfect, and as a result we still rely a fair bit on some of our internal assessments and subjective valuations in that area to come up with a comprehensive look at defense. In that respect, over the last couple of seasons we have been fairly consistently above average in the outfield, and slightly below average around the infield. Ultimately our team defense is of great significance to us, as we take our ability to suppress run-scoring above and beyond the contributions of our pitching staff quite seriously. Both as a young club with some above-average athletes on the field, and in the context of our position in the marketplace, we feel like defense and baserunning are areas that we should excel at, and believe we can do so.
DL: Moving over to offense, how concerned are you with the number of strikeouts your third baseman accumulated last season?
SR: Well, I don’t think Mark [Reynolds] was happy, and I don’t think anyone wants to lead the league in strikeouts. Putting the ball in play, especially in two-strike counts, is something that is important on a team basis for us, whether it is Mark, Chris Young, Justin Upton, or any of our players. Still, with a guy like that, sometimes you need to evaluate the damage that he does do with his ability to hit the ball out of the ballpark, which is something we don’t necessarily do all that much on an individual basis. But we do look at one through eight in our lineup, and our aggregate power production, and feel pretty good about it. It is a concern for me, but if Mark continues to generate the kind of extra-base power that he does, and can be an average defender at third base on the low end, we’re probably willing to live with a guy who strikes out a little bit in the context of our entire club.
DL: Looking at player acquisition and in-game strategy on both sides of the ball, how does Chase Field impact the Arizona Diamondbacks?
SR: Clearly, Chase Field plays as a rather hitter-friendly atmosphere, arguably one of the most so in Major League Baseball. As a result, we certainly consider that in the context of players we look to acquire-fly-ball/ground-ball rates for pitchers, an ability to keep it in the park. Offensively we look to construct a team that can take advantage of not only a generic offensive advantage, but particularly the large gaps and opportunities for extra bases that exist in our outfield.
DL: Looking at your projected starting lineup for 2009, seven of the eight position players are between the ages of 25 and 29. What does that tell us?
SR: Probably most importantly, we’re fortunate to be in that position, and we feel that is very much an intended outcome of what we are trying to accomplish. But it tells you a few things. One is that the large majority of our position players are still in the up-swing portions of their careers, and as a result we are likely to not be surprised if their actual performance differs rather significantly from their projections at this stage. Second, it is indicative of our attempts at stability in terms of roster construction. Our goal is to put together a group of talented young players at the earlier stages of their careers, and to keep them together throughout at least their years of control with the club. Our belief is that these players are able to grow, assimilate, and improve together, and more importantly are able to contend for a championship every year on a consistent basis, rather than sporadic one-year windows out of every three or four. At our relative payroll level we probably are never going to be huge players in the free-agent market, but we can be selective based on individual needs, [such as] Byrnes, Garland, Lopez, and Gordon. We inherited a talented farm system, but have developed and promoted them aggressively and relatively successfully. On a go-forward basis, drafting and developing to continue to feed the major league roster with a constant influx of young talent is an important focus for us as a group, and the 2009 draft should present us with a good opportunity to add to our inventory.