Andrew Friedman is, in many ways, a modern-day version of Branch Rickey. Rickey famously commented, “Luck is the residue of opportunity and design,” and Friedman’s Rays didn’t overcome long odds and advance to last year’s World Series by accident. As the executive vice president of baseball operations for Tampa Bay, Friedman brings an analytical and innovative approach to the ballpark each day, constantly searching for a competitive advantage against some of baseball’s most formidable-and wealthiest-teams in the American League East. The Ray’s director of baseball development before moving into his current role in November 2005, the 32-year-old Friedman has a degree in management, with a concentration in finance, from Tulane University.
David Laurila: You did an interview with Baseball Prospectus in May 2006, not long after assuming your current position. What do you know now that you didn’t know then?
Andrew Friedman: I feel like our decision-making process and our infrastructure have improved dramatically. That said, my hope is that, in another three years, we’re significantly better than we are now. We’re always looking to test and incorporate new ideas. Given our constraints, we can’t abide by conventions and expect to maintain a competitive team and organization. It’s a challenge we embrace, and the challenge is becoming steeper each year as revenue disparities increase. From the get-go, we have guided ourselves by the principle that information is king. We still believe that, but we’re looking at slightly different information now than we were three years ago. We also came in knowing that we don’t have all the answers, nor will we ever.
There’s always room for improvement. It’s an ongoing quest to refine our processes and methodologies that instruct how we go about making decisions. It’s like making improvements to your house. You add some new paint and artwork to one room and then you notice that the next room, which was perfectly fine before the improvements, can use a little work. Next thing you know, the whole house gets a facelift. We’ve been at it for a few years and we’re still working our way through our operations. I hope we never stop challenging ourselves to get better.
DL: Approximately 18 months ago, James Click, a member of your baseball operations staff, said the following: “With the advance of baseball analysis, both in the front office and in the public, the difference between perceived value and actual value are shrinking.” Do you agree with that?
AF: There are a lot of extremely impressive things being written publicly, and what might be more impressive is the intelligent debate that takes place publicly around this work product. These people often have great thought processes, but they’re limited in access to information and resources that only a ballclub can provide. The divide may be shrinking, but there will still remain a divide. In the end, I think it’s the difference between it being a vocation for us and an avocation for others.
DL: Sabermetrics have changed the way that a lot of people look at baseball, but have they changed the game itself?
AF: Books have been written about it. Front offices have hired from amongst the sabermetric ranks. It’s hard to argue that it hasn’t changed the game. It’s challenged a lot of traditional thinking as well as supplemented tried-and-true practices. But I don’t spend much time dwelling on it. There have certainly been things that we’ve seen written publicly that have spurred us in a certain direction. As an organization, we have a great thirst for knowledge, wherever it comes from. You don’t want to close yourself off to possibilities.
It’s something that differentiates our sport from others. There’s a quest not only by the teams but also by its fans to better understand and improve the sport. It is part of the spirit that has helped baseball grow and flourish for more than a century.
DL: You’ve said that you admire Branch Rickey. Despite the generational gap, do you feel that your approach to running a baseball team is similar to his?
AF: The game has evolved so much and will continue to do so. There are a few people responsible for major shifts and progress within the industry, and Branch Rickey is at or near the top of that list. He was an early pioneer in a lot of respects, and his actions led directly to changes throughout the game and industry. The thought process that he had and the ways he sought to create competitive advantages are things we strive to achieve. It would be a great compliment, though completely unwarranted, if anyone were to compare me to him. Just matching his longevity would be a great accomplishment.
DL: Don Zimmer, one of your senior advisors, is very much an old-school baseball guy. How does he impact the organization?
AF: There’s no substitute for institutional knowledge, and Zim’s uniform number pretty much says it all. Zim has forgotten more about the game than most know about it, and he hasn’t forgotten much. He’s a great resource for our clubhouse. With the experience that he can draw from, he’s been a great sounding board for some of our younger players. He can cite three to five examples for almost anything that comes up, and he can talk from the trenches about what he’s seen and what he’s learned from it. He’s one of a kind.
DL: Why is Joe Maddon a good manager?
AF: One of Joe’s biggest strengths is his ability to relate to each player on the team. He appreciates that there are 25 players with 25 personalities, and he approaches each one of them personally. He gets to know them, he cares about them, and he is very good at motivating them and getting the most out of them performance-wise. These relationships, and the ones he encourages them to form with each other, provide the foundation for our clubhouse chemistry.
He is a student of the game who isn’t afraid to try new things. One of Joe’s pet phrases is “Tell me what you think, not what you’ve heard.” It is something he employs in his life, and he challenges every person in the clubhouse to approach the game the same way. .
DL: There are 29 other guys currently managing big-league teams. If you needed to replace Joe Maddon, and they were available, how many would you view as viable candidates to manage the Rays?
AF: That’s a difficult thing to answer from the outside looking in, because so much of it gets to the personality of the manager and the working relationship that will be created and fostered. Interview processes are flawed, but they certainly help you get a better sense of how well you’ll work with someone, and that’s such an important component in the relationship between a GM and a manager. The front office and the manager have to be on the same page, which is why we talk a lot about Joe being part of our management team. Perhaps more importantly, they have to trust and respect each other. They have to be able to challenge each other, and disagree on occasion, while always rowing in the same direction.
DL: You’ve called fielding percentage the most overrated statistic in the game. Why?
AF: It doesn’t capture enough of the story. No one statistic can. But that doesn’t mean it is worthless. Simply said, what fielding percentage is missing is the number of balls that somebody gets to that another fielder may not. A player may have a lower fielding percentage, but he gets to more balls and generates more outs and is a more productive fielder.
DL: Which defensive metrics do you value the most?
AF: For the most part, defensively, we do things in house. The way that we go about trying to evaluate defense is proprietary, but just like throughout all of our operations, we integrate our metrics with the evaluation of our scouts. One side isn’t complete without the other, and there are many ways in which they can work in harmony. We’re continuing to tinker with our model, but like we are in other areas, we feel like we’re a lot better now than we were two years ago.
DL: How much proprietary information exists in baseball?
AF: I think that all 30 teams feel like they either have information, or do things, that are proprietary and unique. My guess is that there are a certain number of those things in which there is a great deal of overlap in the industry. But I think that when you look along the continuum, there are clusters of teams along that continuum in terms of what they do and how they go about it. One of the key factors to keep in mind is that each market has its own rules and constraints. Each market has its own unique challenges, and the important thing is to identify what those are and operate within them. Because of that, everyone has to have a slightly different take on the world. Even with the same information, you might interpret it in different ways because of what it means specifically to your team, and your personnel, and your overriding philosophy. I do think that the gap between teams is shrinking. The entire industry is continuing to learn new ways to evaluate information and incorporate it into its operations.
DL: The amateur draft is coming up soon. What is your role there?
AF: We have a tremendous staff in place, so I rely on them to do what they were hired to do. Just like with every other department in our organization, I stay very involved and maintain a close connection with our underlying thought process and philosophy. My role, for the most part, is to challenge things, to have a fresh perspective, and to be able to ask pertinent questions. I’m not as mired in it as R.J. [Harrison] and his staff. I have a lot of trust in the team that we have in place, and that makes my job a lot easier.
DL: In your earlier interview, you said, “How we draft is going to be specific to that specific year. We’ll study the trends of a particular draft and look for value.” Is that still your philosophy?
AF: Absolutely. We seek value in everything that we do. It’s imperative to do so if we’re going to have success in the division that we play in. It’s a fact of life that our resources will always be less than that of the teams we compete against. Money isn’t an advantage we own. Knowing that, what is important is to make sure we’re not too rigid in our thought process. As people are zigging, we need to zag. As people are zagging, we need to zig. Since we do not possess the buying power other teams have, we can’t simply do what the other teams do and expect to have success.
DL: When asked about their philosophy, most scouting directors will say it is to take the best player on the board, regardless of position. What you’re saying seems to be somewhat counter to that.
AF: I think that, definitely, it is the approach that most teams employ, but for us, we factor in a lot of other things as well, in terms of overall player procurement, and which type of players we feel are more fungible and which types of players we feel are most difficult to acquire. We place a premium on those types of players. We also factor in the international market. Simply said, all of those things contribute, philosophically, to how we approach things.