I’ve been saving this one for more than two weeks now, ever since the Mariners had their spring-training luncheon in late January. There was a flood of information that day, followed by a flood of news. But now I finally have the time and opportunity to spring this interview with Tony Blengino, the Mariners’ special assistant to GM Jack Zduriencik, and the putative head of their department of statistical analysis.
As part of the program that day, Blengino did a Q & A on how the Mariners use statistics in the evaluation process. I thought he gave an informative glimpse at some of the metrics the club uses, and opened a window into the Mariners’ marriage of stats and scouting. Geoff has written extensively on the Mariners’ use of defensive metrics, but he talked a bit on that topic as a starting point, and went from there. Here’s a transcript of his interview:
On the use of defensive metrics: “My stock answer is that hitting is more of a science, and defense is more of an art. With hitting, you can get a lot more granular with the data. We may get to the point where you can get as granular with the defense as you can with the hitting, but I don’t think it will be quite that granular. I think the UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) is a great metric. I like on the Hardball Times site, the RZR and the Out of Zone plays, because you can kind of split it into reliability and the ability to make a spectacular play. At certain positions, the ability to make the spectacular play determines whether you’re a plus fielder or not, whereas at certain other positions, reliability is what determines. Second base, you’ve got guys that make two or three errors a year. Reliability is huge. Center field, you’ve got guys who make one or two errors a year that aren’t very good, because they don’t get to a lot of balls. The ability to make the spectacular play is what really comes into play out there. Right now, I still think it’s kind of in the emergent phase. In this offseason, I think defensive statistics have become a very significant factor in a number of clubs’ planning, and the way the free agent market has played out. I think we’re still in the emergent phase, but if defense becomes fully valued at some point along the way in the market place, then something else will become under-valued, and we’ll just try to be one step ahead.”
Does it ever happen that your scouts say a player is great defensively, but your metrics say he’s not? If so, what happens then? “Sure. Every decision we make, there is input from the entirety of the organization. Some decisions will ultimately be driven by what we see with our eyes, and what the scouts see with their eyes, and occasionally a decision will be driven a little more by the numbers. But there is still input from every aspect of the organization. And there are times when there’s a little bit of a, I wouldn’t say clash, but there’s a little bit of a discussion that needs to take place. And neither side is right or wrong. Usually there’s a shade of gray in between where the truth lies. Our objective is to find where the truth lies and to make the best decision for our organization.”
How often does this kind of clash happen?“I wouldn’t say it happens a lot. We talk about players every day, every day of the year. Ninety-eight percent of the discussions we have don’t ultimately lead to a transaction. We’re charged not only with properly evaluating our own players, from a scouting, statistical, makeup standpoint, a total perspective…we have to know our own players better than everyone else, and we have to know the other 29 organizations. Often in the course of that, you have cursory discussions on players, but every once in a while you progress toward a possible transaction, and there may be one or two times a year we sit there and say, ‘OK, our scouts are telling us this, our numbers are telling us this, our first-person sources who know the player are telling us this. We have some conflicting information here. Let’s get to the bottom of it.’ Because whether a deal happens or doesn’t happen can often hinge on the resolution of that conflict.”
What do you think of Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), which came up during the Cy Young voting this year? I think Fielding Independent Pitching is a better barometer of pitching performance than ERA is. ERA is so dependent on the defense behind you. It’s so dependent of quote unquote luck. FIP isn’t perfect. Right now, it kind of treats all batted balls equally. There is more granular data progressively becoming available that’s going to allow you to differentiate between ground balls, line drives, fly balls and come up with the next generation version of FIP. But ERA, it’s a measure, but it’s a preliminary measure that became the gold standard for a long period of time. Now we have better data; let’s take it to the next level. ERA still has meaning. To me, FIP has more meaning, but there’s something beyond FIP that’s going to have more meaning than that.”
When you see a new metric, how long does it take you to determine its value? “It kind of has to get road-tested. There’s always people throwing new numbers out there. For me, I’ll keep an eye on tons of things, but you really have to road-test it through a season before it has meaning to me. Unless it’s one of those eureka moments where you say, ‘Ah, this is what I’ve been looking for.’ They don’t happen very often.
Is first-base defense under-appreciated, as it relates to players like Casey Kotchman?: “Obviously, there is a traditional profile for each position, not only from a scouting perspective, but from a fan perspective. When you veer from that, obviously sometimes there’s resistance. Shortstops in the ’70s and ’80s just caught the ball. They didn’t hit the ball out of the park. Cal Ripken comes along, he didn’t fit the profile of the shortstop, but everyone accepted it, because it was something obvious and in your face. With a first baseman, it’s a little more subtle. First base defense may be a little unappreciated, a little misunderstood. There a lot of aspects of it – scoops, etc. That position, I think of Keith Hernandez. Shortstop, Ozzie Smith. All the eyes, the numbers, everything agrees on a guy like Ozzie Smith. But at first base, those guys don’t come around very often, where the eyes and the numbers and everything is in lockstep. Keith Hernandez is probably the last guy I remember where I said, ‘Wow, don’t bunt with this guy at first base, because the guy at third is going to be out, even if it’s a good bunt.’ Like Albert Pujols,a guy like that today. I think his defense is the most under-appreciated part of his game. He’s as much better than the norm defensively as he is offensively. He’s coming down from that a little bit now, but he’s really just a tremendous, tremendous player. Casey Kotchman, I think it’s one of those things where fans are going to need to see it every day. They’re going to need to see it to appreciate it. With him covering a little more ground, it will help Lopey (Jose Lopez) as well. Defense to me is a team concept. If you put good defenders next to good defenders, all of a sudden you can put a nice wall out there.”
On compromising on a player who might not be strong in one aspect of his game: “A team is like a portfolio. You’re not going to be strong offensively and defensively at every position in the lineup. The Yankees aren’t that. No one is that. We came in the off-season of ’08-09, and what some people might have looked at as a problem, we looked at as an opportunity: OK, you’ve got these holes on the club, all we’ve got to do to make significant improvement on the team is to fill them with at least adequacy. And then you build from there. If you have a team of average players all over the field, and a few who are above average to bring them up, then you can really have something going. Everyone has some superstars. It’s how you fill the remainder of that portfolio, that team, that can raise you well above the norm.”
What stat do you use to determine if a player is average?: Wins above replacement is a good barometer. And within that you can look at the defensive aspect, the offensive aspect. You don’t need 250 homers to have a winning team, but you might need to hit more than 50. You just need to make sure you’re not too far below average in any given area. Last year, at the end of the day, the reason we were not a playoff club, or at the end of the day in the running to be a playoff club in the latter days of the season, is because our offense was well below that level. We think we made some moves in the offseason to raise our offense up to the point where now we can compete.”