Continuting our interview series in the baseball industry, today we have another look inside the Rays baseball operations department. On the opening day of the winter meetings we bring to you Coordinator of Baseball Operations James Click. He stops by DRaysBay to tell us about his job, his days as a writer, and you guessed it...stats.
For those who are unfamilar with James, he is a Yale graduate who spent time with Baseball Prospectus in the early days. He worked extensively on defensive metrics, and played a major role in writing the critically acclaimed Baseball Between the Numbers. He was one of the first sabermetric writers to land a front office job.
Big thanks to James for joining us during the hectic portion of the hot stove season.
Tommy Rancel: Ok, you're the Rays Coordinator of Baseball Operations. What do your job duties include?
James Click: My duties depend almost completely on the calendar as I play a support role in whatever part of the organization needs me at that time. For example, I'm currently focused on available options for the major and minor league rosters. Later on in the winter, I'm typically helping out with our arbitration cases. In May and June, I'll be involved with the draft. Every now and then I find some free time to do a study or two, but free time is not exactly plentiful in this line of work."
TR: It's no secret that you come from a sabermetric background. How much do you used advanced statistics in player evaluations? And how much of those numbers are passed down to coaches for lineup construction, bullpen usage, in game adjustments, etc.?
JC: Sometimes people like to draw a line between "advanced" and "regular" statistics, but I don't necessarily see things that way. The difference between different stats can often be explained by the question the metric is attempting to answer. At the end of the day, it's all information and you have to know exactly what that information is telling you and what it isn't. There is an excellent flow of information in our organization and a constant discussion about better ways to evaluate ourselves, the best way to leverage our resources, and how to improve those resources.
TR: In your previous life you worked as a writer. Do you still frequent blogs and other baseball sites? If so, what are some of your favorites?
JC: The analysis community that continues to develop online is doing compelling work and we would be remiss not to keep a close eye on the quality minds and voices out there. DRays Bay is clearly my favorite site on the interweb. Trailing well behind it, my other favorites are the ones who show their work and use constructive discussion to improve their methodology and conclusions. The less sure writers are of their own superiority, the higher up my list they go.
TR: How close can writers such as ourselves really come to evaluating players with the publicly available statistics?
JC: As I mentioned, there's a great deal of quality analysis out there and the quality of information available in the public sphere continues to improve. In some ways, the differences between evaluations come down to differences in goals. There are questions that we're attempting to answer that probably wouldn't be a very interesting read and, likewise, there are studies that people do online that we find interesting, but that don't have a direct influence on our day-to-day operations.
TR: As a writer, you worked a lot with defensive statistics. Park adjusted defensive efficiency is a stat you created. In 2008 the Rays finished 3rd in PADE, however, in 2009 just 15th. In both years, the team finished in the top tier in UZR and top 10 of defensive efficiency, can you explain the disparity in the numbers?
JC: Analysis of run prevention has come a long way since I wrote those articles six years ago. As that effort continues to evolve, I expect we'll see disagreements between those kinds of metrics get smaller and smaller. With regards to your specific question, while all of those stats are attempting to measure defense, they all take different paths to do so. The disparity doesn't necessarily mean one stat is more accurate than another. Instead, if you assume the methodology of those metrics is correct, in some ways the disagreement provides more information about our run prevention over the past two years than any of them would individually.
TR: Obviously, you have internal methods of calulating defense. But what are your thoughts on UZR, +/- as well as the fielding independent pitching statistics like FIP and tRA?
JC: There is a variety of this family of statistics, each of which is seeking to answer a very similar question. We do our best to understand how each of them works, what data they use, how their data are collected, what they assume and what they don't, and how we can best use them to our advantage, either individually or in concert with other information. It's great to have so many options from which to choose, especially when none of them are fielding percentage.
TR: Along with fielding independent stats, what are your thoughts on batted ball data? How reliable do you find this data?
JC: I'm sure I sound like a broken record, but I'm going to repeat this point because it is a key one: with all data, we must understand exactly how it's collected and what it's trying to tell us. With batted ball data, it's a start, but whenever the bat makes contact with the ball, there are not four discrete outcomes; the results are much more continuous. However, sometimes broad strokes are all you need. We use these data to improve our decision-making, but we're always looking to improve the quality of information we collect.
TR:While defensive metrics have made strides, we are still searching for ways to quantify the defense of catchers. What are the important aspects of a catcher's game to you? Do you think we will get to a point where we can easily evaluate their defensive impact or is game calling and things of that nature just too hard to quantify?
JC: There are a multitude of ways to evaluate catchers and their defensive contributions. In the past, interesting work has been done in the public sphere attempting to answer parts of this question, breaking down one or two aspects of what a catcher does and isolate his performance from the rest of the factors that could affect the results. Our approach isn't dissimilar, but ultimately we do our best to combine all of these to get a complete picture of a player and his defensive contributions.
TR: Baserunning is a lot more than just steals and caught stealing. How much time do you and your staff spend studying the other aspects of baserunning as well as things like sacrifice/situational hitting?
JC: We're always looking to improve our approach, and doing the little things correctly is one way to do this. We have exceptional athletes on our team and we do everything we can to harness that athleticism and leverage it as much as possible. While these aspects of the game may seem less important than others when quantified on a large scale - after all, they're routinely referred to as "the little things" or "smallball" - the ability to deploy those advantages based on game situation can magnify their value when it comes to the standings.
TR: On July 18th, Willy Aybar started just his second game since June 30th. Aybar went 4-4 that day including 3-3 against the Royals starter and Cy Young award winner, Zack Greinke. Less than a month later, Aybar made another start, this time at DH against Greinke and connected for a home run. To go back to your baseball between the numbers days, what does Willy Aybar know about Zack Greinke?
JC: Whatever it is, I hope he's told our other hitters.
TR: We've noticed an increasing number of Rays working with independent hitting instructor Jaime Cevallos. Are you aware of Cevallos's teachings? And how open are the Rays to things like "the swing mechanic system," or "I trac," if at all?
JC: We are open to, and often discuss, anything that may help our players; iTrac is an excellent example of that. As long as we feel that what the player is doing is consistent with what we think he needs to improve, we like to see that he's putting in the extra effort.
TR: We know that the Cleveland Indians employ a super information database. We also know that fellow BP alum, Dan Fox, has built the Pittsburgh Pirates Managing, Information, Tools and Talent (MITT) system. I've heard that the Rays have their own system. Can you speak on the Rays version?
JC: As Rays fans, I hope you appreciate that we can't afford to reveal aspects of our proprietary system. But there are a lot of people doing some impressive work with it, especially our senior programmer, Brian Plexico, who has done a tremendous job since joining the organization shortly after I did. The work that he has done is central to our efforts to improve the organization.
TR: Do you have aspirations to one day become the general manager of a team of your own?
JC: I'm just happy to be here. Hope I can help the ballclub. I just want to give it my best shot, and the good Lord willing, things will work out.
Once again thanks to James for providing his time during the most important portion of the offseason. Hopefully, he and the rest of the front office put their hard work and research into motion over the next few days.