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A Q&A with Tampa Bay Rays Baseball Operations Assistant Erik Neander

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A quick note on Neander: he's one of the brightest minds in the front office. If you need a job description either look below or think of him as James Click's right-hand man. Big thanks to Erik for dishing some information.

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R.J.: Prior to joining the Rays as an intern, you worked at Baseball Info Solutions. What was that experience like?

Erik Neander.: My experience at Baseball Info Solutions (BIS) was invaluable.  Prior to joining BIS in February of 2006, I was pursuing internships with major league organizations, but was severely under-qualified for all available opportunities.  While at BIS, I carefully reviewed an abundance of video and attempted to take advantage of the endless supply of data on hand.  I was surrounded by a collection of people -- full time staff and interns alike -- that were incredibly well educated on the game and they taught me an awful lot, most of which I ignorantly assumed that I already knew.  The hours and lifestyle provided a preview of life in the baseball industry, which allowed me to gauge how serious I was about pursuing a career in baseball.  I'm very grateful for the opportunity and wouldn't trade those ten months for anything, despite my desires of hooking on with a club prior to joining BIS.

R.J.: You interned with the club in 2007, correct?

E.N.: Correct.  James Click offered me a four month internship, geared towards the analytical side of the game.  The position required a fundamental understanding of SQL, something that I serendipitously picked up during my final weeks at BIS.  Matt Lorenzo, one of BIS's technical minds, strongly recommended that I learn SQL, suggesting that it was a useful skill that some clubs would value.  I'm pretty sure it was just his way of getting me off of his back with data requests, but it undoubtedly opened the door for my opportunity with the Rays.

R.J.: When you rejoined the team in a full-time capacity at some point in 2007, did you keep in touch with James Click and the other front office members, or did they just call you up out of the blue one day?

E.N.: Fortunately, my internship eventually transitioned into a full-time position with the club.  I was able to stretch my initial four month agreement into a season long internship.  That September, Andrew offered me a chance to stick around on a full-time basis and I wasn't about to decline.  I'm very grateful for the opportunity.

R.J.: At this point, what are your day-to-day responsibilities?

E.N.: Right now, I'm primarily focused on research and development, working to improve our understanding of the information that we can get our hands on.  Player evaluation, both externally and internally, also takes up a lot of my time.  Of course, there's overlap between the former and the latter.

R.J.: Everyone makes a big hoopla about team chemistry, but how good is the rapport amongst the front office?

E.N.: It's great.  We get along incredibly well, especially considering the amount of time we spend working side by side.  It's a very positive environment with a high level of accountability.  There's strong communication and trust within the organization, and that's critical to our operation as we all have to step into the batter's box together; there aren't any individual showdowns.   

R.J.: When deciding to have B.J. Upton play shallow, to what degree was the team conscious of balancing the subtraction of on-base percentage points even in light of potentially increasing slugging percentage?

E.N.: Balancing extra bases against outs is a key concept when determining how to best position defenders.  We attempt to account for a variety of factors, but ultimately, any recommended positioning has to fit with a fielder's abilities relative to the demands of the position he's playing.   

R.J.: The Pat Burrell signing brought with it questions about whether his power would translate to a park that normally constricts righty power; how much time and energy do the Rays put into research projects like this so that they don't end up with a situation akin to Adrian Beltre in Safeco?

E.N.: We do our best to account for as many variables as possible, parks included.  We're constantly working to improve our methods, though we are probably closer to not having any of the answers than we are to having all of the answers.  It's very difficult to calculate context neutral performance.  Of course, I could always cherry pick and point out that Burrell's ISO at Tropicana Field was only .009 below his ISO at Citizen's Bank Park in 2008.

R.J.: Staying on Burrell, obviously he had a poor season, but do you think people still have a misconception about how batters' production reacts after becoming a full-time DH?

E.N.: Pat went through a lot during the 2009 season and experienced several firsts, including transitioning to the DH slot.  I can't speak for how Pat's conversion from LF to DH specifically impacted his offensive output, but quality work has been published that suggests it's more difficult to hit when you aren't playing the field.  Given Pat's track record of offensive performance, we're excited to see what he can accomplish in 2010.

R.J.: J.P. Howell has experienced some backlash because of blown saves, but given his strong peripherals, isn't this just the random distribution of runs giving him a bad name?

E.N.: Blown saves are a useful description of an event that occurs during the course of a game, but like any statistic, they don't tell you everything about a player's performance.  It just depends on what you want to know.  If you're using blown saves to evaluate the quality of a reliever's performance, then they have the potential to be misleading, especially with relievers that aren't always used to record the last three outs of the game.

In the case of J.P. Howell, several of his blown saves occurred early in the season, prior to primarily being used in the ninth inning.  Through June 7th, Howell had an ERA of 2.17, yet he had blown five of his seven save opportunities, all of which occurred prior to the ninth inning.  His 29% success rate didn't signify how dominant he was to that point and how many leads he successfully preserved. 

A lot of the backlash surfaced after Langerhans hit the walk-off homerun in Seattle.  Ironically, Howell wasn't even charged with a blown save that evening.

J.P. deserves a lot of credit for his performance over the last two years.  We wouldn't have won 189 games over that same time period without him.  

R.J.: When you guys work on aging projections, how much does the Trop's turf get considered?

E.N.: Great question.  Aging curves appear to be a hot topic right now amongst the online community.  The current surface at Tropicana Field has different characteristics than a natural grass surface, but it also has different characteristics than the Tropicana Field surface from 2006, which has different characteristics from the 1999 surface.  In addition, while FieldTurf plays differently than natural grass, we still have a traditional full dirt infield to consider.  While field surfaces likely carry some impact on how players age, their influence would be extremely difficult to quantify at this time.

R.J.: How often do you meet with Joe Maddon and how open is he to some of the newer avenues of analysis?

E.N.: I spend a lot of time prepping material for our coaching staff, but don't interact with them nearly as much as our Advance Scouting Coordinator, Mike Calitri.  Mike, with the help of his intern, Ben Werthan, does an excellent job providing the staff with practical information.  Joe is very open to anything that we present to him and understands that we're all working towards the same goal.

R.J.: Last thing:  do the Rays not see much added benefit in having a legitimate pinch runner, or is this simply the finite roster limit coming into play?

E.N.: With only twenty-five roster spots to work with, we do our best to squeeze as much usefulness out of each spot as we possibly can.  Of course, we're never going to have everything that we want.

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Thanks again to Erik for taking time out of his schedule.