Neal Huntington. Five Years Later.

What Can We Learn From The Interview Pittsburgh Pirates GM Neal Huntington Did Five Years Ago?

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About five years ago, new Pittsburgh Pirates GM Neal Huntington was interviewed by David Laurila of Baseball Prospectus.   Looking back on the interview today is like reading the game plan Huntington would be putting into place for the Pirates.  Whether you are pro-Huntington or anti-Huntington, the interview is like opening a time capsule.   We trust you enjoy it.

Up first:  JR

The interviewer asks about one of the first decisions Huntington made in firing Jim Tracy and hiring John Russell.  The new Bucs GM said this about Russell

“…brought intensity and a passion for the game. We wanted someone who will instill discipline, and a sense of pride for who we are, what we do and how we will play the game. John has those qualities, along with being an extensive communicator and a quality instructor and evaluator.”  Neal Huntington, 2DEC07, Baseball Prospectus

Looking back at the John Russell era causes tremors for most Pirates fans, but was it the fact that Russell had piss poor talent, or that he sucked as a manager?   We have no idea.   But we do know this-if you asked me to shout out character traits about J.R. it would be utterly impossible for me to blurt out the following:  INTENSE!  EXTENSIVE COMMUNICATOR! QUALITY INSTRUCTOR!

Huntington whiffed on John Russell.

Up next:  Chuck Tanner

The interviewer credits Huntington with bringing Chuck Tanner on board.  Huntington practically glowed about the Buccos legend:

“First, there is his positive energy, his passion, and his vast knowledge of the game. There is also his infectious personality, which is something that will be great to have on board. He is also a quality evaluator with a vast amount of experience. Chuck has been around the game a long time, and he understands what it takes to play at the highest level. Additionally, he is very willing to embrace new things–new ideas. Chuck likes to talk about how he used to have an advance book in his back pocket when he managed. He used to break down the numbers and matchups in the 1970s, so he was quite innovative for his time.”

Huntington nailed it when Tanner was brought on board.  Perhaps that is a reason why an advisor was brought back on board for the 2013 season?

Up next:  Fundamentals

From our trip inside the Washington Nationals locker room, a parody picture with the caption that Lastings Milledge was picked up by police for impersonating an outfielder. We took this picture shortly after the Hanrahan/Milledge for Burnett/Morgan trade.

The topic of the Pirates having poor fundamentals has been around for  long time, it’s a pretty easy target when a baseball club has lost a lot more than they have won– for twenty consecutive years.  Tanner went on record stating the Pirates lacked fundamentals.  Some say not much has changed, others point to the strong ability of the Pirates to play well the past two seasons until a 19-inning game comes along.   We think it has more to do with the increasing amount of runs allowed as the season progressed, but facts should never get in the way of a good story.

Huntington went into his take on what Tanner said.  A philosophy if you will.

“The easy answer is that you want players with both talent and ability to execute. We want talent–big, strong athletes with tools–but we also want guys with aptitude and a positive attitude. If someone has aptitude, we can teach him. Some guys overachieve because of their ability to maximize the skills they have, while others are incredibly talented but aren’t as fundamentally sound. With the latter, we want to attack those shortcomings. We want to work with them to improve their fundamentals, because we can’t just walk away from talent. We want to believe that we can make a difference with a player–that we have the coaching in place to make that difference and help a player turn potential into performance.”

Here is where some failures mount during Huntingtons’ tenure.  On numerous occassions the Bucs have given an opportunity to what looked like a talented player, or perhaps what appeaed to be a once talented player.   But once Lastings Milledge and the Brandon Wood’s of the world arrived in Pittsburgh, their struggles continued.   It impacted not  not only the Bucs win loss record, but the GM’s swagger in and around the little time he spends in the clubhouse.  In Huntingtons’ time on the job, the team has always tried to revive a former talented, top rated prospect.  The upside argument is one which we support, it’s something we believe in based on the super tight budget Bob Nutting hands to his GM.

But look deeper.

Huntington said that he wants to believe that the Pirates have the coaching in place to make a difference and turn potenial into performance.   But do the Pirates really have the teaching in place to back up Huntington’s powerful sentences?   The Perry Hill debacle stung.   And as you know, we always point to another example–Donnie Veal.  Pitchers like Chris Resop who simply couldn’t hold runners.  Catchers who for some reason couldn’t throw out runners.  Little things that add up to something in retrospective.

Because the Pirates will need to rely heavily on young pitchers if their master plan is going to stick, we are curious….. Who will be teaching or mentoring Kyle McPheson, Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Luis Heredia, Clay Holmes, Vic Black, Bryan Morris, and the rest of the talented arms on the rise through the system?  We have to trust that Huntington has the Pirates system entirely focused on this for 2013.  Pitching can save the Bucs, but haven’t many young pitchers been missed over the drafts of Huntington’s tenure?  Have they lacked talent, or had poor teaching?

But back to the upside moves.  It can be argued they are still going on today, will Travis Snider ever perform to his potential?  Do the Pirates really feel comfortable with handing the right field job to a player that is nicknamed lunchboxhero and hasn’t been able to stay healthy while regulating Jose Tabata to fat camp?

Up next:  Matt Morris like moves

The interviewer just had to go there–Matt Morris.

The quick fixes that have been taken in the past–that you see happen around the league with some teams–are not something we’ll be interested in here. Free agent signings that make a small, incremental difference in on-field performance don’t have much of an impact on wins.

The Pirates haven’t made a Morris like move.  But the fixes that they have attempted to make through free agency have been utter failures.   The low end free agent signings didn’t have an impact on wins whatsoever, but the moves assisted in piling up losses over the Huntington era.

Up next:  Metrics

Huntington was asked by the interviewer if the traditional objective evaluations like OPS, WHIP, etc could now be considered traditional.

Huntington responded by complimenting the Cleveland Indians, led by Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff of doing an excellent job of evaluating players and mentioned that he hoped (God we hate that word) to build on that model in Pittsburgh.

Huntington stated this after complimenting the Tribe:

“As a matter of fact, as an organization I want us to go to the next level of metrics. I hope that we can get to the point where we’ve built an environment to create and utilize them in-house. We have a lot of work to do, but we have an outstanding statistical consultant on board, and we’re creating a computer system to help us not only store, track and access data but to also analyze the data that has been collected.”

Roughly five and a half months later the Bucs made a move on the metrics front.  On April 17, 2008 a writer at Baseball Prospectus filed his final column.  

 

Dan Fox was headed to Pittsburgh.  This is how Fox said goodbye to his readers:

“To be sure, I’ve had a ball analyzing and writing about baseball over the past two years here at BP, and previously at THT (The Hardball Times,) but, as they say, all good things must come to an end. That isn’t because I’ve run out of topics to explore, but is instead because I will be leaving Baseball Prospectus to join the front office of the Pittsburgh Pirates to become their Director of Baseball Systems Development. In that capacity I’ll be assisting the excellent staff–including Kyle Stark, Bryan Minniti, Greg Smith, and Joe Delli Carri, under the direction of General Manager Neal Huntington–in building systems to support and inform the decision-making process of the baseball operations staff. All of those individuals mentioned, and many others, have made me feel more than welcome, and I’m thrilled to start the process of integrating the array of quantitative and qualitative information in a way that makes both even more instructive.

So what exactly has Fox provided?

It’s called Dan Fox’s “MITT.”   It means  “Managing, Information, Tools and Talent.”   What it means is a player-information system that has the potential to make the Pirates’ decision-making more cerebral.

“The task is to unify our player system to where you can drill down and see scouting reports, medical and contract information — pretty much everything you can collect on a player — search it quickly and have it support the decision-making,” Dan Fox

Fox earned a Computer Science degree from Iowa State and was involed in software and architecture for 14 years.   The Pirates position was advertised on a sabermetrics blog and back in late April of 2008, Fox got the job.  (Fox’s personal blog hasn’t had a post since 2009)

My question is one that I don’t know the answer to.  Just how much has Dan Fox assisted the Pirates organization?  Is the MITT system flawed in projecting future player potential?   Was MITT the reason for the no doubles defense?  Was it behind the Matt Diaz signing and more recently, the Jeff Karstens non-tender?  Did Fox nail the value of A.J. Burnett?  Does the system have the ability to predict future injuries and did it have an influence in the Bucs remaining healthy for so long during the 2012 season?

Just how much or how little information does Dan Fox and his mystery machine provide, and is anyone using the information correctly is always the question.   But we think Fox has shitty arguments or his information sucks because, after all, it was Fox who said the Pirates organization, “has been receptive to new ideas “at pretty much all levels, and if you make sound arguments backed by good information, people couldn’t be happier to use it.”

So where the hell is the unicorn with all the answers Dan?

Oh, here it is.  Andrew McCutchen cures all.

In closing:  Above-average players

DL: Looking at both on-field success and building credibility with your fan base, do the Pirates need a marquee player?

NH: The best way to build a strong fan base is to win. I’m not a big believer that an organization is built around one player. I believe in having a depth of quality players throughout the lineup, one through nine, and having a deep pitching staff. I’m not a marquee name-believer. I feel we need above-average players across the board, and that’s what we’re working to put together in Pittsburgh. When we do that, we’re going to have a competitive, winning team.

Well that about wraps it up doesn’t it?   The Bucs don’t have above-average players across the board, certainly not in their starting rotation, and it doesn’t take a saber expert to tell you that pitching wins championships.

So in closing, the Bucs don’t have above-average position players across the board and hence, they haven’t had a competitive, winning team under Neal Huntington yet.

The man said it himself five years ago.

So let’s bring it back to present day.  Yesterday Huntington had this to say: 

“We want to build an organization that can sustain winning, once we get there.  It may not happen today. It may take some time. It may be a work in progress. But it is progress.”

 Heh take your time, fellas.  Don’t let us rush anyone down there on Federal Street.

Let’s Go Bucs!

 

 

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