Last Friday, I had the opportunity to sit down and have lunch with the Reds' Asst. Director of Baseball Operations, Nick Krall. I recorded the interview and have tried the best I can to transcribe the discussion, though I've condensed much of it down since we had quite a lengthy conversation.
I appreciate the Reds and Krall for giving me this opportunity to talk with him. It was interesting for me to actually talk with someone on the inside. Hopefully I haven't done anything to ruin the opportunity for everyone else in the future.
UPDATE: I totally forgot to say thanks to Justin and Rick House for their assistance in coming up with questions. Without them, I probably would have been more like Chris Farley - remember when the Reds traded for Brandon Phillips for a player to be named later? That was awesome.
RR: What's your background? How long did you play baseball and how did you end up with the Reds?
NK: I played all through high school and went to LSU for college. I tried to walk-on, but I was the last guy cut a couple of times. I grew up in Pennsylvania, but I always wanted to play for LSU. I was an LSU fan ever since I can remember.
I played a lot of summer ball and semi-pro leagues. I coached Legion ball, high school, wherever I could get experience. I always wanted to work in baseball. For me, it's always been fun. I love watching games.
Driving home from school one year, the Winter Meetings were in Nashville. My college roommate and I stopped at the Winter Meetings to see what it was like. I saw that there was a job fair there for most of the Minor League clubs, but I was too late to get any interviews. The next year, I went back for the job fair and got a job working in Sales and Marketing for the New Jersey Cardinals.
But I always wanted to work in Baseball Operations, so the next year I went to the Winter Meetings with a different approach and took a clubhouse manager job. It was a great job because I got to go to Spring Training and work in the Minor League clubhouse. I got to travel to all of the cities with the team. I also worked the grounds crew during the Arizona Fall League and Spring Training the next year.
I made some good contacts with some coaches through those jobs, so when I applied for an internship with the Oakland A's the following fall, the manager, Thad Bosley and some others within the organization gave recommendations for me.
After Spring Training in 2002, I interned in Oakland and also worked as the batboy as my secondary job. I learned a lot that year. I got to work with guys like Billy Beane, Paul DePodesta, David Forst, and Eric Kubota, the Scouting Director. They were great. Any question I had, I was free to ask it. I also got to go on several scouting trips, which were great learning experiences for me.
At the end of that year I was looking for a full-time job and Cincinnati had one open, which I ended up getting. I got to work with the video systems and do advanced scouting plus some office work. I've since taken over the coordination of the pro scouting as well as doing some scouting myself. I oversee the video department. I negotiate the 0-3 year contracts. And I help out with arbitration and free agent negotiations.
RR: The Reds have a reputation of being a team that gathers information in a more traditional fashion (i.e. scouting versus sabermetrics). Do you think that's a reasonable assessment?
NK: I think a lot of people would be surprised at the amount of statistics we use. For example, we have a software database called BATS. We used it Oakland and I came in to run it here in Cincinnati. It's a database that marries video with a particular pitch. So for any random guy I can tell you what he did for, say, his last 100 at bats. I can tell you where he hits the ball. I've been able to do the hot and cold zones like you see on Fox for the last 7 years now or so.
There are a lot of statistics that go on behind the scenes like that. They're used a lot, especially within our advanced scouting for things like figuring out match ups and who's good with who and things like that. The fact is that there a lot of teams that get a lot of publicity for using stats, but most teams do use stats. They just don't talk about it as much.
When it comes to contract negotiations, we use a combination of many types of statistics. For me, I think we're a very well balanced organization in terms of that. Walt [Jocketty] looks at everything. Without blowing smoke up the guy's ass, I really have enjoyed working for Walt because he looks at the big picture. If you are only statistical or if you are a scout or whatever, he takes all of your opinions. He listens to everybody and we really do a lot of research to inform him.
RR: The Reds have made a few player personnel decisions over the last 6 months that appear to have been in favor of defense over offensive players. What has been the organization's reasoning behind these moves?
NK: Let's use Jay Bruce as an example. Bruce played centerfield last year. Jay Bruce statistically wasn't a great centerfielder, but he was good in right. So he goes from playing out of position to playing his normal position and Taveras comes in to play centerfield. If an average fielder catches 88% of the balls in centerfield and you get around 300-400 balls in centerfield, Willy Taveras is at 90% - he catches 2% more of the balls. So say he catches 8 balls a year more than the average, assuming Jay Bruce is an average centerfielder. If Willy is catching 8 extra balls, that's 8 extra at bats that we'll see. Two or three of the following hitters will get on base because of those at bats, so that's 11 total extra at bats that Willy has probably prevented. Now you add in the other guys that are out there (Bruce, Dickerson, Hairston, etc.) and compare them to the players that were previously out there and you could have upwards of 75 at bats saved in the outfield. We've got a flyball pitching staff - that's no secret. You may get 50 extra balls caught, but it's not just those 50 extra balls that matter. It's the .330 on base percentage after that plus the .330 on base percentage after that. It's not just those outs, but the effects of those outs on limiting the number of overall at bats.
If you are eliminating 75 at bats during the season, it means that fewer pitches are thrown, which means the starter can go longer in the game. If you look at the team in 2006, we had relievers who threw a lot of innings before the All Star break and then by the second half they were worn out or hurt. You are putting a lot of pressure on the relievers. So, improving the defense actually improves your pitching staff because you make more outs and you don't have throw as many pitches. You don't have to get a reliever up and sit him down as many times because the pitcher on the mound has things under control and so the reliever gets a real day of rest. That's where our defense has really improved in that way.
RR: Do you guys use any of the Pitch F/X data that is generated through MLB's Gameday application? Have you looked at the rumored Hit F/X that is supposedly coming soon?
NK: We've met with the guys at MLBAM (MLB Advanced Media) during the Winter Meetings this past year to gauge some of the stuff for Hit F/X. So we're looking to see what they have there. As for Pitch F/X, we use our BATS system, which is kind of the same thing but it allows us to link directly to the video so we can see what actually happened on a specific pitch. We do have some Pitch F/X stuff, but we like what we get off of BATS. It's easier to have it all in one system at this point. Plus, there have been some issues with the Pitch F/X and only recently is it starting to get reliable. There are still issues though with a simple bump of the camera throwing the data off and making it less reliable.
RR: When you are looking to trade for a guy, how many scouts typically see him play before you make a decision?
NK: You might have one, you might have 10. It really depends. I'm not sure anybody saw Josh Hamilton play prior to taking him in the Rule 5 draft. Guys knew him from when he was in high school. Chris Buckley knew a lot of people that had information on him, but I'm not aware of anyone who saw him themselves.
Take Jared Burton. He went from throwing what he was during the season and then went to the Fall League and then he blossomed. It could just be a scout seeing something different in a player. A guy might have changed something mechanical and flipped the switch. That's why the scouts are valuable, to catch that.
As for trades, we had several guys see Edinson Volquez before we traded for him. Typically we try to see every pro player a couple of times during the year and then we may send some guys out on special assignment if there is a player we're looking at for possible acquisition.
RR: How does somebody become a scout to the point their opinions are reliable and trusted?
NK: From my own experience, I did not have the experience that many of the scouts do prior to joining an organization. I did the advanced scouting in house and got as much experience as I could. Typically you work with a lot of the experienced scouts and keep learning and keep learning. Even Jerry Walker, who has been around the game forever, is still continuing to learn new things.
I've read a million reports and I'm still learning to do different things. We have conversations all of the time about things like what kind of pitch is this, what kind of pitch is that. During Spring Training Cam Bonifay started quizzing me, "What kind of pitch is this? Why?" And it turned into a back and forth conversation about one pitch. Or it could just be one turning of a double play that sparks the discussion.
For me, the more games you watch the more you'll gain an understanding of what a big leaguer is. I was fortunate enough that when I started working in Oakland, I probably watched 400 games that summer on video. And I was charting all of the games while I watched them. You start to learn what a big league fastball looks like. You see how a ball comes off a big league hitters bat, and what they swing at and what they don't. The more games you watch, the more experience you get. You can't really go out and learn it in a 2-week training course.
I was talking about this with one of our interns this morning. He asked how I learned to do scouting. When I worked in Oakland we had a guy named Dick Bogard who had been scouting for years, but he still only wrote his reports by hand. My job was to sit there and read all his reports and enter them into the computer. When he'd come into the office, I'd sit down with him and listen to how he described a player and why he graded a player a certain way.
I find myself gravitating toward the older guys because I like to hear what they have to say and because they've seen a million players. They've been around so long, it's neat to see how they see a player. After I've seen a club, I'll talk to somebody else who has seen that club. I'll ask them to read my report and see if I'm missing something. I'll read their report and then compare to what I saw. It's like an apprenticeship where they help me develop my skills.
From interns all the way up to Walt, it's amazing the amount of conversations we have about baseball players during the day. Scouts love to call in while they are driving and just talk about players. My wife always asks how there is so much to talk about, but like I tell her, there's 8000 players in all of the levels. We talk about guys and see why you like or don't like a player. And you just keep learning that way.
RR: How is the data for scouting compiled? How is a player's progress tracked and aggregated?
NK: We have a computer system with a couple of databases. We have one that tracks player development stuff, with manager comments and reports, game reports, and development history for our guys. And then we have one for scouting that tracks amateur guys and professional guys. On the pro side, a guy goes out and sees a club and writes his reports. Back at the hotel, the scout pulls up a computer program that has every bit of information you could think of on that player. The scout then keys in his report to the program and the reports are then synched into the main system electronically. The new report gets married with everything else in the existing system, so we can have like 20 reports on any player over the last several years. We can then track trends in players based on all of this information.
RR: What are the benefits and risks of buying out arbitration years in contracts like we've seen for Evan Longoria and Troy Tulowitzki?
NK: You look at the players that have had their arb years bought out like that, and a lot of those players are special players. It's worked for some and it's failed for others. The risk is injury or poor performance. On the positive, you buy somebody out for a fixed price and you don't have to worry about the arbitration process. The key is that you want to get a fair number for you and a fair number for the player. The team doesn't want to screw over the player. It just doesn't make sense to create that bad blood. You just have to think about whether or not it makes sense to take the risk for that player, because there is very little built-in risk with the 0-3 years for the team. It's not a poor decision to sign the contract, but the number has to work for both sides.
We think about it with every player. We've got a cost structure that we work within every year and if we can find a way to improve that cost structure, I think we have to.
RR: You are in charge of hiring interns and I think we have some readers that might be interested to know what it takes to get into the business? What are you look for in an intern?
NK: To be an intern, you have to have an extensive knowledge of baseball. I'm not saying you need to have worked for a Major League club before, but you have to be around it. You have to have played, or maybe coach, or helped out with a team. I like kids who have worked in the Minor Leagues first because you'll understand the hours it takes. You do different stuff, but you understand the hours it takes. My day can typically last from 9 AM to 11 at night, after a game is over.
You need to be hard working. I want somebody who is willing to do anything they are asked. And you need to be willing to learn.
I've done all kinds of jobs within baseball. I've done everything from cleaning jock straps and toilets because I wanted the opportunity to work in the game. Now I understand the day-to-day life of a minor league team. I now know what it means to be a minor leaguer because of those experiences.
The big things are baseball knowledge, the willingness to learn, and being hard-working. Being a hard worker is probably the most important thing if you want to be a Baseball Ops Intern.
RR: Thanks again to Krall for taking the time to sit and talk with me.