Thirteen months ago, we ran an interview titled Billy Eppler on Taking the Reins in Anaheim. At the time, Eppler was a first-year general manager, 100-plus days into his tenure. He’d come to the Angels from New York, where he’d spent 11 years in the Yankees front office. Armed with a background in scouting and player development, and a degree in finance, he was being entrusted to rebuild a moribund farm system while staying competitive in the American League West.
Progress has come slowly, at least on the surface. The Angels struggled in 2016, winning just 74 games and finishing in fourth place. Pitching injuries were a culprit — they remain a concern — while an offense led by the incomparable Mike Trout scored fewer runs than all but five AL squads. As for the prospect pipeline, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Keith Law recently ranked the Angels’ farm system, which was dead last a year ago, 27th of the 30 organizations.
Eppler didn’t make a splash over the offseason — there was nothing as notable as last winter’s Andrelton Simmons acquisition — but there were some meaningful moves. Cameron Maybin is now an Angel, as are Danny Espinosa, Martin Maldonado, and Luis Valbuena. In the opinion of some, Eppler’s club can contend this season if the pitchers — particularly Garrett Richards — remain in one piece.
Eppler discussed the team’s direction, and the philosophies set forth by his “Office of the GM” earlier this week.
Eppler on the extent to which a team needs to commit to a direction — rebuild, win now, etc. — and stay the course: “I believe that the majority of clubs, maybe 20-25 clubs, walk in at the start of spring training evaluating what they have. From there they see what manifests over that first third of the season. Here, we like to break our seasons into thirds. We basically do a thorough audit around Memorial Day, another audit right around the trade deadline, and we take that to the end of the season.
“We’re trying to understand what the composition of our club is in actual games — during parts of the actual season. That’s a lot more telling than what it looks like on paper in December, January or February.
“There is a general awareness among teams as they enter the winter of, ‘What do we need to do to be a 90-plus-win club, or a 95-plus-win club?’ Or, maybe it’s ‘What needs to happen for us to be an 80-win, or an 85-win club?’ We look at that objectively in what we call our ‘Office of the GM.’ We work through that, and once we get a sense of what it will take — not who it will take, but what it would take — we can set forth some kind of action plan. It becomes a question of, ‘Is this attainable? Is this realistic? What would it take to achieve these criterion?’
“A lot depends on what the expenditure are. If you’re mortgaging the high end of your prospect depth to do something… that’s for each club to decide if it’s worth it or not. If you’re outlaying cash, or shorter-term deals — a little lower risk and you’re not spending extravagantly — maybe that makes it worth it. I don’t think the question can be answered as simply as, ‘We had 81 wins, is this going to be worth it?’ You have to know the acquisition cost, whether that cost is simply monetary or prospects, or both, and make a determination from there.”
On the relative value of acquiring a specific style of player, or simply upgrading at a position: “You generally have a philosophy, or a style of play, but at the end of the day, the expected output of the player — whether that’s on the pitching side or the position-player side — is going to be the overriding factor. You might have a circumstance where you’ve built a high-ground-ball pitching staff, and a pitcher becomes available and he’s a fly-ball guy. His expected outcome makes him an advantageous acquisition, and that begs for being opportunistic. That’s something we’ve tried to model ourselves after — being opportunistic. If we have a chance to acquire a player and he moves our win meter — or even he simply helps us improve our run prevention — we have to look at him very seriously.”
On run prevention and defense up the middle: “I think everybody has noticed that the position players who have walked in the door have all been solid average, or better, defensively. That’s something that is important to us. It goes back to that belief, to that philosophy, that both sides of the baseball impact winning.
“In a perfect world, you have elite defense up the middle. I believe we’ve been able to establish that this year. It’s funny, because that’s a very… I don’t know if ‘old school’ is the right way to coin that, but it’s a very traditional way to build a baseball team — defense up the middle, honoring the premium positions.
“There are also our circumstances. The ballpark we play in, the ballparks in the American League West, and even others we’ll play in — going to Minnesota, going to Cleveland, going to Dodgers Stadium — a number of games will be in run-scoring environments that are depressed. Because of that, there can be a little more impact on the run-prevention side of the game.”
On acquiring versatile, multiple-inning pitchers: “With the uncertainty, or at least with the questions we ended last season with, we had to take a unique approach to our pitching this winter. We went out and acquired a lot of pitchers who have flexibility. I use the term ‘flexibility and durability,’ with the flexibility aspect meaning that guys that can either start or relieve.
“At the end of the day, we’re trying to get 27 outs. We’re taking a mindset of, ‘How many of these guys can go out and get us four out, or six outs, or eight outs?’ It doesn’t matter how you do it. All that matters is that you get 27. It doesn’t matter if your starter goes seven innings, and here comes your ‘eighth-inning player’ and your ‘ninth-inning player.’ It also doesn’t matter if your starter goes three-and-a-third innings, and you have these multiple-inning relievers in your bullpen to pick up the rest, with maybe a guy remaining for the ninth.
“We’re trying to address getting those outs in a number of different ways. That drove us to get pitchers like Jesse Chavez, Yusmeiro Petit, Bud Norris, Brooks Pounders, potentially J.C. Ramirez, as well as others. Daniel Wright, Manny Banuelos, who we signed and rehabbed through the winter, Vicente Campos. These are guys we feel can go out there and do that. They don’t have to fit into a starter bucket or a reliever bucket. They can fit into a bucket of guys who can get multiple outs.”
On making trades and the Angels’ inner circle: “We’ve had potential deals fall through. That’s something that can happen after one conversation, or the third, or the fifth conversation. It can happen at any point. It’s not just when you hang up and circle up with your group. It can be very quick. It can even fall apart within that one phone call with the other GM. Particular names get suggested, or there’s a level of money involved, and things could basically end right there.
“Our group, our ‘Office of the GM,’ is essentially comprised of our pro-scouting director, amateur-scouting director, international-scouting director, director of quantitative analysis, director of baseball development, director of minor-league operations, and then, within our front office, we have our two assistant GMs. We also hired a new director of baseball operations this winter, from the Tampa Bay Rays, a young man named Andrew Ball.
“There are also guys I’m close to, like Eric Chavez and Jose Molina. I bounce ideas off of them. There is Marcel Lachemann, who dates back to my time [as a scout] with the Colorado Rockies. Just having that kind of support system… those guys know our philosophy. They know which players fit for us, and which players may not fit for us.”
On the analytics department he formed upon taking the job: “Jon Luman heads our analytics department. We hired him from the physics lab at Johns Hopkins University. I started in October 2015 and we brought him on board in November 2015. I walked into the door with some candidates for that role, because I wanted to make sure we had an isolated department dedicated to research and analytics.
“We’ve added a couple of programmers, so the department has grown by a couple of people over the past year. Overall, there’s been a lot of growth and production. Whether it’s things for our minor leagues, or for our major-league club, it’s to the point now where our coaching staff feels very comfortable interacting with them.”
On Mike Scioscia and ownership: “Mike is somebody I bounce ideas off of. We talk and text regularly. I let him know what we’re thinking, and he’ll weigh in. When we discuss players, player acquisitions and so on and so forth, we talk about what we can expect — what the expected output would be from this player. I peel those layers back with Mike, and we take into consideration what he has to add.
“When it comes to transactions, I brief our owner on everything. Even if we make a trade that might not grab a front page, or a headline… if you look at our transaction log, I’ve briefed him on all of them — I’ve told him why we wanted to do it. It stands to reason that any transaction that involves money, and players, is going to have been run up the flagpole.”
On changes to the scouting department: “We added a new amateur-scouting director, Matt Swanson, who came over from the Cardinals. Ric Wilson, who was the acting amateur-scouting director here, is still involved in the department. We’re also using him more in international scouting now, both on the amateur and professional level.
“We’ve made some changes to things like grade scales, group classifications, and grading classifications of players. We wanted to get the major- and minor-league staffs speaking the same language. We wanted it to be organizational, and to where our team president and our owner could understand as well. On the back end, through our analytics, we can make that a little more complex if we choose.
“We want our scouting department to know what we emphasize and see value in. Defense is part of it. We want them to look at players with a run-prevention mindset as well as a run-production mindset. It’s not just one area. Know how those relationships complement each other, or how they might potentially detract from one another.”
On taking Matt Thaiss in the first round of the 2016 draft, out of the University of Virginia, and moving him from catcher to first base: “We did [the position switch] right away. We actually worked him out at first base prior to the draft. That made us confident to make the selection.
“He sees the ball really early. To use an expression from one of my mentors, he can quit on the baseball. That gives us the idea that he can recognize spin, and pitch type, very quickly. That will help improve his decision-making ability as the pitchers he’s facing become more and more talented. His bat-to-ball ability — his general eye-hand coordination — is strong, as well. Basically, he has the ability to recognize and to contact.
“Through our internal analysis, we recognized an ability to impact the ball at an above-average rate. Along with that, we had very strong reports from a character and makeup standpoint at all. There was no pushback from anyone in the draft room because of [where he’ll be on the defensive spectrum].”
On balancing staying competitive and building for the future: “Staying competitive while building for the future can be done with strategic and sound investing and, obviously, very competent and thorough personnel. You have to remain committed towards improving your 25- and 40-man rosters, but also be mindful of investing in the draft and internationally with some heightened aggressiveness.
“We’ve committed to building our farm system by maximizing our investment, not only in the playing personnel, but in the coaching staff and performance staff. We are trying to build a culture and a standard, and we’ve implemented a few programs that we feel will help create that environment. All of our efforts as a department circle back to our internal standards and the expectations we have for our baseball operation.”
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