Dan Kantrovitz is one of the reasons the St. Louis Cardinals are good. More so, he’s one of the reasons they promise to remain good. The 36-year-old former Ivy League shortstop has been the club’s Director of Scouting since January 2012. Under his watch, the Cardinals have drafted Michael Wacha, Marco Gonzales and a number of soon-to-reach-St. Louis prospects.
Kantrovitz’s background is atypical of most scouting directors. Prior to his first stint with the Cardinals [2004-2008], he earned an undergraduate degree from Brown and a master’s degree in statistics from Harvard. He was in charge of international scouting for the Oakland A’s from 2009-2011.
Kantrovitz on economizing through the draft: “We view the draft as a mechanism to save money. That may seem counter intuitive – it’s a spending environment – but its arguably the best bang for your buck in any area of procurement. The more you spend on the draft, assuming it’s a disciplined approach, the more our club might be able to save down the road in the free-agent market.
“Fortunately, our ownership has been very supportive and allowed us to spend up to the five-percent overage in each year of the current CBA since the 2012 draft. It’s not a new idea, but if we play our cards right and draft a future mid or top of the rotation guy, for example, that would save our club quite a bit of money on the free-agent market. That’s money that our GM can allocate to another area, or a more abundant, cheaper, position. Likewise, hitting on one of those “low-ceiling, high-floor” college players on day 2 or 3 and having him turn into a super-utility type has plenty of surplus value as well.
“Just trying to find athletes, or up-the-middle guys… I’m asked that a lot but we don’t really look at it that way. It might be limiting for us if we stick to a rigid strategy that is not data-driven. What we’re trying to do with our draft is optimize it. We want to figure out how it’s going to save us the most money down the road and be the most productive for us. The profile of a player that is going to save us money down the road is based on quite a bit of analysis…and it is rarely obvious. It is also a lot easier said than done, because you still have to execute it and hit on certain players. I should add that our strategy being based on saving money in the future doesn’t mean we shy away from the high-upside guys. After all, if they pan out, they would save us the most money of all.”
On how Oakland prepared him for his current job: “First, just working in their front office and being around guys like Billy [Beane], David [Forst] and Farhan [Zaidi] on a daily basis, was an incredible environment to learn from. They’re some of the best people I’ve been around, plus they already knew the international market when I was hired, so I was able to absorb quite a bit and hit the ground running. In terms of working on the international side, I think that is the best training any scout can get. You write-up a ton of reports and you have to make a judgment on players without stats, third-party information or really any prior information on a player. Its pure, unadulaterated scouting that humbles you very quickly, because you are wrong a lot.”
On methodology and valuation: “When you talk about our methodology, it’s not rocket science. It’s more, ‘Find a reliable metric; see what’s worked in the past and use it as a guide going forward.’ As a scouting director, I need to be disciplined to implement it and sell it to our department of scouts, who might not always agree with what we think the optimal decision is.
“Basically, we translate every piece of available information into runs. We have data from scouts, doctors, trainers, quantitative analysts, specialists in pitching mechanics – they all provide an expert opinion on a player. We bake all those opinions together and apply discount rates to enable us to compare players apple to apples in today’s dollars. We basically end up with a present value for every player on our board.
“We try to keep it as scientific and data-driven as possible, but our metrics aren’t our end-all-be-all. Our scouts know that. Any time you’re dealing with amateur baseball players, it’s highly variable. If we didn’t allow some wiggle room — quite a bit of wiggle room in some cases – from the influence of our scouts’ voices, we’d be off.”
On taking third basemen with three of their first six picks in 2012: “The three we announced as third basemen were Stephen Piscotty, who played other positions at Stanford as well, Patrick Wisdom from St. Mary’s, and Carson Kelly, who was a high school shortstop and pitcher but came into our system as a third baseman.
“We were, and still do, try to take players who are versatile defensively. Coming into the system as a third basemen doesn’t mean you are going to come out of our system as third basemen. Obviously, you don’t want to start too far down the defensive spectrum and that’s why a lot of teams focus on up-the-middle, but if you think the bat is something you can’t find in an up-the-middle defender, you stretch that line of thinking.
“Stephen played third base for a time, but it was clear early on that another position would be a better fit for him, and so far that looks like right field. And, fortunately, Stephen has not stopped hitting. Patrick has found a home at third and continues to be very well-liked by our development staff. As a young draft – I believe he was 20 at the time – he has time on his side to keep developing and get better. Carson played some third early on and we were pleased with his progress there, but the more we got to know him, the more we felt like he had the special intangibles, as well as the raw physical tools, where catcher might be a good long-term fit for him. His progress has been outstanding so far. So, two of the three we announced as third baseman are at other positions, and doing very well at those other positions. And, clearly our development staff has done an excellent job of maximizing the value of a few players who came in with some defensive versatility.”
On the rapid ascent of Michael Wacha and Marco Gonzales to the big leagues: “I said this after Wacha last year and think it also applies to Marco this year: You can hope that this is what happens with your first pick, but its unrealistic to expect it. Our scouts just did a very good job of not getting wrapped-up in risk/reward debates and of recognizing that there was basically a big-leaguer pitching right in front of us, but just vs college competition.
“With both Michael and Marco, they have both made adjustments while in the major leagues and I think that speaks to the kind of aptitude that each has, in addition to their skill. But, as a department, we just didn’t think they had far to go to be able to reach and, more importantly, contribute in the big leagues. Then, the other side of the equation is that our big-league staff is so good at incorporating younger players into the mix and putting them in positions to succeed. Do I expect this every year with our first pick? Absolutely not.
“[Projecting a timetable] is always difficult since it doesn’t really happen in a vacuum. Scouts might put a timetable on a player and then when he gets into our system we might have four guys in front of him, which alters the prospect’s trajectory. Or there might be a need at a certain position and then the wheels are greased for him to fly through the system. Or our development guys just might say so-and-so needs more time. There are a lot of variables.”
On the high school/college dynamic: “With the new CBA, the depth of your draft is going to have to come from college players, because most high school players won’t sign for under $100,000. You can wait, and collect college players later on in the draft. You can’t necessarily do that with high school players if you expect to sign them all.
“To keep balance in our minor-league system, we want to come away from the draft with a healthy balance of high school, junior college and four-year college players. It typically happens naturally, or evens out from year to year, but we would put on the brakes if it looked like we were taking a disproportionate number of either high school or college players. Ultimately, we have to provide our development system with the right raw materials. We’ll get some feedback pretty immediately if we’re too heavily skewed in one direction.”
On assembling a scouting department: “Mo [general manager John Mozeliak] is really good about letting me have autonomy when it comes to personnel. I’d guess having a background in analytics influences the way I look at assembling a staff, but at the end of the day, I’d prefer not to have a department where we all think the same way or have the same set of experiences to draw upon. Scouting is so difficult, that I think to minimize our mistakes, having scouts who have different approaches is important.
“We get a lot of emails, letters and calls from people interested in becoming a scout. It’s become almost a trendy thing to want to do, but sometimes I think people overlook how grueling scouting jobs are. But the one thing I try to impress upon people is that, in my opinion, there isn’t one particular skill set, or background, you have to have. Ultimately, what you need to do is develop a feel for scouting.
“Scouts come from all different backgrounds and we pride ourselves on having diversity in our department. Whether our scouts come from an analytical background, a coaching background, a playing background, or even a totally off-the-map background, we believe we’re going to get at the right answers – or at least the best answers – by having a diverse set of voices weighing into our model.”
On communication and analytics: We spend a lot of time and energy baking-in or combining things like performance data with scouting opinions. At times, it’s helpful to have a feel for how much our scouts need to “like” a player with, say, a poor performance track record, in order for him to be in our draft wheelhouse. Clearly, there are a lot of in-betweens that are not so clear cut or that aren’t so easily distinguishable, Having a background in analytics does help in making some of those judgement calls. But, look, I don’t think you have to have a masters in stats to do this job. I just think it helps in the way that I do this job.
“I don’t spend much time writing code anymore – I did quite a bit of that when I was in Oakland – but there is less time for me to do that in this role, and we have a few really talented guys in our office where programming is their primary responsibility. Guys like Matt Bayer, Dane Sorensen and Chris Correa have done some outstanding analytical work in support of our drafts over the past couple years. Every now and again I’ll delve into the data if I’m curious about something, but my responsibilities are more to interpret the data than to be a day-to-day doer of the data.”
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