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Sloan Analytics: Farhan Zaidi on A’s Analytics

Farhan Zaidi isn’t the most famous member of the Oakland A’s front office — that would be Billy Beane — but he might be the smartest. Currently in his fifth year as the club’s Director of Baseball Operations, Zaidi has a Ph.D in economics from the Cal Berkeley. He also has a job description befitting the A’s Moneyball reputation. According to his bio, his primary responsibilities include “providing statistical analysis for evaluating and targeting players,” and “analyzing data from advance scouting reports.”

Zaidi talked about his team’s saber-slanted approach to roster construction between presentations at last weekend’s MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.


Zaidi on the value of taking risks:
“If you’re a small or mid-market team, you’re compelled to engage in a high-variance strategy. We don’t want to just run our operation the same way everyone else does, with the same blend of stats and scouting, In some sense, the optimal strategy is to take risks. We make trades that might be perceived as risky. Sometimes they pay off, like Josh Reddick. Sometimes we acquire guys it turns out we were wrong about.

“If there isn’t some residual between how you evaluate players and how other teams evaluate them, then you’re just using industry values to put together the second-lowest payroll team in the league, and likely end up being the second-worst team. You kind of have to take those risks to outperform your payroll. Sometimes it’s going to backfire, just because you have to try to do something different.

“If I was the Yankees, that wouldn’t be my strategy. All I’d have to do is be as good at scouting and analytics as everyone else, and my payroll gives me the advantage. If you don’t have that advantage, you have to do something else.

“We know the risks when we make deals. There’s never going to be a time where I read something about a guy we traded and go, ‘Oh my god, we didn’t know that.’ We can be wrong, but we had all the information. We just interpreted it, or judged it, wrong.”

On Josh Reddick and residuals: “We talk a lot, in our office, about the residual. We define residual as the difference between how we view a player and how we think that player is perceived within the industry. Basically, we go after players we feel have a positive residual, guys we like better than everyone else. Anything you do that plays to that, or amplifies the differences between your evaluation and other team’s evaluations, creates more opportunities to find value.

“Our assessments are based on both numbers and scouting. As an example, our scouts thought Josh Reddick was a starting right fielder in the big leagues. They thought he was a 50, basically. On top of that, we had his performance data from Boston, in 2011, where he was worth 10 runs in the field in half a season. The scouting reports matched that.

“A lot of times, particularly at the corner outfield spots, you’ll have a guy who doesn’t have a great defensive reputation, but his fielding metrics are above average, or even way above average. You don’t know what to make of that. But when the scouting reports and metrics line up, you really have something.

“The final part of it with Reddick was that we believed in the bat. We didn’t think he was going to hit .300, but we believed in his bat more than what the popular perception was. People wondered whether he would hit enough to be an everyday big league outfielder. We thought he would hit .250 with 20 homers. He wound up exceeding that, and even if he regresses to a .250/20 level, and is worth 10 runs in the field, that’s still a very good player. He was an all-star-caliber player last season.”

On building from the bottom: “We approach improvement from the bottom-up. We talk a lot about bang for the buck — marginal runs and marginal wins per dollar spent. We’ve found that the best ways to improve our team were to limit the downside. We manage the roster from the bottom.

“A back-up catcher that plays once a week isn’t a guy you’d necessarily see as a focal point of your team, but over the course of a season, or even a half season, having an average player there as opposed to a replacement-level player there can make a difference. That was one of the reasons we went out and got George Kottaras last year. Our back-up catching situation wasn’t good, and he had some value.

“This year we acquired John Jaso, although he forms more of a tandem, as opposed to being a back-up. George was a guy who was only going to play once or twice a week. Jaso gives us some insurance for Derek Norris, who we like a lot. We want to bring along Derek at whatever pace he’s ready to play. Jaso is a guy who could play two or three times a week, or he could play four or five times a week. We have some flexibility there and will figure it out as time goes along.

“Jaso walked more than he struck out and he had over a .400 OBP against right-handed pitching. For a catcher, that’s pretty terrific. He is kind of the traditional Moneyball OBP guy. What’s interesting is last year’s team wasn’t what you’d call a traditional Moneyball lineup. We set the league record for strikeouts, we didn’t walk a lot, and we didn’t have a high OBP, but we hit a lot of homers. Jaso adds versatility to our attack, as he’s got good plate discipline and is going to have some long at bats. He’s a nice complement to our lineup.”

On providing data to advanced scouting: “There is a very deep-rooted conventional wisdom within advanced scouting. Opposing hitter reports and opposing pitcher reports have looked basically the same for the past 10 years. We’re trying to advance that. We’re asking ourselves, What information do we want our hitting and pitching coaches conveying to our players beyond what they’re doing right now?

“If you go to a hitting or pitching coach and ask, ’What do you want?,’ they’re happy with what they have. They have their hands full with the job at hand and don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what other potential pieces of valuable information are out there. We have a broader perspective. We constantly have people coming to us and talking about new advanced report services, offering new products and data sets, and that clues us in to what more we could be doing.

“On an opposing hitter report, you might have a player’s batting average against 0-1 fastballs or 0-2 fastballs. Guys would use batting average in very specific, narrow, circumstances to determine whether to throw a pitch in a certain count. Batting average is certainly not the right metric to use in those situations. We also need to understand how to slice the data into meaningful segments where you’re getting statistically significant sample sizes. You don’t want your manager necessarily viewing a match-up favorably if a guy is 2 for 3 against somebody. It’s the same sort of sample-size challenge that comes with advanced reports.

“We try to analyze skill, not results. Ultimately, what you want in an advance report isn’t batting average on fastball counts. You want something more along the lines of skill level, like how often a guy makes hard contact on a fastball on an 0-1 count. That approach is very applicable in this area.”

On proprietary information: “Analytics, today, is kind of like 30 guys with 30 radar guns: That’s not meant as disrespect to scouts. I go out and scout, and a lot of times I’m one of the guys holding up a gun. It’s more of an analogy to recognizing what data is commoditized, and what data really gives you a competitive advantage. Knowing that — knowing when you’re using data that other teams have access to, versus data that is legitimately proprietary — is an important point to be able to recognize.

“Everybody is holding up the gun and everybody writes down the reading like everyone is collecting performance data and evaluating it. There’s a lot of stuff that goes on behind the scenes that every team is doing individually, but really, much of that exercise is just running in place.

“The question of what you’re doing that other teams aren’t is a tough question. You have to give your competitors respect. A lot of things you’re thought about, they probably have as well. You have to try to go a step beyond and do it better.”