The small-market Oakland A’s are outperforming expectations — they have a habit of doing this — and, as always, their front office deserves plaudits. Billy Beane famously fronts the group, with David Forst acting as his right-hand man in the general manager’s chair. And then there’s Dan Kantrovitz, whose primary duties are encapsulated with this line in the team’s media guide:
[Kantrovitz] is involved in all aspects of the A’s baseball operations department with a primary focus on overseeing statistical analysis for evaluating and targeting players in the amateur draft, free agent and trade markets.
Currently in his fourth season as Oakland’s assistant GM, Kantrovitz has both the background and the expertise to thrive in his role. The possessor of a master’s degree in statistics from Harvard, he’s served in multiple capacities within professional baseball, including a three-year stint as the director of scouting for the St. Louis Cardinals. This is Kantrovitz’s second go-round with his current club, as he previously worked in the Oakland front office from 2009 to -11.
Kantrovitz on the A’s outperforming expectations this season: “With three weeks left, a lot can happen. I wish I had a good answer to explain the team’s performance so far, but I think you’ve got to start with the guys on the field. So many of our players are having great years — and, in some cases, career years. Then you can factor in that David [Forst] and Billy [Beane] and the coaching staff have made some good decisions along the way. Maybe we have had some good fortune on top of it? Also — and this is maybe hard to quantify — I think the effect of a guy like Jonathan Lucroy on our pitching has been significant.”
On Oakland’s analytics group: “It’s small. In the office, there are four of us: analysts Pike Goldschmidt and Ben Lowry; a research scientist, David Jackson-Hanen; and myself. The size is a little misleading, though, as most people in our office are analytical. Our major-league and minor-league coaches are analytical. Our strength coaches, our trainers… they are all analytical. I also work closely with our player-development coordinators, and they drive a lot of innovation. Guys like Ed Sprague. They’re super analytical, but also strong from a coaching perspective.”
On new technology: “You hear a lot about wearables and sensors, but I think computer vision and AI are becoming more pervasive. Probably like many teams, we are spending some time on both. As far as public data, before it was always trying to find public data online. Now publicly available software or code can also be valuable. Sites like GitHub are great resources.”
On the draft: “Partly because there is a lot of work to do, and partly because it’s how I cut my teeth in baseball, there probably isn’t a day that goes by when I’m not doing something draft related. I’m biased, but I don’t think there is a more important function or event in baseball operations than the draft.
“There always seems to be new data coming in, models to test, natural experiments to dream up, players to research. The scouting and decisions are entirely Eric Kubota’s and the amateur scouting department, but the underlying analytics, performance projections… that’s stuff I enjoy helping out with.”
On 2018 first-round draft pick Kyler Murray: “It was a scout-driven pick for sure… although I will say that it’s a good example of analytics not getting in the way. I don’t mean that analytics were not considered. It’s more a case of acknowledging that there are a wide range of outcomes for certain types of players.”
On 2015 first-round draft pick Richie Martin: “I think he has a chance to be a stud. A 23-year-old plus defensive shortstop who hit .300 and OPS’d .800 in Double-A. That’s not easy to do. He might have been the youngest college player drafted, or very close to it, in 2015… and then he skipped Low-A. He was already improving at such a high clip in college, and he hasn’t stopped in pro ball. He’s intelligent, has a great work ethic. I’m a fan.”
On 2014 first-round draft pick Matt Chapman: “He’s one of those guys that seems to do something jaw-dropping every night. Credit our amateur scouts on evaluating him. Defense is one of the more difficult things to get right in the draft, and they found a gem.”
On Ramon Laureano: “I’m sure I’m not alone, but if how he’s currently performing is any indication of his true talent, I definitely underestimated his ability when we traded for him. I mean, I think we had a reasonable idea that he was an excellent defender, but I for one would not have expected his bat to be as strong as it’s been. He’s staying on the slider, keeping his plane, and driving the gaps. Its been fun to watch.”
On Franklin Barreto: “He has shouldered some pretty lofty expectations. I mean, he’s a 22-year-old, middle-of-the-diamond player who hit 20-plus homers this year. I don’t think there are many middle-infield prospects who would get much playing time on our roster with the way Marcus Semien and Jed Lowrie are playing at short and second. At whatever position it may be, when Franklin does get a full-time opportunity, I think we are all believers in his ability to capitalize.”
On Khris Davis: “KD is obviously one of those of guys that fits in really well here and leads by example. I think you see a lot of our younger guys kind of feed off him. Prior to acquiring him, I remember we ran a simulation estimating how many of his home runs would’ve been out of the Coliseum — as if he were hitting in our park — and it ended up being some amazingly high percentage. Aside from averaging 93 off the bat, I think what also stands out is how he hits balls in the air to all fields… or, I guess, technically, the distribution of his horizontal launch angle for line drives and fly balls.”
On shifting: “It gets a little mischaracterized because we look at it more as positioning for every play, rather than deciding if we should shift or not. Every situation probably has an optimal defensive positioning configuration. The worn-out spot in the grass can’t be the best starting point all the time, right? Our coaches and players study the data and are pretty cognizant of their exact positioning, degrees from center, feet from hitter and the wall. Weather, location, all those kinds of things.”
On monitoring trends in the game, and Moneyball in 2018: “If we weren’t monitoring trends, I feel like we wouldn’t be doing our jobs. Hopefully we can be out in front on some trends, and others we just try to learn as quickly as we can from the rest of the industry.
“To me, the meaning [of Moneyball] is the same now as when the book was first released: innovation despite, or maybe because of, resource constraints. But the guy across the hall might be a better person to ask.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.