Interview: John Coppolella of the Braves

At the winter meetings this week, John Coppolella, the Braves Director of Baseball Administration, was kind enough to sit down with me and answer some questions about the Braves, his role on the team, and the current state of statistical analysis in the game. He’s a bright young executive in the game, and has a great perspective on the work that front offices do, so this was nothing but a pleasure.

Eno Sarris: What is your role with the Braves exactly? Can you describe what you do?

John Coppolella: I help out [General Manager] Frank Wren and [Assistant General Manager] Bruce Manno. I help them by executing our depth charts, prospect lists, arbitration cases and our statistical analysis. When we break down players, we will use stuff that we find on sites like FanGraphs sometimes. We were in the room a few days back, and we were sorting guys by UZR/150. There’s probably about 10 or 15 we will take from your site, five or 10 from here, from there. We’re always trying to find new information.

Eno Sarris
: That’s interesting. I was going to ask you about how aware you are of the stuff that is out there. In particular, valuing defense – there’s a lot of work being done right now trying to figure out how far we’ve gotten with defensive statistics. How do you feel about defensive statistics – do you have any advice for those that are working on defensive numbers?

John Coppolella: I still think the best way to evaluate defense is through the eyes of a scout. I say that because a scout can see where the defender starts, where he finishes, what kind of break he gets, and what sort of closing speed he has. When we look at the stats, like UZR/150 or other zone ratings, or Bill James’ +/-, there’s about seven or eight different stats that all offer something. It’s about trying to find some kind of blend, some merge that you can feel good about. If you can match that up with what your scouts think, and all of that kind of gels, then you’re onto something. If it’s all jumbled up, then, probably, at least for the Braves, we are going to go with our scouts.

Eno Sarris: Going into this, I was going to ask you what it was like to be a “stats guy” on a team that people don’t think is very statistically oriented, but I’ve seen that’s a question you get a lot. Why do people keep asking you this question?

John Coppolella: I think it’s due to the fact that we have really good scouts. I’m not a big name, and a lot of our scouts are, and that’s great. I think they’re really good and they’ve done tons of great work for the Braves.

I think that we use stats as much, if not more, than any team in baseball. We just don’t brag about it really. We’ve come up with our own stats, where we’ve ranked offense and pitching, and we’ve used those stats in conjunction with what our scouts think in order to look at big-league free agents, six-year free agents, and guys that we might be getting in trades. It’s something we don’t talk about much, but our stats are very advanced. If other teams feel like we don’t have that, that’s fine if they want to think less of us in any way. Underestimate us, that’s fine. We feel really good about the work we do on each player and the systems that we’ve created.

Eno Sarris: In the sabremetric community there was some questioning about certain moves. In particular perhaps, Kelly Johnson – he came up in the organization, he excelled, he struggled too, that must have been a difficult decision for y’all.

John Coppolella: Kelly Johnson had a great year last year, and he had some great years with us too. The thing with us is that we’re a mid-range payroll team and we have to make tough choices. We had a second baseman this year who started the All-Star game in Martin Prado. If it came down to Prado versus Johnson, we felt at the time that Prado was the better choice. We think very highly of Johnson, and the change of scenery helped him. It would have been great to have that offensive output, but we’re just happy for Kelly. He was a very good player for us, and he had a great year last year, and we certainly wish him the best.

Eno Sarris: Sometimes you have to make tough choices when it comes to the budget.

John Coppolella: There are times when you non-tender someone and he winds up doing nothing, or times when he lands somewhere and has a great year the way Kelly Johnson did. Same thing this year when we non-tendered Matt Diaz – he just signed a two-year contract with the Pirates. He’s a career .303 hitter. You know he’s a great guy, a great player, but we have to make tough choices.

Eno Sarris: You mentioned six-year free agents and Thursday is the Rule Five draft. I’ve never been there – all of this is a first for me – but I wonder, do you go into Thursday’s draft thinking “Okay, we have three players that we like, and if they’re not there, then we’re done,” or do you want to come away with at least one shot to take a look at a player. Are there different strategies going that you can talk about?

John Coppolella: A lot of it comes down to 1) where you are as a team, and 2) where you are in the draft. We were 72-90 in 2008 season. If we felt that we weren’t a team that was going to be in the mix in the playoffs, we’d absolutely take somebody and try to grow that prospect. I think, since we are a team that was in the playoffs last year and is trying to add to that roster now, it’s going to be tough for a guy to stick the whole year for us. The other thing is, we pick 25th in the draft. If there are a few top-shelf talents, you’re going to have to trade up to get them. As a whole, the baseball industry is pretty bright – I don’t think that the top-notch guys, guys that can really stick with the team, are going to last until #25.

We do a lot of prep work, we talk to the scouts, look at the stats – personally, I spent my whole Thanksgiving break looking through every player, looking at what the scouts thought, running numbers on every player, and met with Frank and Bruce and our scouting staff, and we talked about players as a group. For us, it’s more likely that we take someone in the minor league phase just because 1) they don’t have to stick with the team the whole year, which for us, a team trying to make the playoffs, is very tough. And then 2), we may have more needs at those levels right now then we do on the big league club, or at least needs that could be filled by what may be available in that portion of the draft.

Eno Sarris: In the Rule Five draft in particular, you have this large body of statistical evidence to look at. Of course, when draft a guy out of college, you have some numbers to look at, but when you’re looking at a Rule Five guy, you know those statistics have been accrued at the professional level. Does that you put you at an advantage, a disadvantage – how different is that than looking at a college player?

John Coppolella: I think we are at a big advantage. When you are looking at a college guy, you don’t know the quality of pitching or the quality of hitting they are facing. I know there’s a lot of good work being done on trying to get college numbers normalized, but it’s a lot easier looking at pro stats.

I feel – maybe it’s just me – but scouting is easier as you move up. Trying to scout high school kids is very difficult. Trying to scout college kids is hard. Trying to scout in the pros is pretty hard – it’s not easy to scout major league players – but the more information you have, the larger the body of work, the better and more informed decision you’ll make.

I think it’s easier for us in the Rule Five because we know the players in our system, and the guys that are out there – it’s not unlike trying to find a six-year free agent. If we sign a six-year free agent, he’ll probably get paid more than he would if he weren’t a free agent. Meaning, say we draft someone in the minor-league draft. It’s a $12,000 fee. If you spread that out over the five months that the player plays, you’re paying a premium of $2400 a month. A lot of six-year free agents sign for 5, 10, 15K a month.

What’s great about the Rule Five, though, is that you have a chance to get a player that’s young. Most minor league free agents are 23,24. In the Rule Five draft you might get a player that is 20, 21. If they signed him out high school or a non-drafted free agent that was signed at 16, they still have a chance to develop.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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11 years ago

Really great interview, Eno. It’s a great read.