Q&A: Ben Cherington, Red Sox GM

The name and the face are different, but when it comes to the bigger picture, Ben Cherington looks, and sounds, a lot like Theo Epstein. The new Boston GM is his own man — make no mistake about that — but like his predecessor he is cool, calculated, and sabermetrically savvy. Befitting the Red Sox model, Cherington is all about information and assigning value.


David Laurila: In a May 2009 interview, Andrew Friedman said of the Rays’ organization “We have guided ourselves by the principle that information is king.” Do the Red Sox have the same approach?

Ben Cherington: I think that every team is looking for the most precise information that applies to their particular situation. Every team’s situation is different, so the way that each team applies that information is different. The business of baseball in Boston is different than the business of baseball in other cities.

We may be looking for some of the same information that other teams are, but we may apply it differently. Ultimately, we’re trying to do the same thing that every other team is trying to do, which is to use our resources in the most efficient way possible within the context of our baseball and business models.

We’re looking for any information that can help us assign an appropriate value to a player, regardless of the segment of the market that player is coming from. It could be a teenager in the Dominican, it could be an amateur player in the States that we’re evaluating for the draft, it could be a minor league player with another organization, or it could be major league player. It’s also our own players, both in the minor leagues and at the major league level.

With every player that is a potential target for us, or is someone that we need to assign a value to, we’re looking to acquire as much information as we can about that player. We try to be as precise as we possibly can.

DL: Friedman went on to say, “We’re looking at slightly different information than we were three years ago.”

BC: Information evolves. There are things that we look for in our gathering that is very similar to what we would have been doing 10 years ago, 20 years ago; there are things that apply today that applied a long time ago. There are other streams of information that are evolving, and have evolved, over the past several years. It is our job to figure out how to use those pieces of information in a way that helps us make decisions and, again, apply it specifically to the challenges that we face in Boston.

DL: Are you referring to how the inefficiencies in the marketplace might be evolving, or to your methods of interpreting data?

BC: Both. I think that any team is looking for undervalued parts of the market, and there are times that we’ll pursue a player that we feel may be undervalued. There are other times where we may pursue a player who we feel is appropriately valued. It depends on the specific circumstances around that player and the needs of the team.

When it comes to building and maintaining, and adjusting, our internal decision-making model, we’re constantly trying to drill down and find the most precise point to where we can place an appropriate value on a player.

There are a lot of different pieces that go into that puzzle and it’s our job to make sure that we’re placing an appropriate amount of emphasis on each of those different pieces.

DL: Just how much analysis goes into trading for a Mark Melancon or an Andrew Bailey?

BC: There is the question of how we value a player — how we project a player’s performance — and that’s ongoing. Building history on players is a large part of projecting their performances.

When it comes to an acquisition, there is an additional layer involved, which is how that particular player fits into the team that we’re trying to build. There are players we may really believe in. We believe in their projections and the type of value they’re going to have over the next few years, because of our particular situation. If there is a lack of a need — a specific need — we’re less motivated toward those players than we would be for players who fit a specific need.

That second layer guides us, to some degree, on how we actually act on the information we have. But the process of gathering information and assigning a value to a player, that’s ongoing and happens with every player in every segment of the market.

DL: It seemed obvious — as long ago as last spring — that Jonathan Papelbon wouldn’t be re-signed, as the team wouldn’t be willing to offer an expensive long-term contract to a closer. Was it obvious?

BC: No, I’m not sure that it was obvious to us a year ago. Pap had been, and we expect him to continue to be, an excellent pitcher. He did a lot of great things while he was in Boston. He was a big part of a lot of good teams, including a World Championship team.

With any free agent — whether he’s our own free agent or a free agent from another team — we’re going to go through the exercise of assigning a value to that player. Then you look at what the alternatives are. That guides you in your pursuit down one avenue or the other.

In the case of Papelbon, it was not at all obvious to us, a year ago, that we wouldn’t try to re-sign him. It wasn’t obvious at the end of September that we wouldn‘t try to re-sign him. The process, again, is that we assign a value and compare it to the alternatives. Sometimes the market gets past where we assigned the value. That doesn’t mean that we’re right and another team is wrong; it means that another team’s circumstance might be different than ours.

In this particular case, we felt like there would be alternatives to pursue. We didn’t know exactly which ones we would execute on, but we felt, at the time that Pap signed with Philly, there would be alternatives we could pursue that would fit better into what we were trying to do, given what Pap was getting in the marketplace.

Looking at the entire equation, we feel we were able to add to the back of our bullpen with the Melancon and Bailey deals. We did give up some talent to do that, although we aren’t just getting [Melancon and Bailey] for one year — we have some control on both of those guys, and that factored into the equation. So did the draft picks that we’ll be getting back for Pap. Also, the money we’re spending is less than it would have been for Pap. We looked at all of those factors.

DL: With need — or, in this case, lack of need — in mind, did you have any interest in reacquiring Anthony Rizzo?

BC: I don’t want to talk specifically about a player who belongs to another team, but again, we go through an exercise of assigning a value to every player. In terms of how motivated we would be to pursue a player, that is influenced, to some degree, by our specific need. We have a very good first baseman who is under contract for a long time. That doesn’t mean there couldn’t be a scenario where we’d acquire a first baseman, but we may be more motivated in other areas.

DL: [Former Red Sox GM] Lou Gorman, explaining why he passed up an opportunity to acquire Willie McGee, once said “Where would we play him?“ With that in mind, how does acquiring the best player available differ from drafting the best player available?

BC: Those are really different circumstances. In the draft, we’re looking for the best talent in every round, irrespective of position. Position isn’t a factor for us; we’re looking for the best talent — the most impact — with every pick. That has been the case and it will continue to be the case. There is too much that happens over the course of a player’s development path to start looking into needs when it comes to the draft.

That changes when you’re looking at different types of player acquisitions. Perhaps their major league window is now, or much closer, and needs do become a factor. They’re not the only factor, certainly, but they do become a factor in how motivated you might be.

You have to give up something to acquire every player. If it’s free agency, it’s often just money, but sometimes it’s draft picks as well. When it’s a trade, you’re obviously giving up talent.

Getting back to the fundamental point, our job is to use the resources we have as efficiently as possible. Sometimes that means using our resources toward areas that are more specific to the current needs of the major league team. The draft is a completely different animal. We draft, and sign international players, strictly on who we feel will provide the biggest long-term impact.

DL: How much of the data that you analyze comes from in-house as opposed to from outside sources, such as FanGraphs?

BC: I don’t think that any team is using data that is developed in-house. Every piece of data that we use starts externally. It’s data that either happens during a baseball game and is recorded, or it’s gathered through some other means by one of our scouts, coaches, or front office members. All of the data is external.

What we do with the data, internally, may be different than what other teams do. We’re always looking to find ways to improve the way we process data, and use data, and build our own internal metrics to, again, help with the process of assigning value to players. But really, fundamentally, all data starts externally.

DL: In a conversation I had with John Henry, he used the term “hierarchy of metrics” when referring to the analysis done in-house.

BC: In the simplest form, our job is to assign a value to each player and use our resources in the most efficient way possible to acquire talent. In respect to gathering and processing information, it might be raw performance data, it might be more subjective information, it might be medical data, it might be contract-related data. Our job is to process it efficiently.

DL: Two years ago, you signed Mike Cameron to play center field and moved Jacoby Ellsbury to left field. In retrospect, was that a bad idea, or a solid idea that simply didn’t work out?

BC: It didn’t work out, because Cam got hurt and couldn’t play to the level that he had played at before that. Objectively, the reasons that decision was made still have a lot of merit, but this game is played by human beings. That’s the beauty of it. We can try to be as precise as we can, in respect to assigning value and decision making, but the game is played by human beings. It always has been and always will be.

You can drill down, objectively, but you can’t always know what’s going to happen. Things happen on the field. Guys get hurt, guys make adjustments, guys overcome things. Others don’t. There are all sorts of things that go into a player’s performance that are difficult to predict, because players are human beings.

DL: Daniel Bard is tentatively slated to move into the starting rotation this season. To what extent have you analyzed the history of similar pitchers making that transition?

BC: Some, but it’s difficult to find an appropriate sample. You can say that these guys have tried to transition from the bullpen to starting, and these guys worked out and this number didn’t work out, but how many of them looked exactly like Daniel Bard?

It’s hard when you start getting into specific player decisions and what a guy can and can’t do. You ultimately have to go back to, ’Who is this guy? What is specific to him that gives something a chance to work?”

In Daniel’s case, we know that he has three pitches. We know that he’s a really hard worker. We know he’s smart. We know that he’s pitched in high-leverage situations for a very good team against tough lineups. We also know that he really believes that he can do this. What we don’t know, for sure, is how it will turn out. Daniel doesn’t know exactly how it will turn out.

We feel that the right decision is to give him a chance, because he has some of the attributes that can allow him to do it. He wants a chance to do it, and if he can, we think it has a chance to really help the team.

DL: How do your foresee managing his innings load? That could be especially critical if he performs well as a starter and the team goes deep into the postseason.

BC: That’s something we’ll be mindful of, if indeed he ends up in the rotation, which is a decision that won’t be made until we’re into spring training. But if he ends up in the rotation, we’ll be mindful and there are ways to manage that over the course of a season.

Part of that is having enough depth within the organization to build in breaks for guys if they’re needed. The total innings marker is just one measure of a pitcher’s workload. It’s not the only one. It can also be an imperfect measure although like I said, we’ll be mindful of it.

DL: Is having a deep bullpen just as important as having a solid back end of your rotation?

BC: It can help. We feel that with Bard and [Alfredo] Aceves we have two really good pitchers who could pitch in either role. It’s up to us to figure out — and work with them to figure out — which role helps us win the most games as a team. If one or both of them are in the rotation and pitching really well, it’s going to help the bullpen. If one of them is in the bullpen, and our bullpen is strong, that should help the rotation. So it’s more an exercise of figuring out which role each of those guys has a chance to succeed the most in, and how that fits into putting the best team together.

DL: Bob McClure has replaced Curt Young as pitching coach. What does he bring to the table?

BC: Bob has spent time in different organizations. First, he had a long career as a player, pitching in different roles — he pitched out of the bullpen and as a starter — and was very respected in the clubhouse as a player. Later, he was in player development with the Rockies.

When he was in the Rockies organization, they developed some good pitchers in an environment that was difficult to develop pitching in — Colorado Springs and Denver. He faced the challenges of helping develop pitchers in that environment, then he went to Kansas City and did a really good job with what was, in most of those years, a young staff. He worked with guys who were talented but hadn’t fully proven themselves in the big leagues. He helped a lot of guys develop.

We actually hired Bob as a scout, initially, because we wanted to get him into the organization. We knew him enough that we wanted him working here, and at the time, a scouting role is what we had available. It just so happened that a couple of months later our pitching coach job became open. He and Bobby [Valentine] hit it off, so he moved into that role.

DL: There have been a number of changes to the coaching staff and front office since the end of last season, but has anything changed beyond the names and faces? Are the underlying philosophies essentially the same?

BC: Well, the names and faces are a pretty big deal. We have different people in important roles, and while the bigger picture philosophy may not change fundamentally, when you put different people into those roles, they’re bringing their own perspectives, experiences and skill sets. The way you go about pursuing your bigger team goals are therefore a little different than they were in the past. We feel very good about where we are as far as the clubhouse and our coaching staff.

DL: How did the process of interviewing managerial candidates compare to 2003, when Terry Francona was hired to replace Grady Little? Eight years ago it appeared as though a philosophical change was a primary goal.

BC: I think that I’ve articulated enough what we were looking for in a manager. We went through a long process and ultimately I made a recommendation that we offer the job to Bobby. I thought that he had more of the qualities that we were looking for than any of the other candidates.

We didn’t go into the process specifically looking for a change. We went into the process looking for certain attributes and that’s the way we would approach any hire, whether it’s a manager, a coach, or someone in the front office.

I obviously wasn’t running the process in 2003 — Theo was the GM. I was involved, but Theo is the one who orchestrated that and it ended very well. He made a great decision, recommending that we hire Tito. But I don’t think that he went into that process looking for change. I think he went into it looking for certain attributes, and he felt that Tito was the guy who best represented them. Now we’re starting a new chapter, and hopefully history will show that we made a good decision as well.

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.

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12 years ago

Really great interview, thanks David