Q&A: Nick Ennis, Director of Baseball Operations, San Diego Padres

Nick Ennis was recently promoted to Director of Baseball Operations for the San Diego Padres. He signed on with the Padres as an intern in the baseball operations department out of Columbia Business School, and has also been an advance scout since he joined the team in 2010. He agreed to talk at the Winter Meetings in San Diego, where he had a hotel room despite living five minutes from the convention center. How else are you going to finish up work at two a.m. in the morning and be available for brunch?

Eno Sarris: One of the first interviews I ever did was at the winter meetings, with John Coppolella, now an Assistant General Manager in Atlanta. I asked him about defensive stats, and where they were, and if he ever looked at stats like UZR. He said, yeah, we do have some of that stuff in our database and we have our own opinions. When it comes to the stuff that you see on FanGraphs, how far off is the research?

Nick Ennis: That’s a good question because in the realm of their information, the lens through which they view the world — a macro view, bucketing different outcomes of batted balls with the information that they have, that kind of stuff — I think they’re good. With the public information at their disposal, those metrics are good. That’s a testament to the skills and talent of the members of the public baseball analytics community.

Where the clubs might have access to information that isn’t publicly available — whether it’s information that’s proprietary to that specific club, or information that’s shared only amongst clubs — then you start to see advantages potentially. Better input, essentially. All these models are going to depend on their inputs as well as the way they weigh those inputs.

Sarris: Is there a general area where you have better inputs right now? A general space, like say defense, where we aren’t seeing the same numbers?

Ennis: As it pertains to decision making, a lot of clubs are still going to value very highly what the scouts see with their eyes, as far as the way a player moves, their physical capabilities.

Sarris: That’s not necessarily something we could ever have access to.

Ennis: That’s not something that a person working on macro-level analytics is going to really be able to integrate because the carriers of that information aren’t large data sets. That information comes from subjective analysis.

Sarris: How much do you change that subjective analysis into data and then work with that as a data set?

Ennis: At its most basic level, scouting reports are data. Some of it is descriptive prose, but most of that descriptive prose, in a lot of cases, are words being used as part of a distinguishing language. It’s meant to provide information how good a player is at something or how bad a player is at something. The words are carefully defined. Say “average,” or “solid-average,” or “plus” — those words mean things.

Sarris: You could turn them into numbers.

Ennis: Absolutely. Those are numbers. That’s 50, 55, 60. Those things are absolutely numbers.

Sarris: I’m also talking about taking that stuff and going macro. It’s great that he has a 50 run tool, but in our estimation, what does that mean?

Ennis: You use it to make sure you are valuing what that players’ defensive contributions are going to be in the appropriate manner. There are things about macro-level defensive metrics that are going to tell you what happened. And then there are things you’re going to integrate about how a player does things, how they did things perhaps because of injury at a certain time, and then what you might know about that player’s physical capabilities and why they were what they were when you captured that data.

Coaching matters too. These guys change. Not to talk about another club’s players, but Nolan Arenado was a guy coming up whose defense was regarded poorly by many in the industry. Obviously through hard work, coaching, technique, and development, he’s become a great defender.

Sarris: I talked to Nolan in particular about that, and how that happened, and how they coached him through it. That’s something for that has really been eye-opening. Coming from the outside and thinking from the macro level and then getting in the clubhouse and realizing that these guys have to do it every day, that they are changing every day, they have to be the best they can be. Some of these things don’t stick and that’s why we generally take their numbers and smooth them out. But some of these things do stick.

It’s made me a better analyst to talk to the players. I wonder sometimes, when I’m in the clubhouse — I don’t see many front office guys in the clubhouse, a few, San Diego, Cincinnati, a few — I wonder if that’s an area that could be improved. Almost data collection from your own players. A link between the macro and the players on the field. Is that something that you think about?

Ennis: Absolutely. Each clubhouse, the particular culture of that clubhouse is going to be governed by all sorts of factors, whether it’s the manager, or the front office, or the players themselves. Some places are going to be a little more unto themselves, some places are going to be a little more open. Everybody else is going to be somewhere in between.

It’s important to know what the people out there doing things intended to do, and why they did what they did, and why they were standing where they standing, or why they threw where they threw, and why they attempted what they attempted. I think intent matters, especially if, along with the data, you know what happened better. Some of those things you can’t change. I can’t tell a pitcher to throw 97 when he threw 90 most of the time. We can’t change what you are physically capable of doing.

Sarris: Let’s say you learn from them that grips did certain things — I use this grip and it does this and when I use this grip, it does this — and that could be subject for further research. That might not be something that occurs to someone that’s looking at the game from a different angle. And in the future, we might be able to suggest different best practices based on this research. Are there times when you’re thinking about things that came upwards from the field?

Ennis: One thing that we have is a coaching staff that is open from both directions. There are always going to be, frankly, the preferred conduit for information. Whether you see front office people down in the clubhouse or not, ideas that they have may touch clubhouses.

Sarris: What I’m talking in particular then, would come from the pitching coach. He’s going to dissect anything that you tell the players to do and then also anything that might come from the players, the pitching coach can bring to you.

Ennis: Absolutely. When it works well, you’ve got people in place that can communicate both sides. You’ve got people on both ends that understand and are interested in getting information. You hear Bill Belichick and other coaches in other sports talking about great players craving information. And obviously Belichick wasn’t an accomplished football player, he didn’t have a professional career, he wasn’t an all-pro guy. Many of the players he’s coached can do things he could never do. Why are they listening to him? Because he has good information and can help them. Good players want that. They want to be better. They want that information.

Sarris: Who better to translate some of these concepts than the pitching coach, who has the language of the clubhouse down?

Ennis: That’s why those people are there. They’re good at digesting information — not only information that’s articulated from the player, but also observed by someone else. Good coaching is seeing things that a player might not even know they’re doing.

Sarris: How can you foster receptiveness for information on the field and then also for information from unexpected sources back in the front office?

Ennis: I think it takes a lot of time. Relationships take time. Trust doesn’t happen automatically because my title says this and your title says this. Credibility, commitment — whether it’s players, coaches, front office people — it just takes time to know that the people you are around are in it with you and pulling in the same direction, and to understand that information is coming with good intentions. Nobody is trying to force anything, nobody is trying to imply anything. You build trust, then that information doesn’t come in a way that seems pointed or threatening.

Sarris: Like: your job is on the line.

Ennis: Yeah. It’s tough, every new idea… you bring a new idea down that’s meant to improve something, and there’s the idea that there’s implicit fault in what’s currently being done. People could react that way at least. You build up relationships and trust, so that you don’t have an atmosphere where people receive information as a rebuke to what they are doing. Hopefully once you establish a culture where people take things as in, you’re in it to help them. And then they know they can provide feedback, too, to an idea that isn’t that good that we might have come up with.

When you’ve got that culture, it allows you to try new things. Those relationships are fragile. It’s not just a baseball thing, it’s in any industry. I’m not going to go downstairs with a new idea after we gave up eight runs — here’s how we should do things. That’s probably not the right time. You hope it goes the other way. I know in our case, it definitely does.

If we make a large acquisition or we extend a player, and it doesn’t work out all that well, you expect to hear some feedback about that from players, coaches, and your other colleagues. We’re in a performance-focused business. You can’t hide from that. But you know that everybody is trying to be the best that they can be, and there’s trust that we’re all pulling on the same side of the rope.

Sarris: Lewie Pollis did some research that suggests that you might get more bang for your buck on a team by investing in the front office than the players even, and there is undiscovered potential in the front office. Let me give you $10 million for the Padres front office. Structurally, not necessarily player wise. Is there a place, generally, that you might invest it?

Ennis: I’m happy to make a joke that the front office should all be paid more but specifics… Honestly, from my personal experience, I’m not working in baseball for my highest economic gain.

Sarris: I’m just talking about where you see opportunity. Not personal opportunity.

Ennis: There are only so many people you can have in a decision making process. There’s only so much information that you can integrate effectively in what you are doing. It wouldn’t be a “more” question for me, as far as, I’d take that money and hire 20 more analysts, and we’d do nothing but ideate about all sorts of different topics. This isn’t the primary reason, but you need to have some organizational focus. When you become bloated in your ideation, just implementing and utilizing those ideas becomes more difficult. Which ones are the good ideas?

Sarris: Can we even come to a consensus here.

Ennis: And how do we politically, effectively, and organizationally implement all these ideas. There’s more to learn — no question about that — and it’s going to keep happening. I’m just not sure money is the problem. Especially when I’m standing here and there are a thousand guys in the lobby willing to work for very little and are extremely intelligent and motivated. It’s not really a financial question about whether they would be a good fit for an organization. It does come down to a bandwidth question for decision making in a lot of ways. We’ve got a certain amount of workflow, we’ve got a certain amount of bandwidth for the people in the organization to implement ideas and work effectively.

Sarris: If the GM’s job is to synthesize many voices into one voice, there is a limit to how many voices he can listen to.

Ennis: Especially when you’re talking about new ideas and information. It’s like the old rule. Do you want to be first or do you want to let a bunch of other people be first and be a very close second on the shit that works.

Sarris: Especially when being first and it not working out means being fired.

Ennis: Being first and it not being a good idea, that is not a good outcome. Having a shit-ton of ideas and putting them all in place — they’re not all going to be good ideas. And some of those you’re not going to realize why they are bad ideas until it’s too late. From an ideation standpoint, new ideas is not really the challenge for the industry. It’s just making sure that the stuff that is good that we do develop, making sure that we have the ability to implement it. Which isn’t really a number of analysts problem.

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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Pale Hose
7 years ago

Did anyone else see this conversation with ENo sarrIS take place? Do you see him right now Eno?