Ruben Amaro had a reputation in Philadelphia. To many, the only evaluation tools he trusted were his scouts’ eyes. Basically, he was an old-fashioned — if not backwards-thinking — general manager.
The extent to which that’s accurate is debatable. Amaro wasn’t necessarily cutting edge — Matt Klentak, who replaced him as Phillies general manager, is clearly more analytical — but the perception was skewed. Amaro attended Stanford and learned from Pat Gillick, so his intelligence and knowledge base are anything but slight.
That’s not to say he didn’t make errors in judgement over his tenure. He made several, which is part of the reason he was relieved of his duties last September. Amaro is now with the Red Sox, having made an atypical move from high-ranking front-office executive to first-base coach.
On Sunday, Amaro took a few minutes to shed some light on his days as a decision-maker. The role of analytics in the evaluation process formed the crux of our conversation.
Amaro on analytics: “You can’t ever deny the numbers. That’s true for every GM and every baseball person, regardless of whether you’re ‘old school’ or ‘new school.’ When a scout walks in, the first thing he does is pick up a stat sheet and look at what the player does and what he’s been doing. The numbers don’t lie.
“I’ve always believed in analytics. I just didn’t make it all public (in Philadelphia). I thought it was more of a competitive advantage for me to keep our thought-process about analytics closer to the vest. We didn’t boast about what we were doing — we didn’t discuss it openly — because I didn’t think it was anybody’s business but our own as to how we evaluated.
“We got a little more aggressive, as far as building our analytics department, probably three-or-so years ago. It did maybe become a little more public then. But that doesn’t mean we weren’t utilizing analytics to some degree earlier than that.”
On balancing analytics and scouting: “I believe in trends. I believe in experience. I think there are trends that can be enlightening, and there are others that aren’t as enlightening. As players get closer to the major leagues — when they’re in the high minors — that’s when you can start paying a little closer attention to the meta-data, the bigger data. You’re getting a lot more bulk as far as information is concerned.
“When you’re making evaluations on players, and trying to build a club, it’s important to always have a combination of scouting, player development, and analytics. You bring them all together. That said, if I were to err, I would err on the side of what our scouts see with their eyes, and what they can glean from our players’ hearts and heads. But that doesn’t tell the whole story, either. There is a whole other story to evaluating players and talent.”
On Statcast and medical data: “(Statcast) is something we paid attention to — there’s valuable information there — although I think there are still some kinks to be worked out. And just like anything else, sometimes things can be overanalyzed a little too much. But there’s nothing wrong with having as much information as possible, so once the glitches are straightened out, we’ll all be utilizing it even better.
“I was a biology major (at Stanford) and my area of concentration was physical therapy and sports medicine, so when I looked at medical reports, I knew a little more about them than most guys would. I was very proud of our medical staff in Philadelphia. Mike Ciccotte and Scott Sheridan were very knowledgeable. They were always learning about, and developing, preventative measures.”
On evaluating different age levels: “For me, it’s always been about progression. You know much more about the player, analytically, as he moves up the chain. It’s always a combination of the two, with more reliance on scouting at the lower levels. What are our scouts are seeing? Where is the player in the lineup? What is his two-strike approach? For a pitcher, along with his ability to throw strikes, is he throwing quality strikes? That’s another element. Are they major-league strikes or minor-league strikes? There’s a difference.
“Older players require more sets of eyes, and data. You see certain trends in a particular player. Is his velocity coming off? Is his spin ratio backing off? Again, it’s a combination of knowing the player — knowing his heart and head — and, obviously, performance. Maybe you’ll take a bigger risk on someone, even though he might be a little older, because of his makeup.
“Taking performance-enhancing drugs out of the equation impacted the evaluation process for GMs. The trends were very different in that ‘steroid age.’ Some difficulties evaluating players has occurred.”
On autonomy and collaboration: “I had a great working working relationship with David Montgomery. I felt I had great autonomy. The same with Pat Gillick. We made decisions… I was one of those guys whose concentric circle was fairly large. I enjoyed getting opinions and thoughts from everyone. That’s how I like to operate. During the course of winter meetings, and the trade deadline, that’s when you get to involve everyone — international scouting, amateur scouting, professional scouting, the whole nine yards. For me, it’s always been a group effort.”
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.