Keith Law (KL):
Now it’s my pleasure to be joined by Sandy Alderson, who is the general manager of the New York Mets, he has also been an executive with the Oakland A’s, with the Padres, and before joining the Mets had actually served in the commissioner’s office of Major League Baseball. Sandy, thanks so much for taking the time to join me today.
Sandy Alderson (SA):
Keith, happy to be with you.
So, first let’s talk about the Mets, and I ranked your farm system pretty highly in my organizational rankings last week, had a number of your prospects in the Top 100. It’s a big turnaround since you took over, both in the quality of what’s in the system and the quantity, you guys have a lot more depth than you did before. I was wondering if you could talk generally about the processes you’ve put in place since you took over with that aim towards developing, building your own talent in mind.
As you know, there are really three sources of young talent. One is through the domestic draft, the second is through international signings, and third through potential trades. With respect to the draft, we have taken, I think, a more aggressive posture with regard to high-ceiling players coming out of the draft. All of our first-round picks since I’ve been with the Mets have been high school players. We haven’t done that intentionally, but we’ve taken what the draft has allowed us. But I think there’s been a little bit of willingness to go with higher-ceiling players, and, by the way, we actually had the first-round picks [laughter], not having signed some free agents as the Mets had done previously, we actually had some first-round picks to select.
The other thing we’ve done is we’ve tried to be much more systematic. Paul DePodesta oversees scouting and player development, but Paul has done a terrific job, not just in terms of the selections we’ve made and the scouts that we have currently, but approaching it in a more systematic way. And I think that that means using the information but doing it in a way that gives us some leverage, and trying to use less traditional means of evaluation.
As far as the international market is concerned, we’ve had some luck. We’ve signed some guys that have been “over age” for the international market. Rafael Montero, one of our top prospects, somebody you put in the Top 100, we signed at age 20, I believe, in 2011. He has come on very quickly, so we’ve tried to do some nontraditional things in the international market as well.
And we’ve been in a position to make some trades. We have been in a mode in which talent acquisition has been important to us. We’ve made some trades, some high-profile players like Carlos Beltran and R.A. Dickey. Most recently Marlon Byrd at the end of last season, so we’ve picked up some prospects in that way as well. We’re very pleased with the progress we’ve made and hopefully those prospects will emerge soon at the major league level.
You mentioned going for more ceiling in the draft and I think this probably applies to the international players too. In my time with Toronto it became quickly evident to me that developmental challenges, when you take those players, when you take them so young, whether they’re from the U.S. or internationally, they’re so much larger and you need a very different staff, or at least part of your staff has to be different, to be able to accommodate and develop those players versus the college players who obviously tend to be a little bit further along, a little bit closer to the big leagues. So, has that process that you were hinting at before, how has that extended into player development?
You’re absolutely right that drafting players is a little bit different than signing them in the international market. One of the things the Mets have had for some time are two teams in the Dominican Republic, and partly that’s about the unpredictability of signing players that are 16, and frankly the more of them you can have the more opportunity you have for success because it’s so hard to predict who will be successful at age 21 or 22, which is five or six years down the road. So capacity is important. But also it’s critical to have the kind of staff that can take a player fairly rough around the edges and have the patience to work with that player through their ultimate transition to the United States.
We’ve got a great mix of staff. We’ve got young staff, we’ve got older staff, our coordinators, we think, are able to communicate with both younger players and older players, so the staff very definitely can be critical, but I think ultimately it’s about organizational patience as well.
We’ve put systems in place that relate to mental skills and a host of other things that many other clubs do, but there’s no question that the developmental process is critical. I like to say that if we can improve any player, regardless of talent level, by 30% or so then the player development system has probably done its job. Development today is far more sophisticated, as you know, than it was 20–25 years ago.
One thing I noticed in talking to Paul DePodesta, also talked to [Mets scouting director] Tommy Tanous about your system, is that you have an exceptional number of pitchers who have decent stuff—at least average or better fastballs, usually something else—who throw tons of strikes. You have more control guys—above average, plus, whatever you want to call it—even the converted infielder, [Luis] Cessa, throws strikes, which is exceptional. Usually those guys, if they can hit the broad side of a barn right out of the chute you consider that successful. Is that on the scouting side? Is it developmental, do you work on getting these kids to focus more on, look, throw strikes first and we’ll work on some of the other aspects later. Because I don’t think there’s another system in baseball that can match what you have in that particular niche.
Yeah, you know, Keith, I don’t think it’s about drafting strike-throwers. I don’t think it’s necessarily about signing strike-throwers in the Dominican or Venezuela. But I think it is a mindset that we try to instill in our pitchers, and I know everybody tries to do it, but I think it’s important that whether you’re a pitcher or a hitter, you need to control the strike zone. We try to emphasize that with our pitching staff, getting ahead, doing a variety of things to try and instill that notion, and we do it on the hitter side as well. You’ve gotta be able to control the strike zone. So it’s an important thing that we try to emphasize and communicate in a variety of different ways with a variety of different metrics and feedback from players, but I don’t think we draft with that strongly in mind. We do draft with a view toward mechanics for pitchers, repeatability in the delivery and that sort of thing, which can also, of course, contribute to command of the strike zone.
You mentioned also trying to take a more analytical approach to—we’ll focus on the draft specifically for this question—one thing I remember, now I’m going back a bit, but when I was with Toronto we always struggled with how to apply that to high school players. Stats aren’t available, they aren’t reliable, and what has particularly popped up now I think is, I always found it very difficult to evaluate defense at the high school level. You’ve been out there, you know what the fields look like. Had somebody mentioned to me as I was talking to scouts to do the Top 100, was talking about a high school catcher’s ability to frame pitches, and I’m thinking, that’s great, that’s a great thing to know about. How the heck would you judge that? I find that hard to judge with anybody except the big league guys where we have the data, so have you found—obviously I’m not asking for trade secrets—ways to think more analytically or just more critically about the high school crop where the data is largely unreliable?
You bring up a very good point, I think that where the data is either unreliable or unavailable, you have to look for proxies for that kind of data. I think that’s one of the reasons that clubs rely more on the level of competition. So places like Florida, Southern California, etc. gives you a little better comfort level with respect to those things. Again, I may sound a little bit old-school here, but framing is something actually that has only recently come to prominance. I know there’s a lot of talk about framing now and it has been true over the last couple of years, I think, and actually it can have a big impact on run differentials and so forth. But I think that in judging that, I’d look at, for example, some of the guys who are good at it, [Jonathan] Lucroy and what have you, I’m not sure that the data informs us that they’re good at it, but I think that having the data and having identified players at the major league level who do it well, then you can look for comparability at lower levels. The problem with high school baseball is that you have to look for some substitute for the kind of massive data that exists now, even at the college level, but may not exist, say, at the small college level or the junior college level. You have to be a little bit innovative and creative and figure out ways to approximate the information that you would have otherwise.
You worked in the commissioner’s office on international scouting, particularly in cleaning up the situation in the Dominican Republic, and I’m curious now that you’re back on the team side, what’s your impression of how things have continued to change down there. Is it still in better shape or are there still major areas where you think baseball needs reform, particularly working in the Dominican, but internationally as a whole?
I think things are better. I went down there for a couple of specific reasons. One, to look at the PED problem that existed there, particularly with players who had not even been signed at that point, players who were to-be-signed as well as players that were playing in the Dominican Summer League subsequently. And the second was age and identity fraud. I think in those two areas we’ve made substantial improvements. While I was down there I became very interested in some of the educational issues that we were facing with players who were coming in to our system and maybe had dropped out of school or work, not continuing their education once they had signed contracts. In that area I think we still have lots of room to improve.
Once of the areas where I think we still have issues is with the system by which players are signed. You know, now you have classes from July 2 to July 1 from year to year. There are issues, I think, that have been created by the new system. Whether clubs are going to stay within their bonus pool or not within their bonus pool, we’ve seen some clubs jump way out from that. We’re starting to see players commit verbally, not just months in advance of their eligibility but years in advance of their eligibility. It reminds me of what’s happening with Division I basketball here in the United States.
But by and large I think the situation is much better down there, but as the system changes we create new problems and so it’s an environment that’s always going to have to be managed.
Well, Sandy, this was very enlightening and I really appreciate your insights on that, and all the work that you’ve done in the Mets’ farm system, it’s really exciting as somebody who grew up in the era of the great Mets teams. I grew up on Long Island so I was in junior high and high school when they were at their greatest success in the eighties, it’s very exciting to see you guys, I think, on the cusp of something very good like they had in that particular era, so congratulations on great work so far and thanks so much for joining me on the show.
Keith, thanks very much.