James Click earned near celebrity status across baseball statistical analysis circles during his time as an innovative columnist at the progressive baseball think tank Baseball Prospectus. And after tremendous success with the highly successful baseball website, the Tampa Bay Rays recruited Click’s services, hoping his fresh outlook and knowledge of the game would help the team in its effort to become a contender in the American League East.
Click, co-author of the eye-opening book Baseball Between The Numbers: Why Everything You Know About The Game Is Wrong and now a baseball operations coordinator with the Rays, recently was kind enough to answer several questions from Scout.com’s Tyler Hissey.
TH: After writing for several years at Baseball Prospectus, was the decision to leave a difficult one, or has working in a front office for an organization always been a dream of yours?
Click: Before catching on with Baseball Prospectus, I tried unsuccessfully for a long time to get an internship with a major league front office. So when I hooked up with BP – initially doing painfully menial data entry for free – I envisioned it primarily as a stepping stone to a position similar to the one I’m in currently. After I’d been there for about two minutes, I realized that everyone working there was smarter than I was and I had a great deal to learn before I could consider contributing to a front office. Over the next couple years, I picked up a few tips and tricks from the people there and developed many lasting friendships. When I started talking with the Rays, I was naturally thrilled to make the move to a front office, but it was difficult to leave behind the amazing people and experience that I had at BP. I owe them a lot.
TH: How much of an influence do you feel Michael Lewis' Moneyball has on the sport, especially in terms of leading to the growing respect within baseball circles of the main concepts of sabermetrics?
Click: It’s difficult for me to say since I wasn’t involved with baseball statistical analysis in any significant capacity before Moneyball was published. However, one of the most cited aspects of the book – the stats versus scouts debate – is completely overblown. I have frequent, lengthy, respectful discussions with our scouts all the time. I know I’m smarter for the experience and several of them have told me they feel similarly. It’s become cliché to say that we’re all after the same thing and whether it’s a stat line or a scouting report, it’s all information, but there’s an excellent environment in place with the Rays that allows everyone to challenge their assumptions and improve their understanding of the game.
TH: After J.P. Ricciardi hired Keith Law to join the Toronto Blue Jays' front office, was the path set for other sabermetricians to follow in his footsteps? How many other former Baseball Prospectus staff writers are currently working in professional organizations? And did the emergence of legendary stat guru Bill James with the Boston Red Sox or Law's former role with Toronto play a role in Tampa Bay's decision to hire you?
Click: This is a tough question to answer since there are so many factors that go into the decision to hire people in a front office. Certainly the hiring of people like Keith Law and Bill James helps bring attention to statistical analysis and its place in a front office, but there was already a larger trend underway before they were brought on board, so it’s hard to say that Keith set a path. As for the Rays’ reasons for hiring me, I still have no idea what I did right, but I imagine the incriminating photographs I have of some of them helped.
TH: How great of a role do the more common sabermetric categories (VORP, OPS) actually play into how members of the Rays' baseball operations department value talent?
Click: We do everything we can to acquire as much predictive information about players as possible and to the extent that those statistics assist in that endeavor, we utilize them. One of the keys to using statistical analysis properly is to know what you do not and cannot know. With every piece of information we acquire, we have to know how much stock we can put into it. Specifically regarding young players or players in the lower levels of the minor leagues, performance metrics like VORP and OPS become less and less important when compared with other information about the player.
TH: What was more of a factor, in your eyes anyways, in the Rays' decision to trade Delmon Young to the Minnesota Twins, his personal issues or low on-base percentage, OPS, and VORP totals? Did sabermetrical analysis play any role in the team's willingness to give up such a young, talented player blessed with such tremendous natural tools?
Click: The decision to trade someone as talented as Delmon Young was not one that was made lightly or easily. The trade worked because both organizations were trading from a position of strength or surplus to address an area or areas of need. Young is special player and a special talent who will likely go on to a long and successful major league career, but at the end of the day, we knew that we were going to have to give up talent to get talent and we’re very excited to have Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett, and Eduardo Morlan in the Rays organization. The instant public reaction to any trade is usually trying to find out who won the trade, but this trade is one which I believe made both organizations better.
TH: Without giving away too many secrets, what types of projects and research do the Rays have you focusing on? In other words, what is a typical day at the Trop for James Click?
Click: One of the great things about my job is that I’m involved in many different aspects of our organization. To a large extent, any time someone needs some statistical analysis – whether it be contracts, player performance, in-game strategy, etc – I’m involved. It’s a bit overwhelming at times which is why I’m excited that we’ve recently brought on Erik Neander, a former intern, to help out. This time of year my days are spent on arbitration cases as well as roster management and player projection. Once spring rolls around, I’ll focus more on helping the coaching staff get the information they need both to help our players know what they need to work on and for advance scouting reports of our opponents. Then I’ll help out where I can with the amateur draft in June. Throughout the season, though, we’re constantly working to upgrade our data capabilities and improve the analysis we provide to Andrew Friedman and other decision makers.
TH: Has your presence in the front office led to any revelations among some of the old-school scouts and baseball minds in the organization, top to bottom?
Click: I don’t know that there have been any dramatic revelations, but I have done quite a few studies that sprung from discussions with other people in the organization, whether they are scouts, coaches, or other front office personnel. It sounds a little corny, but there’s a real sense of openness and camaraderie throughout the organization and, for me personally, it’s led to a much deeper understanding of the game and I hope that I’m able to contribute to deepening other people’s understanding when I can.
TH: In your personal opinion, is Andrew Friedman more of a fan of traditional baseball statistics or the teachings of your pals at Baseball Prospectus ?
Click: Andrew is a fan of information, but it has to be good information. If you put together solid analysis with clear methodology, he will eagerly embrace the conclusions, but if there are any flaws in your work, he’ll find them and send you back to the drawing board. It makes for a good work environment, because you have to be on your toes and you’re constantly being challenged to make sure that you’ve thought everything through as thoroughly as humanly possible.
TH: Who is the most overrated player, (a la Joe Carter in the '90s, as mentioned in Baseball Between the Numbers) out there today?
It’s tough to say. With the advance of baseball analysis both in front offices and in the public, the differences between perceived value and actual value are shrinking. It makes our job harder because the less disagreement there is about the value of players, the harder it is to make trades work between teams since each side has to think they’re better off.
Carl Crawford (Associated Press)
TH: Considering that in that book, you wrote a piece entitled What if Rickey Henderson Had Pete Incaviligia's Legs?, discussing how stealing bases, in most cases, is not worth the risk, what is your take on Carl Crawford's frequent activity on the base paths? Crawford was among the American League leaders with 50 stolen bases in 60 attempts, but did all of those steals actually make that much of a difference for the Rays last season? Would you like to see him take fewer chances, granted, of course, depending on the situation?
Click: One of the things I tried to focus on in that chapter was that there are a multitude of factors that affect whether or not a player should attempt to steal a base. Carl Crawford does an amazing job of stealing when the situation dictates, when the value of the stolen base compared to the cost of getting caught is at or near its maximum. I wish I had had more time in that chapter to discuss other aspects of speed in more detail, things like beating out grounders for singles, forcing the infield to play closer, reaching on errors, turning singles into doubles, doubles into triples, and everything else. I think we’re just starting to get an idea of the real implications of having someone as fast as Crawford on the team. Plus, what’s more fun than watching him run?
TH: And, I have to ask. Since you co-authored a book that discussed how the alleged economic benefits a new stadium brings to a city are practically non-existent, perhaps the product of outstanding public relations work, what is your take on the Rays' effort for a new waterfront stadium in downtown St. Petersburg? Personally, I love the idea, and believe it would be great for the franchise. But will all of those dollars promised from new economic development actually turn up in Pinellas County, or is it another case of excellent PR?
Click: I can’t really answer that for a couple reasons. First, I didn’t write that chapter. Second, and more importantly, I am woefully ignorant of the economics of a new stadium. Michael Kalt and the development team here at the Rays have done an amazing job trying to ensure the plans work for the community and the team. While Neil deMause – the chapter’s author – reached that conclusion in general, the current development proposal includes so many unusual aspects – the redevelopment of Tropicana Field, the fact that we’re replacing Al Lang Field rather than vacant land, etc – it deserves a fresh look. Having visited several of the new parks, especially the ones are that are built in a revitalized downtown area, it’s amazing to see the community that has grown around them and I believe this new park will do the same thing for St. Petersburg. Hopefully we will get it done because it’s an amazing vision.
TH: Thanks so much for taking time out of your busy schedule, James. Good luck to you and the Rays in 2008 and beyond.
Note: To hear Rays Digest columnists Ted Fleming and Tyler Hissey discuss their opinions on the release of the Mitchell Report, click here to access Friday's Speaking of Sports Show on TBSN Radio, syndicated on the Black Athlete's Network.
To contact Rays Digest, send an email to TylerHissey@gmail.com.