When I first spoke with Antonetti in mid-December, he thought we were going to do a brief Q&A, perhaps 10 or 15 minutes, for a 2009 season preview book covering all 30 teams, maybe something like the Hardball Times Season Preview to which Ryan contributed. No, I said, I had something much different in mind. For one thing, the book I was working on was a 2009 annual devoted entirely to the Cleveland Indians — and this was, in a way, two interviews, one for that book and another for my website, LetsGoTribe.com.
For another thing, what I was looking to do was much more in-depth, a broad-ranging, deep-diving discussion, delving into the complexities and nuances of the decisions made by the front office. No soundbites and no gotchas; I would try not to ask the usual media questions, hoping he would give me something other than the usual media answers. This was, I told him, a chance to talk about difficult situations and complex challenges in a nuanced way, and a chance to communicate with fans who were interested in something more, and who were willing to pay attention long enough to get it — and this would take several hours to accomplish, not 10-15 minutes. Despite the significant time commitment, he agreed, cautioning me only that (a) he wasn't really interested in talking about himself (I assured him that would only be a small part of the discussion), and (b) he wasn't going to reveal "proprietary" information like prediction metrics.
Antonetti was unfailingly polite and enjoyable to talk to — I'm not sure the levity of our conversations entirely comes across in typed text, but except for certain parts where we're discussing difficult topics, our sessions were quite easygoing. He was apologetic where he couldn't be more forthcoming. He gave a lot of long explanations, and initially, it seemed like he wasn't accustomed to talking to someone from outside the industry who didn't necessary need every little thing explained to him, e.g., the poor quality of batting average as a predictive metric. It took time for him to get used to the idea that he could skip ahead a few points, not just with me, but with my readers as well. Then again, maybe sticking with his usual outsider talking points on certain subjects was a way for him to avoid saying something he didn't really want to say. At one point: "I'm not deliberately trying to be vague or vanilla — actually, maybe I am."
Antonetti's comments often were laced with "it's difficult to quantify," "we try to," "again," and "I think" — at certain points, the caveats outnumbered the actual points-made by nearly three-to-one. A number of people have commented to me that he's "obviously" well practiced in speaking evasively. I won't deny that there's an element of that, but I think what's behind that kind of speech is not so much learned evasion but learned humility. Baseball is humbling to anyone who dares try to predict it, and the people who really, truly grasp statistical performance analysis are, in fact, humble about it to a large extent. Good analysis can give you confidence that the numbers are saying a certain thing, but that doesn't mean that what the numbers are saying is going to turn out to be correct. My sense of Antonetti is that his perpetual caveats reflect an understanding that for all the serious work they've done, they still can't say very much for an absolute certainty.
Looking over the whole transcript, I was struck by how often we kept coming back to the bullpen — you would think that was the most important part of the whole team — and this installment stitches together many of those segments. I think the reason it kept coming up is that that's where decisions are the most difficult to get right, where "right" decisions can look awfully wrong awfully fast. You don't get to do meaningful statistical analysis, because relievers don't pitch many innings. You wouldn't get meaningful results even if you did have good analysis, because a great pitcher can still have 20 bad innings. You're dealing with flawed pitchers by definition, and for all of those reasons and others, most players who become out-of-options problems seem to be in the bullpen as well.
Antonetti says, "our jobs are always trying to balance patience with immediacy." That balance is more difficult to strike in the bullpen than anywhere else.
There was some criticism from people who were looking at this from a dollars-per-marginal-win perspective — that based on Wood's raw run prevention, it doesn't seem like this can be justified — essentially saying, you shouldn't ever sign a closer to a market deal. How do you see that? Are you looking at it at all from that perspective?
Absolutely. My first question is, is that leverage-adjusted?
Some of them are leverage-adjusted, there is an economist ...
Yeah, he was adjusting for leverage of 1.5.
I think you have to give consideration to that, yeah, and ultimately it comes down to win expectancy: How much can one player affect your ability to win games? And there are a lot of different ways to look at that. But if you just look at it from a pure run prevention level, we wouldn't think that's the appropriate analysis.
Specifically for relievers?
Well, 66 innings, just intuitively, the 66 innings a closer pitches, vs. the 66 innings a guy pitches in middle relief, those 66 innings the closer pitches has far more impact on the outcome of games. It's very rare that the game is being decided when that other guy is pitching — that's the whole concept of leverage.
What range of leverage would you consider appropriate when properly evaluating a closer?
A lot of it is going to be situational, but I think a lot of the time the leverage index, depending on how you're calculating, and again depending on how they're deployed, typically ranges between 1.8 and two.
How much consideration are you giving to the way that adding a closer shifts other players’ roles in the bullpen?
That's an important component, because ultimately, I know there's a lot of debate about what replacement value is, but from a team's perspective, it's about what your actual replacement would contribute. And so we have to look at, if we didn't sign that guy, who would be in his role, and what is the residual impact on the bullpen? Because it's not necessarily a difference between Kerry Wood and the guy who would close, but Kerry Wood and whoever the seventh guy in our bullpen would have been.
Right. And who is that guy?
That's something we'll still work through and probably take spring training to figure out. So when we look at any player move, it's not done in isolation, it also gives consideration to what's the other residual impact on other guys he could effect. So in the bullpen's case, signing a closer, what residual impact does that have on the innings that other pitchers are pitching, and their success in those situations?
Do you try to quantify that with some precision, what happens when you slot everyone up or everyone down?
We try to. It's imprecise, because there are also some non-quantifiable things that go into different decisions.
Like the mental aspects of different roles?
The mental aspects, and or even how Eric might manage the game, having Kerry Wood or a guy at that level, an elite closer vs. a guy that you feel more comfortable with at two or three runs.
Mentality In a Bucket
How do your criteria differ when considering signing a middle reliever, as opposed to signing someone who's expected to be a closer, or to have a very prominent late-inning role? Are there different qualities that you're looking for?
Ultimately, there are different attributes that allow you to be a successful pitcher that are consistent across roles. So we look for some commonalities, whether it's a guy to pitch the 6th inning, 7th inning or 9th inning. Beyond that, though, with the 9th inning, I think you do have to give some consideration to the ability to handle those situations, the pressure that's inherent in that job. Because, while it's difficult to precisely quantify, for some guys, there's a different anxiety level pitching in the 9th inning, and then also having the game be the balance, when you're the pitcher on the mound when the game's decided, either a win or a loss typically, or a win or a blown-save extra-innings, whatever it might be. So it does take some mental or emotional attributes and emotional awareness to successfully manage the closer's role, specifically the ability to handle in those days where you don't get the job done, and you kind of wear that either Blown Save or Loss next to your name and feel kind of personally accountable, and your ability to bounce back the next day and not have any doubt in your mind that you're going to get the job done the next time you have the opportunity. Not every pitcher has that.
There's considerable skepticism in some circles that there is any such thing as a closer's mentality, or that it's particularly important. Is there in any internal debate within the organization on that question?
Oh, we debate everything.
Is this a point of controversy within the organization?
Notice I didn't specifically say how much we attribute it to that.
Well, how much do you attribute it to that?
Again, it's something that's difficult to quantify, but you can look at plenty of examples of guys in the past where you keep scratching your head and saying, "Why can't this guy close games?" This guy's very successful pitching in the sixth and seventh and eighth inning, but when he's in that ninth-inning role, he can't do it effectively.
But it tends to be only a handful of innings that you even get to see that across. How convinced are you personally that that effect is real?
I think for some guys, by and large it may be overstated in some areas, and it's probably understated in other areas. I think there's probably some along that continuum somewhere, between it being "no impact" and it being the defining attribute. I think it's probably somewhere in the middle.
But you're absolutely convinced, personally, that for some guys, it’s a significant factor.
For some guys, yes. It can be, more than anything, I think, potentially a limiting factor rather than a success indicator. A guy can have the greatest makeup in the world and be the toughest guy, but if he doesn't have stuff to get major league hitters out, that doesn't matter.
Seems to me that we saw that last year.
Do you feel that there's a significant difference between high-leverage situations vs. specifically a save situation?
I think that all depends on the guy. I think sometimes, our buckets that we cast guys into tend to be too large. Not every player's the same, and we're dealing with people, and different people handle different circumstances differently. Some people, even in a working office environment, they're fine with not knowing their role — hey, as long as they're doing something and have a job, they're fine. Other guys, when the expectations increase, when the spotlight increases, when they're given more responsibility, they don't handle those situations, that increased pressure well. Whether that's pitching in higher-leverage situations or pitching the 9th inning.
Options and Depth
Specifically for the bullpen, how much of a priority is it to get guys with minor league options remaining?
Individually? Not that important. Collectively, it's important to have some flexibility in the bullpen.
You want to make sure to end up with a mix.
Yes, that's our goal. I think the time we've had the most difficulty adjusting and formulating a successful bullpen is when we've lacked flexibility with the entire staff. So when we've had seven guys who we're either committed contractually to, or we're out of minor league options and therefore necessitating a little bit more patience because otherwise we may have lost the player, I think that's when we've had the most difficulty adjusting bullpens during the course of the year.
You really went through that at the start of 2006, when there were a number of relievers with great stuff but who were out of options, and who had never really gotten it together in the majors. How frustrating was it to go through that, where you know at some point you just have to give up and lose the guy?
Yeah, it certainly can be frustrating, but the alternative is just to sit there and watch it. I think it goes beyond the bullpen; our jobs are always trying to balance patience with immediacy, and immediate results. And the bullpen's probably the prime example of that.
Are you now a little bit concerned about bullpen depth, having traded Stevens and with Tony Sipp questionable for the season? Can you tell me anything about Tony Sipp's status?
We're optimistic that he'll be able to contribute this year. I think we'll have to see once he begins back on his throwing progression how well he tolerates that. We're hopeful that he'll be able to contribute for us this year.
But probably later in the year.
We expect that he's going to be fine coming into spring training, I don’t want to make it sound like there's any sort of active injury or something we're concerned about from that standpoint. He had a little bit of a setback in terms of his throwing progression when he was getting ready for winter ball, and that was it.
He's not injured right now, he's just taking it easy?
Yeah, it wouldn't have made sense with his shutdown period to try to gear him back up in time to go out and pitch winter ball. We figured, just let him rest, let him be ready to go for spring training.
But still, the general question, beyond the usual "you can never have too much" …
We'll continue to look at opportunities to add depth to our bullpen.
Even a major league signing?
I would say that's less likely, we'll probably look for more non-roster invites if possible.
Because of the overall roster situation, or because the money at this point, with the commitments you've made?
It's a combination of both, yeah, we have very limited resources available at hits point, and subsequent roster extension gets more and more difficult.
Dealing With Anxiety
How much attention do you play to how well a player performs in certain base-out situations?
I do think that there are probably players, whether they're pitchers or position players, that have the ability to manage anxiety levels in high-pressure situations better, and I think that's the case across all fields, whether it's fighter pilots or whether it's the right attributes for elite special forces units, whatever it may be. I think that there are guys that handle practice situations or non-pressure situations, and then there's a different group of people that may be able to perform and focus and perform at an elite level in high-pressure situations. So I do think that ability exists. Now, distilling that ability, and finding out which guys are actually successful in that on a baseball field is far more difficult.
Are there players on the roster right now whom you feel exemplify that ability to control their anxiety in those situations?
Yeah, I think that there are players that have the ability to do that.
Would the names surprise me?
No, I don't think they would. But there's a distinction between someone possessing that ability, and then having the ability to measure that precisely, and say statistically that that person, that it's demonstratable, that it's a demonstratable skill, for all the reasons that you're very aware of.
How much do you trust your instincts and the staff's instincts for evaluating those things?
We don't really make decisions based upon that, so I'm not sure how instructive it is.
It might come up in conversation, but it's not going to be part of the formal decision-making process.
No, because in baseball, for the most part, you can't really control those situations. You can't control when a guy's at-bat comes up within a game. Now, you can make the decision to pinch-hit, but if the most critical moment happens in the fourth inning, what are you gonna do? For the most part, in 99.5% of the circumstances, that's not the decision-making time. You're not going to act upon it, say, if you had a guy that you thought didn't handle pressure situations come up with the bases loaded in a zero–zero game, in the fourth inning, you're still not going to pinch-hit for that guy, even if you felt that he may be a little more anxious in that situation than a different guy.
But it could affect your decision about whether you acquire a player, retain a player or trade a player.
No, I think in those situations, it doesn't necessarily factor into our decision-making process on that level. If anything it's more game strategy level, where you may want to pinch hit in the ninth inning of a tie game, but because there are so many different -- of the 650 potential plate appearances a player may have, how do you define which one of those are pressure situations, in which of those is it acceptable level of pressure where he'll perform fine and not be affected, vs. which ones are high-level or high-anxiety pressure situations?
Are you saying you don't think it can be defined?
I think it's very difficult to precisely define, because it goes back down on an individual level and ultimately, we're still dealing with people's performance.
So the degree of difficulty defining that makes it impractical to make it part of the decision-making process.
Yeah, because it's very difficult to pinpoint precisely when that player will experience the anxiety that would affect performance. In other words, just walking through a progression, say a guy has some anxiety with 3–2 count with two outs in the ninth inning of a tie game, it's 2–2 in Game Seven of the World Series. Okay, so he has some anxiety there. What happens if it's that same situation in the Division Series? Is there any less anxiety? Does that guy handle that situation differently, vs. what happens if it's a game in September that's a deciding game to send the team to the playoffs? Okay, now taking back that same situation, what happens if that's a game in June against an interleague team? Same situation, it's the same base-out situation, but with different stakes on the line. So the same guy may have different levels of anxiety in those different situations and it may or may not manifest itself differently in his ability to perform there. But where do you define that, where do you draw the line? So then stepping back from that last example, now what happens if it's a one-run game, and it's in a hitter's count? Is that less pressure? Now what happens if it's a two-run game in the eighth inning? Is that less pressure and is he able to perform in that? So it's a continuum of anxiety, and where it may affect a particular player's performance or his ability to execute in those situations is virtually impossible to define, I think.
So you don't attempt to define for each player where the threshold of anxiety fits.
No, we do not. Because I don't think we can. I think that's very difficult for an individual person to define, let alone someone who's not living that moment, feeling that heartbeat. Until we can actually measure a guy's, you know, put in electrodes and measure his heart rate and his dilation of his pupils and all the other anxiety response levels, in all of those different situations, I'm not sure how we can precisely measure that, or how that's a factor.
Why not do that?
[He laughs.] Practicality. Again, we're dealing with people, not test rats.
Oh, I know, but in theory ...
In theory, again, if you're the person, what would be the incentive to ... one, it would have to be collectively bargained, which is a significant issue, and two, what would be the incentive for the player to undergo that? What would be the incentive for a player — and for the union at a macro level — to accept that? Because ultimately, what you'll determine is that there's a population of that group that's below average, and it could potentially affect their earnings. And especially if you think you have some of those anxiety levels, why would you submit to that testing?
Well, I guess you probably wouldn't. But the Indians do have a formal psychological screening process, right?
Does that come into play at all in terms of acquiring veterans in a trade or a free agent signing?
To some degree, but less so than it does at lower levels of acquisition. When signing a free agent, we do not give him a psychological test. We may have history on that player, we may have tested him out of the amateur draft. If he was within our organization he would have been tested, so at some point we’d have that information on file. But we don't make that a part of our free agent process.
So where does that screening come into play, where in the process?
It's not only a screening, but it's also used as a development tool, because there are certain things that you can do to help with mental skill development. Once you understand what a player's psychological profile is, then you can give him tools to address potential limitations, just like you can, you know, if a guy has trouble going to his backhand side.
Can you give me an example of something that you might spot in a screening, where you can help the player develop a practical tool for that?
Sure, staying on one of the things we talked about before, that anxiety. There are different things that you can do and routines that you can implement that allow you to manage the physiological stress of your body, whether it's breathing techniques or ability to focus on different things or controlling tempo or certain pre-pitch routine a pitcher may do to re-gather himself. Putting some of those processes in place allow you to manage stressful situations within a game. Just for an example.
©2009 Jay Levin