Neal Huntington discusses Russell Martin signing, changes to Pirates' scouting

Jared Wickerham

The Pirates GM talks about the addition of Russell Martin and the departure of top scout Mike Leuzinger.

This is the first part of a long interview Vlad, Tim Williams, Kevin Creagh and I did Friday night with Neal Huntington. I'll get the second part up as soon as I can transcribe it. Huntington is obviously very busy at PirateFest, but he met with us after everyone else had left -- literally, it was the five of us sitting around a table at the convention center while janitors vacuumed the floors. Whatever we might think about Huntington, I thought that was big of him. This portion of the interview deals primarily with the Russell Martin signing and with changes to the team's scouting department.

Where are you right now with how you want to finish out the team for Spring Training?

The simplest answer is, we're still looking for ways we can get better. We felt we had one significant need in the offseason, and that was a catching upgrade. We appreciate what Rod [Barajas] did from a leadership, from a game-calling standpoint last year. He took us in the right direction. But as we looked at the free-agent market we felt Russ Martin was the best overall catcher on the market. We felt that the cumulative defensive package [and] the cumulative offensive package was a significant upgrade for us, and was an opportunity for us to take a big step forward, and that was a big need. We like Michael McKenry. We like Tony Sanchez. But we just felt like, for two years, Russ Martin had a chance to come in here and make a tremendous impact on us. Not that we don't have other needs, and not that we don't have other areas we can get better. That's always a dangerous statement. But we do have a comfort level with where we are right now, and if there's a good baseball trade that makes us better, whether it's us trading prospects for somebody else's established big-leaguers, it's signing free agents, or it's trading big-leaguers for big-leaguers, we're certainly looking at ways to improve the club.

One of the issues last year, obviously, was your stolen-base-against rate. There seems to be a general philosophy of not paying as much attention to the [runner] at first base. ... What are you going to be doing defensively [to defend against the stolen base], both in terms of your pitchers and your catchers?

There's two parts to controlling the running game. One is keeping runners from stealing bases. The other is keeping the hitter from hitting the ball as hard somewhere in play for doubles, and out of play for home runs. So we've probably overemphasized quality pitching [and] quality location at the expense of release time. That is shifting for us as an organization, from top to bottom. We're going to become more cognizant of release time, without costing too much of the quality pitching [and] quality location. We've got to unload the ball a little quicker. We've got to hold the ball better. We've got to vary our times and our looks better, all the things that you can do to minimize basestealing, reduce basestealing.

There have been some studies coming out recently about pitch-framing [that suggest that Martin's pitch-framing is excellent]. Did that play into your decision to sign Martin? And I know you can't share specifics, but does your internal data suggest that what we've seen about his pitch-framing is right?

Yes. The pendulum swing is always an important part of it. We have our scouts who believe he's a good receiver. And we do have data. External, obviously, but there's also internal data that we've utilized in the process. ... Receiving is one of the components we liked about Russ and felt like it brought value to him as a player.

It seems at times that there was a disconnect last year between the objective data and analysis you do with Dan Fox ... [and] how that translates onto the field with Clint [Hurdle]. It just seems like, at times, there wasn't as much attention paid to the statistical data that I know you guys were gathering.

I would doubt there's very many managers in baseball that are more open to the analytic side, to the data side, than Clint Hurdle. At the same time, Clint's got a tremendous amount of data, from managing a lot of games, from playing a lot of games, from being around a lot of games, and there are times where the data may say something, just like we as humans aren't perfect, the data's not always perfect. And there are going to be times where Clint will go against the odds, so to speak, because he thinks [of] the matchup, or he thinks [of] the game situation, or he believes that he's making the right move for the right reasons, even though it might fly in the face of the new book, so to speak, and not necessarily go with the old book. It is a challenge, and if we were just using computer simulations, sometimes maybe managers would do some things differently. But I think Clint is as engaged with Dan Fox and with our other analysts as any manager in baseball. I think our coaches are as engaged. Is it taking time for the mutual trust to build? Absolutely. ... But our coaches reach out to Dan and to the guys who work with Dan, and they utilize the information. And Clint reaches out to Dan.

There have been a lot of seemingly high-profile scouting hires this offseason. And maybe that's just something that's being reported now, and wasn't being reported a couple years [ago]. We know the basic biographies of a lot of these guys, but can you talk about what their roles will be?

Phil Huttman went from Florida as a professional scout for us -- he had a number of years on the amateur side, wanted to get in on the pro side, and then we had the opening in Texas [and] he wanted to come back to the middle of the country, and so he's a veteran amateur area scout that's gone back to take the Texas role that Mike Leuzinger's going to vacate.

In terms of our pro scouts, most of them are going to be minor-league scouts with some major-league coverage. That's what most of our guys do. We've got one veteran guy that does all the National League [and] one veteran guy that does all the American League, and the National League guy has an advance slant to it. He gets out and sees a bunch of clubs that we're about to play in an advance role.

Bill Livesey ... has done just about everything in the game except be a general manager. He's run a farm system, he's run a scouting department, he's been an advisor, he's been a key evaluator. ... He helped get the Yankees group back on the right track, as odd as that sounds. They were off the right track for a long time, and Bill was one of the key people to getting them back on track. So he brings a wealth of knowledge to us.

In terms of the other professional scouts, mostly they've got experience on the amateur side. Why? Their exposure is going to be at the lower levels, where you're still projecting on players, and so we want the amateur mindset where we're still looking to see what we think the player can be. Unfortunately, too many scouts in our game find what players can't do. ...

I think it's more, it hasn't been reported in the past. For whatever reason, it's drawn attention this year. We've continued to hire scouts every year. We've expanded our amateur scouting department significantly since we got here. We've doubled, if not tripled, the size of our pro scouting department since we got here. We've increased the size of our international scouting since we've gotten here. So there's been growth every year. There's been scouting hires every year. Why it's gotten more attention this year, I'm not sure.

One of the big losses in the scouting department was Mike Leuzinger. You look at the drafts the last few years, you look at the players you brought in, they're a lot of the guys who have really stepped up and been some of the better players. Do you feel there could have been a better way to try to retain him, try to promote him, maybe give him a different job?

We felt Mike was one of our best area scouts ... and we paid him at the supervisor level to retain him as an area scout. Mike expressed some disappointment at being passed over a couple times for a supervisor role, which, it's not just semantics. There's a difference between crosscheckers and supervisors, and we expect a lot more of our supervisors than teams typically expect of their crosscheckers. Crosscheckers are talent evaluators. They bounce into town, they evaluate the player, and they leave. In our minds, we've got some youth in our scouting department. We want our guys to nurture and develop our scouts and to help them grow and to help them advance in their careers and to help make sure we're getting guys like Mike Leuzinger [who] are very qualified, very talented area scouts. Because you need very qualified, very talented area scouts as well.

For whatever reason, we made a decision -- reasons I support -- we made a decision to hire Scout X or Scout Y as a supervisor over Mike. At the time, we knew we risked losing Mike. But we also compensated Mike at the supervisor level in an attempt to keep him here. Anytime you lose somebody, you look back, and you go, 'Well, should we have done more to keep him?' As we see it, we've lost a good scout. And we wish him nothing but success. I think, ironically enough, you're probably going to see him land in an area scout role somewhere else. He just felt like it was time for him to go in a different direction, and I can appreciate that.

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