I’m incredibly pleased to present one of the most exciting interviews in Yankeeist history, as I recently had the opportunity to talk with Alex Langsam, who currently works in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ front office as a Baseball Operations Assistant, reporting directly to General Manager Neal Huntington. Though Alex works for the Pirates, he grew up in New York as a Yankee fan.
I’d like to give Alex a huge, huge thank-you for taking the time to sit down with me, especially given that my blog isn’t about the Pirates. A man in his position does not have much free time at his disposal — I know this for a fact, given that many of these answers were sent to me after midnight.
Yankeeist: The first question that came to my mind was “How on earth does one get hired by a Major League Baseball front office?” I can only imagine there are tens of thousands of baseball maniacs who would kill for the opportunity to work for a Major League Baseball team, and given how few positions there actually are, how would you recommend breaking into an organization for those interested? Presumably some sort of math/statistical background helps, not to mention having a personal connection and/or sheer good luck on your side. I’ve probably sent my resume in to every baseball team in the league and have never heard anything back, so you can’t say “look at the MLB.com job board.”
Alex Langsam: Breaking into the game is definitely a thought on a lot of baseball enthusiasts’ minds, and unfortunately I’m not sure I can give you a great answer. As you’ve implied having some sort of readily applicable “skill” certainly gives you a leg-up (whether that’s a math/stats background, foreign-language background, baseball writing/analysis, baseball playing experience etc.). Needless to say, a connection probably trumps all of that, but in my experience I’ve encountered very few people in the game that stick around and don’t deserve it. Either way, I’d say that in most situations an internship is a prerequisite to a full-time job, and we certainly look for people that have really made an effort to get involved in the game of baseball in some capacity.
Another way to start creating connections is through the Baseball Industry Network on LinkedIn – a group started by our current Director of Baseball Operations, Ty Brooks, in a large part to help people found an inlet for working in the game. In my case, I’d have to credit a lot of it to luck: I annoyed a lot of people in a lot of different cities with resumes and letters and happened to get a shot at an internship in Pittsburgh, having received fewer responses than I could count on one hand. Bryan Minniti (then Director of Baseball Operations, now Assistant GM of the Washington Nationals) either had the foresight – or delusion – to give me a chance and I’ve run with it. In Pittsburgh we get a lot of applications every year, and we try to respond to all of them and give some personalized advice regardless of whether there’s an opening or not.
Yankeeist: What is it like to work in a Major League Baseball front office? Most of us will never get to experience the feeling of commuting to a baseball stadium for one’s job. Can you describe what specifically your position entails? Do you help evaluate players? Are you involved in the draft, and if so, how deeply?
AL: In my experience, working in a front office has been an incredible amount of hard work in an environment where you’re surrounded by a group of people that jump out of bed each and every morning really fired up about building a better ballclub. There’s really no one who is just going through the motions, and that makes every day exciting and meaningful. We’re a pretty small group in the office so we each get involved in many different areas, but I’m specifically responsible for transactions and interacting with the Commissioner’s Office, rules issues and interpretation, roster management, dealing with the arbitration process, helping out with coordinating our pro scouting, some player evaluation (statistical and scouting), the trade and free agent process, helping with our International efforts, as well as all the other minutiae that’s not as glamorous but needs to get done (e.g. getting our minor league coaches to sign various forms or getting copies of our international players’ visas to Human Resources). I’ve also been lucky enough to be involved in the amateur draft supporting the efforts of our Amateur Leadership group down in our Bradenton facility during the draft.
Yankeeist: What is your day-to-day activity like? Do you read any Pirates or general baseball blogs? If so, does the front office ever come across analytical pieces written by bloggers that present a solution or alternative (i.e. bringing a minor leaguer up to fill a spot in the bullpen, acquiring Player X for a certain need; moving a pitcher from the ‘pen to the rotation and vice versa; DFAing a significantly underperforming player) that may not have been previously considered and end up using it? I’ve read a few interviews where Mr. Huntington acknowledged that he’s a firm believer in advanced statistical analysis, so I have to imagine the front office consults Fangraphs fairly regularly.
AL: My day-to-day activities are always changing – if we’re considering making some moves it might mean giving some advice on the roster implications and then executing those moves. It could be making sure we’ve done our due diligence on all potential waiver claims for that day. If we’re in the middle of bearing down for the Rule 5 draft, it’s likely a specific project on a group of players we’re considering. The way the baseball schedule goes, I’d say there are a lot of intense periods (draft, trade deadline, signing deadline, tender deadline, filing of reserve lists, first roster cuts in Spring Training etc.) and then periods where everyone tries to catch their breath.
As far as blogs go, I definitely try to keep a general idea of what’s being said in a number of Pirates Blogs as well as in the more popular national forums like Fangraphs. A lot of the groundbreaking public research in baseball right now is being done on the blogs and I think it would be pretty shortsighted to not give them proper attention. With that said, there are a lot of aspects that go into any decision that the blogs (and the mainstream media) are not privy to. In my limited time here I’ve felt that we can’t afford to not be creative and inventive in the way we operate, so it would be silly to not take good ideas wherever they come from, be it the blogs, scouting reports from someplace like Baseball America and, first and foremost, our own people.
Yankeeist: How heavily do advanced statistical metrics—e.g. wOBA, xBABIP,
FIP, xFIP, tERA, True Average, WAR and VORP, to name but a few—factor into the Pirates’ player evaluations?
AL: Advanced statistical analysis plays a significant role in nearly all of our decisions, just as our scouting reports do. Without commenting on the specific statistics, we have in-house proprietary statistics that we consult constantly that get at a lot of the information you’ve mentioned. I know that there’s an effort to peg some teams as more “statistically-inclined” and some as more “scouting-inclined,” and while it’s definitely a cliché, we really do try to blend the two together.
Yankeeist: With more access to statistics than ever before, baseball fans are growing more sophisticated by the day, and teams seem to understand this, as the jumbotron at Yankee Stadium (and others) now displays a much wider range of stats (including OBP, SLG and OPS) for every batter that comes to the plate. While it’s nice to see OPS (and to a lesser extent, OPS+) reach the mainstream, savvier fans have collectively (and correctly) rallied around wOBA as the all-encompassing offensive rate statistic. I know of no other number that effectively encapsulates every aspect of a player’s offensive contributions, and therefore it has become my holy grail. Does the front office have any kind of input with regards to the numbers being shared with the fans at home games, and if so, is there any chance we will ever see wOBA shown on the big screen during at-bats at PNC Park?
AL: As far as I know, we’re not too involved with the stats displayed when players come to bat (or the walk-up songs for that matter, as I might be tempted to try to make some changes on that front…). As you mention, fans are definitely becoming more aware of and more comfortable with advanced statistics, which I think is only a good thing. I wouldn’t ever want to neglect the casual fan to whom the triple crown will always mean HRs, RBI and Batting Average, but it’s great to see OPS, OPS+ and even wOBA make its way into the parlance of the modern baseball fan. Certainly if you’re talking about measuring the skill component of a player’s performance then stats like batting average might not be the best, but I think they have their place in providing some sort of meaning to a less statistically-inclined fan. Candidly though, I’d be pretty surprised to see wOBA on any scoreboard in the near future (feel free to bother some Ballpark Operations people with letters, though…)
Yankeeist: We all know the difficulties of competing when there’s such a dramatic imbalance in team payrolls; however, the relatively low-budget Rays have utilized the amateur draft to their advantage and have been highly competitive with the Yankees and Red Sox in the AL East the last three seasons. Similarly, the Pirates organization has been investing some serious money in its last few drafts, and I have to imagine seeing success stories like the Rays has emboldened the Pirates to start spending more aggressively in the amateur talent pool. What are some of the philosophical changes to the way the Pirates have approached the draft?
AL: While I’m not sure I’m really confident speaking to “philosophical changes” in our approach, I can say with the utmost confidence that in my time with the Pirates the amateur draft has always been a major – if not the highest – priority for us. Looking back to 2008, I’d say we felt that the draft was a venue in which we could make an immediate and lasting impact on the organization and as a result aggressively pursued the best talent.
While that point might be especially evident in this year’s draft with the big-name signings in Rounds 1 & 2, our scouting staff has always done a great job of identifying and going after talent and so far we’ve been lucky enough to have the resources to sign those kind of players. The high-hype, top-round picks are the ones you most often hear about, but we’ve also added a lot of significant talent outside of the top 5 rounds. I don’t think it’s any secret that in order to get top-tier talent in our market, we have to “hit” in the draft (early and late), and that’s been a clear part of Neal’s philosophy from day one.
Yankeeist: Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie are obviously tremendously exciting, super high-ceiling prospects, and if all goes well could be anchors in the Pittsburgh rotation for years to come. How quickly do you see them getting through the system? Could we see Taillon in the rotation in a year? How does the front office feel about its 2010 draft class?
AL: To answer the last part of the question first, we’re extremely excited about the 2010 draft. Obviously Taillon and Allie head the bill for us and are getting most of the attention, but we’re also excited about a lot of the other players that we’ve added to the system. With the press and media hype that comes with a #2 overall pick, I think some of our other, later draft picks fly under the radar, but I know our scouting staff puts a tremendous amount of work into selections #1 – #50.
As to their path to the big leagues, our farm director, Kyle Stark, has really put that burden back onto all of our minor league players. These draft picks – as well as all of our minor league players – will dictate their own path based on their performance on and off the field and their ability to develop the traits and skills we see necessary to excel in the Major Leagues. I don’t think they’ll operate within a “timeline” of any kind, even though that question gets asked a lot because of their advanced abilities when compared to other HS arms. It doesn’t take a scout to note that there’s a big difference between High School baseball and the Major Leagues, and even the most advanced arms – guys like Josh Beckett, Clayton Kershaw, Madison Bumgarner – were not ready to join a Major League rotation in their first year of professional ball.
Yankeeist: Mr. Huntington’s also been highly active in the trade market. Can you comment on the organization’s approach to trading, which typically seems to involve unloading veterans for young players with upside?
AL: Similar to my feelings about our drafting “philosophy,” I think it’s dangerous to generalize about a specific strategy or approach in regards to trades, which for the most part are just another tool available to us for acquiring talent. Our market size is always going to force us to make some difficult decisions about players as they approach free agency and I think some of the trades you’re referr
ing to were a circumstance of guys approaching free agency that we couldn’t sign long-term and were unfortunately part of a losing team, in an organization that lacked any semblance of organizational depth.
However, each trade is a unique process where many different possibilities are weighed against each other. But I do think the trades of veteran players for younger players were more a function of circumstance rather than an overall approach. If there’s a good baseball trade to be made in the other direction, we’ll make it (bringing in Chris Snyder brought a veteran presence behind the plate for us). We’re all working relentlessly to put ourselves in a position where we can acquire that final piece for our playoff run and will have to tap into our minor league system to make it happen.
Yankeeist: The Pirates currently hold the longest active streak of losing seasons in MLB, and when 2010 finishes the organization will have completed its 18th straight. What kind of toll does that take on the team’s employees, players and fans? Are you able to laugh when The Onion writes things like “Pirates Mathematically Eliminated from Major League Baseball”?
AL: Very few people get into this game just to be a part of it – everyone wants to win. So from that perspective, the losing definitely takes its toll and, candidly, anyone who doesn’t feel the weight of the losses on some level probably shouldn’t be involved in this game. There’s nobody in our front office that doesn’t hate losing, simple as that. With that said, we work very hard to focus on the processes we can control and on the things you can impact on a day-to-day, moment-to-moment basis. We’ve all heard the clichés about baseball being a long season, and getting too caught up in yesterday’s result – good or bad – is going to wear on you. Moving past that, I’m a strong believer that you can’t take yourself too seriously in anything you do, and you have to be able to laugh at yourself. That doesn’t mean on some level it shouldn’t also motivate you to do better, but you have to laugh.
Yankeeist: Say the Pirates become a contender in the next few years, but are perhaps one or two pieces away from seriously challenging for a World Series title. The New Yorks, the Bostons, the Los Angeleses and the Chicagos of this world are always in on big names every offseason. Additionally, your divisional-rival Reds, who have typically shied away from big free agent deals, made a splash last offseason with the Aroldis Chapman signing, and are being carried by a solid young homegrown core this season. Do you think Pittsburgh will ever be players for a major free agent that commands a significant multi-million dollar pact, or do the economics of a deal like that just make no sense for the team?
AL: As much as I’d like to say differently, players like CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira on the open market are likely always going to be out of our price range. But, there are impact players to be had below the uppermost tier of free agency that we’ll be able to pursue in the right circumstances. Again, every situation is unique, but there’s no reason why the Pirates can’t use the free agent market to acquire a meaningful contributor to our team. We just can’t subject ourselves to the risk that comes with certain kinds of deals – and that’s by no means unique to the Pirates; a lot of teams are in that same boat.
Yankeeist: You grew up a Yankee fan. Can you tell us a little bit about whether you are able to reconcile your Yankee fandom while working for another Major League organization, or is it similar to what happens when a player who grows up rooting for Team X ends up being drafted by Team Y and naturally switches allegiances to the organization that employs them? Did you root for the Yankees in the playoffs last year given that the Pirates were not involved in postseason play?
AL: I kind of surprised myself in how easy it was to “turn off” being a Yankee fan and switch allegiances to the Pirates. Not that I wasn’t a big fan before, I just found that when you work as hard as you do towards one goal, you have to be in it 100%. There’s really no room to be “rooting” for another team, otherwise you’re not giving the effort that everyone around you in the office is. Odd as it was, the Yankees really just became another team very quickly. As far as rooting for other teams in the playoffs, I found myself rooting for the teams of friends and former co-workers in the industry rather than for the laundry.
Yankeeist: It seems like the Yankees’ and Pirates’ front offices have a pretty cordial relationship—and it seems like Pittsburgh in particular really likes former Yankee farmhands. What are your thoughts on some of the players the Pirates have received from the Yankees during the last few years? Ross Ohlendorf‘s been fairly mediocre and perhaps a bit lucky, having outpitched his FIP thus far this season, although Jose Tabata looks like he could be a key component of the future, with an impressive .341 wOBA through 346 plate appearances — as a 22-year-old, no less. Given the seasons Austin Jackson and Tabata are having, it would seem that for once the Yankee prospect hype machine may have actually been somewhat accurate with respect to these two hitters.
AL: Looking back to that trade with the Yankees in July of 2008, we were able to get four players that each have played a significant role on our club. Jose’s been a jolt of energy for our club since the moment he was brought up and has really thrived, especially of late. As he develops and matures I think he has a chance to be a special player, combining the ability to be an impact player on offense with his great range in our expansive left field at PNC Park. We’ve seen a little more power out of him lately, and I think he’ll only develop that further as he matures.
Ross has been a solid member of our rotation for almost two years now and I think he’ll continue to be a guy we can count on to give us innings and keep us in every game he takes the mound. As you’ve indicated his ERA has been better this year than his FIP would suggest, but a league-average starting pitcher is nothing to sneeze at, and Ross is still making strides towards maximizing his potential.
Yankeeist: If you were building an MLB team from scratch and had every player in ba
seball available to you with no monetary restrictions, who would you pick first?
AL: Wow, that’s a tough question. Do I get any bonus points if I name a Yankee? I’d have to go with a younger position player to try to maximize the value out of the next six years (assuming I only get him for six years?) and probably would lean towards someone in the middle of the diamond. To name a handful that would be in the discussion: Brian McCann, Evan Longoria, Hanley Ramirez, Andrew McCutchen, Troy Tulowitzki, Joey Votto, Ryan Zimmerman. While it would be very tough to say no to a dominant starter like a Zack Greinke, Tim Lincecum or Felix Hernandez, I’d probably shy away from the risk of a young pitcher and go with a position player.
Yankeeist: What year will the Pittsburgh Pirates next make the playoffs?
AL: I know our guys put on the uniform every day expecting to win, and the same goes for those of us in the office. We’ll get up on October 4th and every other day in the off-season with the expectation of improving and winning more ballgames in 2011 and the playoff picture will take care of itself. We get accused sometimes of being in “future” mode all the time, but I can tell you that we expect to win tonight, tomorrow, the day after and will do everything in our power to improve in the off-season to win in 2011.
Yankeeist: Who will win the 2010 World Series?
AL: Do I get bonus points if I pick the Yankees?
Yankeeist: Ha, sure. Thanks again for taking the time to chat with me.
AL: Thanks for the opportunity to talk some baseball.