We all know that one of Brad Mills' selling points is his close association with well regarded Red Sox manager Terry Francona. Of course, Mills' is his own man, and we can't expect that he would say the same thing as Francona. But a radio interview with Francona in Boston impressed me. Francona gave some thoughtful and articulate responses to baseball questions. Although the questions are Red Sox-related, many of the baseball issues have generic application. So, I wondered, will some of these thoughts be brought from Boston to the Astros by Mills? I hope so.
For instance, consider Francona's discussion of RBIs and OBP:
Francona also commented on the need to put both scouting and statistical analysis together:
How do you value RBIs?
I think there are some things that can be skewed. I grew up in an era where, if you hit .300, you were a good player. Well, you know what? That’s not the tell-tale. I was the perfect example. I could hit .300. I never helped our team. I hit all singles, I never walked, I wasn’t fast enough to score any runs. It was kind of cosmetic. Getting on base is a very important stat. It doesn’t mean we have nine guys up there trying to walk. But it means if they’re seeing pitches and working counts, they’re going to become more dangerous hitters. If they’re on base, we talk all the time about keep the line moving, You have to have a good enough team to do that. If you have four or five guys who are taking their walks, and four or five guys that can’t hit, that’s not going to work. If you have a balanced team, which we try to do, and you have that approach, it’s going to work.
You seem to bring both both sides — statistical analysis and scouting — together.
I think there is both sides. You have to kind of wed those and come up with the best way of putting a team together. I don’t think you can do just one or the other. I think you can make mistakes. Sometimes the game can deceive you if you just look at it with your eyes. That’s why we look at statistics all the time. At the same time, there are people playing this game and you try not to forget that. You try to look at both and make good decisions.
Interestingly Francona later says that it is rare when a player can be taught to increase his OBP ability after he reaches the majors. He says the game is so much faster at the major league level, that "you are kidding yourself" if you think you can change the young player's pitch selection decisions. He advocates concentrating on on base skills in the minor league player development.
I also was surprised that Francona's answer regarding defensive metrics shows some good insight:
Some defensive metrics say that Ellsbury is a bad outfielder. How is that possible?
First of all, it didn’t say he’s a bad outfielder. It said he didn’t measure up to league average as a centerfielder. That’s two different things. Pretty much every team has their best defensive outfielder in centerfield. As you go through the American League and you look at the centerfielders, to be an average centerfielder defensively you’ve got to be pretty damn good.
I actually think he is. The defensive equation is the hardest, in my opinion, to evaluate. They’re trying to make it better every year. They keep making adjustments to it. There’s a lot of things that come into play. You play here and then you go to Texas, that’s like going to a roller rink. The ground they cover is going to be less. There’s a lot of things out there that aren’t perfect. They’re trying to find ways to measure it. I do think Jacoby is getting better. I think he will continue to get better as he understands the strength of guys in the league, positioning, how important it is, I do think he will get better. I think he goes left to right very well. I think he is still learning how to go back on a ball, get back to the wall and show that athleticism.
[Defensive metrics are] more of a tool for signing guys and for the front office. It’s not something we look at going into a game because it doesn’t really help us prepare for a team.
Knowledge of the importance of OBP definitely is something the Astros need. The Astros rank 13th in the NL in OBP The Astros rank 14th (or next to last) in the NL in walks. Francona also points out that the benefit of having patient hitters who take their walks is dependent of having good hitters throughout the lineup (i.e., few "black holes"). This is one of the factors which concerns me if the Astros end up with black holes at both shortstop and 3d base next year.
Interestingly, Chris Johnson may be happy that Brad Mills moved to the Astros for an additional reason. It opened up a coaching position on the Red Sox, and according to this interview, Ron Johnson, the Red Sox AAA manager and Chris Johnson's father, is one of the people Francona is considering as an addition to his coaching staff. By the way, since I frequently mention my skepticism of Chris Johnson's offense, in all fairness I should point out that he is hitting well in the Arizona Fall League so far (.353, .389, .529, .918). But before you get too excited, it's only 17 at bats so far.
Finally, Francona makes an interesting comment about the importance of a starting pitcher vs. a middle of the order hitter:
Is adding a starting pitcher more valuable than a middle-of-the-order hitter?
Every time Theo talks to me, I always say get a pitcher. I know we need to score runs. When you don’t pitch, you certainly make life a lot more difficult for the whole team. When you have a well-pitched game, even when you go into the seventh or eighth inning, you have a chance. When you don’t pitch, the game looks sloppy. A lot of balls in the gap, more cutoffs and relays, you have more errors. There’s more plays to be made.
I wonder if Brad Mills would tell Ed Wade the same thing?