I met Billy Owens, the A's director of player personnel when I was down at spring training. We had an excellent conversation about everything from Barry Bonds to Joe Blanton. I immediately thought he would make an excellent interview for AN.
Billy is the guy who goes out to do the advanced scouting when the A's front office has a trade target. His exact job description in the A's media guide states this:
Owens was gracious enough to grant this exclusive interview with AN from the road. Seriously, he sent this interview to me from his Blackberry. Now that's dedication. I want to thank Billy for his participation in AN and all the kind words he offered me about the site when I was in Phoenix. He's a class act.
Without further ado, here is the AN interview with Billy Owens:
Blez: You're the advance scout when Billy Beane decides that he's interested in a certain player. Are there universal characteristics you're looking for when scouting a hitter or pitcher?
Billy Owens: Universal characteristics are tough to put an absolute value on. Starting pitchers need to have command of their fastball and hopefully a swing/miss pitch in their arsenal. Sinker ball-type pitchers like a Saarloos do not necessarily possess a swing/miss pitch per se, but they can pitch with their fastball at the major league level. He's the extreme one way. Rich Harden pitches with a mid 90's to upper 90's heater so he can get away with more mistakes because his stuff is so good.
Hitters are relative to their position. The degree of difficulty of their position and how they play it. Example: Chavez plays an extremely tough position at Gold Glove-caliber so his 25-30 homers annually with 100 rbi's is special. I know we are all looking for that super breakout year from Chavez but in reality what he's done so far in his career is borderline historical. People that play less demanding positions need to really hit to amplify their value. Every player is a case-by-case basis for what we need at the big league level and throughout the organization. In the broad scheme of things you can never have too many good players and from a financial standpoint it's big when you hit on a player before his strong earning years. As a staff, the guys we have been most successful with are players that fit a certain statistical profile and their physicality matches what we see on paper. Some guys have numbers and no physicality and some guys have serious tools but no track record of success. The guys with both normally are very good.
Blez: Everyone has the belief that the A's are always looking for a patient approach at the plate, but you've also acquired players who are more free swinging (or at least have that reputation) like Jose Guillen and Jay Payton. Is the team as predictable as many people think?
Owens: It's funny when it comes to OBP and other things that were highlighted in Moneyball. Of course you want players that get on base and have a high OBP but that is certainly not the only thing we look for in players. For one, guys with strong OBP's are more valued in today's market versus 5 years ago. Plus players that walk a ton in the minor leagues don't necessarily walk much in the big leagues because the pitchers are obviously better. Plus in the big leagues if a guy is not a threat to hit a homer he finds it harder to walk. We want productive players. Jose Guillen was a guy that was undervalued for a lot of years after he was rushed to the big leagues at a very young age. Thus he had to go back to 3-A and reestablish himself. Once he was in Cincy he was very productive albeit a free swinger but he was a right handed bat that was attractive with power. So the fact that he didn't walk was not enough to deter us from acquiring the player. Jay Payton likes to swing the bat and he makes contact when he does so that limits his walks. He is also a guy with some power. He hit 16 homers for us in limited action. He hit 28 homers one year in Colorado. He plays very good defense. Plus he is a tremendous character guy. He was hurt so much early in his career coming up with the Mets that he still has a ZEST for the game of a teenager. So in our position last year he was a no-brainer. We are elated to have him whether he walks or not.
Blez: When we talked at spring training, you mentioned how certain pitchers pitch to contact rather than the strikeout, naming Joe Blanton as an example. Do the A's have a preference for the kind of pitcher they ideally like?
Owens: We definitely are attracted to pitchers that can put batters away. Thus strikeout numbers are paramount when you are talking about pitchers. But like anything else it is harder to come by at each level. A guy may strike out a ton in A ball but nobody in AA. That holds true all the way up the ladder. Some guys strike out the world in 3A but cannot do it at the big level. That is why in the minor leagues you want to have someone see how a guy is striking batters out. If his swing/miss pitch is easily recognizable and hitters are swinging through it in the strike zone there is a good chance it translates to the next level. If a pitcher is constantly getting batters to chase pitches way out of the zone, then maybe hitters at more advanced levels can lay off the trick pitch. Then if a hitter lays off stuff off the plate and gets into favorable counts then that pitcher is in trouble. Command of your fastball is everything when it comes to pitching. If you can get outs by throwing fastballs in fastball counts you are normally going to be a successful pitcher. Big league hitters are too good to constantly get behind in the count. Mistake pitches in the big leagues go a long way. A Blanton type pitcher has command of a few pitches so a hitter has to be aggressive because they are going to throw strikes. Greg Maddux of the Chicago Cubs of the late 80's and early nineties had better stuff than the Maddux of the Braves of the mid-90's but the Braves Maddux pitched to contact and had absolute command of his fastball. On the way he acquired 3,000 strikeouts because his longevity has been so spectacular, but the main ingredient of his success has been fastball command and pitching to the bat versus trying to avoid it. Maddux would rather pitch a complete game in 80 pitches versus striking out 15 guys. If I could have either command or stuff on a big league starter my answer would be command with enough stuff would give me a solid chance for a starting pitcher. Much better chance than a stuff guy with below command. You would love to have both, like a young Pedro or Schilling. Hopefully we have some of those guys right now.
Blez: Can you walk ANers through the exact process and the type of conversation you'd have with Billy Beane once you go out and see a player? Maybe give us a real world example of how it's worked in the past?
Owens: Talking to Billy Beane is interesting. First Billy Beane is smarter than he's portrayed in any magazine, newspaper, or book for that matter so you always have to be on your toes. Secondly he has a lot of non-baseball interest so you want to be up to date on your current affairs if you are dealing with Billy. Billy Beane wants as much information on a player as he can possibly get. Having a track record from his amateur days, minor league ball, to the big leagues is big. Billy liked Kotsay from the time Kotsay was in college at Fullerton. He was always a winner and he still is. That was very attractive to Billy in trading for Kotsay. Eric Chavez went to the same high school as Billy. So of course Eric is a helluva player and a physical marvel but the fact that their was a little background there added to the equation. I might talk to Billy in person, telephone, or via Blackberry. Billy kind of gives a barometer of what he wants, then I try to find guys that fit our major league team or organization. Like the thing with OBP there is not one absolute thing we are looking for in acquiring someone but playability and character are definitely factors. Billy Beane, Mike Crowley, David Forst set the tone but we pride ourselves on having good people throughout the organization whether it be players, coaches, scouts, or anyone else that is involved. As far as how it works with communication with Billy or David: I always stay busy seeing players whether it be amateur or pro. But sometimes the phone rings or the Blackberry goes off and it is time to go. Plus things can change pretty quickly. Say you ask for a player and the other team says no. Well that trip to Florida just got cancelled and now you are going somewhere else. Unpredictable but very exciting and fun. Not many jobs in the world that I would trade mine for.
Blez: What trades have you scouted or been involved in that you're most proud of?
Owens: Trades are tough to quantify. Ultimately Billy pulls the trigger. I just give as much information as possible to Billy and David then they make the decision. Sometimes decisions are made on the fly and there is no time for consultation or scouting. We, as a staff, like to aim high so we might ask for an ideal player and the other team might value that player as much as we do, so we have to either come up with another name or come up with a different team. Sometimes two teams might be stymied on names to do a deal and try to bring in a 3rd party and do the 3-way thing. Trades are never black and white. A lot of factors come into place before Billy and David make a decision.
Blez: Have there been any when you didn't necessarily get what you thought when doing your advanced scouting on a trade?
Owens: Working for Billy is awesome because when you recommend certain guys and they end up being studs and for a million different reasons we could not acquire a guy-- he never forgets and always finds a way to let you know that he remembers that you were on someone that is successful.
Blez: You also travel quite a bit to see a lot of potential draft candidates. Name some of the recognizable players you saw as an amateur.
Owens: I've seen a ton of guys over the years that have had success on TV or are getting real close. I was an area scout when Jeff Francoeur, Jeremy Hermida, Brian McCann were high school kids in the Atlanta area. I saw Khalil Greene and Mark Teixeira in college. I witnessed Justin Verlander throw a complete game shutout in college as a sophomore where the last pitch of the game was 98 mph. Ryan Zimmerman was very fun to watch in college. He had big league plastered all over his face. Huston Street, who our scouting director Eric Kubota took in the 2004 draft, was a special guy to watch perform in college. I was the area scout on two controversial draft picks. I signed Freddie Bynum in the 2nd round when most people had him in a much lower round. I also signed Jeremy Brown and his story has been well documented.
Blez: Were there any players you saw that maybe you had to convince the front office to draft who turned into something special in the bigs?
Owens: We always draft and acquire players through teamwork so I don't ever want to come out and say I had to convince anyone to take a certain player and pat myself on the back. I will say that I was very instrumental in us taking Kevin Mellilo out of South Carolina. Our current east coast supervisor Michael Holmes is the area scout that signed Kevin. Eric Kubota is the scouting director that drafted him. Although I was very instrumental in us taking him. He hurt his hamate bone in college after I had seen him. I hate to say that I was excited that he got hurt but I was. Because the industry was not able to see him perform at peak level.
As I said before we do everything as a team so Eric listened to me and Michael on his ability even though he was hurt his last year in college and he took him. He had a nice year last year between three levels. Hopefully there is a lot more to his story but only time will tell. Freddie Bynum is a guy that I signed that I can honestly say that I was heavily involved. We had to trade Freddie because he was out of options but I still root for the player.
Blez: Are there any players the A's recently drafted that you think ANers should be aware of - someone you saw in person flying under the radar?
Owens: Justin Sellers is a guy that is currently under the radar that will not be after this year. Slick fielder that is small but he can hit and play.
Blez: Do you have to try and remain inconspicious when going to see a trade prospect for fear of the rumors swirling? Do you try and do the same thing when scouting amateur players to avoid letting other teams knowing about the A's interest?
Owens: I really don't care about flying under the radar per se. I just won't comment about someone directly unless it is appropriate. I ask a lot of questions about players to try to get background on them. But the people I'm asking have no idea exactly why I'm asking about a particular player. Plus when it comes to the actual trade of a player, really only the GM's or the assistant GM's have the final call on what actually goes down.
On the amateur side of things: for one, everyone has their own separate draft rooms so even if I say we are talking Derek Jeter in the 1st round, there is still going to be a discussion. But as a staff we definitely want to play poker properly and not show our hand. We definitely find a way to talk about players that are not a factor to us. Although I will ask other teams directly if they are on certain players. They might not tell but their body language says a lot.
Blez: Since you travel so much, do you have a favorite major league destination and why? What about amateur destination?
Owens: I'm pretty easy-going on the road. Warm weather. A couple of nice restaurants around the hotel. Starbucks close by or in the hotel. A good bookstore. Nice gym are about all I need. It's fun seeing a lot of different places and cultures.
Blez: What's your travel schedule look like over the next little while, to give ANers a sense of just how nomadic you really are?
Owens: This time of the year I'll go out and see amateur guys and any professional guys that Billy Beane and David Forst are curious about. Currently I'm somewhere where I'm seeing a few high school and college players and sprinkling in a few hot shot prospects. I like to give Billy and David as much inventory as possible because you never know. So of course Blez it was great being a part of AN but I can't tell you where I'm at or where I'm going. Stay tuned........................