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AN Exclusive: Eric Kubota on the Draft and Drafting

On Tuesday afternoon, Eric Kubota, the A’s Director of Scouting, was nice enough to give me a bit of his time over the phone while he was on the road. In his position, he’s pretty much a road warrior. We had a relatively wide-ranging discussion on the draft and the A’s drafting philosophy in general. Here is the transcript of what we talked about


Me: Thanks Eric. Athletics Nation really appreciates making time for us.

Eric Kubota: No problem

Me: First question is pretty open-ended. What do you think about the draft class this year? Do you think it's a pretty strong one, or not so strong? How would you rate it?

EK: Well, I think it's fairly well-documented out there that it seems not as a strong as it has been in past years. That being said, people have said about a lot of draft classes that have turned out to be very good. But, I think sitting here right now, the general [impression] is that it's down a little. But, history may prove us differently.

Me: Sure, sure. On that note, do you go back and look at draft classes from the past and try to draw conclusions on the draft class that you're currently working on?

EK: Yeah, not too much. I mean, we do do research and you try and find trends and try and find an edge, but there's so many variables and factors involved as to whether these kids end up being major leaguers and good major leaguers that as much as want to try and find easier answers, the more research we do the more the conclusion we come to is the harder we realize it is.

Me: So, for the most part, you take every draft in its own context?

EK: Yeah, I think, basically, you're evaluating players the way you know, and the last few years, we've really - not that analytics aren't important in our process, they're really important - but we've really tried to just emphasize old school fundamental scouting. Tools, upside, projections, and things like that. So, I think as far as any draft class, we're always trying to just evaluate players at least as scouts. They'll be a period of time where we combine the analytics and the scouting reports, but that won't happen until later in the spring.

So, yeah, I would say we take each player as an individual rather than as part of anything greater than that, I think.

Me: Okay, cool. So when it comes to actual numbers, obviously guys that are picked high are going to hit .600 in high school or something, or they're really going to outperform the league. And I think you kind of answered this, so you don't really pay a whole lot of attention to the actual numbers that someone puts up?

EK: I think what we've found is that there are certain benchmarks, that there is a certain range, or level at which as long as a hitter hits above this, or strikes out less than this - same being said for pitchers - I think we have a comfort level. Baseball is a hard game, and a high school player may have a very short sample size, he may have a 20-game season. And to overly penalize, or overly reward a guy for a good 20 games sometimes can be problematic.

Me: So in terms of the philosophy the way the A's have drafted, has it deviated significantly from the past? In the past, there were a lot of college guys: there was Gray, there was Green, there was Weeks. And now we have Michael Choice and Addison Russell, and those were guys that were more, I guess, high upside, toolsy players. Again, is it just a product of what was there and where the A's were picking? Or was it more of an actual, philosophical change?

EK: I think probably it's a little of both. Philosophically, we're always looking for ways to improve our process. That's an ongoing thing. It's not as simple as saying we're going to take high school guys or we're going to take college guys, or we're going to take guys who have performed, or who haven't performed. There's an ongoing discussion here as to philosophically, what is the best way to approach the draft. So that's one part of it. And the second part is exactly what you said: a lot of what you take has to do with what is available. And last year was particularly deep, we thought in high school upside guys and those first three guys we took were all high school guys, and we're thrilled to have them and thrilled that they've performed. But, it wasn't so much, I wouldn't say it was completely dependent on what was there, but it's certainly wasn't as simple as a philosophy change or anything like that.

Me: So, what it seemed like from the fans' perspective is that the A's have kind of moved more towards position players. And it kind of makes sense: for a long time, the A's had more pitching than they had hitting, and now it is kind of balancing out. Would you say that you are looking in any particular direction in this draft?

EK: Not necessarily. You're always looking for what's best. I think, in general, if you look at our system right now, and maybe every minor league system, we would like to increase our pitching depth. But that doesn't mean we're just going to go out and take pitchers. So, I mean, so much has to do with the draft board itself and what's out there. And then it's dependent on what other clubs are doing, too. It's not just as simple as us saying "we want to take position A, and we want to take a bunch of position A" because if we take one of position A with our first pick, and then 29 other teams take that position, it makes it harder to do that, if that makes any sense. You're almost taking the overvalued rather than the undervalued at that point.

Me: Sure. Onto a slightly different topic: Major League Baseball and the players' union famously ratified a CBA, which changed a lot of rules as far as draft compensation goes. I know that for Beane and some of the other guys, for them that's a big deal. Does that change anything from your perspective, or is that something that other people worry about and you don't as much?

EK: No, I mean, whether we can sign a player is still a big factor on whether we are going to take him and it affects how we scout a player during the spring, how much manpower we use when we scout a player, whether we can sign him or not. So it's certainly important. This kind of gave some definition to the signing process which probably helped in that. I think the greatest benefit that came from this new thing was the fact that all those guys, from Addison Russell on down, they all got out and were playing professional baseball by the end of June and got a full summer of playing professional baseball, which will only help the in their development in the years to come.

Me: Okay, cool. On the idea of development, once you draft a player, is it pretty much out of your hands, and you leave it up to the baseball ops department, or do you have input later on whether to promote a player, or whether to keep a player at a certain level for a certain amount of time?

EK: Well, first and foremost, our player development system, led by Keith Liepmann -- I think I'm not overstating things by saying he's the best at what he does. So, we happily hand our guys over to them. That's their expertise and our expertise is picking them. And we have the utmost confidence in what those guys do. So yes, we basically hand them off to Keith and his staff. But, at the same time, we do have input as to, as players progress through the system, we do have input on where they may be assigned to, whether they are ready to come to the big leagues, things like that. That's part of what I do during the summer, and we have a lot of people who do it. It's evaluating our own players, as well as other players.

Me: Cool, thank you. You've actually been in your position for awhile. Over time, how would you say that your position has - or just drafting in general, I guess - has evolved? Is there anything in particular that has made life easier for you?

EK: I'm not sure it's made life easier; the business itself has certainly changed. I started in the scouting department, 20-plus years ago, and we were doing hand-written reports on carbon paper forms. And I've seen this whole process switch into computers and you know now have we access to so much information online. It certainly helps, it gives us more information from which to make a more informed decision. So, in that respect, that's changed. Ultimately, scouting itself hasn't changed. The job of an actual scout evaluating a player at the game has remained the same: they look at the player, and they have a determination as to what this player might look like three or four or five years down the road. That really hasn't changed with technology. The way that information has been disseminated, and the way that we combine that information with statistics, has certainly changed. 2002 was my first year, and we were one of the only teams that was dedicating a lot of time to analyzing college stats and stats on player that were eligible for the draft. Now, every team does it, and every team has a small department that does it. So, that in and of itself has changed a lot.

Ultimately, scouting itself hasn't changed. The job of an actual scout evaluating a player at the game has remained the same: they look at the player, and they have a determination as to what this player might look like three or four or five years down the road. That really hasn't changed with technology. -Eric Kubota

Me: I know you started on the scouting side, but how do you compare your background to your peers? Are you pretty similar?

EK: That's a good question, it's funny, because when I started, 20-25 years ago, I was certainly an outsider based on my background. I didn't have a playing background, but at the same time, I spent a long time as an intern, learning from really good baseball people, really good baseball mentors, and as I look at it now, if you took my background, it would look more old school now than a lot of people who do what I do. It's just changed, people come into this with different backgrounds now. They may have a more formal analytical background, there's all different -first off, being a scouting director is different from club to club. Some clubs think of it mostly as a position for an evaluator, some clubs think of it as a position for mostly an administrator, so every club kind of does it differently. But there's certainly more people with a non-baseball, non-playing background like I had nowadays than there were 20 years ago.

Me: Cool, thank you. Out of curiosity, did you watch the movie Moneyball?

EK: Yeah

Me: So there's the famous scene, with the old school scouts and the computer stathead guys. I mean, you kind of answered it in context in the rest of the questions, but how do you feel about that conflict, if there is one in your mind?

EK: Well, I lived through that whole period, and while that was maybe sensationalized and simplified in the movie, there was certainly pushback. There was certainly a give-and-take between those two sides. It took just old school baseball people - I shouldn't just say, I shouldn't lump everyone in - it took a lot of old school baseball people to open up to the analytical side of things. Now, where the game is today, in almost every organization, there's a very seamless integration between the two, and I think people - scouts and old school baseball people - are much more open-minded to the information that you can get from the other side. And I think at the same time, I think there are a lot of people who came from a formal analytical background who ended up realized that it's not so easy predicting the future on 18-19 year old kids based on strictly on analytics. So, I think both sides learned that you needed both arms to do this correctly.

Me: So just two more questions, a couple random ones. On the internet, there's the whole meme of there is no such thing as a pitching prospect - TINSTAPP. Do you kind of believe in that, just based on randomness, or do you think that there are things that you can actually pinpoint that will tell you that a pitcher's health that you draft is positive for the long-term?

EK: You know, obviously, my job is to evaluating talent, and determining which guys we think are going to be good. So, obviously, I'm going to lean on the side that I think we're very good at evaluating pitchers and determining which guys are going to be good major leaguers. With that being said, especially pitchers, there is so much that as far as injury issues and things like that that happen, that bring a lot more than just strict evaluation into whether pitching prospects become major league pitchers.

Me: Alright, last one. Who has been your personal favorite guy to watch that you've drafted who is still in the organization?

EK: (Chuckle) That's a good question. There's a lot of them, I mean, from guys like Dan Straily and A.J. Griffin who were lower picks who people really didn't have a whole lot of regard for coming up out of the draft. I'm certainly extremely proud of those guys. And I'm proud of the more high profile guys who are out there. I mean, we're proud of all of them, I don't really feel like I need to single any of them out. I'm proud of those scouts who signed those players. We're proud that our club has been successful and that we've had a small part in helping with that.

Me: Thanks a lot. That was a really good interview.

EK: Take care. See ya.