Nationals rely on scouts-first approach, but take information from elsewhere, too

John McDonnell/THE WASHINGTON POST - Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo, right, shown with Manager Davey Johnson, will balance a scouting report with analytics when making personnel decisions.

VIERA, Fla. — Mike Rizzo, the general manager who grew up the son of a baseball scout and boycotts the movie version of “Moneyball,” may turn for advice to any number of voices within the Washington Nationals front office. He could ask the former big league manager, the 19-year major league catcher or one of several lifelong scouts. Or he may ask the former Allegheny College tight end and the English major from the University of Pennsylvania.

Rizzo has always trusted his experience and his eyes over numbers. But the Nationals have not ignored the statistical revolution that long overtook front offices across the sport, made clear by the spots at the table reserved for director of baseball operations Adam Cromie, 29, and baseball operations analyst Samuel Mondry-Cohen, 25, the two men who head the Nationals’ analytics department. The Nationals are a “scouting-first organization,” even in Cromie’s words. But they are not a scouts-only operation.

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“Mike is very open-minded and has gone to great lengths to embrace the statistical side of it,” Cromie said. “It lends us a lot of credibility within the organization and lets us be part of conversations that I’m not sure a lot of other people who have our perspective are allowed to be a part of. While the scouts are always going to drive the decisions, it allows us to play a role where we can help to make sure other perspectives are heard.”

When Rizzo holds a meeting, he compares his scout’s evaluations with the predictive stats Cromie and Mondry-Cohen provide. He also listens when they come to him with a suggestion.

“It comes down to, who are you comfortable with more?” Rizzo said. “If I’ve seen a guy for years and years and years, currently and recently, and I have an impression of him negatively or positively, if I have a strong feeling on a guy, the sabermetric report isn’t going to really sway my decision making.”

Still, Rizzo said, he takes great pride in the Nationals’ advances in statistical capability. They use their own formula to evaluate defense — one of the most difficult skills to measure — and their own version of wins above replacement, the catch-all metric used to match a numerical value to a player’s total contribution. Their formulas, which they will not share, take into account the effect of the Nationals’ league, division, ballpark and even climate.

“It’s not old school or new school,” Rizzo said. “It doesn’t slight the grinder, old scout in the field. But it’s a tool. It would be like scouting without a radar gun. Why would you do it when a radar gun is available?”

The Nationals’ analytics department sees its mission as gathering as much information as possible and organizing it in a way decision makers can easily digest, and stats are only part of the package. Mondry-Cohen and Cromie sift through scouting notes, video, public research and media reports.

“A lot of our job is sort of wading through the numbers, the noise, and bringing to the forefront the couple numbers or analytics they should be looking at,” Mondry-Cohen said.

Under Rizzo’s guidance, the Nationals began bulking up their analytics department before the 2010 season, when they made a gaggle of front-office hires and placed Cromie in a prominent role.

Cromie always knew what he wanted for a career. He went to Allegheny College to play both baseball and football, but he dropped baseball and played only tight end for four years.

He majored in economics and wrote a junior thesis called “Down on the Farm: An Examination of Competitive Advantages For Minor League Baseball.” He earned a master’s degree in sports management from the University of Massachusetts and worked at Baseball Info Solutions for the summer of 2006.

He came to the Nationals as an intern under director of minor league operations Mark Scialabba. As the Nationals ownership transitioned from MLB to the Lerner family, Cromie saw an opening. The Nationals lacked any kind of analytic systems.

“Every moment I was awake,” he said, “I was starting to build some database infrastructure and do things that would help us make decisions.”

Cromie taught himself the necessary skills and got to work, mostly by himself. After the 2009 season, with Rizzo now the full-time general manager, the Nationals hired analytically inclined executives Jay Sartori and Bryan Minniti. Ownership poured more money into the database. The additions ramped up Cromie’s project and brought the Nationals’ analytic operation up to speed.

“Up to that point, it had really been me in a corner plugging away on a computer,” Cromie said, laughing.

As Cromie was building an analytics department from the ground up, Mondry-Cohen’s fandom was sparking his interest in how baseball and numbers interact. He grew up in San Francisco, a rabid fan of the Giants. His father taught high school calculus and kept Bill James’s Baseball Abstracts on his bookshelf.

Through a family friend, Mondry-Cohen landed a job as a clubhouse attendant in the Giants’ visiting clubhouse. During the 2003 playoffs, he skipped class so he could sneak into the stadium and fold laundry. He read Tom Tango’s “The Book” and perused FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus on the clubhouse computer in front of players, hoping someone would notice and ask him about it. He once showed Carlos Delgado the FanGraphs player page for Tim Lincecum. “He said it was too much information,” Mondry-Cohen said.

Mondry-Cohen went off to college at Penn, where he majored in English and hung around the statistics department. He met Abraham Wyner, the professor who developed the Spatial Aggregate Fielding Evaluation, or SAFE, a leading advanced defensive metric. (“A very elegant model of defense,” Mondry-Cohen says.) He landed an unpaid internship with the Nationals after his junior year, and after the 2010 season, the Nationals hired him full time.

The addition of Mondry-Cohen allowed Cromie to focus more on broader strategic issues. Mondry-Cohen handles more granular items, either answering or doing research to prepare for the day-to-day questions Rizzo or another member of the Nationals may have.

Both Cromie and Mondry-Cohen sit next to Nationals’ scouts and decision makers at games, simply to see the game through their eyes.

“No joke, I’ve stood there with Mike as he goes through information looking at a player, just to understand what it is he’s spending the most time with,” Cromie said. “Because those are the things we need to focus on.”

The Nationals’ next need will arise soon. Rizzo will trust his scouts and his gut to make the best choice, but not before asking the English major and the tight end.

 
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