An Interview with Farhan Zaidi of the Oakland A’s

Last week I posted James Hall’s interview with a baseball scout. Now, I have have an interview with a member of the A’s front office Farhan Zaidi. Who is Farhan Zaidi? Well, he’s the newest member of the A’s front office, and he has an interesting background of interest to me: he’s a PhD economist (from Cal). When I saw that Farhan had been hired, I sent him an e-mail requesting an interview. To my delight, he agreed to answer some questions once the season started. I sent him some questions just over a week ago, and he quickly got back to me. His answers are extremely fascinating, and I hope you will enjoy this conversation as much as I did. I learned quite a few things from his answers that I did not expect to hear, especially about what front offices really do. And if you are interested in working your way into a position like his, he has some interesting advice for you.

I would like to extend a special thank you to Farhan for taking the time to do the interview. This was an extremely nice gesture. I am grateful for your kindness.

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What exactly do you do for the A’s?

The job has evolved into a mix of a traditional baseball operations assistant position and an analyst position. I chart all our games and prepare advance reports for our coaching staff. Right now, I’m spending a lot of my time doing analysis for the draft, in particular flagging strong statistical performers that our scouts have not gotten a chance to see yet. Once the draft is done, I’ll probably spend more time doing the kind of analysis we’re used to seeing on Baseball Prospectus, Primer, and other related sites — efficient bullpen usage, things like that.

Economists tend to have two sets of skills that are good for working for an organization like the A’s: 1) Critical thinking, which we economists imperialistically call “the economic way of thinking” and 2) technical econometric skills. Which of these do you think is most important to your job? And is there another skill that I missed?

I would definitely say the first. There are steeply diminishing returns to using advanced econometric methods in this job. Time is of the essence, and even if time weren’t an issue, I would rather do a simple analysis that is easy to explain than a more econometrically-kosher analysis that no one’s going to understand. As it is, we’re usually dealing with such big sample sizes that the signal from the data is generally strong enough to be picked up even by the most basic econometric approaches.

I do think critical thinking is incredibly valuable in this job. Ultimately, baseball operations is all about finding the right distribution of resources across the organization, and evaluating tradeoffs. Having an economics background helps in framing every decision we have to make as a tradeoff — what does a move get us, and what are we giving up? I think framing those decisions the right way goes a long way towards making the right choices.

I know you’re a student of Matthew Rabin. Rabin’s known for his work in behavioral economics, challenging some elements of the standard neoclassical paradigm. My guess is that Michael Lewis is a big fan. Is Billy Beane tapping your brain in search of new inefficiencies that only a trained Rabin student could spot?

I don’t think Billy and David really set out to hire an economist — they were looking for someone with a quantitative background who had some knowledge of the game. We don’t sit around and specifically talk about what behavioral economics models might be useful in evaluating the markets we deal with.

That being said, I do think those markets are prone to the types biases and inefficiencies that are the focus of the behavioral economics field — confirmatory bias, overconfidence, present-biasedness, loss aversion, the list goes on and on. Not all of them can necessarily be profitably exploited, but I do think the background in the field gives me a different perspective on things.

Which did you find first, sabermetrics or economics? Is there an interesting story here?

I discovered sabermetrics when I bought my first Bill James abstract way back in 1985. Can’t say I was writing economics papers back then, so I guess sabermetrics came first. I didn’t really discover economics until my senior year in high school, but even then I never saw myself combining the two. I always just thought of myself as a baseball fan who was more interested in stats than the average fan; and at the same time someone with an interest in economics.

What has been your biggest thrill so far in the job? I heard you worked on the Juan Cruz arbitration. What is working on an arbitration case like? Why do you think you won?

Hopefully once we get on a hot streak, my biggest thrill will be something that takes place on the field, but so far I’d say it was winning the arbitration case. That was really the first thing I worked on after starting with the A’s so to win the case was very validating. It was a good first thing to work on because preparing a presentation was something I was familiar with from my management consulting days (I worked at the Boston Consulting Group from 1998-2000). It was a pretty intense process, and David Forst (the Assistant GM) and I had to work pretty diligently to build our case up, piece by piece. I think we ultimately won because we established precedent was on our side. That was the big surprise to me about the arbitration process — it’s all about establishing precedent. The weight given to precedent is pretty pervasive throughout the industry — from draft bonuses to arbitration cases to free agent signings — much more than I anticipated.

Why did the A’s want Charles Thomas from the Braves over Ryan Langerhans? I can’t believe Schuerholz would have allowed a player that can’t find playing time in the current Braves outfield to be a sticking point to the Hudson deal, so you guys must have wanted Thomas. Was it defense, or did you see something else? I was pretty shocked at how well he hit in the majors, and he didn’t project badly, despite his low walk rate, in my cornball projection system.

I wasn’t with the A’s when the trade was consummated, so I can’t really speak to Thomas vs. Langerhans. I don’t think it’s some big sabermetric secret that Charles Thomas is one of the best defensive outfielders in the league. He’s also a very good baserunner (if not base stealer) and he does have some pop. I can understand the question because his offense took a quantum leap in 2004 and it’s reasonable to be suspicious of that improvement. But I think he can be an above-average hitter at the major league level (2005 start notwithstanding) and he brings a lot to the table on defense and on the bases.

What’s it like working in MLB?

It’s amazing. I absolutely love my job and feel very fortunate to be in this position. It’s very easy to get caught up in the day-to-day grind and lose perspective on things, so every once in a while I force myself to take a step back and appreciate the chance I’ve gotten to work for a baseball team.

That said, it is an incredibly intense and consuming position. The one thing about this job, and this industry as a whole, is that there is more information out there than any one single person could ever process. You have to accept that you can’t know everything all the time and learn to draw the line somewhere. The problem is, drawing the line is such a difficult thing to do because we all love the game so much and going through that information is generally fun and enjoyable.

What’s it like working for Billy Beane?

I feel fortunate to have the chance to seem him go about his business every day. Being a GM is an incredibly demanding job — they juggle more balls in the air than the average fan can imagine. It takes a pretty unique combination of an analytical mind, leadership quality, personality, and organization skills to be a GM. To be able to manage it all with the ease that Billy does is pretty amazing. Whenever I start to feel overwhelmed by all the “to-do’s” and responsibilities in my position, all I have to do is look to him as an example of someone who manages everything so effortlessly.

Are there any GMs on other teams that are just plain suckers?

Absolutely not. Working in baseball has given me a newfound respect for GM’s in baseball. It takes a lot to rise through the ranks of the industry to one of those 30 positions. Fans and media like to deride some GM’s as being clueless, but from what I’ve seen, being a clueless GM is an oxymoron of the highest order.

Who are the “Moneyball GMs” that we don’t know about?

I think whether a GM is a “Moneyball GM” or not is ultimately determined by the moves they make, which are, of course, open to public scrutiny. So your guess as to who those GM’s are is as good as mine. The one thing I have noticed is an increasing number of GM’s have some analytical resources at their disposal, be it a consultant or a full-time assistant. How much they actually use those resources is another matter altogether.

How are the A’s having such a collective hitting slump? It’s like the Great Depression happened to the A’s offense. I don’t think a single player is hitting up to what he should be. Is this something you plan to ride out or do you think something is really wrong? (It looks like bad luck to me).

Given the track records of the guys on our team, it’s hard to believe we’re as bad as we’ve collectively been so far. Eric Chavez is not a .213 hitter. We’re not a .669 OPS team.

This team has been built to have consistent threats 1-9 in the order, albeit without anyone at the level of a Barry Bonds or Manny Ramirez. Even if things were going well, we’d probably still be leaving a lot of runners on base. The way things are going, with guys injured and slumping, we’ve been even more exposed. I’m not saying we wouldn’t love to have another power bat in the middle of the lineup, but if guys were doing what they were expected to do, our offense might even be a relative strength.

Do the A’s know how to quantify fielding as well as hitting and pitching?

The industry in general has gotten better at quantifying fielding value, through zone ratings and the like. The biggest issue is getting that kind of fielding data at the minor league and amateur levels. In those instances, we’re still fairly reliant on scouting assessments of fielding ability and potential.

Who is the best prospect in the A’s system that we haven’t heard of yet?

Given how high-profile our farm system is because of the book, that’s a tough one. I’ll just cite two guys who are off to spectacular starts in ’05 who were probably not on the radar before this season — Andre Ethier, an outfielder and ’03 draftee out of OSU, and Dallas Braden, a left-handed starting pitcher and ’04 draftee out of Texas Tech. Braden started the year in Stockton but was recently promoted up to Midland (whether Ethier has been all year).

What advice do you have for a young sabermetrician baseball fan for getting a job in a front office?

It would be a little presumptuous for me to give advice here, since that would imply that I had some sort of well thought-out plan that landed me here. The most accurate advice I could give would probably be, “get lucky.”

The one thing I’ll say is that, if an opportunity every presents itself, you have to treat it like it’s the last opportunity you’ll ever have, because it probably will be. When I found out I was going to interview with Billy and David, I spent the week before the interview preparing non-stop, for probably 18 hours a day. And I would say every last minute was worth it. So I suppose other than the somewhat facetious, “get lucky,” I would add, “be prepared.”

2 Responses “An Interview with Farhan Zaidi of the Oakland A’s”

  1. Chuck Oliveros says:

    I find his remarks about Charles Thomas to be interesting. Zaidi is a numbers guy. Last year Charles Thomas had an anomalous season at age 26. All studies of development and hitting would suggest that Thomas isn’t going to be able to hit at the major-league level in the future. I’m a Braves fan and saw a good bit of Thomas last year. My observations would confirm that opinion. He started to struggle at the end of the season because pitchers found the holes in his swing. It appeared to me that he couldn’t really hit a breaking pitch.

    This brings up an interesting point. When a rookie comes up to the majors, most teams seem to feed him a steady diet of fastballs, presumably to see if he can handle a major-league fastball. That seems unintelligent to me. Anybody who can make it to the upper levels of the minors can probably hit the fastball. If I were a manager, I’d first see if a rookie could hit a good breaking pitch or change-up. Over the years, Bobby Cox has been good at exploiting this tendency on the parts of other clubs. He’ll bring up a guy to fill in, like Thomas or Nick Greene and exploit the fact that it’s going to take a 100 AB’s or so before the league figures out how to pitch them.

  2. Dave Kemp says:

    Thanks for the interview. Fascinating.

    I now wonder if the A’s employ any sort of “roving” analyst/sabermetricians in addition to the front line, Zaidi types. I suppose this would be more like the role Bill James has with the Red Sox.