I was thankful enough to have the opportunity to interview the Assistant General Manager of the Angels, Matt Klentak. Klentak started off his front office career with the Colorado Rockies where he was able to work with former Rockies GM Dan O’Dowd and current Rangers Assistant General Manager Thad Levine. Klentak then moved onto the Commissioner’s office and before becoming the AGM of the Angels, worked under Andy MacPhail as the Director of Baseball Operations.
Tanner Shurtz: So before we start, I’d like to congratulate you and the rest of the Angels on AL West Division Title, as well as winning 98 games in the regular season.
Matt Klentak: Thank you very much, since the post-season has ended, we can really appreciate just how impressive the regular season was and we’re looking forward to next year.
TS: Is there a particular person or a moment where you decided on becoming someone who works in the front office of a baseball team?
MK: I don’t want to say there was any singular event, it was probably many events, like all of the times I’ve swung and missed on any curveballs in the dirt as a player and it ultimately told me that I won’t be able to play the game at the highest level and if I wanted to stay in the game, I had to make an adjustment and do something else. If it were up to me, I’d still be playing.
TS: You worked with the Rockies, the Commissioners Office, and the Orioles, was any really good advice you received or a certain way of thinking about the game?
MK: I think everybody is shaped and formed by their own experiences, by the people that they come across, people they work with day in and day out and I’ve always been a big believer in the value of strong mentors. I think that’s really been a critical part of my own personal development and personal growth. I’ve been very fortunate to work for and work with some really impressive people in this industry. Starting with the Rockies, Dan O’Dowd was the GM for a long time and I worked day in and day out with Thad Levine. Like you said I worked in the Commissioner’s office and had the opportunity to work with Frank Coonelly who is now the President of the Pirates and Rob Manfred who is the commissioner-elect. With the Orioles, working with Andy MacPhail, who has a Hall of Fame track record and has had a tremendous career and now I’m working with Jerry Dipoto and Scott Servais. My whole career I’ve been very blessed to be surrounded by terrific people with very different backgrounds and I think that’s been the unique thing for me, that every stop along the way I’ve been learning something new because I’ve been surrounded by people that think about the game in a different way. I think that’s good for anybody to always continue to try new things and be challenged by new people and new ways of thinking.
TS: You and many other front office employees have been asked this question plenty of times, how do you get a job in baseball? And 110% of the time you get the response of hard work and passion. With all of the recent news articles about Ivy Leaguers being hired and even employees from NASA being converted into front office roles (Sig Mejdal current Astros Director of Decision Sciences), for the people who are in high school going into college and current college students who aren’t in an Ivy League school, what are the kind of skills they should focus on, to get into a baseball front office?
MK: I think the optimistic view-point of a job-seeker, there really is no one way to land a job. If you read the media guide bios of all the people in the game, whether it’s general managers, assistant GM’s, scouting directors, or analytic people, you’re going to find that no two people are the same. And you may be right that the NASA background or the guys with multiple degrees from top schools and all of those people get some attention publicly, that’s really not the only background that achieves success in this industry right now, really far from it. I think my advice generally to people is to be the best version of who you are and don’t try to be something that you’re not. There are basic skills, basic communication skills that are never going to be a bad thing in an industry like this, basic administrative skills, knowledge of the game. We’re working with baseball players, getting players better and having a knowledge of the game is critical to that. I always tell people, be the best version of who you are because if you advertise yourself as something you’re not, trying to force-feed something that you’re not very comfortable with, eventually it’s not going to work, people are going to catch on and you won’t be as successful as you could be. So whatever your skill-set is, you’re more analytically-driven, you’re a good writer, you’re a good communicator, a good teacher, whatever it is try to market yourself that way and be a good teammate. As much as we talk about the importance of that in the dugout, the front office people spend tons of time together over the course of the year, early mornings and late nights and weekends and travel; you want to be a good teammate, you spend a lot of time with your colleagues and you want to get along, you gotta bring fresh ideas and challenge each other. At the end of the day, you gotta fit in with the group. So like I said, there’s no one way to do it, be prepared, do as much legwork as you can and be yourself.
TS: Like you said, if you look at the bios of people in the front office, there’s a lot of diversity in the game, many different people with many different backgrounds all working together.
MK: I know we subscribe to this theory and I imagine many other teams do too, that’s a good thing. You don’t want to build a front office or any department in any industry with people that are all the same. You’re going to end up with group think, you need people to bring in fresh ideas and be challenging the conventional norm, that’s a really important thing to have a balance in any department, people that compliment each other, not just being able to replicate or duplicate each others’ skill-sets.
TS: Let’s get into the Angels now, we really haven’t heard too much of an actual plan, just building depth and making moves that seem minor but end up being big during the season. I’ve noticed in the past that with Dipoto, when there’s mention of a plan, whether it be get different looks in the pen or adding cost-controlled starting pitchers, he went out and did it. It might not be exactly the same as the original plan, maybe not getting the exact guys they wanted, but the goal was still achieved. With the success you’ve had in the past of having a plan and being able to execute it, how confident does that make you feel for the future to have a plan and achieve it?
MK: I think first and foremost we’re in a very enviable spot, we won 98 games and we’re returning the majority of that team. All 9 starting position players, most of our bench with the exception of John McDonald, 5 starting pitchers and most of the bullpen with exceptions to Jason Grilli and Joe Thatcher. But for the most part, the team that won 98 games last year is returning next year. So when you say we haven’t really heard of a plan or any specifics, in reality it’s probably because we don’t have to do anything, we don’t have any glaring holes in our lineup or our rotation or our bullpen, that would be able to formulate a concrete sort of plan. What we are more focused on continuing on trying to add depth on the margins at every level. Year in and year out we don’t know who is going to get hurt or regress in performance, circumstances are going to dictate to go to the well multiple times and we have to be prepared as we can possibly be for that. Whether it’s small waiver claims, or minor league free agent signings, or small trades, that may not be headline grabbers but we’re going to pursue those as much as we can. While we don’t have to make any radical changes to the core of our club, it doesn’t mean that we won’t, we’re not going into it trying to but we have to be cognizant of what’s on the horizon. The last few years a thing we’ve been very conscious of doing is while we’ve had for the most part a competitive major league club, we’ve been trying to build our infrastructure up, build our systems and programs, and our player development system while nobody has been looking. I think we’ve been doing that pretty darn well, it’s not easy when you don’t have first round picks for years or when you’re making trades from your system to improve your major league club, it’s hard to continue to build up the strong and deep system. We really feel live we’ve done that in the last few years, some of those players are playing the big leagues this year, others will probably graduate next year and we hope that’ll turn into a nice pipeline for us moving forward, really over the next few years. We’re really going to be dependent on that, as the contracts of Mike Trout, Josh Hamilton, Albert Pujols, C.J. Wilson and Jered Weaver, they get more expensive, not less expensive as the years go on and we need to make sure we’re promoting young players who are in the early years of their careers making close to the league minimum or first year arbitration, players in that salary range that balance out the escalating contracts of some of our stars and veterans. Any moves that we would make, like more substantial moves this offseason, if it all, I’m not sure we will, would be the kind to make us as competitive as we can be this year but also to looking toward the future and making sure that we’re prepared to move into the next phase.
TS: And say, if the situation presents itself, where there’s an opportunity to upgrade the team at a minimal cost, that didn’t seem like it was possible to do so, as a team, I’m sure you would want to pull that trigger, right?
MK: Like I said, we have a team that won 98 games last year, we expect to contend and win again next year, our owner expects that, our fans expect that, everybody expects that. We’re very aware of the window we’re in right now, with this core of players and we’re going to take every advantage of that. We are going to win in 2015, that is the goal, make no mistake about it. My only side point to that is as we’re building that team for 2015, we are going to be doing so with one eye on the future, making sure that if there are opportunities to maintain the core we have now, whether it be flip some guy out and bring someone in, that it keeps us on track for what we want to do this year but also helps us with balancing control for the future, those are the types of moves we are going to explore.
TS: So, to steer back into the conversation about building depth, and before we get into that, do you or anyone in the front office read the big baseball outlets such as Baseball Prospectus, Fangraphs, and Baseball America?
MK: Yes and I would imagine that is true across every other front office.
TS: So like I said about depth, there was an article on Fangraphs about specifically the Orioles and their roster construction by looking at negative WAR across 2012-2014. If you looked at the graph, the Rays were up at the top, along with the A’s, Nationals and the Orioles and in the range between the Rays and Orioles were the Angels, so it’s definitely looking like there has been a plan about depth from the beginning and from this article, it definitely shows that the Angels are executing that plan
MK: Yeah, I read that article, we read that article, and that article is talking about how roster construction has become a far more efficient exercise. Teams are utilizing all 40 spots on their roster much more efficiently than in prior years and as a result the floor is raising. You’re not seeing negative drag from the bottom part of your roster, teams are trying to create more balance, more depth, more platoon matchups, more handedness matchups coming out of the bullpen. Whether you refer to that as depth, or just efficiency, that’s what were trying to do and that’s what every other team is trying to do, to some degree.
TS: Okay great, so let’s shift over to the stats department. We read stories about how teams specifically utilize their stats or scouting departments to find players, such as the White Sox with Jose Quintana and him being a minor league free agent signing, their scouting department loved him and eventually got him. And then there’s the Astros with Collin McHugh, how the Astros utilized Pitch F/x to determine McHugh’s curveball has a very high RPM, and they believed that McHugh and that curve could succeed at the Major league level and they went out and got him.Are those some of the things that the Angels are doing, like they’re a very scouting based team or a very stats based team, or is more of a blend of the two?
MK: We tend to be fairly guarded when it comes to explaining exactly why we may be acquiring a player, promoting a player, or liking a player but I can promise you that, whatever it may be either the acquisition of a player, the promotion of a player, we’re taking into account all of the factors and many more. That’s Jerry’s philosophy with everything, to have balance in all of your processes and in decision making. Are we a scouting focused organization on the field? Absolutely, we think at the amateur, pro, and international levels we have some of the best evaluators in the league, no question about it. Does that mean we’re not an analytically focused team? Not at all, we’ve got some really darn bright people in this organization. What we’re trying to do is make the most objective decisions that we can and we’re balancing what we see with what we know and we’re trying to blend those to make decisions. Sometimes they’re going to work, sometimes they are not, you’re not going to bat 1,000 in this game from a player evaluation perspective but we feel like we are using all the information at our exposal, than we feel like more often than not we’ll be right over a large sample of player transactions, we’re going to turn out doing okay. That’s the philosophy here, we don’t always lean in one direction on a player move but sometimes we will, sometimes we’ll go the opposite way but we’ll always consider everything.
TS: So one final thing about the Angels roster construction, we see stories about how teams like the Pirates how they have an organizational philosophy about shifting, defense, and having their pitchers throw a two-seam fastball, they bring in guys who they think can fit their system and then they succeed. You have teams that have very well-known coaches like a Mickey Calloway, a Dave Duncan, a Don Cooper, coaches who are very good at what they do and a front office will sign a player that fits that mold and that coach is able to fix them or help them succeed in that new environment. I’m sure you know the strengths of the coaches in the organization way more than anyone on the outside, is there any coach or coaches in the organization that is known for being very good at a specific task and the front office is confident that if they bring someone in, that coach could help that player succeed?
MK: I think one of the beauties of baseball is that teams can be successful for many, many different reasons. The Kansas City Royals achieved tremendous success, they won the American League Pennant with a team that looks far different than the team they beat in the ALCS in the Orioles who also looks far, far different from the team the Royals beat in the Division Series, which was us. All three of those teams had very good years, Kansas City happened to go the furthest. All teams were built really, really differently, does that mean one is the right way, one is the wrong way? No, a lot of times, the way a team builds their roster is going to be driven by other factors such as your market size, what your payroll can be. As much as we may believe that going with a platoon of two players is great value, if we’re the Angels and we can afford to sign a superstar to play that position and only use one roster spot to give the same production why wouldn’t we use that advantage? So that doesn’t mean we don’t recognize the value the way other teams run their club or what Pittsburgh does with their groundballs and defense, we see it, we’re aware of it, often times looking at similar data and we can project who those teams are going to want from our club in trades and vice-versa, that sorta what makes the industry fascinating, is that different strengths, different weaknesses, are going to appeal to different teams, that’s why trades happen, there’s financial components, there’s statistical components, there’s a perception of an undervalued skill-set, that if we get that player out of that environment and we can take advantage of it. Sometimes it is coaching, ballpark effect, bigger ballparks, smaller ballparks and I think teams are very cognizant of that, what plays in their market, in their ballpark, who from other teams would fit into what we’re trying to do, who would mesh will with our coaches, it’s kind of a longer-winded answer to what was otherwise a simple question but I think that’s what makes baseball unique and makes it the best game in the world.
TS: Let’s mover over to the draft, here at Maniacball we were very high on Sean Newcomb, we loved him coming into the draft and we thought there was no way Sean was going to fall to the Angels, we thought he’d be drafted way earlier in the draft and the Angels would be taking Bradley Zimmer, Kyle Schwarber, or Tyler Beede at their pick. There was a clip from Angels Weekly that showed I believe Ric Wilson who said that oh hey, Sean Newcomb is still on the board. Did you have a good understanding of what was going to happen on the inside as far as who was going to be drafted when and where?
MK: Truth is, we actually didn’t know, the night prior to the draft we started to figure out more. During that day, teams will start to tell each other what directions they’re leading in and you might hear from agents as well. As the day goes on, you start getting a clearer picture of what’s going on, the truth was that we didn’t know that Newcomb was going to fall to us. At the moment it became clear that we were going to get Sean, the raw emotion and excitement of that was all real, we too thought Sean was a tremendous value at that spot and we’re really happy to have him in the organization and since he’s joined the organization, he hasn’t had the ability to pitch a ton of innings in the system yet but we’ve spent a lot of time with him both during the balance of the minor league season after he signed and also in instructional league, could not be more impressed of the kid, he’s a leader, a worker and on the field, he’s been really darn good. Some drafts you have a pretty good sense of who you’re going to get, in this one it really wasn’t until a few moments before that we knew we’re going to pick Sean Newcomb.
TS: When you look at the roster, you get the notion that the Angels look more from the ability of the players than say the tools. Coming out of the draft you see guys like Jacob Gatewood, who has tremendous power and some flashy tools, and then you have guys like Bo Way who don’t have any particular flashy tools but they play the game at a very solid level. You can see that as well on the major league roster, like Kole Calhoun, no particular outstanding tool but he plays the game at a solid level. You see prospect evaluators online who say there’s nothing stand-out about him but he still goes out there and puts up pretty solid numbers. I know the team wants to be balanced and have a mixed group of players, so it that may not be the Angels’ top philosophy but it seems like the Angels favor ability over tools
MK: We recognize that and take it very seriously, when we’re evaluating players, what the player has done, how they play the game, what kind of track record they have. I think that is absolutely correct but to say that is our philosophy on scouting amateur players? That wouldn’t be true. I think we’re never going to shy away from the guy with 80 raw power or a guy with 100 mile per hour fastball that doesn’t know where it’s going but you see the potential in him. Overall, we’re going to balance that, so we’re not going to draft 40 straight players that have tremendous upside and throw 100 but not know where it’s going. That’s not even planned for us but we’re also not going to take 40 “safe choices”, that’s not good either. We’re going to create a blend and that’s more philosophically what the Angels are about.
TS: One last question, what is your opinion on Buttercup?
MK: [laughs] I really have no opinion, I’ve made many stops in my career watching games in different ballparks, even growing up as a kid at Fenway Park, I’ve been to just about every park in the league. If the entertainment department is playing music or putting things on the big screen that the fans enjoy, it’s ultimately about the fans. We’re putting a product on the field and we hope the fans want to come out and see but we also want to make the overall experience something that we want the fans to enjoy, that they’re proud and want to come and support. To me it seems, when we play our in-between inning music whether it’s Buttercup or the Rally Monkey or other things, I think that the Angels produce a unique product that’s very fun, especially fun when we’re winning but one fans do really seem to enjoy. It’s hard to argue with the 3 billion people that the organization has drawn to the ballpark as many years in a row as we have. I watch it as an employee but I always try to keep an eye out as a fan and there’s a bunch of very happy in the seats watching games.