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Q&A: Huntington on Amherst connection

Bucs' GM also weighs in on development of young players, outfield shakeup
March 22, 2017

Growing up on a dairy farm in New Hampshire, Neal Huntington knew at an early age that farming was not his calling. But he wanted to embark on a career for which he had the same passion that his father felt for the farm.Baseball was that calling, though despite a

Growing up on a dairy farm in New Hampshire, Neal Huntington knew at an early age that farming was not his calling. But he wanted to embark on a career for which he had the same passion that his father felt for the farm.
Baseball was that calling, though despite a solid playing career at Amherst College, Huntington knew playing pro ball was a long shot. Working in a front office proved to be the next-best option, so he began his journey with the Expos in the early 1990s thanks to Dan Duquette -- another Amherst alumnus.
PODCAST: Listen to the full interview
Huntington worked under Mark Shapiro in Cleveland for a decade before joining the Pirates as general manager in 2007, building the foundation for a Pittsburgh team that finally ended its 21-year postseason drought in '13. recently sat down with Huntington in his office at LECOM Park in Bradenton, Fla., to discuss how his time at Amherst helped him get his start in baseball, the importance of teaching young players about life away from the field and the decision to move Andrew McCutchen to right field this season. You, Dan Duquette and Ben Cherington all played baseball at Amherst for the same coach -- Bill Thurston. What are the odds that three Major League GMs would come from the same college program so many years apart?
Neal Huntington: It's more than a coincidence, because Coach Thurston is still one of the best baseball technicians that I've ever been around. We all loved the game, we all lived and breathed the game growing up; we just weren't good enough to play at the next level. To play for coach -- the experience, the fundamentals, the love of the game, the respect for the game; Dan helped me get my foot in the door, I tried to return the favor by helping Ben get his foot in the door, and then Dan took him to Boston and the rest is history. So it is more than just coincidence.
:: General manager Q&As :: So some Amherst baseball player right now is going to be reaching out to Ben at some point to become the next one in the chain.
Huntington: That is the fun part about it. Coach Thurston has passed his legacy on to Coach [Brian] Hamm, who is there now. We actually have one Amherst alum in our front office; I know there's some in Toronto, some in Boston, some throughout the game, some in Arizona. It is a continued legacy, and a lot of it does go back to Coach Thurston. Credit Amherst College as well, teaching us how to learn -- teaching us a number of things outside and inside the classroom -- but a lot of it also goes to Coach Thurston and now Coach Hamm. Working for Mark [Shapiro] as long as you did, is there one thing you took away from your time with him that helped you when you became a GM?
Huntington: It's one of the things that I've been so fortunate to work for some terrific GMs along the way. Dan Duquette, my first job, I'll be forever grateful to him and learned so much from him. John Hart in a short time in Cleveland, but then working directly with Mark. I took away something from everyone.
With Mark, it was the courage to make the hard decision and know that you're making what you believe to be the right decision for the organization, even if the general consensus externally is completely the opposite of that. The Indians had had a great run put together by John Hart and Dan O'Dowd, then Mark Shapiro. Mark was a big part of that positive run, but things were going in the wrong direction. We were an aging team with a weak farm system and a payroll that was going to have to decrease.
Trading Robbie Alomar, letting Jim Thome leave via free agency, letting Manny [Ramirez] leave via free agency, trading Bartolo Colon; those were incredibly hard decisions. To watch Mark go through them with conviction, knowing that he was out front and the abuse that he took, was hard to watch -- especially when you cared about somebody like that. The steadfastness with which he approached it and just the belief that the process was going to be right and was going to get this team back on track, to have it play out the way it did was rewarding. I've tried to keep that in the back of my mind as sometimes we forge through some adversity and some hard times. As long as we believe we're making the right decisions for the right reasons for the betterment of an organization, we have to push forward. How have your views or philosophies toward the game changed since you started in this business to now?
Huntington: That's a great question. Probably the importance of the person and the importance of helping people grow -- and not just baseball skill. We spent so much time -- and we do still spend so much time -- on analyzing the swing or a pitching delivery or how we use a breaking ball, and sometimes we don't spend enough time on the non-baseball factors that are impacting the players' ability to go perform or to retain a skill or to learn a skill. That's probably been the biggest thing; it's not just about teaching the game the right way. It's about [the] bigger picture, teaching life and helping them to be able to have a clear mind when they're on the baseball field, to help them compartmentalize when they are having some challenges, to help them make better decisions so they have fewer challenges. I think that's probably the biggest thing.
I remember talking about analytics with Dan Duquette, him handing me Branch Rickey's book; there's OPS, it's just not called OPS. Statistics and the use of statistics have always been a part of our game. Scouting grades are based on batting average and essentially walk rate for pitchers, home runs, stolen bases, so there's always been a basis of statistical analysis. We've just been able to dig deeper and change the numbers that are the most relevant. At the same time, I believe now more than ever in the importance of scouting -- whether it's at the amateur level, the international level, the Major League level, the professional level; the ability to see what players can become and understand more important than ever how they become that. Analytics and scouting, they're complementary; they're not in competition. With regard to analytics, MLB's Statcast™ has made some of these metrics more widely available to the public. Do you think it has changed the way fans look at the game?
Huntington: Absolutely. The ability to have some of the same -- if not much of the same -- information as front offices, hopefully it's increased fandom. At the same time, hopefully we're not removing the human elements of the game; as our manager Clint Hurdle calls it, the human analytic. It's still a crucial part of the game, and I hope we never lose sight of that. The information that's available to fans is tremendous; the information that's available to us as front offices, how do we dig deeper, take it to different levels and find value in different ways and different opportunities, that's still crucial to us. But again, I don't want us to ever lose sight of the human analytic. You recently said the asking price for Jose Quintana was too high. Some GMs have no problem trading top prospects -- [Dave] Dombrowski did it with the Chris Sale trade this winter -- while others prefer not to. What are the factors that go into such decisions for you? Do you think market size comes into play?
Huntington: It has to, unfortunately. We recognize that there are teams that believe in windows; "We have a window now, and we'll pour all of our resources into winning this year or next year or the next two years." We're not one of those that subscribe to that theory. Our belief is that we give ourselves a better chance to win the World Series by getting to the postseason as consistently and frequently as possible, and the way we do that is to have a really good team as frequently and consistently as possible.
In these markets, where the large-dollar free-agent signs are not available to us, how do we make sure we have a large number of really good players? It comes through the international market, it comes through the amateur Draft, and it also comes through shrewd trades of younger players maybe before they're established and an occasional waiver claim that turns into a regular or turns into a reliever. For us to have access to the elite talent -- which is what the best teams have -- we have to develop most of that internally.
If you trade two, three or four of those players, and even if only two of them turn out and the other two turn out to be mediocre or underachievers, you've still traded two players off your club that have a chance to be good for years to come. You can look around our entire club right how and anybody that came through our system, we could have traded somewhere along the way. Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Gregory Polanco, Starling Marte, Jordy Mercer, Josh Harrison, Josh Bell, Tony Watson; we could have traded any and of all of them at some point, and every single player we would have acquired wouldn't be with the Pittsburgh Pirates anymore. They would have left for somewhere else because of free agency.
That's where it becomes hard. Our goal is to be a consistent, quality championship-caliber team that's playing meaningful games in September and playoff games in October. In order to do that, we need to have a lot of really good players. The prospect hit rate isn't perfect; we're trying to make it better. We will trade prospects, it just has to be the right opportunity, the right situation and the right return. The decision to move Andrew McCutchen to right field has obviously received a lot of attention this year. What goes into that type of decision?
Huntington: Hopefully we thought about just about everything we needed to. We talk about the human part of it; what is it going to mean to those three young men? What was amazing in the process as we were working through it and we made the decision, we walked through it with Andrew. Gregory Polanco's first question was, "How does Andrew feel about this?" Starling Marte's first question was, "How does Andrew feel about this?" One of Andrew's first questions was, "How do Starling and Gregory feel about this?"

From the human side, it's not easy. Andrew McCutchen wants to play center field. If we didn't have Starling Marte, we're not making this move. We just think we have an exceptional center fielder from now on in Starling Marte, and we believe our best outfield alignment -- our most productive, our most efficient outfield alignment -- was the alignment that we put together. We factored in as much as could from an analytic standpoint, we factored in as much as could from a scouting standpoint, from their skills, from their strengths, from the short term, from the big term, from 81 games in PNC Park and the configuration of our park to the 81 games we're going to play on the road. We hopefully left no stone unturned.
We went through the process as thoroughly and as respectfully as we could. We actually began thinking about this two years ago. As soon as Marte was in our system, we thought this day may come. We thought about it a couple years ago, had some conversations last year, then got to a point in September that we broached the subject initially with Andrew. We had multiple conversations with him over the course of the offseason. He wants to stay in center field, and he believes he's a center fielder, but again, I can't say this enough -- without Starling Marte, this is not a move we make. With the season a few weeks away, what would you say is your team's biggest strength and biggest weakness at this point?
Huntington: Our greatest strength is our core of our position-player group is returning. Once we get them back from the World Baseball Classic and we get [Jung Ho] Kang into the country -- which hopefully we'll be able to do sooner than later -- it's a young but relatively established position-player group that we think are going to swing the bats. We think we're going to run the bases well. We're going to hit some balls into the seats, but we're going to get on base, drive balls into the gaps, and we think we can score some runs and play quality defense.

Our biggest question mark right now is probably the starting rotation. We're young; even [Ivan] Nova is a young veteran starter. Cole has three years of Major league service, Taillon is going into his first full Major League season, but we love the ceiling of that group. It's not just two guys; we're eight deep on guys that we think can be quality Major League starting pitchers with another two coming behind that. We certainly understand and acknowledged there's risk to it, but we also are excited about what they can become.

Mark Feinsand is an executive reporter for