Our understanding of what it takes to win baseball games has undergone swift change in the past decade. Moneyball (2003) was a book about market inefficiency where the central insight was simple – the under-appreciated importance of walks in run creation. Analysts like Bill James challenged front offices and fans to rethink much of what we knew about winning games on a wide range of topics.
More recently, data collection in baseball has skyrocketed. The sport has moved from radar guns, to PITCHf/x (2008) and then Statcast (2015) — technologies now installed in every major league park. MLB collects and turns the data over to each organization. What a club does with that gusher of raw information depends on the priority it places on looking for small advantages from new sources.
Teams hoping to capitalize on the newfound wealth of information are investing in data science experts who can create algorithms to figure out what’s important and make sense of it. That’s data architecture and it’s like building the Matrix compared to publishing Moneyball.
But some people conflate modern baseball strategy with advanced statistics. Sabermetrics is part of the equation, but not nearly all of it. It doesn’t take an advanced statistic to prove that evaluating hitters by RBI and pitchers by Wins isn’t smart. What teaches that lesson is the concept that we should isolate individual contributions to run scoring and prevention. Statistics don’t get much older or simpler than strikeouts and walks. It turns out, that as individual measures go, K and BB are great stats to predict a pitcher’s success. For a batter, it’s how hard and far he hits it plus the skill of taking a walk.
So modern thinking about baseball is part conceptual and part statistical.
The good news is the Reds have begun to meet the structural challenge of Big Data.
Ownership has put in place a young, data-oriented general manager to run the team beginning in 2017. You have to think as the 2016 season progresses, that Dick Williams’ influence will grow in relation to Walt Jocketty’s. The assistant GMs are now younger, analytics-oriented people like Sam Grossman, not Bill Bavasi or Kevin Towers. The front office has expanded the analytics department by adding two new staff members, Michael Schatz and Pete Melgren.
The Reds have created a new position, Director of Sports Science, to bring the organization up-to-date with the latest research on injury prevention. They promoted Charles Leddon, who worked as a trainer with the Pensacola Blue Wahoos affiliate to that post. Leddon has also been a Sports Medicine Research Associate at the Andrews (yes, that Dr. Andrews) Research and Education Foundation, where he oversees the biomechanics lab and manages the research initiatives for the physicians of the Andrews Institute. Leddon has a Ph.D. in sports medicine from Oregon State University.
These hirings are enormously positive steps. Dick Williams has spoken in welcome and unambiguous ways about the front office’s commitment to taking analytics seriously. The Reds, from Williams on down, have started talking the talk. And from a front office personnel standpoint, they’re backing it up.
But a new article from Jayson Stark (ESPN) yesterday reminds us just how far the Reds still have to go.
For the past few years, the Pittsburgh Pirates, led by their own young general manager Neal Huntington, have shown the way forward in adopting smart baseball practices.
First, it was their greater use of defensive shifts. Then, acquisition of catchers skilled at pitch framing. Next, the development of a pitching staff that emphasized producing ground balls. Those moves are examples of what passes now as modern baseball strategy. The Pirates, known as a data-heavy, forward-thinking organization, were among the first to get it.
The Pirates don’t stop with collecting and sorting data. They brainstorm for what’s next and get ahead based on doing what the data shows will work.
Over the past few seasons, the Pirates have put their limited free agent money where their state-of-the-art thinking has led them. It began with signing catcher Russell Martin, a pitch-framing wizard. They inked A.J. Burnett when his FIP and xFIP told a different story than his ERA. They picked up Francisco Liriano off of scrapheap based on what they saw in his strikeout numbers.
Leading-edge thinking has altered the way manager Clint Hurdle prepares for games and conducts strategy. For example, the Pirates no longer provide Hurdle data on hitter-pitcher histories, because studies have proven those small samples are unreliable predictors of the future. The Pirates get that. Instead, they prepare for match-ups by mapping how a hitter has performed against 15 pitchers similar to the one he’s facing that day, based on handedness, velocity and pitch types.
Next on the Pirates’ agenda: the batting order. Stark lays out what the Pirates are thinking — and doing — in the context of their overall process:
You may have heard this week that the Pittsburgh Pirates are thinking about moving Andrew McCutchen up to the No. 2 hole in their lineup. OK, that’s totally true. Nevertheless, it isn’t totally accurate.
Because what the Pirates are really thinking about is, well, everything.
If you just focus on this one maneuver, you’re missing something. Something larger. Something landscape-changing. Something that opens a window into what the Pirates have become here in the 21stcentury.
To say they are now one of the sports world’s great think tanks doesn’t quite capture it. What they’ve actually become is one of the sports world’s great re-think tanks.
“In our constant evaluating, we don’t just say, ‘This is the way it’s always been done,’” said their free-thinking manager, Clint Hurdle. “Tradition can be a wonderful thing. But it can be a vision-killer.”
Batting orders may not matter much. But every inch, every rotation of the ball, every mile per hour off the bat can make a difference in winning a game. Successful teams don’t ignore any edge they can gain.
Something else. This off-season, the Pirates signed veteran free agent John Jaso, a former catcher and designated hitter, to play first base.
And to bat first.
That surely seems odd to Reds fans, who have become conditioned in recent years to see their club value speed to the exclusion of all other qualities in a lead-off hitter. In seven seasons, John Jaso has stolen a total of 15 bases. Billy Hamilton could do that in a month. If he got on base.
Here’s the Pirates reasoning on signing Jaso: In more than 500 plate appearances in the lead-off spot, he has an OBP of .380 while slugging .487.
It’s that kind of creative and modern thinking — and action — that has landed the Pirates in the post-season three consecutive years. They won 98 games in 2015.
Hurdle’s decision to move Andrew McCutchen up in the lineup is based on the theory that the #2 hitter has roughly 20 more at bats than the #3 hitter over the course of a season, with about as many important ones. Hurdle sold McCutchen on the idea by showing him how often a #3 hitter bats with no one on base. McCutchen hit 158 times last year (second in baseball) with the bases empty.
That brings us back to the hometown team.
Anyone who has watched the Reds the past few years knows the Reds face a similar predicament with Joey Votto. How many times has the Reds best hitter batted with no one on base, usually with two outs? That number was 138 plate appearances just last year, ninth highest in baseball. Bryan Price has already announced that Votto will bat third again this year. And, by the way, Price uses individual batter-pitcher histories all the time.
When it comes to smart baseball, there’s talking the talk and acquiring the walk, so to speak.
Even with the data buttoned down by new staff members, decision makers have to interpret it correctly in context in relation to the big picture. Tactics vs. strategy. A major part of the strategic environment is the decline in run scoring. Even a cursory glance around the major leagues indicates that clubs are emphasizing speed and defense. But it’s vital to understand why that’s happening. They’re doing it because speed and defense are what’s out there, a byproduct of the relative scarcity of power hitting.
That doesn’t mean power is less important. Just the opposite. Scarcity makes power hitting even more valuable to develop or acquire. Meanwhile, speed and defense are becoming easier to find.
Jose Peraza may turn out be be a solid major league infielder with plus speed and defense. But should the Reds have squandered their most valuable trade chips to focus on those qualities? The scouting report on Peraza says no power and few walks.
Even if you squint real hard, it’s difficult to imagine the Reds front office signing a former catcher who isn’t speedy to hit lead-off. But that’s the kind of insight and willingness to act on it they need. It’s a shame they didn’t or couldn’t adopt that kind of thinking this year, because it’s the right time. The rebuild-reboot-recycle gives them, in the words of Mike Maffie, infinite cover.
Yet, the Reds think and act like speed and defense are The Future of Baseball.
When, really, they’re just the future of baseball.
The Pittsburgh Pirates continue to show it’s not only data collection that matters, although that’s an essential component. It’s understanding what that data tells you about baseball, putting it in context and then making it central in the club’s decision making. Pittsburgh proves it doesn’t take a lot of money to be smart and successful. It’s pretty inexpensive to change the batting order or stop using unreliable match-up numbers.
Meanwhile, John Jaso has drawn six walks in 24 plate appearances this spring. Billy Hamilton is yet to take his first. Jaso walked and scored on a home run by McCutchen (batting second) yesterday.
Overall, there is ample reason to be encouraged about the direction the Cincinnati Reds will take when the transition to new leadership is complete. But that fresh, youthful front office will face its own learning curve, made steeper by the ownership’s in-group bias. The hard reality is, you can hire as many number crunchers as you want. If top-level decision makers don’t value the output or if they misread the strategic context, all the analytics in the world won’t do a byte of good.