Analytics' rise a leading topic at Winter Meetings

'Unfiltered' series launches with talk on data; 'Every team is now smart'

December 10th, 2018

LAS VEGAS -- Major League Baseball's Department of Diversity and Inclusion launched its "Unfiltered" series at the Winter Meetings on Monday with a discussion of analytics -- a fitting place to start because it's an area of explosive growth, with teams loading up on smart people from all backgrounds to attack old problems in new ways.

Take the varying paths of Monday's panel participants, starting with Astros director of research and development Ehsan Bokhari. He studied statistics and standardized test development on the way to his last job, developing pitching models for the Dodgers, before moving to Houston, another team at the forefront of statistical development.

Next to him was a former Dodgers colleague, coordinator of performance science Emilee Fragapane, who studied economics and now develops hitting analytics. Rangers baseball operations analyst Andrew Koo wrote and developed research for Baseball Prospectus on the way to a job focused on analytics in amateur and pro scouting for a team still building its infrastructure. And Tigers senior director of baseball analytics and operations Jay Sartori studied finance before getting into baseball, then left for two years at Apple before returning to witness the expansion of analytics throughout the sport. He oversees the various arms of Detroit's research apparatus.

"Every team is now smart. Every team is loading up with people just like this," said MLB Network's Brian Kenny, who moderated the panel in front of job seekers and baseball officials.

Sartori was uniquely positioned to see the changes in the game. He left baseball in 2013 for a job with Apple's App Store, and returned to a new landscape.

"I noticed right away that quite a bit of advancement had been made in data and technology, just in those two years' time," he said. "The pace at which the data is advancing in the game is making it accessible to people who have the ability to deal with data, manipulate data, and help support decisions. It is opening avenues for people to get into the game."

The job is expanding, creating an intersection of data, scouting, coaching and sports medicine. Analytics began as a front-office exercise, focused on making more data-driven decisions about player acquisitions and playing time, but now it is increasingly intertwined with player performance.

Pitchers, armed with previously unavailable information that allows them to quantify the usefulness of their pitches, are making decisions about their pitch selection and sequencing to fit the data. The same is true of hitters and their swings.

That means a big part of the job is communication between the analysts and the men in the dugouts.

"Coaches and players don't want to know the details of the models," Fragapane said. "They want to know what it means."

So do executive vice presidents like Kenny Williams of the White Sox, who in a second "Unfiltered" session praised baseball for its diverse hiring practices in entry- and mid-level positions, but said he was "disappointed" with progress at the very top level of organizations.

Williams spoke of his baseball roots and work ethic, instilled in part by a father who once sued the city of San Jose, Calif., for the right to risk his life working for a mostly white fire department. In his later teens, Williams attended college at Stanford while playing Minor League Baseball, then, after he made it to the Majors at 22, spent his first two offseasons working in the Chicago Bulls' marketing department.

Williams, who would later become the White Sox farm director and then general manager, said he was seeking a diversity of experiences.

"I struggle with the whole issue of diversity, and not just here in baseball, but in life in corporate America," Williams said. "I struggle with people and companies who don't understand that in order to have a well-rounded organization, in order to get the perspective needed to be progressive in whatever the field is, you have to have different voices come to the table. In order to have real conversation, the makeup of your organization has to be such that you can sometimes have difficult discussions."