MLB clubs stay focused on future of analytics
PHOENIX -- One thing virtually every baseball executive agrees on is that we have just started to scratch the surface on the impact analytics ultimately will have on the sport.
"I think there are plenty of advances to be made," Brewers general manager David Stearns said, "and I think the acceleration of those advances over the next 10 years will be faster and greater than what we've seen over the previous decade."
That's why there's an arms race to come up with the next great idea. One team said it hires interns working on advanced degrees and encourages them to challenge their current thinking.
Meanwhile, clubs are doing studies on everything from injury prevention to scouting inefficiencies to a long list of other issues. When one baseball executive visited MIT a couple of years ago, he happened upon a grad student who revealed he did some baseball work on the side.
"What sort of work would that be?" the executive asked.
The Astros had hired him to see if there was an optimal time to steal a base during a game. When general manager Jeff Luhnow was asked about that study, he shrugged.
"You're always exploring things," Luhnow said. "That doesn't mean you'll get anything useful from it."
When Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman was general manager of the Rays, he sat in the Houston Rockets' draft room one year and then went for a post-draft dinner with NBA general manager Daryl Morey.
"You never know what you can pick up," Friedman said.
Another point everyone agrees on: While teams have access to larger and larger amounts of information, the challenge is in how to use it.
"We let the players know it's available to them, and they can utilize it on any level they want," D-backs manager Torey Lovullo said. "It can be as specific as they want, as broad as they want. If they don't choose to use it, we can go that route, too. We're not going to make people do things they're not comfortable doing. It's something we're all learning about."
Some say the data they find most useful deals with optimal lineups, defensive alignments and bullpen matchups. Those are the things they can line up hours before game time and then execute cleanly as the contest plays out.
"We have so much information," Stearns said. "What we actually know, in my opinion, is still pretty finite. I think there's a lot more we can learn. What to do with all the data, what is valuable from all that data, what is noise, what is actionable, in my opinion we're at the infancy of that."
All of which brings us to that moment when a hitter steps into the batter's box. Every player is different. Some want to know specific things about a pitcher's repertoire. Some want to know what pitchers do in certain circumstances. And some -- fewer all the time -- want to step in with a clear head and look for the ball.
"For instance, I want to know what a pitcher is going to do in a big situation -- what pitches and how often they use 'em," Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer said. "There's only so much of that you can use before you're dissecting too much, getting too involved, too far into it. You can get yourself in some trouble."
Reds first baseman Joey Votto said he studies opposing pitcher data related to the strike zone, swing rates and the like.
"That's important for me," Votto said. "I will say this. In the past, I've gotten sucked into some of them, and I find because numbers are a commentary on the past, they may not help you prepare appropriately for the future."
He mentions Michael Trout, who was fed a diet of pitches up in the strike zone a few years ago when data revealed that was an area of weakness.
"And what happened?" Votto asked. "He adapted and became one of the best in the game at hitting that pitch. He used past information to make adjustments for the future.
"I think that sometimes chasing certain numbers can get in the way of kind of being present to how you're being challenged on the field. What is the pattern that's consistent in how they are perceiving your strengths and weaknesses? Some of them have some value. But it's really important to be aware of what's going on in the present."
"No question it has helped me," Votto said. "I've found a lot of value. I've made a lot of changes in my game. I'm grateful for it, and it's only getting better."
Again, though, most conversations steer back to how much information can a player handle before he's bogged down in it.
"We never want to take away from our players athleticism and their ability," Friedman said. "I think it's incumbent upon us to get to know each of our players. Some don't want any information, and that's totally fine. Others want a lot."
Among the things hitters and pitchers study: pitch usage, swing planes, spin rates, etc. How each uses it is different.
"I think it's all dependent on the individual player," Indians president Chris Antonetti said. "We wouldn't want to make too many generalizations about what a player may absorb or not be able to absorb. We try to have individualized approaches with all of our games."
That's the point Stearns also made.
"It has to be individualized," he said. "I've worked with players in various stops who were really good at processing all of it -- very analytically gifted players who wanted to know, wanted to learn.
"I've also worked with players who wanted to go out there and not think about anything and compete. That worked for them as well.
"What we try to do -- I think what most organizations try to do -- is put each individual player in the best position to succeed, and that's not going to be the same for everyone. We have to recognize that."
As Angels manager Mike Scioscia said: "[Cubs skipper] Joe Maddon talks about this, and he's right on the money. He says there's data you can apply, but you've got to be really sensitive about what you give guys in the batter's box.
"If you're not on auto pilot and have a concept where everything is white noise and you're just up there competing, that's where you start to paralyze yourself.
"You have to whittle down and give them something they can use and be a little more knowledgeable, but not to the point they're paralyzed."
Scioscia's general manager, Billy Eppler, said the entire sport is working on that balancing act. Eppler and his analytics staff let their players know the information that's available to them and then make sure to be available to answer questions.
Otherwise, Eppler said players will search for information on their own and end up with data that may not be completely accurate or as thorough as the club can provide.
"We're very approachable," Eppler said, "but I want our guys to ask the questions. We can educate them. We provide them with a baseline of information and then we ask how much they want to know. We customize it to each player."
Friedman said it's an ongoing process. In the beginning, there probably was a disconnect between teams and players, each not quite understanding the other. Now, that gap is closing as each side has gotten better at speaking the other's language.
"It's figuring out how to synthesize it and to appreciate what makes each guy tick," Friedman said. "Some guys aren't interested in it on the surface because they don't fully get it. That's when we'll wait until the offseason and then kind of share it and see what speaks to 'em and what doesn't. That's probably an area that's ever evolving. I've seen players be much more curious about it in the last few years than I did seven years ago."