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Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Next Wave of Baseball Analytics

I really like all of the stats that the baseball math experts have come up with.  The sport is so rich with data that good mathematicians can have a field day with analyzing who is an effective performer and who is not.  While my friends and I did not come up with nearly the detailed analysis that the current crop of experts has (we were in high school at the time), in the 1970's we came up with some numbers -- on-base percentage for hitters and on-base percentage yielded for pitchers) that helped us figure out who were the best players to take in our annual mid-summer Strat-o-Matic draft.  Around the same time, a great high school athlete in California, Billy Beane, was doing the same thing. 

My friends and I did not pursue our interest in baseball numbers.  At the time, baseball was full of gruff, mistrusting guys without college degrees who didn't like anyone who wasn't like them and who were more concerned with tools and the "good face," than with numbers that would have made someone with a body along the lines of a Kevin Youkilis stand out (that Youkilis became a star and one-time Phillies first-round draft pick, an OF from Chicago named Jeff Jackson who was taken fourth overall did not must gall many any old-school scout, including those in the Phillies' front-office at the time).  There just didn't seem to be a market for that type of stuff, and we just didn't have the sophistication to market it. 

Of course, we were far from alone.  Sabremetics came into existence around that time, Bill James too.  Still, we didn't have the internet then, and we didn't know who else was doing what except that the one guy who belonged to the Society for American Baseball Research kept us informed. 

Fast forward to today, where the world is rife with all sorts of data, the culmination of which is the annual publication of Baseball Prospectus.  That book is great at predicting outcomes and great at analyzing data.  What it doesn't touch upon is whether a player is so wired that his performance cannot change regardless of whether he changes his behavior.  The data suggests that both front offices should change their behaviors behind drafting (my hometown Phillies love toolsy players, great athletes, but name one outside Domonic Brown who has emerged in the past thirty years) and that players should change their behaviors regarding hitting and pitching . . . so that they will change trends, reverse them and, as a result, steer their careers from the inevitable career graveyards of hitters who cannot get on base and pitchers who walk too many batters or get hurt too much.

As for hitters, let's look at Brown, who, up until this year, was a big disappointment.  Projected to be a hitter in the heart of the order, Brown struggled.  That is, until he worked tirelessly with Phillies' hitting coach Wally Joyner (who, ironically, went to the same high school as Brown years earlier) to shorten his swing (taking a page out of teammate Chase Utley's book) and become a demon at the plate.  It probably was clear to the Phillies' brass and Brown that were Brown to have continued with his long, loopy swing, he would have had a mediocre career as a fourth outfielder whose power numbers belied his size and athleticism.  So, Brown, in a way, used his data to change his approach.  Smart thinking.

Pitchers are a different breed.  To his credit, a middling prospect named Charlie Morton of the Pirates wasn't satisfied with his results, so he tried to copy Roy Halladay's motion.  The good news for Morton was that at the beginning (say a third of a season) he put up Hallday-like numbers.  The sad news was that, thereafter, he got hurt, imploded and performed, well, like an injured Halladay performed before he went on the DL this year (or worse).  Morton's decisions perhaps were a bit extreme.  His numbers prior to adopting the "Be Like Roy" strategy did not project success in the Majors, but perhaps he needed to change his approach versus imitating someone else.  So, for example, Morton might have adopted a different training regimen (yoga, flexibility training a la the 49ers) and concentrated more (such as perfecting a changeup), and that might have worked.  In the end, though, he's been another oft-injured starter, and the window for him shut pretty quickly.

Perhaps where Major League teams stand today is that they need to do something with the data other than characterize players as also rans or trade them.  They invest heavily in prospects, so they might want to invest heavily in changing approaches.  It shouldn't take much, for example, to get a kid who has struck out 150 times a season for the past two seasons at AA to change his swing, especially if he walks enough and his power is decent.  That type of change might dictate whether he becomes another Crash Davis or has a successful Major League career.


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