Long before Moneyball came along, the game of baseball embraced numbers and statistical analysis. Every single team in baseball has a stats department. The ways and means have certainly changed, but the goal remains the same: use numbers to find a competitive advantage.
These days sophisticated tracking systems like PitchFX and Statcast record pretty much everything that happens on the field: how much a pitch moves, how quickly an outfielder takes his first step, how hard a catcher throws down to second base on a stolen base attempt. You name it, and there’s a number for it.
. There are, surprisingly, many outside vendors involved. This nugget from Anderson’s piece stood out to me:
“Right now, we have teams out there, who, when they evaluate a player, they’re taking their 2017 schedule, they are prototyping the opposing pitcher array -- perhaps, if they’re really sophisticated, even assuming what the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings look like against those teams -- and they’re simulating a batter’s performance, a prospective acquisition, his performance against that pitching opposition, in those ballparks,” Gennaro said. “Because they’re not looking at his stats, they’re looking at his exit velocity and his launch angle.
“If you hit the ball 86 mph to let’s call it straight-away right field at Yankee Stadium at a 32-degree launch angle, depending on the wind, that probably drops into the first couple of rows. If you hit that same velocity and launch angle at AT&T Park, Hunter Pence is taking two steps in to field it. So, all of those things are being incorporated into the analytics of the most sophisticated teams.”
That’s wild. Teams are essentially modeling an entire season using all the available data to get an idea how a player may perform for them. These are still human beings of course, so nothing is 100 percent predictive, but if you have the data available, why wouldn’t you use it to try to forecast performance?
The days of targeting players with high on-base percentages because the the rest of the league is undervaluing them are long, long gone. Now teams are using information in more complex ways to gain an advantage, such as getting their players extra rest. It sounds obvious and easy, but it’s not. It’s difficult to put into practice.
If you want to win these days, it takes more than simply having the most talent. The best teams have their best players on the field more often than everyone else. Injuries have derailed more than a few promising ballclubs over the years, but keeping players healthy isn’t enough. Keeping them rested and performing at the highest level is important as well.
This past season the Cubs won the World Series thanks in part to their versatility. Ben Zobrist can play everywhere. Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras both saw time in the outfield. Javier Baez played five different positions. That flexibility allows the club to give players as much rest as possible.
In the past, this would all be received with trepidation by players worried about being labeled utilitymen. But the wave of the future is about versatility. The Cubs’ brilliant president of baseball operations, Theo Epstein, told me last October that he thought the need for 650 plate appearances is passé, and that getting 500-ish was fine as a way to keep the players fresh all season, always have a good contingent on the field and always have strong in-game options for his manager.
The Red Sox, who are always at the forefront of these new innovations, even with Epstein gone, to help their players (and coaches) rest before games. West Coast teams like the Giants, Athletics, and Mariners all upgraded their team plane in recent years to make their players more comfortable. The Marlins despite not having as demanding a travel schedule as their West Coast counterparts.
Want to win in the ultracompetitive world of baseball in 2017? Depth is crucial. You need your best players performing at a high level as much as possible, and that often means taking them out of the lineup once or twice a week to make sure they don’t wear down. And, sometimes, that means letting players catch a pregame nap as well.
Teams continue to look for any and all competitive advantages, even beyond the world of stats.