Baseball analytics has become a staple of Major League Baseball over the last decade. The analytics movement can be seen on broadcasts, in newspaper and internet articles and, of course, at the Sabermetrics, Scouting, and the Science of Baseball conference. Jimmy Wulf gives us part two of his 2015 SaberSeminar Recap.
Did you miss the 5th Annual Sabermetrics, Scouting and the Science of Baseball Seminar benefiting the Jimmy Fund? Check out Part One of my non-linear recap, featuring Curt Schilling’s combat boots and Ben Cherington gamely answering questions about losing his job earlier in the week. Now it’s on to Part Two, looking at two panels of scouting & development experts, courtesy of the Boston Red Sox and Kansas City Royals front offices.
Inside The Red Sox
Ben Crockett is Boston’s Director of Player Development, Gus Quattlebaum, the Assistant Director of Professional and International Scouting, and Brian Bannister, a former player and now a Professional Scout and Analyst, touched on numerous topics around the uncertainties in player development during a free-form Q&A with the audience.
One of the first players who put effort into extracting value from analytics, Bannister went on at length about how much debate there is on the subject around baseball. The former Royals pitcher struggled to find a consistent role in the majors, and was asked about the decision-making process for moving a pitching prospect from the rotation to the bullpen.
While it wasn’t always clear whether he was describing his views or a Sox front office philosophy, Bannister argued the right way to go is to keep pitchers as starters for as long as possible, developing pitch diversity. He was convinced that 1- and 2-inning stints simply don’t give prospects the repetitions they need to develop a third or fourth pitch.
Crockett managed to deftly side-step a question on the elephant in the room: Labeling a prospect a reliever potentially costs them tens of millions of dollars in future earnings. However, he noted that when it is framed as ‒ “what’s your best opportunity to get to the big leagues?” ‒ young pitchers generally become more receptive to the switch.
The group also discussed the challenges they’ve faced modernizing the flow of information to and from their scouting & development field operatives. Forget using xFIP, the panelists said the real challenge was turning a bunch of experienced scouts into Excel power users. Quattlebaum believes there are still a lot of inefficiencies in the process and that we’ll see real progress when the whole system transitions fully into the mobile age. Twenty years ago, a scout ate dinner with your parents and the GM got a copy of some notes a week later in the mail. Today, a scout gives you a neuroscouting test on his laptop over coffee. Ten years from now, the scout will give the test on the field with a tablet and the GM will be reading his notes before dinner starts.
The Royals Way
John Williams and Daniel Mack are Directors of Analytics in Kansas City’s front office and were able to provide a different perspective on the mechanics of front-office decision-making from their colleagues with the Red Sox. Williams said his biggest change in moving from an outsider to an industry insider was developing a new appreciation for the human element, seeing players as people, and the need for belief in the person before a team to adds a new player into their clubhouse.
On the outside, he saw the quantitative analysis as definitive. On the inside, now both responsible for that analysis and interacting with the players, he views it as “only the first step for the people making decisions.” They even take the same approach when hiring in the front office, and Williams finds that easy definitions of traditional-versus-scouting GMs do not hold up to scrutiny. “The reality is, it’s a long year for everyone, and skillsets don’t turn into results unless they’re bringing the dedication day after day”.
The pair also provided insights on the Royals climbing from doorstop to division champs. Mack defended the not-sabermetrically-beloved Salvador Perez as invaluable to the younger pitchers on the Kansas City staff, with Williams remembering a time from spring training where Perez showed up at 7 A.M. to pitchers’ fielding drills just to watch and yell encouragement. In the context of both Schilling’s earlier comments about clubhouse leaders and Tom Tippett’s belief that the Christian Vazquez and Ryan Hanigan injuries hamstrung Boston’s 2015 season, it actually becomes very easy to understand why Kansas City has given 107 starts to a player with a .269 on-base percentage (.269!).
They revealed that their level of certainty in signing Kendrys Morales was no more or less than Boston’s when signing Sandoval – they had a need, he was among those who fit it, and he was willing to sign in Kansas City. Williams definitely carried some past frustrations in his tone when describing how rarely players on their free agent “target lists” actually end up being a location and money fit.
They also described the challenge of packaging the analysis for coaches and players as a critical one facing them today, with Mack saying “A lot of our job is to take this info and find cogent ways of presenting that to the coaches and players.” Williams added, “If I’m talking to coaches or GMs but saying something that only makes sense to a small group of academics, I’ve failed the people paying me money.”
This translation is on top of collecting and crunching the data in the first place, still a complex and critical obstacle. Because of that, the analysts are in daily communication with the coaching staff, but like the Red Sox do it from the comfort of their computer-laden offices rather than accompanying the team on the road. The Royals analysts stressed the need to contextualize the data. “We’re always evaluating the environment that the game is being played in,” Mack said. “Dynamics and talent level are always changing. Particularly at the amateur level, environment is the most important element for evaluating players.”
Sounds like a bunch of straightforward problems with easy solutions, if you ask me.
Between new technology, uncertain data, and rapidly changing methodologies, both panels repeatedly underscored that, far from being over, baseball’s analytics revolution is in its infancy. On-base percentage, WAR, range factors and pitch framing were the first rounds of a debate that show no signs of ending. To make meaningful use of all the information now becoming available to us, the amount of work undone dwarfs the work completed.
Tomorrow we’ll recap the panels featuring media members Andy McCullough, Jen McCaffrey, Alex Speier, Wendy Thurm and Dave Cameron.