The information and data age in baseball is here. It’s been here for years now and we are not going back to a day when most fans only focused on batting average, home runs and RBIs for batters. Or wins and ERA for pitchers.
The game has advanced way beyond those numbers. And, of course, those that work in a baseball front office are way ahead of most of us, and have been for a while now.
As new Orioles general manager Mike Elias and his staff upgrade and enhance the club’s use of analytics, they can build a department as they see fit and bring in analysts to put the Orioles on equal footing with the top data-driven clubs in the sport.
They’ll use terms like “exit velocity” and “route efficiency” for defenders, foot speed that can be measured in feet per second and even miles per hour, and spin rates, release points, extension and biomechanical analysis for pitchers. And they would probably consider these among the basics.
They’ll use advanced data and new-age models to guide them in both the acquisition of talent - both at the pro and amateur level - and to help players already on the roster and in the organization improve. The data may not be for everyone. Some players may soak it up like a sponge, and it might open a new world to them. Others may feel bogged down and/or confused by the information and may not want such a thought process to get in the way of their instincts and natural ability.
Some players get results when they blend the two - taking the data to help them with a weakness or to better understand and use a strength and then do the physical work to incorporate the data.
Houston Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow has led one of baseball’s most progressive and forward-thinking operations. He hired Elias twice - once with St. Louis as a scout and once with Houston, where Elias rose to become an assistant general manager.
Houston had little going in the way of analytics when Luhnow took over as Astros general manager in December 2011. In this article, Luhnow talked about implementing analytics in Houston. The Astros went from a very modest start to become arguably the most data-driven team in the major leagues. It helped lead them from 100-loss seasons to the 2017 World Series title.
“When you’re lagging, the first thing you need to do is figure out how to make sure you’re not losing ground anymore,” Luhnow said in that story. “In 2011, things were changing pretty rapidly in terms of the types of information that was out there, the types of analysts that you might want to hire, the data scientists - all of that. We felt we had an advantage relative to the infrastructure that had been built in St. Louis over the prior eight years. We had a clean slate.
“So we were able to start with a fresh piece of paper and say, ‘OK, given what we think is going to happen in the industry for the next five years, how would we set up a department?’ That’s where we started, ‘OK, are we going to call it “analytics” or are we going to call it something else?’
“We decided to name it ‘decision sciences.’ Because really what it was about for us is how we are going to capture the information and develop models that are going to help the decision makers, whether it’s the general manager, the farm director who runs the minor-league system, or the scouting director who makes the draft decisions on draft day. How are we going to provide them with the information that they need and that will allow them to do a better job?”
So while we think of analytics or “decision sciences” as helping an individual player get better, it’s way beyond that. Teams develop methods of evaluation and proprietary data-driven models that influence many player acquisition decisions - everything from the amateur draft to major league trades. The data finds its way to players on the farm, too.
In that linked article, Luhnow pointed out how analytics impacted some of the decisions the Houston club made with its highest draft picks. The Orioles have the No. 1 pick in June.
“Alex Bregman was not the consensus top pick in the (2015) draft. But we had him as the top player by a healthy margin,” Luhnow said. “We were fortunate that he wasn’t selected first; he fell to second. We got him. He was a huge part of last year (the 2017 championship). Carlos Correa was a consensus 10 to 15 pick in the draft in 2012. We had him as the number-one player by a pretty wide margin. We selected him first overall that year. Surprised some folks. He ended up being one of our better players, Rookie of the Year, and a big part of our championship season.”
As I’ve stated before about Elias, getting his start as a scout is huge in that it provides a constant reminder to him that eyes on the field can be big. The human element with the scout’s opinion will always be necessary. But in the game now, so is the data. The Orioles did lag behind, but now in Baltimore, Elias has that clean slate that Luhnow spoke of.
McKenna note: Yesterday in this space, I mentioned that Orioles outfield prospect Ryan McKenna was named to the all-Arizona Fall League team by MLB.com. McKenna raked in 17 AFL games, batting .344/.474/.590, and ranked sixth in the AFL in batting average while he was second in OBP and slugging, and second with an OPS of 1.064.
During instructional league in September, McKenna took some ground balls at second base. But Orioles director of player development Brian Graham said we should not expect to see McKenna play on the dirt in 2019.
“Ryan can play center field and all three outfield positions, but we don’t project him as an infielder right now,” Graham said.
The Orioles have more outfield depth than infield depth on the farm, but for now, McKenna will not be moving or adding a position. He remains an outfielder only.