Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Enough of this anti-intellectual crap

Analytics aren't exactly new to baseball. Shifts aren't exactly new to baseball. As such, players complaining about analytics and shifts is not new to baseball, which is part of what makes this, from the Trib's Rob Biertempfel, so galling:

Let’s cut to the chase: the Pirates were shafted by their shifts. Against Pablo Sandoval and Sandy Leon — neither of whom has sprinter’s speed — the infield set up with SS Jordy Mercer hugging the second base bag and, when Leon was up, with 3B David Freese in shallow right field. The numbers say Sandoval and Leon (who are both switch-hitters) more often pull the ball to the right side when they bat lefty.

The ball Sandoval hit went precisely to the spot where Mercer would have been standing if he wasn’t shifted. And, of course, Leon would not have bunted to no-man’s land if Freese, the third baseman, had actually been at … um, third base.

Nobody is asking Gerrit Cole to play third base, you dolt. Part of putting on shifts like the Pirates did against those two hitters involves conceding the infield hit if the batter can earn it. Sandoval earned his. That's a calculated risk the Pirates took. And to Leon's credit, he laid down an excellent bunt that Gerrit Cole failed to field cleanly, though not for a lack of effort.

There was palpable frustration in the clubhouse after the game. However, none of the players dared speak up about the shifts during interviews. It’s a tiny clubhouse, and several coaches and front office folks were within earshot — as well as the Pirates’ traveling analytics wonks, who set up their laptops on a table in the center of the room.

Cole and Cervelli expressed what Biertempfel characterized as frustrations in coded language, but Mercer was less subtle.

Mercer: “It sucks. That’s the bad part about the big shifts. In big situations, it doesn’t work out for us sometimes.”

The operative word here is "sometimes." The point of the shift is to place your fielders in such a way that it maximizes the chance of getting a particular hitter out. It's not going to work every time, just as playing your fielders at normal depth wouldn't work every time. But there's a growing file of tangible evidence that this stuff works.

We went through this same thing back in 2013 when A.J. Burnett did his best old-man-yells-at-cloud until he begrudgingly capitulated with a mea culpa that amounted to "whatever, I'm just going to pitch one more year and never think about this ever again."

But think about this: this was game 1 of 162, and at least one player is already complaining about the Pirates' organizational philosophy. I don't begrudge Mercer this, and I don't think it's his fault he doesn't understand it -- this isn't how he learned to play baseball, and it's not how he wound up a major league player. It makes him uncomfortable. Evidence-based practices are hard to implement in any field -- not just baseball, and if there has to be a little bit of hand-holding along the way, I'm okay with that. Even if the hands being held are those of millionaire professional athletes.

This is just another area in which the Pirates have continuously fallen short. When you refuse to spend on the talent and instead choose the route of "we're going to try to make the most out of what we have here using data," you need to go the extra mile to show your players and coaches why you're doing what you're doing. That means translating it into terms they can understand and doing all you can to get them to buy in. 

The Pirates aren't incapable of this. In Travis Sawchick's excellent book "Big Data Baseball: Math, Miracles, and the End of a 20-Year Losing Streak," he recounts an offseason conversation between Pirates GM Neal Huntington and Manager Clint Hurdle that ultimately got the old, gum-chewing skipper to buy into the front office's data-driven approach. The Pirates are capable of having these conversations, and if they hope to win on a budget without alienating their players, they're going to need to have more of them.

This isn't to say the Pirates' methods aren't flawed -- those methods are closely guarded trade secrets. What we know about them is only what we can discern from examining patterns in their decision making. But we're several years into this experiment and the players are still complaining based on what appears to be a fundamental lack of understanding. This is something the Pirates need to rectify, because failure to do so will only hurt them in the long run. 

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