After the Houston Astros won the World Series, the Jeff Luhnow hand-picked analytics team was brought into full focus that analytics can make a difference. That Astros team seemed to know every pitch that was coming and every pitch they needed to be thrown in key spots. Winning in new ways like the Royals did three years before opens eyes to new directions on success.
This has some parallels to the Nationals who need to use analytics more efficiently in drafting, free agency, trades, and most importantly in player development where the system has been deficient in turning minor leaguers into solid players on the team’s MLB roster.
Analytics to many was dismissed for years, but slowly baseball changed to new paradigms as defensive shifts and pitch probability and drafting and scouting started to show analytics worked. The new technology has given credibility to those who believe in probability and trend analysis and the attention to detail while executing on that information which is a key. The manager on the field still has to make gut decisions often because baseball is still a game played by humans. It is a combination of all of old-school and new-school that has changed the managers in the game today and the coaches.
The Astros pitching coach, Brent Strom, will be 70-years-old next year, and showed that an old-dog can learn new tricks so don’t ever think people can’t adapt.
“I was out of the game and working at my wife’s dog store in Tucson,” Strom said after the World Series. “I didn’t know if I’d ever work another day in baseball. I owe Jeff [Luhnow] so much.”
Strom was 55-years-old when Nate Silver formulated PECOTA in 2003 and who knows how old Strom was when he embraced analytics as Strom was hired by Luhnow in 2014 at the age of 66. Analytics have come a long way since Davey Johnson was a baseball player and tried to show statistics that would prove out to his manager that he should be batting second in the Orioles batting order in 1971.
It also is not a matter of money to winning if you look at the Brewers who had the lowest payroll in baseball. This year’s World Series competitors had payrolls separated by over $115 million which was the total payroll the Atlanta Braves put on the field. The Dodgers had a payroll of $265 million which dwarfed the Astros in payroll size who only had a $149 million payroll. The Dodgers are also analytics driven and boasted a “dream team” front office. In the end, success was once again proven on the field and not in size of the payroll — the Astros were below the league average payroll of $152 million. The Nationals as we know finished with the third highest payroll in the National League and first outside of the state of California. Yes, the Nats had a higher payroll than the Chicago Cubs according to Spotrac.
Last week, David Laurila of Fangraphs had a sit-down with Mike Rizzo in Orlando during the GM Meetings to discuss the Nationals and their analytics. Rizzo has long-embraced analytics and told Laurila that he beefed up his analytics to an eight-person staff in the last two years from the four-to-five employees he had prior to that.
Rizzo told Laurila the following: “Scouting Solutions, which [the Nationals] call ‘The Pentagon.’” In Rizzo’s opinion, his team has gone from behind the times to having “some of the best and brightest analytics people in all of baseball.”
Laurila continued: A pair of uniformed-personnel changes further suggest an increased emphasis on analytics. Dave Martinez has replaced Dusty Baker as manager, and Tim Bogar has come on board as the first base coach. According to Rizzo, their saber-savviness played a role in their hirings.
“It was part of the process,” related Rizzo. “Davey [Martinez] is a 16-year major league veteran who can appeal to a clubhouse of major league players — there’s a respect factor there — and he’s also coming from two of the most-analytical organizations in baseball, in Tampa Bay and Chicago. He’s bringing that love of analytics and the implementation of those statistics with his thought process. Tim [Bogar], same thing. He came from analytical organizations as well. He and Davey [Martinez] are both very intelligent and have the ability to take a lot of information and disperse it to the players in a way they can understand it. Derek [Lilliquist the new Nationals pitching coach] was really open-minded in the discussions we had about how we’re going to utilize [analytics] in our game preparation. I think he’s going to be a real asset for us.”
That is a lot of great information from David Laurila, and it is some of the best insight we have read about Mike Rizzo and analytics. Rizzo’s quote about pitching coach Derek Lilliquist has helped in addressing concerns about his approach to analytics, and once again, if Brent Strom could embrace analytics at his age, the 51-year-old Lilliquist sure can. There was no mention of the new Nationals bench coach Chip Hale in Laurila’s article or third base coach Bob Henley or hitting coach Kevin Long who is a known analytics proponent and as Daniel Murphy his former and now current student again, once said “Do you go to Fangraphs at all?”
— Washington Nationals (@Nationals) July 16, 2017
Mike Rizzo doesn’t always talk about analytics, but when he does we get a glimpse into that part of his front office as we did when Rizzo traded for Adam Eaton and Rizzo made this comment:
“It was one of the few times — in the war room where the analytical information matched up with the scouting eye, and it was a decision in the room that was very easy for us to make, to determine that this was the player, at this time, with that skillset, with the control, where at that price was the right guy for us to do it.”
With comments like the “war room” where these decisions are made, it’s no wonder Rizzo refers to his analytics department as “The Pentagon” and does that make Mike Rizzo “The commander-in-chief”? Probably not as that would be Ted Lerner, and Mike Rizzo would be the “Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff” or CJCS for short and Davey Martinez his “field general”.