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March 7, 2011

Prospectus Q&A

The MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

by David Laurila

The Baseball Analytics panel is always a highlight of the annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, and this year was no exception. The 75 minutes of discussion was moderated by SBNation’s national baseball editor Rob Neyer and featured five of the game’s sharpest minds: John Abbamondi, San Diego Padres vice president of strategy and business analysis; Joe Bohringer, Arizona Diamondbacks scout (and Sloan School graduate); Jonah Keri, author of The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First; Greg Moore, Sportvision’s Director of Baseball Products (which includes PITCHf/x); and Tom Tippett, Red Sox director of baseball information.

The panelists touched on numerous topics, and afterward, three of them sat down to answer questions about a specific comment or idea they presented to the audience. Abbamondi addressed the sharing of ideas within the game, Bohringer “the scouting seesaw,” and Keri talked about Joe Maddon and the Rays’ process.
 
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John Abbamondi
 
“Sometimes you talk to people at a convention like this, and they’re not aware that ideas move around as people move around. It’s a mistake to think that the key to success in this business is having a great idea that nobody else has had, and that it‘s going to stay confined within your club. The business doesn’t work that way. People move around—executives and coaches move around—and ideas get shared. That’s a good thing for the game.
 
“People are always trying to come up with ways to scout a little better or do the numbers part a little better, and that’s why I think the key to being a really successful franchise is to execute well. It’s not that you have a brighter idea than somebody else, it’s that you’re executing it well and getting the details right.
 
“Take scouting for example. Are you hiring the best scouts? And how well are you operating? Are you managing your expenses well enough that you can save money and afford to hire more scouts? Those are the types of things that differentiate clubs to a greater extent than I think is often appreciated in a forum like this. Good management is always very valuable in any kind of company, baseball clubs included.”
 
Joe Bohringer
 
Jerry DiPoto probably made the best analogy I’ve heard as far as how to describe the balance between traditional scouting and statistics. He said that it’s almost like you want to imagine a seesaw. On one end of the seesaw is your pure statistics, your pure analytics, and on the other end is your pure traditional scouting where you’re using your gut and what you see to make your call. As evaluators, we decide where we want to stand on that seesaw.
 
“When you’re looking at a player like an Albert Pujols, you can just flip over to the back of his baseball card and look at the numbers and tell that’s he’s really good. I don’t have to go to the ballpark to see that, so I’m going to stand on the far end of the stats side of the seesaw. The flip side of that is if you’re watching a 15-year-old player from the Dominican Republic who is going to be eligible to sign when he turns 16 on the July 2 signing date. For that player, I don’t have any statistics. There isn’t a baseball card with numbers on the back, so I need to stand all the way over on the more traditional scouting end of the seesaw.
 
“At each level up the ladder, whether it be amateur baseball, the minor leagues, or the major leagues, I can decide where to stand. If I’ve got a player at Double-A, I can take what I see—the way he moves, the way he swings, the ways he throws if he’s a pitcher, the way his body works—and I also have some data I can look at. I can see what he’s done in 1,500 minor-league plate appearances, or in 300 minor-league innings. I can get some walk rates and some strikeout rates. I might stand right in the middle of my seesaw and try to use a mix of both.
 
“At certain levels, some players might jump out with how they do things, so the traditional scouting information might really wow you, even though their stats might not be that great. Then you have other players where the stats are tremendous, but maybe the pure scouting information doesn’t really wow you. When I don’t like what I see in the player, and I also don’t really like what I see in his stat line, he might be a player I pass on. When I really like what I see from both the scouting and stats standpoints, that’s when I feel really good about a player. The subtlety in what we do comes when the two don’t match and you have to decide where you want to put that player on your list. That middle part is where you really have to grind it out and figure out where that guy needs to go.
 
“As a scout, I’m a professional guesser. I get paid to guess. In some respect, analysts get paid to guess too. You’re making your best educated guess, not just in baseball, but in any sport, or even the stock market. You’re trying to predict the future, and any time you’re looking in that crystal ball there is always some kind of fog floating around in there. We’re just trying to get the clearest look we can, knowing that sometimes we’re going to be wrong. At the same time that we’re trying to be as right as we can, we’re really trying to be less wrong, because there is wrong built into what we do.”
 
Jonah Keri
 
“During the panel we were talking about scouting principles and the minor leagues, and I jumped in to talk about Joe Maddon when he was managing in the Angels system. The Angels aren’t necessarily known as being on the cutting edge of analytics, but rather as a smart organization that has had some success over the past few years. This was a ways back of course, but they looked at Joe Maddon’s record as a manager and he kept losing; they had losing teams. But they weren’t discouraged.
 
“Number one, they understood that the players weren’t what you would call perfectly-formed specimens when they were on those teams. Two was that Joe Maddon did a lot of things aside from that. For instance, if he had a young Latin player who was just coming in and barely spoke the language—he was just a kid and couldn’t do anything—Maddon helped him set up a bank account. He would help him figure out where to buy a sweater. He would do these little things that made the Angels realize that this guy was a really good leader of men and could be a very good future [big-league] manager. He was worrying more about process than results.
 
“Although that was the Angels organization, it is paramount to what the Rays do. The Rays are very interested in what goes into a decision. Now, if something doesn’t work out—if they don’t win the World Series, or if they sign Pat Burrell, which didn’t go so well—they’re going to go back and ask, ‘What did we do wrong?’ And there are occasions where the result was wrong but the process was correct, and they might not change anything. It takes a lot of fortitude to do that.
 
“There’s randomness in baseball and you have to accept that the right process can sometimes lead to a wrong result. The title of my book is The Extra 2% and if 48 percent of the time it works out wrong and 52 percent of the time it works out right, you’re always going to go with the 52, because it’s what is going to get you ahead in the long run. I think that’s something that they understand very well.
 
“There are a lot of people who [drive that process]. Stu Sternberg is the owner, and the title of my book actually comes from a quote of his: ‘We have to get a two percent advantage on the competition in order to succeed.’ So it starts at the top, but he’s a delegator and that’s a very Wall Street thing to do. He comes from Goldman Sachs, and at Goldman Sachs the CEO does not trade stocks, or commodities, or bonds. It’s the person below that person, below that person, maybe seven levels below, and everybody has to trust somebody else. You’re relying on your hiring process to know that you can trust your people.
 
“Stu will put his message forward, but he doesn’t live in Tampa Bay. He’s not sitting there making decisions. Matt [Silverman] is his guy; he’s basically his day-to-day guy who runs the business side. On the baseball side, Andrew Friedman is the guy who is at top of the chain, but Andrew Friedman has a cast of thousands working for him. Dan Feinstein, who was the video coordinator for the Oakland A’s, and was a protagonist in Moneyball, has kind of become Friedman’s right-hand man. They also have someone who comes from a more traditional background in Jerry Hunsicker. A Baseball Prospectus alum like James Click is doing some great things in R&D for them, as is Erik Neander.
 
“These are all key guys in the organization, and it goes on and on down the list. They have a guy named Josh Kalk, who was well known on the internet as being an excellent analyst for PITCHf/x stuff. That hadn’t really been explored much among teams, so they said, ’We’re going to bring this guy in.’ He was a professor, so they said, ’What do you make as a professor? All right, we’ll match that, but you can do something cool like work in baseball.’ OK, done. They have smart people working in every spot within the organization.
 
“Here is my favorite part about the analytical side of the team: It’s Maddon. James Click, or Erik Neander, or anybody like that, can meet directly with Maddon—it doesn’t have to be passed down through a chain—and have discussions. One of the things I talk about in the book is something that DRays Bay, the Rays blog, referred to as ‘The Danks Theory.’ It was really Erik Neander’s idea, which is that there are a few pitchers who have such an extreme reverse split, because of a pitch—it could be Tim Wakefield’s knuckleball, or in John Danks’ case it’s a changeup—that you actually want to load your lineup with same-handed guys. Mike Mussina was like that; he killed left-handed hitters. Four times in a row he smoked the Rays, so finally Neander went up and said, ‘Hey, what about if we load the lineup with right-handed guys?’ And we’re not even talking about Evan Longoria, we’re talking about Dioner Navarro batting right-handed, and Rocco Baldelli—guys who aren’t great hitters. And they smoked Mussina. They killed him. The next year they did it with Wakefield and it worked. They did it with Danks. They did it with Shaun Marcum, who has a big changeup.
 
“They would win two or three more games a season doing this. Think about the amount of money you pay to get a three-win player on a major-league team. On the open market that would be like a $13, $14 or $15 million player. This is just looking at data, presenting it to the manager, and having a manager who is willing to take that principle and put it on the field.
 
“When you ask who is responsible for the process, the key is that there is a buy-in from top to bottom where everybody is working together to make it happen.” 
Related Content:  The Who,  The Process,  Wrong,  Good Process

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