Baseball’s Analytics Age still can’t account for two big variables: Injuries and attention spans

By Chris Hine, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) - McClatchy

There isn’t much decor in Thad Levine’s office at Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers, Fla.

His L-shaped desk is mostly empty save for his computer and a 3-foot bookshelf that’s bare except for a handful of books.

One is called “Managing the Millennials.” Levine said he has yet to read it, but he will soon.

Levine, the Twins general manager, got the book after the Twins had a speaker give a presentation on how to better connect with that generation.

“The sense I got was maybe they’re a little bit less patient and you have to be a little more creative in your verbal communication,” Levine said. “It’s a lot more visual learning, quick-hitting communication — the proverbial Twitter impact and Instagram impact on that generation.”

In the post-Moneyball era of baseball, there are few advanced statistics that are going to give teams a competitive edge. Everyone has access to fielder-independent pitching, batting average of balls in play and other deeper statistics. Everyone has their own versions of WAR (wins above replacement), or projections systems like ZIPS and PECOTA.

The data war in baseball, to hear Levine and Twins Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey tell it, revolves around two fronts that really aren’t that exclusive to baseball — predicting which players are more susceptible to injuries and getting players to use advanced information that teams harvest to improve their play.

What good are projections and WAR values if players aren’t on the field to live up to those numbers?

And what good is advanced statistical data if you can’t communicate it to the people who could use it the most?

“We’re all trying to find competitive advantages,” Falvey said. “We’re all looking for an edge, whether that’s in analytics, or the medical space, or what we’re doing with roster construction, culture or otherwise. We’re all looking for that advantage.”


Disseminating information

If you walk into the Twins clubhouse after a game, you’ll see why Levine has a copy of that book. There is very little talking, just players from the generation known as millennials, scrolling through smartphones. Attention spans are short. You can send players an in-depth scouting report on a certain team or pitcher, but odds are not everybody is going to make it through.

So the Twins front office has to adapt. Falvey said he has guiding mantras for the team to streamline communication.

“You can’t bring anything to a player that’s more than two or three bullet points,” Falvey said. “You can have a 15-page dissertation on all of the reasons why that player should do something, but he can’t get that. If you can’t get it across in two to three bullet points, try harder.”

Another rule Falvey has is “never bring a piece of information to a player or a coach or a staff member without a solution.”

“Don’t just say, ‘Here’s all the data that shows this is what you’re doing.’ And the player looks at you like, ‘What do I do with that? OK, I’m bad at this. Now what?’ ” Falvey said. “The key is, ‘Well, how do I fix it?’ … That’s a big next step.”

For instance, the Twins outfielders have index cards in their back pockets that contain information on where opposing hitters usually spray their batted balls. The cards are succinct, easily digestible and actionable.

“Everything that we do they try and explain it and give us a reason why,” center fielder Byron Buxton said. “We try to take grasp of it as best we can.”

Said Falvey: “Some people think it’s all about the data. It’s not at all about the data. It’s all about the trust. If you can build relationships with players and they understand that deep down you want them to perform at their best and you build trust, they’re more likely to be open to you bringing something to them to help them developmentally.”


Practical use

An important player in this funnel of information is catcher Jason Castro, who works with the coaching staff to distill the reports from the front office into something he and pitchers can use. A lot of research goes into every series for Castro.

“I remember when I first came in (the league), we didn’t do much in the way of advanced stuff,” Castro said. “It was whatever I compiled myself watching video. … The shift in the last few years really has been hugely beneficial for pitchers, just knowing weaknesses at any given time with any pitch.”

Castro is the final step in the filtration process of information that begins with a computer and ends with him.

“If I had to probably put a number on it, I would say maybe half of the stuff I get, I relay to the pitchers,” he said. “I try to keep it as simple as possible for them to remember a few takeaways for every hitter. Even then, I don’t expect them to memorize everything or remember any of that really.”

Castro said he has to be wary of over-informing, and when he’s calling pitches in a specific scenario in game he sometimes has to feel for how a pitcher is throwing that day or an opponent is hitting. In other words, numbers haven’t turned the players into robots. There is still a human element to baseball.


Predicting injuries

There’s still one very human element to baseball that has been elusive for front offices to predict: injuries. This, Levine said, is the next “gold mine” for the sport.

“It’s going to be monumentally impactful,” Levine said. “When you look at baseball, no different from most sports, everyone is looking for those competitive advantages. I think a lot of them are theoretical. Very few of them are real. That would be real in my mind.”

There are many metrics, but what is hard to track is just how much a player will be available to live up to his traditional WAR values or projections.

“If you look at teams that have made the playoffs, year over year, any given season … if the variable you knew at the end was (disabled list) days or percentage of DL days or rank of DL days among that group, you’d have a much higher likelihood to predict playoff teams,” Falvey said.

“If you can figure out a way to keep that number low, you give yourself a real shot to get there.”

Falvey said Twins position players stayed healthy last season, allowing them to exceed expectations. According to the website, the Twins were the 16th-most-injured team in baseball last season, but they were 24th when the site factored in who was injured and those injuries’ impact on the team’s overall performance.

The Twins have reorganized how they handle team nutrition, hydration and even sleep in an effort to keep players as healthy as possible.

“It seems crazy that we didn’t have the awareness to understand the 360 degrees around a player,” Levine said. “Effectively when that player was in our purview, we tried to handle him more responsibly, but … it’s really not up until four or five years ago that we started employing more of an attentive eye toward nutrition, sleep studies and traveling for instance.”


Where else is baseball headed?

Falvey said that when it comes to culling data and statistics, a decade has closed gaps.

“We know all the projections (systems),” Falvey said. “Most teams are loosely based on similar types of math, but then you get to layer on more variables that we have access to.”

Those layers include their own internal scouting information, and what types of statistics the Twins value over others to form their own statistical stew. That’s how the Twins’ numbers might be unique in the league.

Falvey said Statcast, which MLB has been using since the 2015 season, can revolutionize how teams analyze players. Statcast tracks player movement and compiles pitch data in ways previously unknown in baseball. “Launch angle,” “exit velocity” and other terms have become in vogue thanks to Statcast.

“I don’t think every team has fully wrapped their heads around it,” Falvey said. “Not because we can’t digest the data right now. It’s because we don’t have 10 years of preceding data or sample size for us to know how it tracks. It just doesn’t exist. We’re trying to learn from that as best we can.”

Eventually, teams will have a handle for the data. But will they be able to communicate what they get to players, and will players be healthy enough to act on it in games?

Those variables might never change.


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By Chris Hine, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)