Where are the Twins at with statistical analysis?
by, 01-01-2013 at 11:32 PM (435 Views)
When asked how he feels that the outsider perception of the Twins’ use of statistical analysis is behind the rest of the game, Jack Goin, the team’s Manager of Major League Administration and Baseball Research, simply replied “That’s fine.”
Goin cites the St. Louis Cardinals as an example of how he wants his operations to be viewed. Whereas teams like Tampa, Cleveland, Boston and New York have been well-known and forthright about their endeavors into the statistical world, the Cardinals have been extremely stealth yet very much active in research. If it were up to him, he would just as rather have people continuing to overlook the team while they continue to improve.
Over the last decade, the Minnesota Twins have developed a reputation of being an organization run on scouting or traditional ways. Just three years ago, the team’s assistant general manager, Rob Antony, acknowledged that the organization – born of harden scouts like Terry Ryan and Mike Radcliff – had been more focused on the traditional way of thinking. Stats, analysis and research were ignored. Goin would be given the difficult task of providing analysis to decision-makers who have, by and large, been resistant to the analysis.
The truth is, Goin says, they view themselves as a middle-of-the-road team when it comes to using statistical analysis. There are the overachievers, there are a few on the bottom and the rest, like the Twins, reside somewhere in between.
One way in which they have progressed in just a few shorts years is that Goin has turned to MLBAM’s Pitch F/X system – a relative unknown to the staff as recently has 2010 – when attempting to analyze potential free agent pitchers.
“We’ll use it to decipher,” Goin said. “You get the scouting grades, let’s say, so you get the scouting grade and [the scout] puts a 5 on the curveball. So we go in and look at it and if the guy has been in the big leagues, now we can see maybe the curve is a little better than a 5 or maybe it is a little worse than a 5 or maybe it is right on based on rankings among other pitchers.”
Goin and a dedicated full-time intern have used Pitch F/X to evaluate specific pitchers, a need that has no doubt grown exponentially with the Twins’ overwhelming need for serviceable arms. This offseason alone the team has added three pitchers to the rotation, all of which were likely examined in some capacity with Pitch F/X data.
“We used it just a few weeks ago on a free agent pitcher we were looking at. We were talking about his sinker and trying to figure out what’s going on with it. He had been injured the last few years and we were trying to figure out where that sinker is in terms of when it was really good and where it is now. So we looked at it and tried to figure out how much vertical break was on it and how much horizontal break was on it and tried to distinguish some of the contact rates.”
For those versed in Pitch F/X understand what the levels of break translate to can relate to what Goin is attempting to accomplish in his research. This is standard analysis that can be found regularly on sites like Fangraphs.com, BaseballProspectus.com and even on TwinsDaily.com. While this may seem like a rudimentary use of the information, making groundbreaking conclusions based on the data is not necessarily the object of even the front-running organizations. In 2009 interview, Tampa Bay Rays Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman said that the challenge for teams using Pitch F/X is not finding new knowledge but rather using the system and data correctly to supplement existing evaluation tools.
Trying to explain the intricacies of the data to life-long ball guys and what it means can be overwhelming, so Goin keeps it simple. Rather than inundate the organization’s decision-makers with vertical break figures or horizontal movement rates from the system, he simply uses it to levy an opinion as a scout would – perhaps with a greater advantage.
Where a scout is able to pick up on mechanics, positioning other elements that cannot be captured with data alone, Pitch F/X can help provide a greater picture of how a pitcher’s “stuff” is working or not working over the course of a season.
“Scouts gets [a pitcher] for one day. A major league [scout] gets them for four starts – or twenty-to-thirty innings. Who knows what happened in those four starts? Guys will tell you that they have 10 really good starts, 10 really bad ones and the rest fall in between. We try to verify or bring up questions to think about.”
Because of the ability to capture and track with accuracy a limitless amount of pitches, Goin has expressed interest in affixing Pitch F/X cameras through the team’s affiliates to better capture their prospects’ developments. Of course, the cost of installation and an annual fee for having the system may prohibit this from becoming a reality.
Going beyond Pitch F/X, Goin uses statistics and data to help uncover players found at the margins of the game – the Clete Thomases and Darin Mastroiannis of the world – whom the Twins can pick up through waivers. Additionally, he and his intern are integral in the process of identifying candidates in other organizations that could eventually get included in a trade.
“We try to find not a hidden guy but a lesser known guy – someone not on all the prospect lists, maybe not on the scout’s radar for whatever reason it might be,” says Goin. “You try to find another guy we might at least talk about because when you are trying to make a trade, it’s not the easiest thing in the world to do. You get turned down a bunch before someone says ‘yes.’ You have to come up with multiple names.”
Since his promotion to the newly-created position in 2011, Goin believes the team has made progress improving the research department – including implementing some medical tests provided to players in hopes of creating a baseline and understanding injuries better. If there has been one area of the game in which a team can quickly create a competitive advantage, it is being able to prevent or limit injuries.
Still, the description of the working of Twins’ research department sounds quaint in comparison to some of the other organization’s efforts where extensive studies are conducted and a significant investment is made by the team in personnel and a support staff.
In Houston, Luhnow created an entire department titled “Decision Sciences” run by Sig Mejdal, who, like Luhnow, was hired away from the Cardinals. They also added leading Pitch F/X analyst Mike Fast, who spends a portion of his day creating models and databases for the major league and farm system. Whereas teams like Tampa Bay, whose inner workings were well-documented in Jonah Keri’s book The Extra 2%, and Houston have aggressively beefed up their research departments the past few years, the Twins’ find themselves somewhere in the middle with the majority of teams in the game’s research-oriented revolution. Other teams too are embracing this philosophy and expanding their research departments – like the Kansas City Royals who appeared to be one of the non-stats teams just a few short years ago as well. This is a fact that does not seem to be missed on Goin and the lack of manpower is the biggest barrier for the Twins to do those types of analysis.
“That’s definitely where the game is going. Sometimes it is a budgetary thing, sometimes it is getting the people who make the decisions to believe this is what we need to do.”