No Geeks Allowed: Sabermetrics on the Field


There are at least a dozen major league teams that gobble up sophisticated analysts from all corners and use them in any way they can conceive of to improve their valuation of personnel. For years, I wished that the Cubs would be one of those teams, and now that they are, I couldn't be happier about it. But it's not 2003 anymore. What kind of gains can be expected from an analytical front office when there are at least a handful of others who are equally adept at analyzing the numbers?

That's why I'm flummoxed as to why not a single team has placed an analyst in charge of on-field strategy. At least once every other game, I see a manager make a decision that seems obviously wrong, and I don't usually pay attention. Starters are left in too long, platoon advantage opportunities are ignored, closers are left sitting on their asses during high-leverage moments, lineups are ridiculously composed, bunts are altogether too frequent (as is normal), or not frequent enough (in the case of severe defensive shifts), and these are just the obvious errors. Browse through MGL's archives over at The Book Blog for a while to find an obssesive's take on in-game mistakes.

It's easy to understand why these errors are made. The right decision is only marginally better than the wrong one, and the typical major league manager has with his own eyes observed the wrong choice paying off time and again. He is emotionally involved with every pitch and is biased by his interactions with his players in getting them ready to play. Understanding of sound strategy requires large datasets and often simulations. Why should we expect someone who has spent his life focusing on the mechanics of the game to also have a grasp of the numbers? The pool from which managers are selected consists strictly of former players, many of whom didn't graduate from college and have never taken even an "Introduction to Statistics" course.

Terry Francona has been making the media rounds lately in support of his newly published book. The media is predictably taking the opportunity to point and stare at the perceived dysfunction in the Red Sox organization, but I'm more interested to Francona's description of his interaction with Theo Epstein.

In an interview with Bill Simmons, Francona indicated that he was closer to Theo than anyone else in the front office. Peter Abraham points out that Francona frequently clashed with the ownership group, and Theo had to bridge the gap. When Simmons asked specifically about his biggest disagreement with Theo (at approximately the 21 minute mark), Francona had this to say:

Me and Theo, probably our biggest [disagreement] was whether Pap should be a closer or a starter. I always viewed Pap as a closer, and I think Theo always wanted him to somehow start his big league career out in the bullpen, and then transition into the rotation. And it was just a philosophical difference; we never came to blows, but I think that was one we probably differed on. We actually differed on a lot of things, which is healthy. And we had the ability to either talk it out or yell it out, and then the next day, we would be back to normal, which I think is really healthy.

The Abraham post also gives this interesting tidbit:

Epstein hired two "outside consultants" to put together proposed lineups for Francona every day… Francona never met them and he wasn't mandated to use their lineups. But at one point Francona told Epstein he had enough of the suggestions and to keep them to himself.

Francona clearly had the final say in decisions on the field, and I doubt that the situation is different than that of Dale Sveum in Chicago.

It seems to me that sabermetric front offices seek out managers who are of above average intelligence and seem open to considering new ideas. This approach may be conducive to a better working relationship within the organization, but I have yet to see any substantive differences in strategy, save for a defensive shift here or there.

The Cubs are owned by an MBA who gave over complete control of baseball operations to an analytically-minded GM. That GM came in with an excess of goodwill given by a long-suffering fanbase. If you can't give an analyst control of strategy in that set of circumstances, when can you?

Which is more difficult, finding an analyst who is good at interacting with people or finding a former baseball player who is comfortable writing code and dealing with large datasets? There is no need to eliminate coaches in this hypothetical, there is only a need to delegate responsibility.

Eventually there will be analysts in the dugout, of this I have no doubt. And once again I'll be left wondering why the Cubs couldn't be first movers and how long it will take them to catch up to the innovators in the league.