Plethora of new tools shows analytics’ growth in MLB
On-base percentage? That market inefficiency was 2003.
Defensive shifts? That edge was so 2013.
The age of information, of silicon, has had a profound influence on Major League Baseball. And as teams search for inefficiencies in the market place, for competitive advantages in the sphere of analytics, they are having to become more creative. They are having to dig deeper and deeper.
Still, that doesn’t mean the value of analytics has peaked. Some could argue its importance is still in its early stages. New tools and data keep pouring into the game.
Pirates utility player Cole Figueroa, who writes his own computer code, believes players, many once resistant to analytics, will begin embracing the field more when new technologies and ideas become more accessible, more “tangible.”
“I think that is where the game is going,” Figueroa said. “There is technology that helps track swing planes and really can help players adjust their game to what is most optimal.”
At an organizational level, perhaps the greatest opportunity for a competitive advantage related to analytics is injury prevention.
For example, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said last spring that the Pirates’ curiosity was sparked by reading about how the Golden State Warriors reduced players’ minutes in the season 2014-15 and enjoyed a spike in player efficiency en route to an NBA title.
In 2015, the Pirates’ starters played five or fewer games per week 65 percent of the time, according to Baseball Prospectus. The major league average was 72 percent.
A year after Russell Martin was spotted wearing a Zephyr Bioharness in the spring training clubhouse, a wearable technology that monitors energy expenditure and heart rate, roughly a third of all Pirates were using the device last season. The Pirates also monitored players’ steps on the field thanks to perhaps the sport’s greatest big data tool to date.
The Pirates lost the second-least value to the disabled list last season, -2.5 WAR, according to ManGamesLost.com
This spring, the Pirates hired James Harris, who worked under former Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly, to play a role in nutrition practices.
“We are going to have to find new ways to impact these guys and help them grow,” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said.
There was objective science going into determining when to rest players.
The pitch-tracking system PITCHf/x jumped the number for data points from the tens of thousands to the tens of millions when it was installed in every major league ballpark in 2008 and began giving analysts new tools like a pitch movement, uniform velocity and pitch location. And Major League Baseball’s StatCast player-tracking system went online last season. The sport’s data points per season now number in the billions.
Teams soon will have a better handle on defensive performance as traits like range, first-step quickness, route efficiency and arm strength and accuracy as they are objectively measured for the first time. There are new meaningful tools, like exit velocity, to evaluate hitters. (Andrew McCutchen’s exit velocity was down last spring, but jumped in the summer when he was healthy.)
As baseball enters 2016, the age of analytics perhaps is closer to its beginning than its end.