John Henry’s statement last week that the Red Sox have relied too much on analytics in making major personnel decisions resonated throughout baseball, with scouts giving each other high-fives and wearing smiles ear to ear while the analytics community was taken aback.
Henry’s declaration was shocking to them, while the scouting community saw the comments as a victory.
“Finally, someone who realizes that human beings play the game, not numbers, data,” said one longtime scout. “We’ve all had to embrace analytics in some way to keep our jobs, but we all know it’s a tool, not the final say in all of our decisions.
“I always thought the Red Sox had a good balance of scouting and analytics, so it’s an eye-opener to see where Mr. Henry feels there’s too much emphasis on numbers. He’s a smart man, so coming from him, it’s meaningful. If he’s successful with this new approach, I think it’s great for people who make baseball decisions.”
Certainly, baseball is a copycat industry.
We’ve seen teams take on the Royals’ approach to building bullpens. And teams have gone ga-ga over analytics. The Red Sox have one of the biggest analytics departments in baseball, the size of which amazed Dave Dombrowski when he took over last summer.
But analytics aren’t going away.
Henry’s point was that the Red Sox were too reliant on analytics when it came to projecting player performance. Some intangible things can be just as important as a player’s WAR.
If you had to rank the 30 principal owners in baseball on their understanding and/or use of analytics, Henry would be No. 1. He built his fortune in hedge funds, needing the very best analytical information to make incredibly important decisions involving large amounts of money.
The Red Sox have won three championships during his ownership, using analytics as a guideline. So understand the magnitude of what Henry said. This champion of analytics in baseball is now saying there was too much reliance on it, based on the poor results on the field.
Going back to Carl Crawford, maybe his statistics added up to a spectacular player, but the real stuff — adaptation to Boston, being a good teammate — never added up, and it showed in performance and comfort level.
One American League executive characterized the Red Sox’ dilemma as more of a character issue than an analytical one.
“Their analytics allowed them to build one of the best farm systems in baseball,” said the executive.
Highly analytical teams are unlikely to change the way they do business until they’re clobbered on the field the way the Red Sox have been in three of the last four years. Then they, too, will “look under the hood,” as Henry did this offseason.
The Red Sox still employ Bill James. They recently promoted former major league pitcher Brian Bannister to director of pitching analytics. So they’ll continue to rely on analytics, but use it more cautiously than they ever have.
Some of the data are extremely useful and reinforce what the scouting department has already determined.
As one pitching coach said, “The stuff we get is fascinating. But it’s stuff that we already know as coaches. But it reinforces what we know, which is good a thing because it gives your opinion something you can back it up with.”
Brian Kenny, an MLB Network host who champions the analytics revolution, was taken aback by Henry’s comments.
“I’m perplexed as to how analytics was a reason for the Red Sox’ problems,” Kenny said. “Sabermetrics is about evidence, not merely data.
“A proper reading of analytics would tell you that Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval were erratic performers and risky investments. A proper reading of Jackie Bradley Jr. and Xander Bogaerts would tell you they would be good major league players even if not on their desired timetable.
“I think the enemy of the Red Sox is impatience, not analytics.”
As one National League scout put it, “I commend John Henry for being honest with his comments, because the analytics people are so sensitive about defending themselves that it’s not easy to come out and say what Henry said. It flies in the face of what’s politically correct in baseball.
“But for someone with that background and stature to say that, it carries a lot of weight. And I think without saying it, it reinforces that good scouting decisions are still the best way to build your team. The San Francisco Giants are proof of that.”
So analytics got its first shakeup from a pretty big source. If the Red Sox should succeed with less reliance on analytics, how will baseball react?
ONE ACE TO ANOTHER
Archer learned lessons from Price
Chris Archer may be the second-best pitcher in the AL East behind David Price, but he owes everything to Price, his former Tampa Bay teammate, for how he has developed as a professional, on and off the field.
“The biggest thing he showed me was how to treat people,” Archer said. “He was an example on the field, but off the field, from the parking lot attendants to the grounds crew, clubhouse staff, players, he treats everybody the same.
“Everybody feels like they’re David Price’s best friend because he’s so genuine and real. He makes time for people, even if he rolls down his window for 30 seconds and says hello at the security gate. No matter what level of stardom you get to, you have to make time for people.
“On the mound, he just raised the level of expectations for me. I’ve never heard him be happy with being mediocre, and mediocre in his mind is going seven innings and giving up a few runs. His goal and intention is to go nine every single night.
“When you push yourself like that, you can really see what you’re capable of. Maybe you don’t go nine, but you go eight-and-change or it’s seven-and-change, no runs, no walks. That’s what he did for me.”
Archer and Price took a stand against David Ortiz’s showboating against the Rays, but Archer knew that wouldn’t deter Price from signing with the Red Sox.
“I knew what DP’s goals and intentions were in this game,” he said. “I knew he was not probably going to be influenced by the team or the past. The thing he wants to do is win a World Series. Teams that are going to be bidding that high are going to be contenders.
“He wasn’t going to sign with a team that had no chance to win. He looked at the team and saw a great mix of rookies and veterans and obviously he got compensated extremely well.”
As for the Ortiz tiff, Archer said, “All that’s pretty much died down. It happened. Ortiz did and said his thing. [Price] did and said his thing. When you have a situation like that, it gets solved. Say what you have to say and it’s over. That’s how both looked at it.”
Since Price was traded by the Rays to the Tigers July 31, 2014, said Archer, “He’s texted me before every start I’ve made since he’s left. Sometimes I forget to text him. He tells me the same things as when he was here.
“He doesn’t do it just for me. I’m sure he does it with Marcus Stroman with the Blue Jays. I know he does it for Alex Cobb and Matt Moore and Jake Odorizzi.”
Is Archer trying to take the torch in Tampa Bay?
“I have a lot more to accomplish,” he said. “[Price] always told me to lead by example. I did a good job last year and I’m looking to do a better job this year. I don’t look at myself as reaching his status yet. But he inspired my career to think I can be that.”
Apropos of nothing
1. One thing Yankees reliever Andrew Miller didn’t like about last year? “I missed a month with forearm tightness, and this year I’d like to get through the year,” he said. With Aroldis Chapman on board as the closer, Miller, who saved 36 games in 2015, moves into a setup role. “I’ve been a setup guy more than I’ve been a closer,” he said. “If it’s good for the team, then I’m all for it.” As for trade rumors this offseason, Miller shrugged them off. “It wasn’t ideal, but they told me that it would have to be something pretty ridiculous to move me,” he said. “If it was something overwhelming, you couldn’t blame them for trying. But I’m here and I’m happy to stay here.” Concerning the three-headed monster in the Yankee bullpen, Miller said, “Everybody is making a big deal about. It’s all talk. On paper it looks good. We have to go get it done. As a team, we’re a little bit under the radar. We’re a better team than people give us credit for.”
2. The Yankees have gone all-in on sleep therapists. They have started their camp drills at 11:30 a.m. every day, while most teams usually begin no later than 9:30. The Yankees want their players to get more rest and not have to curtail their sleep to get to the ballpark. The players seem to be enjoying the new schedule, though it has cut into their golf and fishing time.
3. David Ortiz would probably like to take back what he said when asked by USA Today about the three players currently being investigated for domestic abuse: “These are good guys. I feel so bad for them.” Ortiz was referring to Jose Reyes, Yasiel Puig, and Chapman. “That’s not the Jose I know,” Ortiz said. “He’s a good kid. But people are going crazy and want to judge him. We’re not perfect. We all make mistakes. But people are judging him without knowing everything.”
4. If Andrew Friedman had gone with analytics over the advice of his top scout with the Rays, he would have wound up with failed prospect Chris Carpenter over Chris Archer. Friedman’s top scout at the time was Jeff McAvoy, who is now the Marlins scouting director. Friedman was going to make a deal with the Cubs, and analytics showed that Carpenter was a better prospect than Archer. McAvoy insisted that Archer would be the better choice in the long run. And so the Cubs traded Archer, Robinson Chirinos, Sam Fuld, Brandon Guyer, and Hak-Ju Lee to the Rays for Matt Garza, Fernando Perez, and Zac Rosscup prior to the 2011 season.
Updates on nine
1. Jacoby Ellsbury, CF, Yankees — Ellsbury told me he’s 100 percent and ready for a healthy season. He doesn’t feel he’s in decline physically and would like to get back to being a disruptive leadoff hitter. Ellsbury battled a few nagging injuries last season that changed his game.
2. Dan Duquette, GM, Orioles — It’s laughable that agent Casey Close pointed fingers at Duquette for the Orioles front office leaking information about Dexter Fowler. Duquette is one of the more tight-lipped executives in sports, let alone baseball. It wasn’t Duquette who leaked information about a possible deal with Fowler. The Orioles had a three-year, $33 million offer on the table. Fowler elected to go with a one-year, $8 million deal with the Cubs. Duquette held his ground in not giving Fowler an opt-out after one year.
3. Aaron Judge, RF, Yankees — You’d have to convince me there’s a better prospect in any camp than the 6-foot-7-inch, 275-pound man-child roaming around the Yankees outfield. Wearing No. 99, he’s Rob Gronkowski in a baseball uniform — big, strong, runs well, throws well, and his batting practice is eye-popping. The ball sounds a little different coming off of Judge’s bat. If he continues to work on closing holes in his swing, it won’t be long before Judge is up with the big team. He should start the year at Triple A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. We’re talking about comparisons to Dave Winfield and Giancarlo Stanton. “I’m just getting more and more comfortable with my swing and trying to understand what pitchers are trying to do, especially with the inside pitch,” Judge said. “It’s a process, but I’m learning a lot.”
4. Jonathan Lucroy, C, Brewers — There’s still buzz in the scouting community that Lucroy could be moved in spring training. There are plenty of teams looking for a catcher, and Lucroy is the best available at the moment. The Brewers are exploring moving Lucroy for prospects.
5. Jose Bautista, OF, Blue Jays — Considering Bautista has been grossly underpaid for a few years, his demand of five years at $25 million-$30 million per year should hardly seem surprising as he heads for free agency after the season. Bautista, 35, certainly feels he can slug at a high level for the next five years, but he isn’t leaving a lot of room for negotiation. He feels he’ll get his contract, either with the Jays or someplace else. And he won’t have a problem doing so if he hits 40 homers again.
6. Austin Jackson, CF, free agent — Seems like the Indians and Orioles have every reason to make Jackson a priority. Cleveland just lost Abraham Almonte to an 80-day PED suspension, and Baltimore lost Fowler to the Cubs. The Indians did sign Will Venable to a minor league deal, but Jackson may be a better fit. Jackson has been patiently waiting for work. The Indians could ill afford Almonte’s suspension, as he was expected to start with Michael Brantley iffy for Opening Day.
7. Pedro Alvarez, 1B/DH, free agent — The Orioles could be more convinced to take on Alvarez if they put Mark Trumbo in right field. The dimensions at Camden Yards would certainly suit Alvarez as a hitter, but the Orioles would have to be willing to sacrifice some defense to reap Alvarez’s 30-homer power.
8. Marlon Byrd, OF, free agent — Byrd, 38, isn’t getting much love on the market, but as teams begin to figure out their final roster spots, don’t be surprised to see someone take a chance on him. Byrd had a subpar season last year between Cincinnati and San Francisco, but he did hit 23 homers with an OPS of .743.
Byrd could fit with Baltimore, Toronto, or the Angels.
9. Jorge Soler, OF, Cubs — He was once penciled in as the Cubs’ right fielder, with Jason Heyward in center. But with Fowler back in the fold, Heyward goes to right. So what happens to Soler? He could start in the minors or come off the bench. Kyle Schwarber is expected to be in left but could also catch once a week. Soler could share left with Schwarber. The Cubs could always deal him because there’s a lot of interest. Stay tuned.
From the Bill Chuck files — “Since 2006, Mark Teixeira has hit 287 homers while Jose Bautista has hit 286.” Also, “Not surprisingly, the greatest run differential for home and away scoring last season belonged to the Rockies, who scored 161 more runs at home. Next were the Red Sox, who scored 118 more runs at home than on the road.” . . . With no former Red Sox players enjoying a birthday this weekend, we wish a happy birthday to their director of pitching analysis and development, Brian Bannister (35).
Mounds of talent
Zack Greinke, a three-time All-Star with a Cy Young Award to his credit, had even by his standards a season to remember in 2015. Reliever Koji Uehara continued his dominant career even as he pitches into his 40s. And a trio of young closers extended their late-inning dominance, striking out batters at a historically great rate. Let’s take a closer look at these standout pitchers:
Greinke went 19-3 for the Dodgers in 2015, leading all major league starters in ERA (1.66), ERA+ (225), and WHIP (0.844). But his new team, the Diamondbacks, is probably just as impressed by this stat: quality starts (6 IP, 3 or fewer runs). He had 30 in his 32 outings, the fourth-best percentage since 1950.
Uehara was 34 when he made his major league debut with the Orioles, after a long career in Japan. Despite his velocity barely topping 90 miles per hour, he’s averaged 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings. But most impressive, after having a WHIP of 1.245 his first season, he’s never topped 1.000 in six subsequent seasons. If he qualified — he’s 109 innings short — his career WHIP of 0.852 would be the best in history.
Craig Kimbrel of the Red Sox, Kenley Jansen of the Dodgers, and Aroldis Chapman of the Yankees are only entering their seventh seasons, but their calling card — power pitching — is unmatched. All average more than 14 K’s per nine innings for their careers and Kimbrel and Jansen are the only two pitchers in history with a whiff rate of 35 percent or better in six seasons. The top five:
Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.