Red Sox are among teams committing increased resources to analytics
The most significant offseason acquisitions by the Red Sox were Brad Alberts, Jeb Clarke, Connor McCann, Kayla Mei, and Dave Miller.
They were additions made to the research and development department, part of a long-range plan to add staff put together by assistant general manager Zack Scott at the behest of president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski.
Alberts and Miller are analysts. McCann is a software developer. Clarke is embedded with the major league team and Mei is an assistant in analytics. They were chosen from a group of about 75 candidates that was narrowed down from about 100.
Mei, who attended Northeastern and the London School of Economics, was the team’s David Ortiz Fellow last year.
The additions were the product of a lengthy recruiting process.
“We took a more aggressive approach. We wanted to do even more,” Scott said.
The Sox believe their 15-person analytics staff is among the five largest in the game, but don’t know that for certain. The Rays are thought to have 25 people and Yankees even more. The Dodgers have a large group, too.
There’s a bit of a spy vs. spy mentality to the whole thing, clubs scouring the media guides and staff lists of opposing teams trying to figure out who is doing what.
Oakland Athletics executive vice president of baseball operations Billy Beane is enthused by what he sees happening around the game.
Beane helped start the sports analytics revolution about 20 years ago. Now it’s an industry with thousands of employees.
“Not just in baseball, but in other sports. Data created a meritocracy,” Beane said. “You don’t just get these jobs because you played the game. It’s more dynamic and more diverse.
“In my opinion, baseball is one of the smartest industries in the world. One of the reasons is because we’re looking for the same skill sets that Silicon Valley and Wall Street are looking for. The difference is these really smart people will come work for a baseball team for 20 cents on the dollar.”
But that is changing, too. When the Red Sox were seeking to fill their open positions, Scott successfully appealed to ownership for a larger budget so he could attract better candidates.
“We were competing with Google and Facebook in some instances,” Scott said. “Plus, every team has grown. The number of jobs is up 30-40 percent.”
In an era where player payrolls are restricted by luxury tax considerations, advantages can be gained behind the scenes.
Clarke, who played at Skidmore College, interned with the Reds last season then was hired by the Red Sox to serve as a bridge between the coaching staff and analytics department.
Instead of manager Alex Cora texting or calling Scott with a question, he can go directly to Clarke. Faster answers can mean success on the field.
“Alex wanted somebody with the team on the road,” Scott said. “He felt like somebody with an analytics background was important to have on the travel party.”
The Rays did something similar when Jonathan Erlichman was named their “process and analytics coach” and given a uniform.
This is where baseball is going, finding even small advantages in player development, scouting, game planning, and pitch calling that can’t come from traditional coaches.
“We used to ignore people who didn’t play the game,” Beane said. “Now you think about [Giants president of baseball operations] Farhan Zaidi. He didn’t grow up in this country. He’s got a PhD from Berkeley and an undergrad from MIT. That’s great. To me, that’s a good thing.
“We’re a better, smarter business because of it. The ratio of analysts to other employees is higher than many other businesses. Someday I won’t be qualified for my job, and that’s a good thing.”
The Athletics, ironically, have one of the smallest analytics groups. Part of it is Beane prefers it that way. But there are budgetary considerations, too.
“What helps us is that it’s been part of our culture for 20 years,” Beane said. “You can have culture clashes within organizations and it takes a while to change. For us, it’s part of our DNA. We’ve been making decisions with this process for such a long time.”
The Red Sox, once among the industry leaders in analysis, fell back for several years and are now regaining lost ground under Scott, who joined the organization in 2004.
“With the larger staff we can attack more of what we have been doing and explore new things,” he said. “There’s a backload of projects we want to get to. We’ve been talking about it for five years.”
Some of the greatest strides have been made in player development. The Sox are using technology to improve their analysis of individual players and target areas for improvement.
By outfitting their minor league parks with TrackMan systems, pitchers can be instantly evaluated. The team also invested in Rapsodo devices to better judge the biomechanics of their pitchers and hitters.
Now data on velocity, spin rate, horizontal and vertical breaks, efficiency, and other factors can be gathered and analyzed quickly.
“There’s so much intellectual curiosity, a hunger for information,” Scott said. “With pitch-tracking data, we can give our pitchers a better chance to succeed.”
Beane sees the next frontier of analytics being health.
“It’s the one area none of us have gotten our arms around and are completely comfortable with,” he said. “You think about how much injuries cost teams. A team’s success is usually attributed to the health of the club.
“You’re never going to solve injuries. But if you can be more predictive when injuries might happen and prevent them from happening, that’s going to be driven by data. It’s an area where we can improve and get granular about performance.”
But privacy issues will come into play. Wearable technology creates streams of data, but players are understandably wary about how teams will use that information.
The Players Association has said medical privacy issues will be a topic when the next collective bargaining agreement is negotiated.
The Red Sox already have their medical department working closely with the analytics staff. Michael Cianciosi was hired as the organization’s sports science coordinator a year ago. He travels with the team and advises Cora on workload management and when to time days off.
“More and more, we’re working with the medical people,” Scott said. “There’s a lot to be gained.”
As Scott added to his staff, he balanced academic qualifications with a willingness to work as a team. The idea is to win a game, after all.
“We don’t tell people to stay for the game. They have families, things to do. I understand that,” Scott said. “But you do want people who embrace what we’re trying to do here. That’s important.”
Beane turned down a chance to run baseball operations for the Red Sox in 2002, deciding to stay in Oakland. Now 57, he does not look back at what might have been.
“I don’t, and people don’t believe it,” Beane said. “Boston ended up getting the right guy, they got Theo Epstein. Two world championships with Theo, they had an amazing run. Things turned out fantastic for the Red Sox, and for me I feel the same.
“My whole family was in California. I wouldn’t have changed it for the world. Boston is a great city. It’s an amazing sports town. But my life’s in California and I’m happy here.
“I was 40 at the time. I wasn’t planning on failing. But the process led to the right guy for them and things turned out great for me.”
Sox’ Rodriguez still a mystery
Eduardo Rodriguez has been shockingly bad in two starts, allowing 11 earned runs on 16 hits and six walks over eight innings.
But more than the statistics, it’s how often Rodriguez has fallen behind hitters at important junctures and given in with pitches over the plate. At 26, he all too often exhibits the same lack of focus he did when he was 22.
Red Sox manager Alex Cora and pitching coach Dana LeVangie want to see Rodriguez have better command of pitches in the strike zone. His stuff plays, but he still doesn’t trust it.
The Red Sox tried overpraising Rodriguez early in spring training to build his confidence, his fellow starters joining the chorus of compliments. Then Cora became annoyed at the lefthander for not challenging hitters and there was some tough love.
What now? Rodriguez was effective for much of last season but remains largely untrustworthy. He has been part of three playoff teams but made only one start in the postseason.
Part of the issue has been a lack of competition. For three years now, the Sox have started spring training with Rodriguez locked into a rotation spot. If his next start is not an improvement, maybe Rodriguez should be skipped for a turn or replaced. Sometimes that’s what it takes.
Other observations on the Red Sox:
■ Cora does not buy the idea that the Sox have a poor farm system.
“It’s a good core,” he said. “Outside our walls, people don’t feel we have a good minor league system. But you can see it’s getting better. There are a few athletes position-player wise, they can be good big league players and impactful. There are a few arms in the lower levels, they’re going to be good.”
■ Will Craig Kimbrel be at Fenway Park for the home opener on Tuesday to get his World Series ring? Kimbrel is said to be working out at a small college near his home in Tennessee and could attend the ceremony. He is now into his sixth month of free agency.
■ Cora used social media to send a subtle message to the fan base after Thursday’s ugly 7-3 loss in Oakland. He posted an emoji of a plane on Twitter along with an Apple Music link to the song “Calma” by Puerto Rican pop star Pedro Capo.
Translation: We’re headed to a new series, everybody stay chill.
Athletics make the best of it
Oakland Coliseum, which opened five months after Anaheim/Angel Stadium in 1966, is the fourth-oldest ballpark in the majors. But while Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, and Dodger Stadium are cherished museums to the game, Oakland is a dusty old relic with little charm.
But after covering four games there this past week, I can report the A’s are trying their best to make it work.
The A’s have improved their concession offerings by bringing in four or five food trucks for every game and making it easy for fans to venture outside the stadium and come back in.
There are vegetarian concession offerings now, a Boba Tea stand, and assorted craft beers. Fans also have a number of general admission areas where they watch the game.
The main concourse also has been spruced up with photos of players such as Dennis Eckersley, Rickey Henderson, and Mark McGwire, and tributes to championship teams of the past. There used to be a feel of grim resignation at the Coliseum. Now there’s a sense that at least there’s a chance to have fun. The Athletics don’t draw many fans, but those who do show up are engaged.
The Athletics hope to build a waterfront ballpark in downtown Oakland. But that is years from happening, if it happens at all. Their initial design, which came from a Danish architecture firm, appears unrealistic.
So the Coliseum may hang in there for a while.
Some minor announcements
The minor league seasons are underway. Triple A Pawtucket has its home opener on Thursday and Double A Portland is in the middle of a homestand that ends Wednesday.
You also can catch games in Hartford (Double A Rockies) and Manchester, N.H. (Double A Blue Jays). When the Rookie level New York-Penn League opens in June, you have options in Lowell (Red Sox), Norwich, Conn. (Tigers), and Burlington, Vt. (Athletics).
There are some new rules on the field to keep in mind.
In Triple A and Double A, pitchers will be required to face three consecutive batters or end the inning. This experiment will be watched closely by Major League Baseball, which plans to try the same thing, with some revisions, in 2020.
At all levels, extra innings will begin with a runner at second base. If the last batter of the previous inning was the pitcher, the runner would be the player in the order before the pitcher’s spot.
Triple A teams will be allowed five mound visits. Double A teams get seven and Single A teams nine. Those are reductions from last season. There are no limits for Rookie-level teams.
Off to a painful start
The Yankees now have Miguel Andujar, Dellin Betances, Jacoby Ellsbury, Didi Gregorius, Aaron Hicks, CC Sabathia, Luis Severino, Giancarlo Stanton, and Troy Tulowitzki on the injured list.
That’s $641,975 a day down the drain, although the Yankees are only responsible for the major league minimum with Tulowitzki after he was released by the Blue Jays.
Terry Francona agreed to a contract extension with the Indians that will take him through the 2022 season. That would give him 10 years with the Indians, or two more than he had with the Red Sox. Hard to believe, right? . . . The coaching staff at Westminster Christian High School in Palmetto Bay, Fla., includes former big leaguers Raul Ibanez, Mike Lowell, and Joel Piniero. All three have sons on the team . . . Dick Manville, who played 12 games for the Boston Braves from 1950-52, died in February at 92. That leaves only four living players who were members of the Braves while they played in Boston: Clint Conatser (97), Bert Thiel (92), Del Crandall (89), and Johnny Antonelli, who turns 89 on Friday. Thanks to Bob Carvin of North Easton for pointing this out . . . And a very happy 40th birthday to the one who got away, the great Adrian Beltre. He was an All-Star for the Red Sox in 2010, then they let him go as a free agent, deciding instead to trade for Adrian Gonzalez and move Kevin Youkilis to third base. I was in the Dominican Republic at the time and along with former Herald writer Scott Lauber broke the news to Beltre. He hoped to stay in Boston and was furious when we told him. Beltre signed with the Texas Rangers and will probably go into the Hall of Fame with their logo on his cap.
The Field of Dreams fund-raising event will be at Fenway Park on June 18. Sponsors play a six-inning softball game at Fenway with up to 22 players per team and can invite an unlimited number of friends to watch from the stands. The Summer Works program administered by the nonprofit Action for Boston Community Development is the beneficiary. Call Amelia Aubourg at 617-348-6238 for sponsorship information.