A strange soundscape characterized the Red Sox clubhouse following a loss in the middle of a mystifying season-opening West Coast swing. In the otherwise silent wake of defeat, the rotating blades of fans aimed at the skyscraper-like towers of servers in the middle of the clubhouse whirred noisily — necessary to prevent the equipment from bursting into flames.
Welcome to game-planning in baseball’s modern era. Data and analytics now claim central roles in shaping on-field strategy, changing the cultural and physical landscape of how teams are organized. It is that change, perhaps more than the vague notion of an underperforming, unhealthy Red Sox pitching staff, that explained the team’s announcement on Tuesday of a pitching infrastructure shakeup.
Dana LeVangie — who’s been a member of the Red Sox organization for 29 years, including the last seven on the coaching staff — was reassigned from pitching coach to a role in the pro scouting department. Steve Langone, the advance scouting manager, likewise will move to pro scouting. Brian Bannister, who’d served an in-uniform role as assistant pitching coach on top of his duties as VP of pitching development, will no longer be part of the big league coaching staff. Instead, he’ll focus on pitcher development programs, particularly in the minors.
Change felt inevitable as the year progressed, not necessarily because of the results but perhaps more because of the tension that existed between LeVangie’s traditional approach to game-planning — he drew upon his advance scouting background by consuming video tirelessly in search of holes in opposing hitters’ swings — and the team’s desire to embrace the data-driven model used by teams such as the Dodgers, Astros, Yankees, Indians, Rays, and Twins.
Behind the scenes, there was a sense of an oil-and-water dynamic that never got resolved. Members of the coaching staff experienced a yearlong tension between the way the Red Sox had prepared their pitchers — quite successfully, it should be noted, as recently as 2018 — and how the team now wanted to game-plan for opponents.
There were disagreements about how to attack opposing lineups, arguments that sometimes consumed the coaching staff and led to less actual time being spent coaching the players. While those disagreements were largely walled off from the players — and the failure of the pitching staff was caused foremost by failures of pitch execution — some around the Red Sox felt that the absence of a sustained winning streak reflected the disjointed communication and headbutting that was occurring.
“It was a just tough year,” said one member of the team. “We never really got on the same page at all.”
A changing job
When Alex Cora came to the Red Sox from the Astros after the 2017 season, he wanted to bring with him a number of what he saw as the best practices of a state-of-the-art Astros organization. He continues to want the team to push in that direction.
“We’re evolving,” Cora said last week. “Here, nobody was using [analytics in game strategy]. Nobody was taking advantage of the information provided — but for great reasons. They were very successful at what they did, but here we started adding stuff. We’re still a work in progress at every aspect of the game.”
The Sox aren’t alone in that regard. The game is changing rapidly to account for the incredible volumes of information now available thanks to the introduction of precise data from TrackMan systems via Statcast. The result has been uneasy for many in the game, with changing information meaning changing job descriptions of coaches and consequently a lot of coaching changes.
From the end of the 2016 season through the end of the 2017 season, just three teams changed pitching coaches. From the end of the 2017 through the end of the 2018 season, that number exploded, jumping to 14 (including the hiring of LeVangie). From the end of the 2018 season through the end of the 2019 season, 14 teams changed pitching coaches. Since the end of this season, six teams have already announced their intention to change pitching coaches.
|MLB pitching coach changes, 2009-19*|
“I think [pitching coaches] are rapidly changing because the sources of information are just as rapidly changing. We have so many new systems now — Trackman or others — [and] you’re getting more and more advanced in how to use them,” said Twins chief baseball officer Derek Falvey. “If your default position is just, ‘That’s not how we’ve done it before,’ that’s not going to work in our environment.”
Falvey, who oversaw the overhaul of Minnesota’s pitching infrastructure starting in 2016 after a similar undertaking in Cleveland earlier this decade, said that coaches are still hired to be teachers, but also conceded that the state-required curriculum is changing. That certainly appears to be the case for the Red Sox.
“The pitching coach job, like some other roles on the staff, is constantly changing,” assistant GM Brian O’Halloran wrote in an e-mail.
Changing the (game) plan
Some of the Red Sox’ progress in incorporating analytics at the field level occurred rapidly. The team’s overhaul of defensive positioning received rapid buy-in and success in 2018. The dynamic on the pitching side proved more challenging.
LeVangie is considered extraordinary for his ability to watch a game and dissect the strengths and weaknesses of both pitchers and hitters. However, even acknowledging his expertise, the game is moving in a different game-planning direction.
Statcast offers data about millions of pitches — precise shapes and velocities and spin rates in very, very specific locations — that dwarfs what one individual can evaluate in preparation for a game. Information about a hitter’s struggles against curveballs in 0-2 counts might be irrelevant, depending on the specific shape and velocity of a pitcher’s curveball and where that pitcher typically can execute it.
Moreover, like other teams, the Sox wanted to move beyond outcome-based data (i.e., did a batter get a hit on a certain pitch?) to more specific ways of analyzing the value of every pitch (i.e., a lineout is a bad outcome for a pitcher, a ground-ball single often results from a good pitch).
The Red Sox front office wanted to utilize that broader dataset. Late in 2018, their catchers started using wristbands suggesting how an individual pitcher’s stuff could best be employed against a specific hitter. The Red Sox coaching staff used that information and tool in concert with the traditional game-planning efforts of LeVangie and the rest of the coaching staff, a group that typically included LeVangie, Langone, advance scouting assistant J.T. Watkins, Jason Varitek, bullpen catcher Michael Brenly, and catching coordinator Chad Epperson.
“It was a struggle [in 2018]. Any change is, especially when you have people who have been involved and doing things a certain way for a long time,” assistant GM Zack Scott said during the season. “It came with expected growing pains. There were several meetings throughout the year where we tried to express some ways where we could gain some advantages. It’s on us to explain things in a way that the coaches can use it.”
Still, entering 2019, the Red Sox wanted analytics to play an even larger role in game-planning. Cora wanted a member of the analytics staff to travel with the team and be in the clubhouse. The team hired Jeb Clarke as a clubhouse analyst, taking part in game-planning meetings. His presence signaled a different way of doing business.
“It’s been a big transition on the major league side,” Bannister said during the season. “You’re not just watching video anymore. The whole process has been outstanding, but it’s been a big adjustment for everybody. The coaches used to do things for themselves in the past. Now it’s leveraging the resources of the whole organization.
“Long-term, it’s something that needed to be done to stay competitive with the top organizations who are pushing the boundaries in this area,” he added. “In any profession, you constantly need to update your skill set. It’s been an update-your-skill-set kind of year as we all try to get better at what we do.”
On occasion, LeVangie and other members of the staff found their views running counter to the recommendations of the team’s analytics department. Those disagreements at times consumed the energy of the coaches. According to multiple team sources, the staff spent more time this year hashing out disputes amongst themselves than they did in 2018, with the result that there was less time spent working with players.
Meanwhile, in a year where the pitchers executed poorly — a problem that dwarfed any others related to the team’s pitching performance — and where results were worse than in 2018, tension mounted. What was meant to be a collaboration between the analytics department and the staff sometimes felt adversarial.
“I fully expected to go through growing pains this year with this stuff, because it’s new. We’re changing it and making it better, more valuable in my mind,” Scott said in August. “[But] I get it. We’re asking people to change things up. Sometimes that goes well, and sometimes it’s a struggle.”
The road forward
The friction experienced between parts of the coaching staff and the analytics department is cultural; it doesn’t fall on LeVangie or any other single member of the organization. For that matter, the analytics department warrants some blame for the inability to get buy-in for the changes it sought.
Perhaps now, with some new hires, the Red Sox will face less of a struggle. With a new pitching coach and, perhaps, a full-time assistant pitching coach (according to O’Halloran, the team had yet to determine whether it would hire someone for that role), the division can be clearer. Game-planning is likely to be led by the analytics department, a notion that will be understood by whoever is hired to replace LeVangie.
Who might that be? It’s tough to say. Teams have been desperate to find voices who are versed in pitching analytics in a way that allows them to translate them into easily digestible form for pitchers. Falvey and the Twins made a nontraditional hire in tabbing Wes Johnson from the University of Arkansas last winter. A desire to take advantage of new resources has resulted in an influx of coaches with atypical backgrounds, and O’Halloran suggested the Sox will “cast a wide net in our search for the next pitching coach.”
LeVangie is respected and beloved by many in the Red Sox organization. He’s done a number of jobs exceptionally well, as his four World Series rings (earned in four different roles) suggest. Still, his departure reflects an unsurprising outcome for a team that is trying to overhaul how it translates information from its analysts to its players.
“It sucks that we’re going to have time to reset and go over every department and say, ‘We’re doing this well, we can do this better . . . ’ ” Cora said last week, prior to the decision about the coaching staff. “It sucks because it means that we’re done, but I think going into spring training next year, it’s going to be a lot easier for everybody that, this is it, we don’t have to make adjustments throughout the season in the information that’s provided or the information we use.
“We’re finding new tools, fixing tools that are going to give better information for us,” Cora continued, “and we’ll use it the right way.”