Brett Anderson knows the numbers. Currently in camp with the Cubs, the 29-year-old southpaw was indoctrinated into the data game when he reached the big leagues with the Oakland A’s, in 2009.
“I came up in an organization that was at the forefront of it,” explained Anderson. “Then Brandon McCarthy came over [in 2011] and he was even more into it than most players. So I’ve been using it, although not to the extent I do now, since my rookie year.”
A player’s enthusiasm for analytics is relative. In Anderson’s case, practicality is the overriding factor. He’s data savvy, but wary of paralysis by analysis. He’s careful not to delve too deep.
“I kind of look at in a broad sense,” explained Anderson. “I don’t want to get super in-depth, because if you look at enough stats, everything will become white noise. I look at stuff like percentages of first-pitch swings, my pitch usage — some of the graph stuff — like if my pitches are coming out of the same slot. I want to make sure my release point is where I want it to be, and everything looks like it’s coming out of the same tunnel.”
Anderson knows spin rate, but he doesn’t consider it a friend. Because of that, he focuses more on his relationship with predictability.
“I wish I was a spin-rate guy, but that’s not what I do,” said Anderson. “With my arm angle, and the way the ball comes out of my hand, it’s kind of… not demoralizing, but you see guys swinging and missing at fastballs that are the same velocity as mine, and mine don’t get swung through.
“I’m more mix and match, so I’ll look at percentage of pitches, certain counts and situations, and try to not get into so much of a pattern. My approach to sequencing is a mesh of numbers, scouting, and in-game feel. Like I said before, you can’t get so numbers oriented that everything becomes white noise. As long as I have a general idea of what I want to do, and what the hitter’s tendencies are, I have what I need out there.”
When Eric Longenhagen wrote up Mark Zagunis in his Cubs top-prospect list, he cited a lack of in-game power. The numbers bear that out. The right-handed-hitting outfielder is slashing .281/.401/.434 since being drafted by the Cubs out of Virginia Tech, but he’s gone deep just 30 times in three professional seasons. That’s something he’s looking to change. When I asked Zagunis if hitting for more power is a goal, his response was an unequivocal “Absolutely.”
Doing a better job of turning on balls is part of the plan.
“The middle of the field is probably where I hit the majority of my home runs last year,” said Zagunis, who banged out 10 between Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa. “I’ve been working on hitting with more power to [the pull side], and I’m excited about that. I’ve been struggling a little bit on inside pitches, so trying to consistently drive the ball to left field is one of my goals this year.”
Longenhagen described Zagunis’s swing path as linear, while the former Hokie characterized it as “a slight uppercut.” That might be notable. As a corner outfielder who lacks plus speed, he probably needs to propel more balls into gaps, and over fences, to forge a noteworthy career. One challenge is to make the adjustment without compromising what he currently does well.
“I’m definitely trying to develop more and more power,” said Zagunis. “But if that makes me switch my swing, or I don’t feel comfortable, I’ll definitely go back to my old approach, and my old swing.”
Like all pitchers, Kyle Hendricks is getting his arm ready for a season he hopes will extend to late October. That’s what happened last year, when he threw a career-high 215.1 innings, including the postseason, ultimately helping the Cubs capture a title. The heavier-than-ever workload hasn’t been a detriment, at least not in terms of feel. In some respects, it was actually beneficial.
“Most years, when you have a regular-length season, you take your normal time off, and when you start throwing again, it feels weird,” said Hendricks. “I think that’s because you haven’t had that so-one-sided motion — you maybe balanced your body out a little bit over the offseason — and it takes some time to get back into that… I guess, ‘shape.’
“This year was a little different, because the offseason was so short. When I picked up my throwing program, it felt a lot more natural. Coming into spring, I felt much more in tune with my body, and my mechanics, than I have in the past.”
He doesn’t have an explanation for why that was. The timetable was different — Hendricks started his throwing program at the end of December instead of the beginning of December — but he took the same amount of time off as in previous seasons. He expected the same “weird” feeling, but instead got something better.
In Joe Maddon’s opinion, re-acclimating the cranium is an important part of spring training. Along with getting your body in shape, you need to sweep the offseason cobwebs out of your brain.
“You go through that spring-training moment where you’ve got to get your mind working in a method that you normally utilize,” Maddon said yesterday. “When I used to coach third base, you get to spring training and it was like you’ve never coached third base before. It’s just weird how we react. That’s why all the little things we do are redundant. Sometimes players frown upon them, because they’re big-league players, and I’ve always kind of gotten a kick out of that. As coaches and managers — from our perspective — we need it. We need it every camp, in order to take that step that kind of floats in the back of the cranium, and bring it back to the front.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.