Data Will Keep You Sane

LAKELAND and PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — We know the immense value teams have derived from applying PITCHf/x, Statcast and other new-age data tools to decision-making. We know this information has helped enlighten the public, including journalists and bloggers, to better understand performance. But I suspect we’re just really scratching the surface with how the big-data age is going to help players.

We know a number of pitchers have used the data to make real changes to pitch type, release point and location. Hitters have tools to better understand their quality of contact. There could be enormous benefits to injury prevention and on-field efficiency from the data being collected. But there is a practical daily use all players could and perhaps should glean from the avalanche of information that has poured into the game right now: the keeping of sanity and reduction of the duration of slumps.

Baseball is often characterized as a game of failure. This is particularly true for hitters, of course: even the best of hitters are unlikely to reach base in a given plate appearance. All players must battle through slumps, through challenging periods. And for all the game’s history leading up to the PITCHf/x and Statcast eras, players were often making adjustments with only anecdotal, observational feedback.

Think about the player who, in the midst of a slump, alters his batting stance; the pitcher who searches for a new arm slot or grip. Even with these minor adjustments, players might be making needless changes that are detrimental and could deepen a slump. For much of the game’s history, performance and skill was only quantified through box scores. We know now, though, how much of that performance is dependent on teammates and opponents, fortune often tied to the BABIP Gods.

One criterion for assessing the value of the data and technology available today is whether it helps players make rational adjustments — and whether an adjustment that has been made is working. J.D. Martinez has been in the news lately as an outspoken early adopter of the fly-ball philosophy.

Martinez told me he doesn’t employ data tools like Statcast or swing-plane trackers to study his performance on a regular basis. But when he’s struggling, he does use the tools to compare recent swings to his baseline of performance to understand if an adjustment is needed, if a skill is lagging, or if he’s simply going through a period of misfortune.

“I look at launch angles when I’m struggling, or it’s not going well. I will look at it to see if [the swing is] still there… I look at it and I look at my launch angles and exit velo,” Martinez said. “If they are about the same, I know I’m going to be OK. There is not a sense of panic. I use it as, like, a safety net to not freak out. You can’t sit there and judge your whole year off batting average and stuff like that, or you will go crazy. You can smoke a ball and it’s an out. You can’t control that stuff. You can control taking a good swing and getting the ball in the air.”

Cal Ripken Jr. was notorious tinkerer of his swing mechanics.

From 1992 to 2001, Ripken produced seven sub-100 wRC+ seasons. Maybe he would have beneftted from fewer changes. Maybe he would have made fewer changes had he had access to his launch angles and exit velocities.

When I covered the Pirates as a beat reporter from 2013 to -16, Charlie Morton would sometimes baffle reporters after a poor outing by saying he liked how his stuff was playing. While opposing batters might have performed well against him in a recent outing, Morton talked about how his spin rates and pitch movement were right where he wanted them to be. His dad studied his PITCHf/x data, and they discussed the readings during phone conversations.

While Morton could have benefited from a changeup to reduce his struggles against lefties while in Pittsburgh, he did trust the data. It helped him know and decide what to improve.

To better understand minor-league performance, and players returning from injury rehabbing at clubs’ Florida and Arizona facilities, teams like the Pirates and Rays have equipped chain-link backfields at their complexes with Trackman and PITCHf/x tools.

Tampa Bay pitcher Alex Cobb said he is using data generated on backfields this spring to better understand how his stuff is playing compared to his 2013 level, his pre-Tommy John mark.

“For me, personally, it’s helping me know when I’m back,” Cobb said. “I go back to 2013 numbers, and I’m trying to make the ball do what it was doing, naturally, then. There’s things I can still work on.

“Say I pitched a game like my last game: three innings, one run. Most pitchers would take that. It’s a good day,” Cobb said, “But knowing that I didn’t feel right on the mound, getting conformation from those numbers that my changeup wasn’t doing what it normally does gives me reassurance, like, ‘Hey, you need to keep working, keep trying new things, that’s not it.’ [The changeup] might be off a little bit, fractions of an inch, where the hitter notices something isn’t right and instinctually lays off pitches. You can take some reassurance in that, I think… Or, vice versa, you go four innings and give up five runs and you are off the field, but [by the data] you know it’s a fluke. Don’t go re-inventing the wheel this week. You are OK.”

“It does a good job of allowing me to see why see why I’m successful. My fastball depth is here and my change is right below it… When I’m struggling, when guys are taking some changeups, why they are taking changeups?”

Cobb said he asks members of Tampa Bay analytics department for certain information after not only his game performances but on bullpen work. He believes it’s helping him make adjustments and come closer to his 2012-14 form. At the end of the day, Cobb says the box score does matter.

“Overall you need to produce,” Cobb said. “You need to get outs.”

But it is data that’s allowing Cobb and other players to free themselves from outcome-based thinking and responses and focus on the process, which, ultimately, should allow for players to produce better outcomes and keep their sanity.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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5 years ago

Travis – you did it again. Phenomenal contribution. I find it fascinating to get player insights on how they’re using data between games. This article couldn’t have been written even 3 years ago. Our favorite game just continues to get better.