How One Club Integrates Analytics into Player Development

This is Mike Hattery’s second piece as part of his September residency at FanGraphs. Hattery writes for the Cleveland-based site Waiting for Next Year. He can also be found on Twitter. Read the work of all our residents here.

Certain players in baseball become symbols, willingly or not, for the seismic conceptual shifts of which they’re a part. Jeremy Brown and Scott Hatteberg, for example, remain emblematic of Oakland’s attempts earlier this century — the sort of attempts documented in Michael Lewis’s Moneyball — to exploit inefficiencies in the game. Ben Zobrist, meanwhile, continues to represent the ability of Tampa Bay’s front office to identify valuable, if overlooked, talent. More recently, Daniel Murphy and Josh Donaldson have become the public face of the air-ball revolution. 

For some who follow the minor leagues, catcher Eric Haase in the Cleveland system has achieved a similar level of notoriety. Despite lacking the name recognition of either Murphy or Donaldson, Haase has nevertheless transformed himself in much the same way as those two, elevating the ball more often and reaping the benefits.

Eric Haase’s Power Spike
Year Level PA FB% IFFB% ISO
2016 AA 246 43.3% 27.7% .230
2017 AA 381 52.2% 14.7% .315

Haase’s 2017 season has shifted expectations about his career. Merely a fringe prospect entering the season, he’s now regarded, at the very least, as a future major-league backup who’ll punish opposing pitchers with power from time to time. As FanGraphs’ own Eric Longenhagen noted in an edition of his Daily Prospect Notes last month:

Some scouts question his mobility and he has fringe arm strength, but Haase receives pretty well and has plus, all-fields raw power. While strikeout prone and unlikely to develop even an average hit tool, Haase’s combination of power and position make him a solid bet to play some sort of big-league role, likely as a slugging backup, though some scouts like him as a sleeper regular.

Haase’s collection of statistical indicators earned him the 47th spot on Chris Mitchell’s midseason top-100 KATOH rankings.

Haase’s season has been marked by significant improvement to his in-game power production. The explanation for that improvement is simple: it’s the product of a launch-angle adjustment. Haase has winnowed his launch angle on both extremes, diminishing both ground balls and infield fly balls. The result? A total of 27 home runs in only 389 plate appearances this year.

For the individual making the adjustment, however, the process is more complex. And that process leads to two questions which this article is unlikely to answer but will certainly raise. First, what’s necessary for a batter to actually make a launch-angle adjustment? And second, what sort of interplay occurs between an organization and its players regarding analytics during development?

Dave Wallace, who coached Haase with the Double-A Akron Rubberducks in 2016 and won Baseball America’s Minor League Manager of the Year Award that same year, noted the importance of individuality in each player’s swing and approach: “Eric Haase’s plan is different than Greg Allen’s, whose is different than [Francisco] Mejia’s. No doubt, organizational philosophies are important and frequently discussed, but in a way that aligns with the player’s current needs and future goals.” Wallace compared the swing and approach of each batter to a fingerprint, something to be massaged at the edges but never undermined by the organization.

On the player-development side, accessing the individual is the most important part, says Alex Eckelman, assistant director of player development for the Cleveland Indians. “The key to adjustments for players is making them easily digestible,” Eckelman told me. For him, Haase is an easy case because he has an “outstanding work ethic” and “engages with the analytical side of the game in a productive way.”

Because individual players’ approaches are as diverse as snowflakes, adjustments must be similarly varied. In July, Haase talked about what he did to improve his launch angle. “This offseason I got to work with HitTrax, which measures your exit velocity and launch angle,” said the catcher.

At first glance, one might suppose that increasing the launch angle on batted balls requires a mere adjustment of bat path to eliminate a flat plane. However, for Haase, elevating the baseball was also about timing. Said Wallace: “We have always liked his swing mechanics, so there have not been concerns there. He has implemented a few different stance widths and leg kicks throughout the process, but the end goal has always been to improve his timing, strike-zone discipline, and approach. We knew whenever he starts to get in his launch position on time and consistently, the success will be there.” Indeed, Haase’s issue in creating loft consistently was not the path of the bat but rather the timing of contact in the bat path.

Interestingly, as far as Wallace was concerned, the goal for Haase was never specifically an improved launch angle. “I am not aware of any conversation from player development that addressed his launch angle,” said Wallace. “We’ve always known if he is on time and swings at pitches in his zone, the power/launch angle will be there.” It was Haase, on his own, who focused on the adjustments to launch angle while doing work with HitTrax in the offseason.

By focusing on narrowing a target swing zone and improved timing, Haase significantly improved his launch angle without having to undergo a massive mechanical overhaul. His case suggests that there are different ways to achieve launch-angle improvement.

A working answer to the second question posed above is foreshadowed by the responses to the first. Alex Eckelman emphasized that “using analytics in development is based on whether or not they can be digested by the player.” If a player can’t properly digest information, it will only serve to hinder his progress. Indeed, as far as Eckelman is concerned, the danger isn’t only the player who can’t digest certain types of information, but the one who digests it poorly. Said Eckelman: “Analytics can be dangerous for… players who become too obsessed with changing their outcomes based on data.”

For the Indians, data in the minor leagues is often valuable to the end of confirming instruction to players.  Wallace notes, “We didn’t need high-level analytics to determine [Bradley] Zimmer needed to improve his at-bats against [left-handed pitchers]. What we did see and use as encouragement, was that, although he was struggling against LHPs, his wRC+ was still among the league leaders.” In other words, analytics can be used not only to target adjustments but also to confirm the efficacy of those adjustments.

Yet integrating sabermetrics into development still represents a frontier, according to Wallace. Said the former manager: “I vividly remember, in 2015, Alex Merberg (now assistant director of baseball operations, then a baseball analytics intern) coming into the office in Akron after a game to discuss Yandy [Diaz]’s launch angle. He barely made it out of there alive that night! Yandy was having a fantastic year at the plate and we had no proof launch angle mattered (yet), so we weren’t having any of that talk!”

There will come a time when information like launch angle and exit velocity are more fully integrated into development. For now, though, players like Haase, who are progressive in engaging with this data, will have an advantage in development. The Indians have found an impressive feel for how to integrate information without allowing it to undermine other developmental goals. In this field, minor leaguers like Haase are empowering themselves using data presented either by the team or publicly available research.

Mike is a student at Case Western Reserve University School of Law. He has served as a Resident at FanGraphs, and writes at Waiting For Next Year. Follow him on Twitter @snarkyhatman.

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4 years ago

Loving your residency. Great work.