When I talked to Mike Rizzo in Orlando earlier this week, he told me the Washington Nationals have an eight-person analytics department that includes “three or four employees” who have been added in the last two years. The veteran GM also told me they have their own “Scouting Solutions, which (they) call The Pentagon.” In Rizzo’s opinion, his team has gone from behind the times to having “some of the best and brightest analytics people in all of baseball.”
A pair of uniformed-personnel changes further suggest an increased emphasis on analytics. Dave Martinez has replaced Dusty Baker as manager, and Tim Bogar has come on board as the first base coach. According to Rizzo, their saber-savviness played a role in their hirings.
“It was part of the process,” related Rizzo. “Davey is a 16-year major league veteran who can appeal to a clubhouse of major league players — there’s a respect factor there — and he’s also coming from two of the most-analytical organizations in baseball, in Tampa Bay and Chicago. He’s bringing that love of analytics and the implementation of those statistics with his thought process.
“Tim, same thing. He came from analytical organizations as well. He and Davey are both very intelligent and have the ability to take a lot of information and disperse it to the players in a way they can understand it.”
Another recent hiring — Derek Lilliquist as pitching coach — seems somewhat contradictory in nature. When the Cardinals fired him at the end of the season, St. Louis GM John Mozeliak said his team wanted “a more modern approach,” and that Lilliquist’s replacement would need to “understand modern strategy, modern analytics.”
I asked Rizzo about this. Interestingly, he comped his new pitching coach to the one Mozeliak hired away from his own team. In what was a essentially a switcheroo, Lilliquist went to Washington after Mike Maddux departed for St. Louis.
“Derek and Mike Maddux are kind of on the same wavelength with that,” opined Rizzo. “Derek was really open-minded in the discussions we had about how we’re going to utilize (analytics) in our game preparation. I think he’s going to be a real asset for us.”
Shohei Ohtani was a hot topic at the General Managers’ meetings, and that included the NPB stalwart’s interest in being a two-way player in MLB. Many executives were asked if their team would be willing to give Ohtani that opportunity, and Tampa Bay’s Erik Neander had evidence on his side when answering. This past June, the Rays drafted Brendan McKay fourth overall out of the University of Louisville and allowed him to play both ways in short-season ball.
Neander declined to speak directly about Ohtani, but he did address McKay.
“It’s a philosophy where we’ve demonstrated an open-mindedness to letting players find their limits, and for us to not artificially limit them in any way,” said Tampa Bay’s senior VP of baseball operations. “Brendan made it easy for us to say, ‘We haven’t really seen this in quite some time, if ever, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.’ At the end of the day, it’s up to the players to tell us what they can and can’t do. Brendan still has a lot of time, and the ability, to inform us.
“In a lot of situations you’re going to say ‘focus on hitting,’ or ‘focus on pitching’ — choose one — and that the game is hard enough to where you have to go down that path. By keeping the door open to do both, you do introduce some risk. If he doesn’t pan out, people can look back and blame that decision. But at the same time… if it doesn’t work out, our belief is that it probably wouldn’t have worked out one way or the other. Why not give him an opportunity to demonstrate his game the way he has up to this point?”
Sticking with the Rays, Rocco Baldelli has a new title and responsibilities. Formerly the team’s first base coach, he’s now their ‘major league field coordinator’ — a role that is unique and not easily defined.
Baldelli will continue working with Tampa Bay’s outfielders, as well as helping coordinate the running game. Beyond that, he’ll don a hybrid hat. The cerebral former first-rounder will be in the dugout during games, alongside Kevin Cash and Charlie Montoyo, although a lot of his contributions will come before the first pitch is thrown. A primary focus will be working with rest of the coaching staff to assess and improve upon what is happening on the field.
By and large, the newly-created position sounds like a cross between “quality control coach’ and ‘second bench coach.’ That’s not what the Rays are calling it, but as far as Baldelli is concerned, the title itself doesn’t matter.
“I told them them they can call me whatever they want,” said Baldelli. “That’s kind of the way I’ve always thought about whatever it is that I do. Call me whatever you’d like, guys.”
In Tuesday’s General Managers’ View article, Thad Levine lauded the efforts of Jeremy Hefner, who he said is “spearheading a lot of (Minnesota’s) advance scouting processes.” How do the Twins stack up relative to the rest of the league in that specific area? Levine told me he isn’t informed enough to compare, but he does feel that they “advance-scout more progressively than the team had done previously; we’ve made improvements and evolved.”
Back in May, my esteemed colleague Travis Sawchik wrote about Milwaukee Brewers sinker-ball specialist Jared Hughes. (If you happened to miss it, it’s a fantastic article.) The primary focus was Hughes’s use of data — how it can help him combat baseball’s home-run surge, and hitters who are adept at launching low offerings
As September was winding down, I checked in with the 32-year-old right-hander to re-explore the subject. On the season, Hughes made 67 appearances out of the Brewers’ bullpen and allowed four home runs in 59-and-two-thirds innings. His ERA was a crisp 3.02.
Hughes began by saying that FanGraphs and similar sites help him out a lot, as “they kind of take it to the next level of scouting with their data.” He knows his strengths, but at the same time, “if you just stick with the same thing over and over and over, and it’s not a hitter’s weakness, he’s eventually going to make an adjustment to it.”
The amiable former Pirate went on to say that he’s no longer afraid to go upstairs from time to time, and that he’s worked with pitching coach Derek Johnson to improve his slider. He feels that throwing his slider more often ( 21% compared to 12.4% in 2016) has helped his sinker be more effective.
But while his two-seam usage fell from 79.2% to 72%, Hughes still identifies as a sinker-ball pitcher. “Absolutely,” he told me. “That’s why I’m here.”
With that in mind, how does a pitcher go about getting ground balls from hitters proficient at lifting low pitches?
“For one thing, there are hitters across the league who hit ground balls on pitches up in the zone,” said Hughers. “And I can think of a handful of lefties who that get that front-door sinker on the ground. A.J. Burnett used to be very good at doing that, and Zach Davies is doing it here. He’ll throw that sinker thigh-high inside to a lefty, and the guy has a hard time hitting it in the air. You can jam guys and get them to hit it on the ground. And sometimes it’s about throwing that pitch up to make them see it up, and then going back down. You can get ground balls with sinkers against anybody.”
Billy Eppler inherited a lightly-regarded farm system when he became the Angels’ GM two years ago. Building it up has been one of his priorities, and he feels it’s continuing to go in the right direction. That’s especially true on the international front.
“I believe our impact in Latin America has been pretty notable, especially given that we weren’t spending a lot of money on a particular player,” Eppler said in Orlando. “We were spending in some volume, but we weren’t really signing the seven-figure, or even high-six-figure, types. But we’ve made an impact.”
I asked the Los Angeles executive if volume over big-ticket signees is a philosophical approach.
“It depends on the circumstances,” answered Eppler. “In some circumstances you have enough information — background, trust in the process — as far as the procurement of a player. If that player happens to cost seven figures, then you trust that process and pursue.”
Eppler gave props to international scouting director Carlos Gomez and cited “a notable volume of Latin pitchers” as reason for optimism.
Ryan O’Rourke signed a minor-league deal with the Baltimore Orioles this past week, but he won’t be competing for a job in spring training. The 29-year-old left-hander had Tommy John surgery on May 2, so it’s too early to say when he’ll be back on a mound. O’Rourke told me he “feels great “and is “doing better than expected,” but that his arm will have to tell him when it’s ready.
Minnesota’s pick in the 13th round of the 2010 draft, O’Rourke made 54 relief appearances for the Twins between the 2015 and 2016 seasons. The Merrimack College product has allowed 34 hits and fanned 48 in 47 big-league innings.
Mike Fiers is a big believer in trust and confidence. The Houston Astros right-hander considers those attributes essential to a pitcher’s success, and more than the id is involved in the equation.
“Pitching… man, it’s really having the will to beat the guy in that box,” Fiers told me during the ALCS. “There are so many variables to pitching. You have to know what to throw in certain counts and who to throw it to, but being calm through everything… at this level, the atmosphere is tough to pitch in. You can’t let your mind speed up on you. You have to feel in control of the situation.”
It’s often said that throwing the ‘wrong’ pitch with full conviction is better than throwing the ‘right’ pitch without conviction, and while pitchers theoretically have the final say, they typically go with what the catcher puts down. At times they feel compelled to do so, which can create subconscious doubt. As a result, they’re less in control.
According to Fiers, a veteran presence behind the plate mitigates that risk.
“A guy like Brian McCann, who has played so many years and had so many pitchers… I mean, you’re going to trust him,” opined the Houston hurler. “But even so, as a pitcher you feel things. And McCann will tell you first hand, ‘If you feel something, shake; call me out and explain why.’ But again, you’re going to trust a guy like that more than you will someone you haven’t worked with. Trust and confidence are huge in this game.”
The Reds signed Tucker Barnhart to a four-year contract extension in late September, which according to Dick Williams was a no-brainer. The Cincinnati GM told me on Tuesday that he was “100% convinced” he needed to keep the Gold Glove catcher in the fold for the foreseeable future.
Barnhart led all qualified backstops in fielding percentage, runners caught stealing, and Defensive Runs Saved, but Williams feels his value goes even further.
“A big part of what does is something that’s not quantifiable,” said Williams. “Our pitchers feeling comfortable, acting like they belong, looking like they belong, having the confidence… that comes from experience, but it also comes from Tucker. He makes a huge impact on our pitching staff.”
There are only18 catchers in the Hall of Fame, and one of them played in the 1800s, two more played in the dead-ball era, and three played exclusively in the Negro Leagues. All told, only 12 catchers who have appeared in a major league game since the start of The Great Depression have been enshrined in Cooperstown.
Given the importance of the position — not to mention the difficulty in quantifying catcher value — those numbers are far too low.
Ted Simmons is clearly deserving, and strong arguments could also be made for perennial All-Stars such as Bill Freehan, Elston Howard, Thurman Munson, and Lance Parrish. Proponents of a small Hall may disagree, but the position is clearly underrepresented.
Congratulations to Jason Parks, who is now the director of professional scouting for the Arizona Diamondbacks. A former prospect writer for Baseball Prospectus, Parks has spent the three-plus seasons working for the Chicago Cubs.
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RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
Joey Votto slashed .371/.565/.660 with runners in scoring position this year.
On November 16, 1995, Boston’s Mo Vaughn was voted AL MVP by a narrow margin (308-301) over Cleveland’s Albert Belle. Vaughn slashed .300/.388/.575 with 39 home runs and 5.1 WAR. Belle slashed .317/.401/.690 with 50 home runs and 7.2 WAR.
On November 18, 2000, the Seattle Mariners signed Ichiro Suzuki to a three-year deal. Ichiro had spent his first nine professional seasons with the Orix Blue Wave, slashing .353/.421/.522.
In 1921, Suds Sutherland pitched 58 innings for the Detroit Tigers and had a record of 6-2. As a hitter, he went 11 for 27 (.407). It was Suds’ only big-league season.
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.