The Devaluation of New Ideas

Over at The Ringer yesterday, Ben Lindbergh wrote a fantastic piece on what MLB teams are doing to protect their intellectual property in the wake of the Astros’ hacking scandal. But while Ryan Pollock tackled the question of how an organization might protect itself from malevolent outside intrusions, Lindbergh’s piece focused on what teams are doing about the inevitable transfer of their ideas that come from the relatively free movement of front office employees and the increasing availability of qualify data in the public sphere.

If you’ve been paying attention to the types of posts that have gone up on InstaGraphs over the winter, you’ve noticed all the job postings; MLB teams are greatly expanding their research and development departments, and because front office employees mostly don’t sign long-term contracts, a good number of these positions are filled by people who were already working for another club in some capacity. Interns move into analyst roles, analysts become managers, and managers can switch organizations to land director jobs. And this cross-pollination of employees means that ideas are difficult to keep internal, since you can’t force someone to unlearn the processes that were valued by their former employer.

And that’s just the issue teams face when one employee goes to work for one other organization. Team employees are not guaranteed to always stay within the circle of working for the organizations themselves, and sometimes, they move into public-facing roles. Lindbergh himself interned for the Yankees back in 2009, and his time in their baseball operations department informed his opinion on catcher framing, which he’s since written extensively about in the public arena.

Perhaps even more interestingly, Tom Tango joined MLBAM last year, and is now working on developing Statcast-related tools that will help the public better understand how to use tracking data for player evaluation. Tango spent a good chunk of the last decade working for the Blue Jays, Mariners, and Cubs, and while he’s not going to just come out and say “This is what the Cubs look for in a pitcher”, it’s a good bet that the processes he’s building are going to look reasonably similar to the ones that were being used internally by the front offices he worked for. And now, any team in baseball that knows how to use Baseball Savant will have access to those ideas, raising the baseline for the minimum level of understanding of how to use Statcast.

Quoting from Lindbergh’s piece:

As more and more Statcast data trickles out to the public, we’re approaching a point when the stat-savvy fan can form a nearly complete picture of a player’s performance on the field. Teams have already reached that point, but they also have a handicap that narrows the gap between public and private knowledge: They lack the public’s ability to crowdsource with a brain trust whose size is limited only by the moderate difficulty of communicating online. “Now more so than ever,” the former scouting exec says, “secrets are harder to keep secret from the public at large. An enterprising independent analyst is likely to come closer to reverse-engineering insight into a team’s roster-building process than many clubs would be comfortable admitting.”

McCracken adds, “I think a lot of folks would be surprised at how little ‘secret’ information there really is at any one team, and even further surprised at how little benefit that ‘secret’ information confers.” Mariners director of analytics Jesse Smith sees it the same way: “Hypothetically, by the time someone has taken a statistical method elsewhere, has been able to implement it and is in a position to use that information to influence the decision-making of other teams, we would probably be onto the next thing.”

Because ideas can move within organizations, or from behind the walls of a non-disclosure agreement into the public sphere, teams can’t rely on long-term sustained advantages from discovering a new idea or a new way of evaluating a player or skill. As Lindbergh said, in 2009, the Yankees may have beaten the league to quantifying the value of catcher framing, but by 2011, Mike Fast had proven the concept in public, and even after the Astros snapped up Fast for themselves, the advantage diminished quickly for the early adopters, since everyone started looking for catchers who could steal strikes, or at least not give them away.

And that’s why there was one particular line in Lindbergh’s piece that perhaps best encapsulates how teams are looking to get long-term advantages now.

“The real secret is in the discipline that it takes to implement strategy.” Another NL R&D director stresses, “The execution of the ideas is far more important than the ideas themselves, and so that tends to be the most difficult thing to reproduce in another organization.”

This is where it seems the current advantage really lies. As Travis Sawchik outlined in his book Big Data Baseball, the Pirates didn’t necessarily have any brilliant new ideas that helped turn their franchise around, as plenty of other teams were aggressively shifting their defenders or looking for harmony between their pitchers and their defenders. But what they did, perhaps better than anyone during the last few years, was get information from the office to the field, and get buy-in from players that doing things differently was going to make them more likely to win.

At this point, it seems the value is less in the quality or proprietary nature of a team’s ideas, and more in the vehicles that move those ideas around. Teams are now spending more resources on people who can help bridge the gap between the front office and the coaching staff or the players themselves. With guys like Brian Bannister making an impact by helping the Rich Hills of the baseball world become something more than what they were thought to be, the value won’t be in having someone in the organization who advocates for a plan as simple as “throw more curveballs”, but will be in having someone with enough credibility that the players will actually throw more curveballs.

This doesn’t mean that new ideas have no value, of course, but it does seem like MLB is well past the time when a team can simply figure out what the next undervalued statistic is and turn that into a winning roster. With a very short shelf life on actual proprietary ideas, the new way to beat your opponents may be about better implementing well-accepted concepts in a way that actually makes a difference on the field. It’s no longer just about finding new ideas and then exploiting those ideas for maximum gain, but in figuring out how to deploy ideas that might make a small difference on a wide scale.

After all, as Travis wrote yesterday, the idea of the ideal swing plane being an uppercut isn’t really a new idea anymore, but teams who end up with a Josh Donaldson or a Justin Turner — a player whose value was dramatically altered by a data-driven change in their process — can get a lot of value out of the implementation of that idea. It isn’t a secret, but there are still huge differences in how well even stale ideas get put into practice, and that seems to be the way that the best teams in baseball are currently separating themselves from the rest of the pack.

So, when someone inevitably asks what the next market inefficiency is in baseball, I’ll probably shorten my answer to “communication”. With ideas themselves no longer conveying huge advantages, it’s the ability to turn even somewhat obvious beliefs into actual action that can give an organization a legitimate, sustainable edge.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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