What Front Offices Have to Say About the Changing Game

We’ve been writing here — perhaps ad nauseum — about the changes the game is undergoing currently. The ball may be different, the launch angles may be changing, power is definitely up, and starting-pitcher innings are down. Are these fundamental changes, though? Is this a different game we’re watching than the ones our elders enjoyed? And if so, is it necessary to alter the way we think about building successful teams?

I thought it would be interesting, at last week’s Winter Meetings, to ask front-office members of all kinds if they thought the game had really changed. If so, I wondered, had these insiders changed the way they approach their jobs over the last few years? To get better answers, I asked most of these generous people to talk off the record — meaning, in some cases, I’m unable to reveal their particular roles.

These answers do run the gamut, and the sources are varied — from former players to former business-school graduates. In sum, the responses offer us a peek at a fundamental choice in front of every team-builder right now, the same choice, ironically, that players face every day — namely, is it time to adjust?

All the team officials with whom I spoke seemed to take for granted that the ball is different, and that it directly causing the spike in power. The conversation flowed right past that as if it were a given.

“Everyone is using the same ball,” laughed Oakland general manager David Forst.

“Power is everywhere right now,” said one analyst.

In terms of change, however, all seemed to agree that there was more to the story.

“Guys are putting the ball in the air more and teams are advancing so much, it’s harder to set yourself apart,” lamented one analyst about the struggles of adapting to the new powered-up environment.

“People are just more aggressive with two strikes than I remember,” said Giants general manager Bobby Evans before pushing the question to manager Bruce Bochy.

“It’s difficult to manufacture runs now,” said Bochy in his patented slow rumble. “With the way pitching is, how they bring in the bullpens earlier for matchups, it’s easier to score by getting the ball to leave ballparks.”

That batter-pitcher interaction was at the center of many comments about the changing face of baseball.

“The nature of the batter-pitcher interaction has evolved, too,” pointed out one front-office member. “There are more opportunities to find guys at the fringes who can rotate onto a roster because you can find more strengths for pitchers to pitch to.” That sounds like a little bit of analyst speak for “relievers are fungible.”

“Personally I feel that the game itself has turned more boom/bust on every front, trying to exploit the highest probabilities of each outcome,” said one analyst who may have been familiar with Russell Carleton’s work on the relationship between strikeouts and home runs. “Offensively, you have a lot more swing and miss in exchange for home runs and power. On the mound, going for strikeouts instead of weak contact. And overshifting to the occasional point where sides of the infield are completely vacated. Not to say this is bad, as this is just trying to maximize your optimal outcome on each front.”

One source felt that this mode of analysis was so pervasive that it ended up changing the way we digest baseball, even more than just changing the game itself.

“I do think there’s been a fairly extreme shift in the makeup of front offices and even media coverage,” said the higher-up. “The general framework of a lot of conversations about the game has really changed. Roster-building is a year-round sport, and it does tend to feel at times like we’re all a part of some meta theater that’s somewhat loosely attached to dudes playing on a field. The focus of what it means to be a fan or follow a team has shifted at least somewhat from simply knowing the players and what happened in games toward some bigger picture perspective that accounts for assets in the farm system, where you are on the win curve, and how efficiently resources are being utilized.”

That one reads FanGraphs.

Another analyst felt that there was change, but it wasn’t fundamental.

“It changes how you appraise the game, just insofar [as] more eggs are in the one basket than they used to be, but I don’t think it changes the game,” he said over drinks. “I would say that, these days, extra-base hits and home runs are a larger proportion of run creation, but it doesn’t fundamentally change how you evaluate the game; it just causes you to revisit some of the ways you looked at power.”

Still, most agreed that change is in the air, even if they couldn’t quite come to a consensus on the type and size of the difference.

The second question might be more interesting than the first, anyway. How do you adjust to this change? The analyst who talked of eggs in a basket thought it was an easy fix.

“What it changes are constructs,” he continued. “Power is relative in the sense that we have goalposts for what is good power, not good power. That’s just the conditions.”

“I don’t know that you necessarily have to adjust,” said Forst, seeming to agree. “You can’t argue with the numbers — the increase in the homers, the increase in the strikeouts — all those things are pretty apparent. But everyone is still playing the same game, so I don’t know that you need to adjust what you do.”

Others thought that it was time to zig where others were zagging, perhaps.

“If you have this ball that has lower seams and carries better and you get rewarded for putting the ball in play, why not focus more on contact skills, much like the Astros?” wondered one analyst aloud. “I think there’s a lot of emphasis on swinging hard and getting on plane and maximizing launch angle and exit velocity, which I’m a huge proponent of, but I think you have to look at two strikes as a different scenario, and maybe you make some sacrifices to make contact there.”

He wasn’t alone.

“I think the game is eventually going to reverse course in the timeless hitter/pitcher struggle that will see a renewed emphasis on bat control, weak contact, and running speed,” forecast one analyst. “So, in light of this, rosters may want a diverse ‘portfolio’ of skill sets. Guys with high-spin curveballs are great, but maybe not to the point of gratuitousness.”

But it’s not all just about team-building. This can manifest itself when it comes to developing players, too.

“Changing looks is validated on all fronts,” continued the same analyst. “Same way, looking for guys who maybe have reduced launch angle for their benefit are recognized for their value as much as guys who have increased it. We are also now getting into a new frontier of data where holes in guys game — swing path, general body movement, flight of the ball — can be fixed on the player-development side rather than solely reverse-engineering from outcomes, which not only helps the player, but reinforces some of these principles.”

Others though a return to old-school form might be in the cards.

“You can’t get away from the fundamentals, either,” said Bochy, still answering the first question. “You look at the first inning of the seventh game last year of the World Series. Houston did the little things — they hit the ball to the right side, found a way to score a run — and LA was in the same boat and couldn’t execute. That will never leave the game.”

And beyond the fundamentals, there’s also just the old-school, build-with-the-traditional-draft approach we can’t forget.

“A more traditional approach to team-building — i.e this Royals run with Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, etc. — might be viable if you can do it effectively, since there’s less heated competition for those types of players,” thought one analyst about a return to the past. “There’s compelling evidence that no team/person can do this reliably, but it’s hard to prove that’s true.”

Maybe there’s some real value to zigging when others zag. The problem, though? With so much data available, it’s possible that, whatever plan one club develops, another has already begun executing it.

“There’s so much information, you have to figure out what’s actionable and what’s not,” said one front-office person.

Another echoed that sentiment, offering a bit of insight into the thought process here. “The public can quickly catch up to the bigger themes, making undervalued players harder to find,” they said. “What’s harder to figure out is what’s a temporary change and what’s approaching an equilibrium, so roster construction is always going to lag [behind] the hot trend some.”

A third thought it wasn’t just the public that was catching up with these themes. “More teams are now building or rebuilding their clubs with similar techniques, like the draft, waivers, and the low end free agency market,” they pointed out, “so there’s a land rush in certain competitive environments where there’s a couple highly competitive bidders — often with smaller payrolls — and then a bunch of teams that don’t get why that happened.”

In the end, this sounds very similar to what Brandon Crawford once told me about the difficulty of deciding when to adjust to the opposition as a player. He said, generally, that it was the hardest part of being a player.

“That’s what makes it tough,” said Crawford in late 2015. “Once you start to figure something out, they figure you out.”





With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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Dominikk85
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Dominikk85

I think it makes it a little more boring for analysts. Used to be fun to rip dave Stewart for making a minus 50m surplus value trade but now that most if not all front offices understand the basic concepts that might become much rarer.

Not so interesting to write “astros and brewers just exchanged 30m of surplus value”

Now this is still an exciting time to analyze due to statcast but in the future analysis will be more granular for smaller edges and with more secret information. No more double your launch angle from 7 to 14 degrees to become a superstar but more like adjust this position to gain a third of a win.

Travis L
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Travis L

Nothing inevitable about this, however. The outcome maximization might be part of an equilibrium, so if it goes too extreme, there will be counter-adjustments to be made. Even if the analysis of tactics becomes smaller, there are still overall strategies to evaluate. Perhaps using an economics based common evaluative metric like WAR can be exploited using a totally different approach!

Dominikk85
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Dominikk85

Depends on how much data we get in the future. 5 years ago we basically had all game data.now with statcast we also get a lot but there is also quite a bit of data we don’t get. In the future there might be more systems that do not publish all data – or maybe they come out with everything.

For the sabermetric writers and hobby analysts that will be a quite important decision, can we still do direct analysis or just some kind of guesswork. Of course there always will be data available but do we continue to get the good stuff?