For a long time now, the mantra in pitching was that effective pitchers threw “down in the zone”— sliders, sinkers and cut fastballs. The theory was that a low pitch was hard to drive out of the infield. “The down-in-the-zone pitch had been accepted as the gold standard,” explains Twins director of baseball operations Daniel Adler. But things were about to change.
The Astros and Dodgers used MLB Statcast data that indicated low pitches hit golf-style had an enhanced propensity to be home runs. Suddenly, the pitches most batters avoided became desirable to teams that had crunched these numbers.
“The uppercut swing is like the three-point shot in the NBA,” explains Adler. “When they go in, you get 50 percent more points. Fly-ball-based hits become home runs, which justify [a swing that gives up the opportunity for] ground-ball-based hits.”
But the Astros and Dodgers excelled not just because they alone had the data.
“The uppercut swing phenomenon required buy-in,” explains Adler. “It required coaches who trusted the data [and] who had good relationships with players. Asking spectacular athletes to change what [they] do and how [they] do it is not easy.” (He notes that newly signed DH Logan Morrison remade his swing last season with dramatic improvements in power as a result.)
And it requires skill, as well. “If you can’t [hit] the ball out [of the ballpark], it’s just a fly-out swing,” notes Twins’ bench coach Jeff Pickler.
Post-World Series, everyone knows about the uppercut; but not every team can or will adapt. And smart pitchers will certainly counterattack. “You can only optimize for the present,” Andres says. “The next evolution is pitching up in the zone” to combat it.
But baseball is a cat-and-mouse game, and “data won’t ever change that,” says Falvey, “so you are really creating a learning organization rooted in a philosophy.”
This all-inclusive stat has become a darling of the baseball metrics community. It attempts to define how many additional wins a player is worth over the course of a season compared with a “replacement-level” player—a player who would not command a premium above the major league salary minimum.
FIP is an attempt to improve on earned run average in evaluating pitchers. All pitched outcomes that involve hit balls (other than home runs) are affected by the quality of a team’s fielding. Pitchers who play in front of better fielders have lower earned run averages, but may not be better pitchers. FIP tries to make that clear.
Back in the day, a career in baseball usually flowed from playing or coaching the game. But more and more, an on-field background doesn’t much lay the groundwork for a career in the front office.
More and more of the game’s operating leadership has advanced degrees from elite universities (Twins director of baseball operations Daniel Adler holds law and business degrees from Harvard) and little if any time on the field. They come with a focus on developing systems and processes to optimize the game. And they are not grizzled veterans. Terry Ryan is 64; his successor, Derek Falvey is 35 and is far from the only leader in MLB in his 30s.
“There is definitely a shift toward youth because of analytics,” says Boston University professor of mathematics Andy Andres. “The skill sets in play are very different now.”
“The jobs are extremely taxing, and they age people in dog years,” adds Adler.
An MIT degree is not yet essential, however, despite rumors to the contrary. “You don’t have to be great at math, you need to understand what the math is telling you,” says Dan Atkins, executive director of MinneAnalytics. He notes that the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management wants data literacy to become integral at the undergraduate level and that “data scientist” leads lists of the most promising jobs in America.
Falvey worked to make an attractive case to Adler as he finished his degrees at Harvard, telling TCB that executive “talent wars are real” within pro sports. Falvey says the Twins have restructured their baseball operations “to allow new leadership opportunities” to better retain talent.
Adler, who majored in economics and physics, describes himself as intensely “interested in how people make decisions.” He says he chose the Twins in part because he “had been told organizations with new leadership were good places to go.” He was intrigued at the thought of getting in on the ground floor of what Falvey was building in Minneapolis. He leads the Twins’ R&D group and consults on player salary arbitration.
“Daniel is a bright young man,” notes Andres. “Twins fans should feel very fortunate.”