GM Dave Stewart and Manager Chip Hale were fired today, about two weeks after cutting ties with Senior VP De Jon Watson. As of this writing, Chief Baseball Officer Tony La Russa‘s role was still up in the air, but as expected, the D-backs have made a loud statement about moving in a different direction. The team finished with a 69-93 record, the fifth-worst in franchise history, and as the tires, rims, breaks, axles, and powertrain came off this year (and, arguably, last offseason), the “rush to judgment” on, say, Twitter, got louder and louder. The clamor was heard elsewhere, as well, as fans voted with their wallets; the D-backs had the lowest attendance in their history this season, despite a promising position player core that helped the team win 78 games in 2015, and despite new hope for the pitching staff in Zack Greinke and Shelby Miller.
The crowd tends to be right, especially in matters of bread and circus. Was this season a failure of process, or just of results? In the face of poor results, the burden is on the men in charge to persuade us (or, more accurately, ownership) that the process was sound. I don’t want to beat a dead horse here right after it’s been put out of its misery, and you probably wouldn’t want to read that, anyway, so let’s just say this: the front office’s moves and stated reasoning for them ever since the beginning of the 2015 have been so indefensible or so close to indefensible that we might want to be persuaded that the process was sound even if the results happened to be good.
As the team looks to install a new power hierarchy in baseball operations, “process” is everything. You may recall that when GM Kevin Towers was removed two years ago, managing partner Ken Kendrick opined that after the analytics-inclined Josh Byrnes, the organization may have veered too far in the opposite direction with Towers. As it turned out, they managed to stake out new territory on the Old Continent, with a so-re-called “true baseball” outlook that put an ocean between the club and nearly all of the game’s other teams. In practice, one need not pick “analytics” or “scouting” or plot a point on a flat line between them; one can make it a priority to install decision-makers who know how to value both forms of input, and who may be especially skilled at figuring out when one kind of information should overrule the other.
For the sake of argument, though, let’s put the decision in front of Kendrick and CEO Derrick Hall in the terms Kendrick used some 25 months ago; in a press conference today, Kendrick put it as a question of “balance,” as if the flat line were a see-saw, and Hall echoed a similar sentiment. If one must err toward analytics or scouting, in which direction should the team now err? Two years ago, the right idea appeared to be “smart,” something that would include more of an analytics bend, even though being smart means properly valuing other forms of input. Now, for additional reasons, “analytics” seems all the more obvious.
Fire a Veterinarian, Get a Dead Cat Bounce
The most obvious reason to err in the direction of analytics? The twin facts that 1) the team hasn’t, and 2) the team has underperformed even the most pessimistic of expectations, especially in 2016 as the roster was more fully formed in the departed front office’s image. If the front office’s composition and the team’s won-lost record were the only bits of information you had to go on, you’d do best to guess that an analytics-tilted front office would be a better way to go.
Complicate the decision just a little bit more, and note that despite locking in a handsome TV deal, the Arizona Diamondbacks are an entertainment business whose business success depends largely on the competitive nature of the entertainment it provides. If the team were five games over .500 at the end of May 2017, you’d have a lot less trouble selling tickets than the team had as of May 2016. Sure. But what about the tickets you need to sell before the end of May 2017? You need to give people a plausible reason to believe. Last offseason, that was the Zack Greinke signing, over and above any other thing. This season? As recently discussed in our Midseason Plan, the team is nearly out of player acquisition bullets, with a minor league system fresh out of high-ceiling, high-minors prospects, and a payroll stretched to the breaking point. The best plausible reason to believe that you could give the crowd right now would be a change in regime, and something akin to replacing Kevin Towers with a lesser-skilled version of Kevin Towers just won’t do. A strong analytics bend could be easy to perceive.
Thing is, though, there’s no reason to rely on won-lost record or public perception at the moment; Kendrick and Hall can do a hell of a lot better, in part because all they’re doing is hiring someone capable of figuring out the rest. The sky’s the limit. Spend money in the right places off the field, and although you have to consider the source, several studies repeat a single finding that investing in a front office is a vastly more efficient way to win games by spending money (as in, 5 to 1 or even 10 to 1) than spending on on-field talent. Pour money into an analytics department because you’re unlikely to waste money that way, and because you have the power to hire a GM who doesn’t over-value the work of that analytics department.
I don’t know how the D-backs’ current analytics department is administered or deployed, or even really how it functions. I know it’s a small staff, though, perhaps too small to do useful things with the 7 terabytes of information spit out by Statcast for every single MLB game. The size of the staff and the depth of their publicly-ascertainable appearance makes it look a lot like the department is used to answer the questions asked by the rest of baseball operations, like how best to use shifts (a smallish benefit that can be tuned more and more finely based on staff capabilities, time, and patience).
In today’s press release, Hall referenced the team’s recent experiences bringing analytics into “daily” operations more, and analytics absolutely can help with day-to-day decision-making, whether it’s knowing what splits to value and by how much, or defensive positioning, or pitching plans. There are other frontiers for expansion, though. Staff up the front office’s analytics capabilities and staff, and let that analytics staff ask their own questions. Set them to looking for new ways to get an edge over their opponents. Get them following their own leads, ones that the data dictate, rather than ones that Tony La Russa can imagine; that’s all the more important in the D-backs’ unique environment. As best as I can tell from decisions made and public information, what the team has done along those lines has been dangerously close to “none.” Do some, and you get a dead cat bounce.
Install the Front Office You’d Use If the Team Relocated to the Moon
What if the D-backs played on the moon, or in a dome at the bottom of the sea? Everyone would understand going in that playing conditions could be very, very different, and that in making decisions, there’d have to be some way to try to anticipate those accurately. You might go big, perhaps hiring a rocket scientist like the Royals did, but you’d want to run some experiments, and you’d want the right people in place to derive some lessons from those experiments.
The problems faced by the D-backs should be faced similarly, even if baseball wouldn’t actually work on the moon. Baseball is a game of fractions of inches in fractions of a second in the pitcher-batter battle that will always be central to the game, by just a few feet in the infield, and only several feet in the outfield. Move the mound higher, and the whole game changes; the same thing happens if you police the strike zone differently. The sport learned this the hard way in Colorado, where drastically thinner air and fairly dry conditions wreaked havoc on the mechanics of the game.
If Phoenix isn’t quite as extreme a venue as Denver, it is only just. A humidor would have nearly double the effect that Colorado’s did. And like Coors Field, despite having an outfield much larger than average (which gives outfield batted balls more space in which to fall for hits), Chase Field does not have a negative home run factor. The D-backs would do well to learn from the Rockies’ experiences in addition to their own, and to acknowledge the unique division in which they play.
It’s time to think differently. Maybe a lot differently. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to notice that time after time, D-backs position players have exceeded expectations at the plate, or that time after time, D-backs pitchers have fallen short.
We can make strong, educated guesses about approaches that are more likely to work for Arizona, among them:
- Embrace that pitching is difficult by organizing the pitching staff differently. Strikeouts are as park-independent as any pitching skill can be, but as Robbie Ray has showed us frequently in the last two seasons, that can make for large pitch counts and short outings. So what? The Times Through the Order Penalty (TTOP) is also mostly park-independent, and the D-backs benefit when opposing hitters have to face a new arm, which may throw from a different slot, may throw different pitches, and almost definitely will throw pitches with different movement. Build a pitching staff capable of handling short-ish outings multiple times per turn in the rotation, and treat that as Plan A instead of a year-in, year-out Plan B.
- Treat outfield defense as a very high priority in deference to the outfield’s cavernous size. One of the key lessons to be learned from the NL West, the Rockies, and the Giants specifically is that in large outfields, the quality of Arizona’s fielders will be much more important to the the team than it would if they played in nearly any other place. Below-average fielders can do tons of damage, but also, above-average fielders can have tremendous value. Play a fielder of A.J. Pollock‘s caliber, and you might rival the value of Mike Trout. I can’t have been alone in thinking for a long time that the fielding of outfielders, particularly in the corners, should lead to different playing time decisions more often than they’ve been. But it’s more important than playing Gerardo Parra over Jason Kubel, and valuing a kind of objective ideal correctly; Arizona can’t afford to make things more difficult on the pitching staff in such disproportionate conditions. When in doubt, play outfielders who are plus fielders.
- At the plate, value line drive or fly ball contact skills more highly, because of the spacious outfield that does not depress home run totals. Regular hard contact is also a big plus. High strikeout rates that don’t come with fly ball or hard hit tradeoffs are a huge minus, given that the hitting opportunities are better than they are overall in MLB. The hitting styles of Paul Goldschmidt, Jake Lamb and A.J. Pollock are pitch perfect. Don’t think it’s a coincidence that Jean Segura sports a career-low 52.1% ground ball percentage this year; in his only bad month this season (May), it was 55.8%. It’s not just a question of player acquisition, but also one of playing time, particularly in the infield.
These are just examples of strategies the next D-backs GM almost certainly must endorse, even though they may be the wrong priorities to have if that GM were to run a different club. As the D-backs look to install their new regime, the openness to endorse some non-traditional roster-building tactics and the skill with which to identify and execute those tactics are paramount.
With the departure of Stewart and Watson and a likely reduced role for Tony La Russa, the organization has stopped moving in reverse. Make no mistake — turning over the front office is a huge step in the right direction. Still, don’t make the natural follow-on mistake of confusing lack of regression with forward progress. The D-backs happen to be in a situation in which analytics can help them even more than they might help the average club; as a consequence, the team should absolutely not be afraid to veer generously in that direction.
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