The hot stove is heating up, but not in Arizona. There was no one to extend a qualifying offer to, though old friend Jeremy Hellickson accepted one from the Phillies and that created some waves. The Diamondbacks gave away outfielder Justin Williams, now one of Tampa Bay’s top prospects, and shortstop Andrew Velazquez, who’s had his last two seasons marred by by injury, to acquire Hellickson from the Rays back in November, 2014. Of course, Hellickson didn’t pitch all that well in Arizona and the D-backs made his tenure short when they sent him to Philadelphia last offseason for Sam McWilliams who was just okay in A-ball at 21 last year. Now Hellickson is set to make $17.2 million next year and it all feels like the D-backs overpaid, then sold short again. So it goes, I guess.
But that was then, and this is now, which is clearly the good news. Hopes are high that the Diamondbacks are done selling short or the regular. While Mike Hazen is still figuring out the whole what-direction-should-we-go-in? thing, he’s at least completed his search for a manager, something we talked about a week ago. Torey Lovullo was deemed the man for the job, which came as a total surprise to a total of zero people. Given Lovullo’s track record as a bench coach for the Red Sox and his comfort in working with Mr. Hazen, the two seemed almost destined for one another. Not in a rainy love scene kind of way, but in a way nonetheless. Of course, the D-backs interviewed some other people and it sounds as if it was a close call between Lovullo and Aces skipper Phil Nevin, but it was Lovullo who got the gig and Nevin who packed his bags for San Francisco (not as a hitchhiker, but rather as the Giants’ newest third base coach).
This, rightfully, leaves many wondering, “What should we expect from Torey Lovullo?” The quotes we’ve heard to date suggest very little in the way of what he values, aside from being a team-first manager who wants to build trust with his players and create a culture of accountability and winning through hard work and INSERT ANOTHER CLICHE HERE. That’s not to pick on the new man in charge, he’s supposed to say those things. Those are good things to say. To be honest, I’ve even liked the way he’s said those things. But they aren’t exactly substantive, so we’re left more or less guessing just what he truly values and what types of things will factor into his decision-making. Luckily, there’s a resource from the past that can, perhaps, help us fill in the blanks.
Back in October, 2013, Lovullo started getting a little bit of buzz as a future big league manager. At that point he’d filled a number of high-profile coaching positions with Red Sox, Indians and Blue Jays. He was seen as an up-and-comer, and FanGraphs writer David Laurila caught up with Lovullo for an interview. I encourage you to read through the entire interview, but for now, let’s focus on a couple of key quotes from Lovullo and discuss.
Speaking about data usage after Lovullo had interviewed for the managerial job with the Dodgers, one he didn’t get:
“…There are certain projections that programs can now produce. They’ll give you percentages as to what the outcome may be, and I would utilize that to the best of my ability… Things have gotten very specific and that’s information I pour through and pass on to John [Farrell] every day.
“One thing I look at a lot is projected strikeout percentage, and projected ground ball and fly ball percentages. There have been several situations where John and I have gone back and forth this year, especially early in the season. To stay out of the double play with runners on first and third, because there was a very high projection the batter would hit into a double play, we elected to go with the safety squeeze. In hindsight, that didn’t work either, but we made the decision for a reason.
“There’s no perfect science to it, but there are many situations where we’ve stayed with a particular hitter because his fly-ball probability off a pitcher was very high. We believe in it, we utilize it, we talk about it, and when we’re on the fence for a certain situation, we can go to those projections.”
Whoa, stop right there. Using data to calculate the likelihood of a matchup? And not just lefty-righty, but ground ball-fly ball? That’s good stuff right there. If you’ve got a runner on third and one out in the eighth inning in a one-run game, you might want to even pinch-hit for a good hitter if you’re just trying to score that one run. That’s informed decision-making, and while it won’t work perfectly every time, the goal should always be to stack the odds in your favor. Hard like.
Speaking about sacrifice bunts, which will carry a different kind of weight in the National League:
“The equation changes depending on things like where you’re playing, who you’re playing against and what you have available in your bullpen. Overall, I’m not a fan of it. I think it’s needed from time to time, but we led the league in runs scored this year and had the fewest sacrifice bunts.
“At times, it can work to advance a guy into scoring position, but by and large, I’ve learned over the years that the sacrifice bunt can be a rally stopper. Every out is precious. You’re playing with 27, so if you give up two or three a game, you’re playing with 24 or 25. You’re giving up an inning’s worth of outs to sacrifice guys into scoring position, and the law of averages shows that just because you’re at second base doesn’t mean you’re going to score. If you’re at first base with no outs, you have a better chance of scoring runs. The numbers show that.”
Ding! Ding! Ding! The number do show that and they have for a long time. Of course, a sac bunt is dependent on who’s up at the plate, who’s on base, and what the score of the game is. Lovullo will surely have to employ the strategy more often in Arizona than he would have if he’d remained in Boston, but non-pitcher sacrifice bunts should be kept to a minimum.
Speaking about defensive shifts, which Lovullo didn’t directly oversee in Boston, but he clearly grew fond of:
“I’m a fan of moving a bunch of defenders into one area where you know there’s a very good chance a player will hit the ball. The reason I’m a fan of it isn’t just because of probability. There’s a tail on that. I know how much it frustrates hitters. I was over-shifted from time to time and I looked around the field and thought, ‘What in the world are these guys doing?’ I was going to show them I could hit against the shift, and that was a distraction for me right away. It’s a built in distraction — a hitter is taken out of his comfort zone — and that is a victory for the team shifting.”
I can’t really speak to the whole distraction thing, which has probably lessened at this point since shifts have become so commonplace, but they still work and the ideology behind them is sound. This is a good sign.
Speaking about roster acquisitions and communicating regularly with the front office:
“That’s something I very much believe in, and it is ongoing here. That’s what’s so great about our front office. From top to bottom, they’re always seeking information and acquiring thoughts about guys. If there is a conversation regarding free agents, they want to get as much input as they can from every area. This past off-season, a bunch of scouts went in and [director of baseball information services] Tom [Tippett] told them the list of candidates they wanted to bring in. Several of them are here.
“I believe in that. I believe in one unit moving forward. I believe in open communication and there being no barriers between the front office and the dugout.”
This, I feel, is the biggest reason Lovullo was hired. From day one, Mike Hazen knows he has a teammate in the dugout, someone who’s already bought into what the organization is doing from a wide-angle perspective. We know things weren’t always easy between Chip Hale and Dave Stewart, but there should be no reason to think Hazen and Lovullo won’t work in concert. A united front is a more effective front.
Believe me when I say that this is just a portion of what Laurila captured in the interview with Lovullo. I didn’t include snippets about lineup construction, bullpen management, platooning, and more. There’s not space and you should really just go read the whole interview (linked again for your convenience). But in short, it sounds as if Lovullo might just be the kind of manager we’ve been clamoring for. While Chip Hale wasn’t exactly old school, he wasn’t exactly progressive, either. Lovullo was apparently comfortable with a more nuanced, advanced approach to the game over two years ago. As time has passed and his talking points have become more mainstream, it’s curious just how far his thinking may have advanced. We’ll have to wait a few more months to see just how Lovullo will begin implementing his approach, but it’s clear that Arizona has moved in a new direction with the hiring of Mike Hazen and Torey Lovullo, and together, we should see better baseball. The roster is only capable of so much, but something tells me we’ll settle for better decisions and trust that they’ll pay off before all is said and done.
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FanGraphs Stats Glossary
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Previously on The Pool Shot, the guys explained some of their favorite advanced stats. Hitting, including wRC+, HHAV and batted ball; pitching (38:00), including FIP, xFIP and SIERA; and baserunning and defense, including UBR, UZR and DRS (58:00).