It doesn’t seem all that long ago that Kevin Towers was relieved of his duties and we all did the happy dance, more or less. Sure, Tony La Russa might have been an unconventional choice as a pseudo replacement, but he had a pretty compelling on-field record to back up the logic. The appointment of Dave Stewart was maybe a little more curious, but there was some thinking, at least through Sedona Red-colored glasses, that his time as a agent could have been an asset. None of that came to fruition, though, as the outside-the-box hires led plenty of outside-the-box moves; moves that were outside-the-box for good reason. The pair were often unconventional in a bad way. If you had to name a move that was the epitome of the Dave Stewart and Tony La Russa era, you might pick the sale of Touki Toussaint, or the signing of Cubans Yoan Lopez and Yasmany Tomas, or the trade that brought Shelby Miller to Arizona. But that might be underselling the most unconventional move all: hiring a career veterinarian to head the team’s analytics department. Of all the head-scratchers, that might be the biggest of all.
That’s not to disparage now-former Analytics Director Dr. Ed Lewis who had at least some idea of what he was trying to accomplish. He had been a successful stock trader for some number of years prior to joining the Diamondbacks and there have long been ties between the analysis of the U.S. stock exchange and the analysis of America’s pastime. But under Mike Hazen the team has taken a new direction in just about every way possible, including analytics, as the team recently announced.
He spent the last 5 seasons as a quantitative analyst for the Pirates.
— Arizona Diamondbacks (@Dbacks) December 3, 2016
You might be wondering, who is Mike Fitzgerald? I can’t tell you who he is other than that he is, in fact, a human man. I’m not sure if he prefers Shake Shack to In-N-Out (which would be a mistake (don’t @ me)), if he’s worn cargo shorts in the last decade (another all too common misstep), or if he thinks a hot dog is a sandwich (what say you?). Basically, I don’t know the guy. But what I can tell you is that he brings some very intriguing experience to his new role with the Arizona Diamondbacks, which should excite even the most Shack Shack-loving, cargo shorts-wearing, hot dog-conflicted D-backs fan.
Fitzgerald, you see, filled an interesting role with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Hired by former Baseball Prospectus author Dan Fox (who was hired by the SABR-savvy Neal Huntington), who has headed up the Pirates’ analytics department since 2008, Fitzgerald’s position filled an interesting void, bridging the analytics team with those who are charged with implementing on-field strategies. There’s long been a disconnect between “the nerds upstairs” and the guys in the clubhouse. Explaining to players the optimal place to be positioned on the field, which pitches to avoid to certain hitters, or how a road park might effect how far the ball will travel when hit to the outfield can be troublesome — with so much repetition in baseball, players become creatures of habit well before they make the majors. And while there were attempts prior to Fitzgerald’s hiring in Pittsburgh to discuss these issues, they always happened in the home dugout or the manager’s office. Where Fitzgerald’s situation varied is that he went on the road with the Pirates, keeping the dialogue flowing with coaches and players, not letting a long road trip get in the way of making adjustments. Let Ben Lindbergh explain from this fabulous piece back in 2014:
Last offseason, (Dan) Fox and (Neal) Huntington floated the idea of Fitzgerald becoming a fixture on the road. Some managers might have resented the suggestion, regarding Fitzgerald’s presence as an intrusion into the field staff’s traditional domain. (Clint) Hurdle, however, was happy to have the help. “If you think you have an idea that he could do better or that we could do better, he’s not territorial,” Fox says.
“The big thing for us was speeding up the feedback loop,” Fitzgerald explains. Even in an ultra-connected world, calls, texts, and emails go unanswered, unreturned, or worse, unmade, eating up time that could be better applied in other ways or depriving both coaches and analysts of important information.
For Fox, the advantage of sending Fitzgerald on the road is the speed with which the front office can respond to changing conditions. That wasn’t possible without “having somebody there that hears more of the conversations and is a part of more of them,” he says. “In the past, during home stands a lot of information would get shared, but not as much when the team was on the road. There are a lot of things that come up on the road that maybe we forget about or we lose some of that by the time it gets translated back to us, and so we can’t act on it effectively.”
While it’s been hard to say just how much of the analytical work done by the Diamondbacks in recent years made it to the field, it’s clear that Mike Hazen has made it a priority. Fitzgerald was something of a pioneer for the Pirates, instituting a new practice to increase communication with players and coaches in an effort to improve the product on the field. That’s always the goal: make the team better. As you’ve probably noticed, the Pirates have been consistent contenders in the NL Central most years in recent memory, save the most recent, as a team that’s consistently found undervalued assets and made them more productive. It’d be unwise to think that Fitzgerald has had no hand in that. With him now running the show in Arizona, look for something closely resembling what’s been done in Pittsburgh (and Boston and Cleveland) with a fresh touch.
It didn’t take long for that vision to start forming, however, as the Diamondbacks announced last week that Dan Haren will be bringing his talents back to the desert in a role supporting pitching coach Mike Butcher and others. Haren will serve as the team’s new “pitching analyst” and will fill a newly-created role for the D-backs, using his knowledge of the art of pitching to help a young pitching core find stability. Haren also boasts an 80-grade tweet game, but his ability to mold developing hurlers is what he was hired for. He’ll bring oodles of mound cred to his work as he has both the intelligence to work with people like Fitzgerald and the personality to work with today’s baseball players. Just 36, Haren compiled over 40 fWAR and recorded a 3.75 FIP over 13 big league seasons, two of which were with the D-backs where he successfully navigated Chase Field and put up two of the best campaigns of his career. If there’s a guy that you’d want talking to young pitchers and making them feel at home in a tough environment, you’d be hard-pressed to imagine someone better than Haren, it seems.
The changing of the guard has come swiftly in Arizona. Mike Hazen is building a new team from seemingly every different angle imaginable. And “a new team” is probably underselling what’s going on. He’s building a new philosophy en route to, hopefully, a new identity. Quickly taking shape is a core of smart, cutting edge types that should put Kevin Towers and Dave Stewart in the rearview mirror in short order. Perhaps most encouraging of all, Derrick Hall and Ken Kendrick are letting Hazen assemble the crew he seeks. Coupled with Hazen’s vision, the Diamondbacks should yield gains previously unrecognized. It’s obviously too soon to anoint the new regime as kings of the universe, but one has to like the current trajectory, one that continues to build momentum.
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