I’m a big baseball fan. I have been ever since my brother played Little League back in the early 1980’s. I remember my mom rushing to get us fed and out to the ballpark for my brother’s practice or game. Baseball was a way of life. When we weren’t at the field we were in the street in front of our house playing baseball with the entire neighborhood. Back in that day there were 10 on the “field”, the standard 9 players and one lookout who would shout “car” if a car was approaching so we could all get out of the street. Those were the days when baseball was simple and coaches valued heart and hustle as much as talent.
Fast forward 25 years and I became the “baseball mom” when my son played. But the role of rushing and getting my son Evan to the field took on a whole new level. No longer were the laid back days of watching kids be kids or going to the ball field 3 miles away. No, my son played travel baseball and for the better part of 13 years we traveled up and down the east coast while navigating a world of stats, analytics and improving the process.
My son Evan’s goal was to be an MLB player, like all boys his age, and while he did make it to college baseball the route to getting there was arduous. It was not enough to take lessons, or be dedicated, or play on a team. Baseball had now become a science. Heart and hustle took a back seat to stats. There were businesses, computer programs, coaches and scouts that analyzed your gait, your 60 time, your swing, your stance, your exit velocity, your pop time (he was a catcher), throwing velocity, your batting average, on base percentage and so much more. The difference now was that all of these stats were publicly available for evaluation on multiple platforms built for player recruitment.
Coaches and other players could see your spray charts (where you had hit the ball at previous at bats) your pitcher’s delivery and your pop time. With this data they could gauge how you would perform when at bat or decide if they could steal a base. Even at the high school level teams spent hours going over the other team’s analytics to come up with a better process for beating the opposing team.
For years I watched this data analytics onslaught challenge the old school coaches who looked at stats but also took into account “the look test” (stature), mental attitude, determination, ethics, hustle and “feel good” mechanics. I see it in professional baseball with our own Phillies and Gabe Kapler relying on his iPad to tell him how the game is going to play out. I cringe every time I see a player take a card out of his pocket to tell him where the next batter will likely hit the ball. While I think analytics are important I think the process of playing baseball and winning games is not all analytics. It’s also metal fortitude and outlook and above all making process adjustments. It’s how you feel as you hit the ball or throw a player out. It’s how your team adapts when what you expect the other team to do doesn’t happen.
In the 1980s past performance was used to predict future performance with rudimentary stats. In today’s game there is equipment all around ballparks to give deep data—like the physics of the bat swing and the biomechanics of the pitcher’s delivery.1 So much science worked into the game. In fact, there is so much data that teams are overwhelmed by it, and I believe, lost in it.
I recently went to a dinner at Citizens Bank Park where John Kruk, a retired Phillies 1st baseman, was speaking and he said something that struck me. He was talking about how he doesn’t understand why coaches today put so much emphasis on analytics and not good old fashioned mechanics. He went on to say, “You can’t hit a ball with an iPad.” I mean, I didn’t need a computer to tell me that I can hit a ball so hard that I’d get a double. Looking at the backs of the other team’s jersey’s told me I could take second.” He explained that when he was at bat his mechanics were either on or off that day. It wasn’t something analytics could predict it was just how he was feeling and performing that day. And if he was “off” he had to make adjustments. John said he believes teams today don’t know how to adjust when the data doesn’t sync up with what is actually happening in the game. “If the analytics tells you that a pitcher will pitch a certain way and he does not pitch that way that night, then what do you do? You have to adjust.” That’s where that “gut” feeling comes in and analytics goes out the door. That’s the point in time where you have to adjust the process.
If my family’s travel ball experience taught me one thing it is that baseball is not a game, it is a business. Just like any other business at one point analytics and data will fail you because another set of circumstances have changed the status quo. At that point in time you need to adjust the process and adapt. In my opinion the data overload has made baseball teams rely so much on the data telling them what to do that they forgot how to adjust the process. Teams that know how to adjust the process will win. Teams that remain lost in the data will lose. It’s really that simple.
- “A View from the Front Lines of Baseball’s Data-Analytics Revolution.” McKinsey & Company, McKinsey Insights, July 2018, www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/a-view-from-the-front-lines-of-baseballs-data-analytics-revolution.