The Jays’ analytics deparment hard at work crunching numbers.
So this feels like a better time to discuss the piece about the Jays’ shamefully small analytics department that was posted by Shi Davidi of Sportsnet late Wednesday night, doesn’t it? No vultures circling, no hopeless, mindless negativity surrounding the club. Shit, last night J.A. Happ took the bull by the horns a little bit, even — at least as much as a fifth starter can do — and for a time Juan Francisco was sporting a higher wRC+ than Yasiel Puig and Giancarlo Stanton. The Jays, despite being just 21-21, are a mere one-and-a-half games out of first place in the AL East. Things are alright, right?
They’re at least alright enough, for the moment, to maybe not lose our minds as we tackle some of the stuff that folks — myself included, to an extent — were seething about the other night. None of that is about Davidi’s work, which as usual is excellent, and in particular is valuable by lifting the veil on a corner of the Jays’ organization that is intentionally little seen by the public. For the club allowing such a profile, though, the instinct for me — and I would assume most analytically inclined folks — is to view it as a misstep. Here we have the club, through the proxy of the TV network that is subsidized by their content (and the lack of competitive bidding needed to acquire the right to air it) ham-fistedly trying to boast about their progressive credentials, instead painting themselves as hopelessly out-of-touch when it comes to their usage of the thing called analytics — the thing our old friend Parkes, at his old blog, Fanatico, succinctly and perfectly a year ago called “measuring performance through the best available metrics, and then attempting to implement what’s been learned as a means of improvement.”
If “hopelessly out of touch” sounds harsh, that’s because it is. An organization attempting to compete with the likes of the Boston Red Sox and the Tampa Bay Rays has absolutely zero excuse for not clawing with their fingernail for ever additional inch of competitive advantage. Period, end of sentence. An organization that doesn’t run, arms open, towards analytics as — at the bare minimum — a means of acquiring extra information their opponent may not have, is beyond dumb as fuck and deserves to lose. No one — at least not at this point, or at least not anyone worth listening to — in the divide between analytics and traditional evaluation sees one or the other as the be-all, end-all, so I’m not even saying this as though I demand that the Blue Jays organization applies every detail gleaned from advanced, proprietary metrics and research to better the team, but holding themselves up and patting themselves on the back for saying “we don’t disdain this stuff,” as they’re trying to compete for the division with the Tampas and the Bostons? And for the Wild Card with the Clevelands and the Oaklands? That’s not just hopeless, it’s frighteningly fucking job-undeservingly out-of-touch!
That all said, let’s not lose perspective here.
Obviously I’m a big believer in analytics and in the fact that anyone incurious enough to be dismissive of them — especially with respect to any halfway serious discussion of sports — is deserving of scorn. That’s such a basic, utterly inarguable stance that ought to go without saying, really. That the hockey world, for example, and the Maple Leafs world, in particular, insists on not getting this is hi-fucking-larious beyond comprehension sometimes. In other words, I’m fully with the people who find the idea of the Jays holding themselves up as having a tiny, behind-the-field, practically insignificant analytics department pretty sickening, given the massive emotional investment we make in these teams in the hope that the people running them aren’t incompetent fucking boobs handcuffing themselves with an informational disadvantage. The fact that the Jays openly handcuff themselves in other ways — their supposed limits on contract length, their apparent refusal to deal with Scott Boras — only stokes such fears, as do last year’s still-ringing comments from John Farrell about this being a “scouting-based organization.”
However, in the spirit of maintaining perspective, let’s think a bit more about what Shi’s piece really told us.
Many fans of the same mind as I regarding analytics zeroed in on a few particular things, at least as far as my interactions on Twitter and in the comments of this site in the wake of the piece’s publication informed me. One was the fact that the club’s analytics department is small. Another is the fact the usage of the tools at the department’s disposal is relatively recent. Another still is the fact that the club isn’t willing to invest in the department enough to entice real talent — i.e. non-baseball fans unwilling to take a pay cut — to join it.
Are these things as damning of the organization as they may initially have come off on the page? I actually don’t think so.
One of the more interesting things in Parkes’ Fanatico post is the fact that, in his evisceration of a Toronto Star writer’s piece on a Grantland piece that unveiled some of the obscure data collected and applied to on-court practice by the Toronto Raptors, he makes it clear that he is aware — seemingly unlike the author of the piece he’s responding to — that there may be far more to the story than was simply allowed to go to print.
In Davidi’s piece, Anthopoulos is said to be “leery” of “appearing like ‘we’re doing something everyone else is not.’ ” He acknowledges the fact that his analytics people aren’t allowed to speak to the media, citing the utter lack of benefit in giving away too many club secrets. There is a very obvious P.R. dance going on here, and what ought to have been plainly obvious from such talk is that we may merely be getting an up-close look at the tip of the iceberg. Yet many fans that I’ve seen react passionately to the piece have been quick assume that the superficial details are absolutely true — that the Jays had a one-man analytics department until very recently, that until this year they didn’t seem to take what was coming out of the department very seriously, and that there are now only two men employed to focus on this vital aspect of the organization.
What’s necessarily true in that, though? While the piece very clearly calls the hiring of former Cleveland employee Jason Pare as adding “a second member to their analytics department,” we’re not given much of a look into how the department really works. Projects may be contracted out, interns may be leaned on heavily, and we have no idea just how much other members of the front office staff actually work on projects overseen by the department. The slant is that it’s a two-man team — formerly a one- or one-and-a-half-man team — and the image conjured for some is of a department that’s hopelessly threadbare. That absolutely could be true, and the Jays would be absolute fucking idiots if it were, but its far from clear, especially in light of the admissions of being coy about all that’s going on with their proprietary data. In fact, it’s entirely possible there’s more to the overlap between Analytics and other departments that we’re simply not hearing about, as we’re told that former assistant GM, Jay Sartori, was working on a major project — the BEST (pronounced “Beest,” as in Paul Beeston) database — with Joe Sheehan, the club’s top analytics man, and that when the analytically-inclined Sartori left the club for an executive position at Apple, staff from many branches of the front office covered his former duties.
If we’re starting to believe that there really may a bigger internal focus on this stuff than the article was permitted to say — and, to be clear, we don’t know this (and yes, it’s somewhat wishful thinking from someone who doesn’t want to have to agree too much with the braying dolts who’ll insist Anthopoulos must be fired immediately) — we next need to consider who the piece is speaking to. And also, perhaps, the climate surrounding analytics in terms of mainstream acceptance — especially in this city, where the Leafs are now (supposedly) being brought kicking and screaming into the modern world by a president, Brendan Shanahan, hired over the heads of the previous administrators, and who actually has espoused vaguely progressive ideas on advanced metrics being important pieces in the evaluative toolbox.
In the media, Alex Anthopoulos has spoken exclusively for almost five years in regressive terms like OPS, RBIs, and pitcher wins, and as much as that’s terrifying to those of us who worry that they really are the sorts of statistical terms he thinks in, to a lot of people it’s comfortable. Not only that, to a lot of those people Anthpoulos is just some seamhead bean counter, even if he’s never actually gone to the trouble of acting like one. Viewed through that prism, and the prism of the P.R. dance, I can understand Anthopoulos perhaps having learned a valuable lesson of the Ricciardi era and being careful not to arrogantly sound like the smartest guy in the room when speaking publicly, or not to speak over the heads of his audience.
Even if that’s not the case, I’m reminded again of something from Parkes, who explained, entirely sensibly, that in the corporate world “decision-makers rely on analysis from those capable of it. They don’t receive all of the nuts and bolts. They receive a recommendation. A smart executive team will look to multiple branches of its company to offer such recommendations when making a decision.”
Translation: Anthpoulos doesn’t even have to be an “analytics guy” himself, as long as he respects the people capable of providing the club with data, and recommendations based on it. And there is nothing in the piece to suggest he wouldn’t — in fact, it goes out of its way to suggest he already does.
Anthopoulos “automated” Brian Butterfield’s old job of suggesting defensive adjustments on the infield — and don’t think there isn’t a political aspect of applying some of these metrics within the tradition-bound world of the clubhouse, especially for a non-athlete who is already likely viewed with some suspicion (though, of course, the Rays seem to have no trouble with this). Anthopoulos, we’re told, also leaned on the department this winter in helping to make the second-biggest off-season free agent acquisition of his tenure, Dioner Navarro. And importantly, despite the impression of recency that it gives, the club seems to have been thinking this way for quite a bit longer than just the past six months. We’re told that the BEST is “a database launched in January 2013 designed to unify separate resources for scouting reports, proprietary analytics data, medical reports, contractual information and video in a single spot,” and that “the project was in development for 2½ years under former assistant GM Jay Sartori.”
The takeaway some fans tried to glean from this is that it wasn’t until bloody 2013 that the club utilized such data, which actually seems rather untrue. Yes, the unified database launched then, but we’re certainly not being told that the data in it was unavailable before that point, it was just disparate, and difficult to get all at once. It’s not like two-and-a-half years ago, when Sartori began the project, the club was in the dark ages on any of this. Nobody creates one big, unified database to house this kind of information before they even know what data they’re looking for. The implication, then, even if it’s not stated, is that more than two years before January 2013 they were already using the kind of stuff now being collected entirely by the BEST.
Plus, it may feel like Alex has been around forever, but let’s remember that two-and-a-half years before January 2013 is mid-2010, when Anthopoulos was only about a half-year on the job.
Does that make it acceptable that the club’s analytics department isn’t in the vanguard of the league? Should the line about “the really good programmers” being “hired by companies and make a lot of money, and you have to get someone who’s a baseball fan” not make us wince? No, it is not acceptable, it should make us wince, even if we’re able to recognize that the budget for front office staff can’t really be related back to the budget for unbelievably scarce on-field commodities. There is more to be demanded of the club with respect to this stuff, absolutely. But a more careful reading of Shi’s piece should give us a little more comfort with the department than was maybe initially there. I don’t think it’s two guys on Commodore Amigas arguing over whether they should try to poach the Phillies’ analytics plant, in other words.
Crotch grab in the direction of @thegrumpyowl for the image.