The Better Letter: Actionable Complexity

Complex data sets and simple messages

Michael Lewis’s Moneyball focused on the 2002 season of the Oakland Athletics, a team with one of the smallest budgets in baseball. After the 2001 season, the A’s lost three of their star players to free agency because they could not afford to keep them. A’s General Manager Billy Beane was in a very tough spot, which both allowed and spurred him to go “all in” on an analytical approach which, to that point, had never been tried. 

Beane armed himself with reams of performance and other statistical data, his interpretation of which was routinely rejected by “traditional baseball men,” including many in his own organization. 

Not coincidentally, Beane was also armed with three terrific — according to both traditional and newfangled measures — young starting pitchers, not to mention soon-to-be AL MVP Miguel Tejada, Eric Chavez, and Jermaine Dye. Beane used data to complete his roster with otherwise undesirables on the cheap to create a team that proceeded to win 103 games and a division title largely because the newly acquired players’ true value was much higher than traditional measures recognized.

The crucial insight of Moneyball was a “Mungeresque” inversion. In baseball, a team wins by scoring more runs than its opponent. The insight was to invert the idea that runs and wins were achieved by hits to the radical notion that the key to winning is avoiding outs (bonus points to you if you’re now thinking about the classic book on investing, Winning the Loser’s Game, by Charley Ellis). That led Beane to “buy” on-base percentage cheaply because the “traditional baseball men” overvalued hits but undervalued OBP even though it doesn’t matter how a batter avoids making an out and reaches base. 

Of course, as with investing, on account of the success of the A’s, it didn’t take long for other GMs to get on board and drive up the price of OBP, forcing smart baseball men (and women) to find new inefficiencies.

The crucial lesson of Moneyball is the recognition that it is possible to find cheap value via underappreciated player assets (some assets are cheap for good reason) by way of an objective, disciplined, data-driven process. In other words, as Lewis explained, “it is about using statistical analysis to shift the odds [of winning] a bit in one’s favor” due to market inefficiencies. 

As then A’s Assistant GM Paul DePodesta said, “You have to understand that for someone to become an Oakland A, he has to have something wrong with him. Because if he doesn’t have something wrong with him, he gets valued properly by the marketplace, and we can’t afford him anymore.” Accordingly, Beane sought out players that he could obtain cheaply because their actual (statistically verifiable) value was greater than their generally perceived value. 

Despite the now-widespread use of analytics in MLB, broadly construed, smart baseball people are still finding underappreciated value and lunkheads are still making big mistakes. Cleveland Browns head coach, Kevin Stefanski, summed up the new ethos: “Information is power.” Hall-of-Fame pitcher Goose Gossage epitomizes the hold-outs.

“I’ll tell you what has happened, these guys played rotisserie baseball at Harvard or wherever the [bleep] they went and they thought they figured the [bleeping] game out. They don’t know [bleep].

“A bunch of [bleeping] nerds running the game.”

The great baseball writer Roger Angell said that traditional baseball people didn’t want anyone to shine any light in the darkness of baseball. But the sports analytics guys did anyway and, today, every MLB team and, indeed, every major professional sports team uses analytics. Most have substantial analytics departments. 

MIT’s Ben Shields goes so far as to argue that the use of data and analytics in sports is years ahead of most other industries. “It comes down to one word: competition,” Shields said. “For as long as sports have been played, teams and athletes are looking for a competitive edge. And it just so happens that today, and well into the future, data and analytics are going to be a source of a competitive edge for teams.”

Figuring out what sort of competitive edges and market inefficiencies might be available to MLB teams is one thing, and crazy hard in the current competitive environment. Taking advantage of them is another. It’s the second part of the equation that this week’s TBL focuses upon.

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Actionable Complexity

The 2020 World Series featured the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Tampa Bay Rays, baseball’s “brainiest” and “most innovative team.” Data – from game statistics to merchandise sales – influences how the Rays operate on and off the field. As Rays catcher Mike Zunino acknowledged recently, “We're very advanced when it comes to [analytics].” The Rays have to be innovative and experimental – they can’t afford not to be. Necessity is the mother of invention, as the saying goes.

The Dodgers’ payroll was MLB’s second-highest in 2020 while the Rays had the third-lowest, barely a quarter as much. Yet the Rays won the AL East handily, easily surpassing the Yankees (#1 in payroll) and the Red Sox (#4). In 2021, LA’s payroll is nearly $250 million, about $50 million more than any other team, even the Yankees. The combined salaries of LA players Trevor Bauer ($31 million), Clayton Kershaw ($31 million), and Mookie Betts ($22.5 million) dwarf the entire payroll of the Rays ($67 million). It’s hardly a level playing field, necessitating the Rays’ culture of constantly searching for and experimenting with potential market inefficiencies on the field and off.

Moreover, the Dodgers have a ton of money and are analytically advanced, too. LA is led by former Wall Street analyst Andrew Friedman, who previously had spent a decade with the Rays, becoming GM at age 28, before leaving for the West Coast and big money himself.

Rays GM Erik Neander has outlined the team’s philosophy. “Try to appreciate the strengths a player possesses at any given moment,” Neander said. “Try to keep the focus there. Try to think about the paths to further development. You don't necessarily know what they're going to take, but the more options, the more possibilities, the more you have a chance for them to take that step.”

Manager Kevin Cash explained it this way: “We're good because we have good players and we really work hard to get them in the right positions to be successful and win you games.”

The Rays’ innovations include embracing the opener in their pitching rotation, using extreme shifts, and sometimes even a fourth outfielder. And, perhaps most importantly, they are the leaders in player development, especially of pitchers, and among the leaders in roster depth. As Astros GM and former Rays executive, James Click explained, “The ability to create your own talent is always going to be a huge mover. It's something that the Rays obviously do exceptionally well. It's something the Dodgers do exceptionally well.”

Increasingly, competition has eliminated most inefficiencies hiding in plain sight. Instead, more and more player development is required to make the inefficiencies discovered by an analytics team actionable.

Tampa Bay specializes in players who need to change but “can’t find [their] way home.”

They look for “a very particular set of skills.”

For example, the Rays acquired Yandy Diaz because of his high-end exit velocity (how hard he hits the ball) and added some loft to his swing plane, increasing his production markedly. They acquired soft-tossing lefty Ryan Yarbrough because of his plus control and ability to induce soft contact and added a cutter to his pitch repertoire to help against right-handed hitters. They also employ multiple different looks and styles so that the opposition can’t get a consistent read on how the Rays will be attacking and defending them. 

The Rays have demonstrated over the years that they have an edge in understanding, but making that edge work for them requires they train for it to manifest itself. For that to happen, players must first be receptive to being instructed. Because of their consistent success in this area, getting player buy-in isn’t hard for the Rays today. The results they have achieved instill trust in the players being coached. As Yarbrough said about pitchers, “you can see all of the guys who have come up through the years and had a lot of pitching success.”

Player development success also requires the ability to communicate effectively to players who may not have a sophisticated understanding of the concepts to be imparted. Like any good teaching technique, that requires clarity and simplicity of message. 

Unfortunately, keeping things simple is not as simple as it seems. We are not natural simplifiers. Instead, are hard-wired to look to add to existing systems rather than subtract to a simpler solution, even when simpler is better. That makes the Rays’ approach that much more impressive.

Last August, Cody Reed met with Rays pitching coach Kyle Snyder and bullpen coach Stan Boroski for the first time. They presented Tampa Bay’s newest left-handed pitcher, recently released by the Reds, an enormous array of charts and data with an in-depth analysis of his pitching going all the way back to when he played at Northwest Mississippi Community College in 2013, including his efforts with two other MLB systems, Major and minor league, right up through his arrival with the Rays. Significantly, however, they didn’t start by digging into the data. They didn’t analyze his flaws. They didn’t even tell him what they wanted him to work on.

“They were like, ‘Hey man, your stuff is this good. Just throw it over the plate,’” Reed recalled. “And that was probably about as easy as any advice I’ve ever gotten. I was like, ‘Well, I can throw it over the plate for sure.’”

As Thoreau pleaded, “Simplify, simplify.” Cash puts it this way: “what makes Kyle and Stan very special in that they're able to just condense everything and pretty much cherry-pick what they value as the most important and really harp on that.”

The keys to the Rays’ approach were on full display in that initial meeting: “complex information and simple messages.”

“They actually have concrete data to make you good at pitching,” new staff ace Tyler Glasnow said. “They're not just shooting in the dark. They're telling you: ‘If you do this, you will succeed.’”

Glasnow made his first start for the Rays the day after he was acquired from the Pirates in August of 2018. The primary message was as simple as can be. Throw strikes. “Middle. Aim to bigger areas.”

Data fully support that advice. Throwing strikes and getting and keeping an advantage in the count is of huge importance to pitchers. To illustrate at the extremes, at a 3-0 count, hitters produce a .544 wOBA (adjusting for the quality of the hitter) with a .725 OBP and .555 slugging percentage. At 0-2, hitters strike out 47 percent of the time and get on base at just a .201 clip.* 

Snyder said he mostly just made sure Glasnow would “understand the cost of a ball” and realize that the strike zone is larger than he might have thought. “It's just like what they're telling you actually makes sense,” Glasnow added. That sense comes from personalized advice tailored specifically to how each pitcher’s stuff plays and what makes him effective at his best. “It’s just a relentless pursuit of doing what you do best and trusting that it's going to be good enough to get hitters out,” Boroski said.

It sounds easier than it is.

Left-hander Jeffrey Springs, acquired from the Red Sox before this season, said the Rays showed him data without overwhelming him and emphasized “rushing to two strikes.” They also recommended he throw his breaking stuff more because they identified it as being better than Springs himself realized. “It just kind of gives a little bit more confidence in the ability that, hey, it is good. They're looking at it. They're supporting it with numbers. Numbers don't lie,” Springs said.

The night then-marginal prospect, current high leverage reliever Pete Fairbanks was dealt from Texas to Tampa Bay and assigned to Triple-A Durham, he got a call from Snyder. “He said, ‘Hey, we think you have really good stuff, and we think we can use it in a way that’s more beneficial to you,’” Fairbanks recalled. “And then I get to Durham, and [pitching coach Rick] Knapp’s like, ‘This is your chart. This is what you do. The arm talent is elite. Now let’s just throw it over the plate.’

“That’s like pitching in a nutshell: Get ahead and make them chase something they don't want to hit. And when you get guys that do it really well, you have a very successful pitching staff.”

“You can go find just about anything with the resources that a Major League club has, so I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily the amount,” Fairbanks continued. “I would say it’s more of the streamlining and the simplification and the taking all the prep that Kyle does, that Stan does, that Winston and J-Money do. It’s taking all that prep and then giving it to you in just the bite that you need to go out and try to perform at your highest level.”

Once trust is established and confidence reestablished, the Rays can suggest new pitches and changes in pitch usage, location, grips, arm slots, delivery mechanics, and positions on the rubber, if and as circumstances and each individual pitcher’s abilities warrant. The goal is to use and adapt what they have “in a way that’s more beneficial to you” (and the Rays). Such adjustments are often “built” via trial and error using TrackMan tracking technology and high-speed cameras during training sessions.

The Rays employ excellent teaching techniques: breaking down complex data points into digestible sound bites, incorporating visual aids to speed up learning curves, and remaining close to the data at all times to make sure they don’t get lost in their trapped priors. The team does the hard intellectual work so the player doesn’t have to and can stick to playing the game. He just executes, making strategic, data-driven interpretive work actionable.

It all makes for a killer flywheel built into the team’s culture from top to bottom, largely advancing through trial and error, following the data, and a great communication strategy by the Rays. Even the best information is useless if it isn’t communicated effectively and then put to good use.

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* More granularly, “[t]he biggest discrepancy on any one pitch, in terms of future outcome, is actually the 1-1 pitch, going either to 2-1 or 1-2,” said Paul DePodesta, echoing what he said in Moneyball. “It’s largely because, at that point, you’re at two strikes. As a hitter, you’re in peril. You’re a little at the pitcher’s mercy.” Last season, for example, Mike Trout – perhaps the best baseball player ever – hit just .195 with two strikes. NL MVP Freddie Freeman hit .202; AL MVP José Abreu hit .203. 


Totally Worth It

Ryan Spader, baseball writer, and former hedge fund manager is betting on every single MLB game this season and blogging the results.

How to lose $20 billion in two days.

Evangelicals Matt Labash and Eric Metaxas debated and Metaxas got crushed.

Regular readers know I love great opening lines. Here are some famous ones, modified for the pandemic. 

How We All Became Richard Nixon.

This is the most important thing I read this week. The most interesting. The stupidest. The most ridiculous. The freakiest.

Last week, I wrote about compounding. Here is another excellent take on it.

Steve Gadd is a studio musician you may not know who probably played drums on many of your favorite records. 

You may contact me via rpseawright [at] gmail [dot] com or on Twitter – @rpseawright – with questions, comments, and critiques. Don’t forget to subscribe and share.

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Aaron Copland composed “Fanfare for the Common Man” in 1942 during WWII as part of the war effort. The title was significant because, as he said, “It was the common man, after all, who was doing all the dirty work in the war and the army.” He later added, “He deserved a fanfare.” Today, the title could just as readily apply to the healthcare workers and other essential front-liners who have helped us throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. 


Benediction

Carrie Underwood streamed a wonderful live (and free) concert from the Ryman in Nashville (the “Mother Church of Country Music”) on Easter Sunday in conjunction with the release of her new album of hymns and gospel songs, “My Savior.” This week’s benediction is her lovely rendition of a song from that album, “Just as I Am.” It is the classic “invitation hymn” used for decades by Billy Graham at the close of his meetings and sung by many (especially Baptists) every single week.  

Issue 58 (April 9, 2021)