Baseball

Cubs’ Tommy Hottovy, a Kansas City native and former Royal, is new type of sabermetrician

Kansas City native and former Royals pitcher Tommy Hottovy, shown here during spring training in 2012, now serves as an advanced scout and the director of run prevention for the Chicago Cubs.
Kansas City native and former Royals pitcher Tommy Hottovy, shown here during spring training in 2012, now serves as an advanced scout and the director of run prevention for the Chicago Cubs. The Kansas City Star

In the months after the baseball season, when he wasn’t toiling in the minors or rehabbing from another arm injury, Tommy Hottovy would return to Kansas City and work as an analyst for a local financial company.

The job was temporary, of course. There’s only so much time in the offseason when you’re a professional baseball player, but Hottovy always took the gig seriously. An honor roll student in high school and finance major in college, he always envisioned himself doing something with stats or numbers when his baseball career was over. It seemed like all the men in his family found themselves doing some type of forecasting or accounting. But Hottovy, a Kansas City native and Park Hill South graduate, didn’t know when the time would come. After a successful career at Wichita State, he’d been drafted by the Boston Red Sox in 2004. For the next decade, he climbed through the minor leagues as a left-handed pitcher, eventually enjoying his debut with the Red Sox in 2011 before a cup of coffee with his hometown Royals in 2012. In that moment, his post-career path could wait.

“I always figured I would do something with numbers,” Hottovy said. “It’s just the way my mind worked. I always liked analytics and digging through stuff.”

Three seasons after his career finally ended, Hottovy has found that calling, working as an advanced scout and the director of run prevention for the Chicago Cubs, who won the National League for the first time in 71 years before falling behind the Cleveland Indians 3-1 in this World Series. The job, in some ways, is the natural evolution of the sabermetric movement. On a daily basis, Hottovy, a former big-leaguer with an inclination toward numbers, pores through advanced statistics and develops game plans for the Cubs’ pitchers and positional alignments for the club’s defense.

The particulars of the job offer a window into a baseball culture that, over the two decades, has become more and more infused with advanced forecasting systems, more influenced by growing analytics departments that roll deep with Ivy League graduates. Yet the role can also provide a small look inside the processes of the Cubs’ machine, a baseball operations department that has been turned over by club president Theo Epstein, who came to the Cubs in October 2011 after assembling two championship teams in Boston.

The story, Hottovy says, began three seasons ago. In April 2014, he elected to walk away from baseball after blowing out his shoulder during spring training with the Cubs. By that point, Hottovy says, he had already been discussing a possible role in the Cubs organization. In his mind, he thought he could help bridge the gap between the analytics department and the coaching staff and players, helping translate findings and implement ideas where the numbers led.

“There are guys that just don’t speak both languages,” Hottovy said. “That can understand what the baseball mind sees in something, but can also talk about exit velocities and spin rates and hard-contact rate. All these things that the analytics departments push, they often times get lost in translation.”

Epstein was receptive to the idea. But an opening didn’t exist on the staff until the Cubs hired manager Joe Maddon before the 2015 season. In nine seasons in Tampa Bay, Maddon had developed a reputation as one of baseball’s most statistically-inclined managers. He signed off right away.

“The sabermetrical components are really important,” Maddon said.

On most days, Hottovy digs into the Cubs’ proprietary numbers. He scours statistical websites, including FanGraphs.com and BaseballReference.com. He pours through numbers from MLB’s Statcast system and Inside Edge, an advanced scouting service. When he is done, he sits down with Mike Borzello, the Cubs’ catching coach, Brandon Hyde, the first-base coach, and Gary Jones, the third-base coach, to craft game plans for opposing hitters and defensive shifts and alignments for certain situations.

“Everybody has access to this information,” Hottovy said. “The toughest part is sifting through it and coming up with a system that works and then presenting it to the guys in the right way.”

Hottovy is versatile, in part, because he is a former professional player who loved to explore the analytical side during his playing days. When he retired in 2014, he spent a few months taking an online Sabermetrics 101 course at Boston University, a refresher of sorts for terminology and different stats. He sought to learn how the stats community compiled the Wins Above Replacement statistic and the formulas for different defensive metrics. The course, he says, offered a solid foundation.

“I tried to familiarize myself with all of that,” Hottovy said. “So when a player comes to me and asks, ‘Why is my defensive rating this?’ — I can explain it. Because they can look at the numbers and they know what comes out.”

These days, Hottovy is entrenched in the job and in the community in Chicago. When he took on the new role, he relocated his offseason home from Kansas City. It was difficult to leave, Hottovy says, but with two young children, it was the right time for he and his wife Andrea to move.

And yes, it has been good timing. In two seasons in Chicago, the Cubs have made the playoffs twice and closed in on an elusive world championship. In five seasons, Epstein has transformed the front office into a model organization. Hottovy has become a small part of that, but he has also offered a template for a new type of role — a statistical analysis with big-league experience on his resume.

“Every team has an analytics department,” Hottovy said. “And every team has guys from Yale and Harvard and all these amazing guys. But it’s one thing to just present the information. It’s a whole other thing to dig through it and find what’s relevant.”

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