In the top of the first inning of Friday night’s World Series game, the Dodgers’ Corey Seager hit a ball into short right field. Fortunately for the Astros, that’s where second baseman Jose Altuve was standing. Altuve knocked the ball down, picked it up, spun in a circle and threw Seager out at first base.
Chalk one up for defensive analytics.
The Astros positioned Altuve in the right spot to make that play and afterwards, as he walked back to the infield, Altuve looked in his hat; that’s where he was keeping the card that told him where to play the next hitter.
The Astros aren’t the only team doing that; Dodgers outfielder Joc Pederson is keeping his positioning card in his back pocket and has been seen consulting it between batters.
Obviously, those cards need to be made up before the game begins and for some people that’s smart baseball; other people have questions.
The numbers tell you about the past, not what’s happening right now
For starters, let’s dispense with the myth that the baseball players and coaches that question analytics are dinosaurs, living in the past and afraid of the future. I’ve never met a player or coach who wasn’t interested in the numbers.
They might not be interested in the same numbers you are, or place the same amount of faith in those numbers, but a lot of players and coaches want to know the numbers and then be able to use them as they see fit. Those players and coaches feel the numbers tell you about the past, but not what’s happening right now and what’s happening right now is important.
Here’s an example:
When Danny Duffy pitches for the Kansas City Royals, some nights he’s got good command; other nights not so much.
So Royals outfield coach Rusty Kuntz starts his outfielders playing straight up and has Lorenzo Cain, his centerfielder, report back to him. Cain had a good view of home plate and if Danny is hitting the mitt, the Royals outfielders can start shifting; if Danny is hitting the outside corner consistently, the Royals outfielders can play the hitter to go to the opposite field.
But if Danny’s all over the zone, the outfielders have to stay straight up; nobody knows whether a pitch is going to end up on the outside corner or inside corner and the outfielders have to be ready to defend either location.
So if Rusty’s outfielders had a card telling them where to stand (and the Royals haven’t resorted to that yet), in Rusty’s opinion, it would only be a starting point. Until Rusty saw how good or poor Danny’s location was that night, he couldn’t position his outfielders correctly.
Taken to extremes, you have two points of view: teams that want to direct things from the front office and decide how things will be done before the game ever starts and teams that want to react to what’s happening as the game progresses.
And to figure out which path to take, a team might want to answer the following question.
How much does a team trust its players?
Watch a college game and you’re likely to see the catchers look into their dugouts between pitches. A lot of college coaches don’t trust their catchers enough to let them call their own games.
But when a big league catcher looks into the dugouts they aren’t getting pitches called, they’re getting signs that control the running game; slide steps, pitchouts and pickoffs.
Big league teams know catchers can see things no one else can; the position of the hitter’s feet, his hands or how he’s holding the bat. All that changes how a catcher calls a game and all that can change from at-bat to at-bat or even pitch-to-pitch.
So far, big league teams want to take advantage of that up-to-the-second information, but it won’t be overly surprising if some big league team decides to have pitches called from the side using analytical information.
Some baseball people think it’s only a matter of time until teams have an analytics guy in uniform, in the dugout during games, giving the manager advice.
After the Yankees fired Joe Girardi they let it be known that their next manager needed to analytics-friendly. Those are code words for allowing the analytics guys to have a bigger role in deciding what happens during a game.
The blend teams
It doesn’t have to be an either-or situation; some teams believe in taking the information supplied by the analytics department and blending it with the information provided by the players and coaches playing the games.
The Kansas City Royals are on that list.
At least so far, the Royals want their players and coaches informed, but then want those players and coaches to react to what they see happening on the field.
If a runner on second base has decoded the catcher’s signs and thinks he can steal third, there’s no time to hold a front office meeting and take a vote on the wisdom of that move. To take advantage of game-time information, a player needs the freedom to stray from the pregame plan.
And that can be done on a case-by-case basis.
Alex Gordon has four Gold Gloves so he gets more freedom to make decisions on the field; Jorge Bonifacio has played 97 big league games as an outfielder so he needs more help from the bench.
So the Astros and Dodgers players might have some leeway to stray from the positioning recommended on the cards or might be required to stand where they’re told to stand, no questions asked.
But at least now, when you see one of those players look at his positioning card, you know what he’s doing.
Enjoy the rest of the Series.