Baseball’s next big competitive edge

Everything a front office or MLB GM does comes down to one mandate: gain a competitive edge over the other 29 teams. This has been explored from multiple angles since baseball’s inception. Most recently, the introduction of advanced metrics, from predictive stats to the monetary value of a win, has changed the way we analyze the game.

However, we are now more than a decade past the publication of Moneyball, and, to put it bluntly, the days of simply adding an analytical genius to the front office and expecting him to tip the scales are over. There’s simply too much information-sharing in today’s world for any club to gain a lasting structural informational edge over their competitors. Proprietary information is becoming harder and harder to come by. While there are certainly frontiers of data not yet fully explored, I believe the next real advantage will come not from which team can acquire the most information, but from which team can best put that information into practice. How efficiently and successfully information is shared with managers, coaches and players will equal wins now and going forward.

Herein lies one of the great challenges of implementing winning, but unconventional, techniques. Players are resistant to change; managers are disinclined to upset habits. Think about the eye-rolls whenever a team says, “We’re going closer by committee.”

A slightly more extreme example came up in conversation last night. Former first-round pick and MLB veteran C.J. Nitkowski alerted me to a piece written by our FanGraphs colleague, Eno Sarris. I had not yet read the article and asked C.J. for an overview.

“Essentially, Eno thinks we should be moving guys around in the outfield during the game based on defensive strength. Crazy! Can you imagine how the weaker outfielder would feel?”

C.J.’s half right. I can think of two dozen major-league outfielders who might have bruised egos, but I can also think of a dozen who’d be cool with it. The difference isn’t (just) player makeup, its institutional buy-in.

To prepare a major-league club for something truly unorthodox – like switching outfielders on a batter-by-batter basis to minimize the impact of weak arms, poor jumps, or lack of range – the practice should begin at the very lowest levels of the organization. By implementing new ideas in rookie ball, players are less likely to balk when they’re asked to do something different in the name of capitalizing on every bit of leverage they can during an MLB game.

I think Eno’s thesis is an interesting idea that deserves discussion, but C.J. initially thought it was too radical. Our dichotomy of thought is understandable, given our drastically different breeding grounds. Regardless of the merits of this specific idea, baseball careers should begin by emphasizing and celebrating flexibility of thought instead of intractable habits. In the piece, Sarris acknowledges that “the small defensive upgrade would be negated by the unfamiliarity with the other outfield corner.”

If a club is unable to capitalize on a competitive advantage because of a solvable problem, it behooves them to fix the issue. In this case, what if our rookie ball outfielders switched positions during the games on a regular basis? Meeting unfamiliar challenges with levelheadedness and rational thought would become a default mindset. Change is difficult for all human beings and is especially challenging for men not often asked to do so. Instead of allowing this fear to control us, why not change the culture? Recent psychological studies on the value of mental flexibility (or ego resiliency) show additional benefits:

“By ego-resiliency, we meant…a dynamic ability to temporarily change from modal reaction or perceptual tendencies to reactions and percepts responsive to the immediately pressing situation and, more generally, to the inevitably fluctuating situational demands of life. In particular, the ego-resiliency construct entailed the ability to, within personal limits, situationally reduce behavioral control as well as to situationally increase behavioral control, to expand attention as well as to narrow attention …The relatively unresilient or vulnerable individual displayed little adaptive flexibility, was disquieted by the new and altered, was perseverative or diffuse in responding to the changed or strange, was made anxious before competing demands, and had difficulty in recouping from the traumatic.”

Simply by emphasizing flexibility and adaptation to new information, clubs could maximize their performance on field. Players would likely see reduced anxiety, improved performance and increased confidence. Weathering the inevitable highs and lows of the baseball season is a challenge, particularly for a young player. Helping them to become more mentally resilient will pay dividends on and off the field. Encouraging patterns of thought that encourage behavioral control will help young players to mature in the often tumultuous transition to professional baseball life.

Think about C.J.’s reaction from earlier. He, like most players, thought the idea was risky. Most players would be defensive if asked to do something outside the box. From the Clinical Psychology Review journal:

More recently, research wed to the empirically-based theoretical model of psychopathology known as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT; Hayes et al., 1999) extends the concept of ego-resilience. In the ACT model, flexibility is about being aware of thoughts and feelings that unfold in the present moment without needless defense, and depending on what the situation affords, persisting or changing behavior to pursue central interests and goals… experimental studies [show] that when induced with physical pain via a cold pressor task, people with greater flexibility show greater endurance, pain tolerance, and a more rapid rate of recovery to baseline distress levels (Feldner et al., 2006).

 

An organization reducing days and dollars lost to DL stints will inherently have an edge on the competition.

The benefits of infusing a mindset of flexibility and adaptability are obvious. The only way to reap those benefits is if players, coaches and managers buy in. By starting at the lowest levels, these men will have multiple years to learn and develop this flexibility before arriving onto the major league field.

Starting at the bottom simply isn’t enough, however. Baseball fans will never be content to hear “sure, we’re terrible now, but if you wait five or six years, we have a plan for success then.” Teams need to be able to respond and adapt to front office data now, with the MLB talent they have on the field. The current situation often plays out with a great idea being discussed in a front office. Perhaps it’s around lineup construction. It’s backed by in-depth analysis and delivered to the manager. He pushes back.

“This player would never go for it. He’s hit in the 3-hole his whole career. We will lose him.”

What happens? Often, the front office backs off, giving up on an idea that would otherwise give them an edge because one player isn’t comfortable. When the front office pushes the issue, it’s sometimes carried out grudgingly. The manager reluctantly makes a lineup change, doesn’t have the tools to explain it to the player and secretly hopes the move doesn’t work so he can go back to his comfort zone. “He belongs in the three hole, that’s why he’s not hitting.” Doing things the way they’ve always been done is easier than venturing into uncharted territory.

The player doesn’t like it and may or may not have the courage to speak up and pose questions. He walks up to the plate believing that this is a bad idea and will never work. He may be uncomfortable and tense, and it translates into his performance. He goes 0 for 16, and the idea is scrapped for good based on an unreasonably small sample. He expresses his annoyance to his teammates. “I hate the two hole.”

This scenario doesn’t benefit anyone. The front office, manager, coaches and players are all working towards the same goal. They must work together like a band of brothers, not fighting battles on opposite sides. The key responsibility for a manager is continual and effective communication. This requires knowing his players in depth and understanding the best way to present information. It also entails being able to accurately depict conversations with players back to the front office.

Let’s look at a real time example.

Adam Jones is an elite-level talent and one of the game’s most exciting players. His 115 wRC+ suggests he’s an above-average hitter. But Jones is far from perfect; his walk rate is abysmal. Jones has drawn walks in just 3.1 percent of his plate appearances this season, second-lowest in all of baseball. It wasn’t always this way. In the minors and in his first few seasons in the majors, Jones walked twice as often as he does now. If he had simply maintained that walk rate, Jones would be one of the best players in baseball. Clearly, there is nothing inherent to his game that leads to a low walk percentage, so it stands to reason that there is an adjustment in a specific count or counts Jones could make. His overall offensive production would skyrocket to a level he’s never seen. Suppose that piece of data is discovered? How does an organization deliver the information? If successfully implemented, you might be able to turn Adam Jones into Mike Trout.

Professional athletes are übercompetitive by nature. They inherently want to outplay their counterparts. Riffing off this concept is a prudent management style. But we can guess that just walking up to Adam Jones with a spreadsheet and lists of numbers isn’t likely to do much good. In fact, it may actively make him worse. Here’s how it might happen without care:

“Adam, you swing at nearly 11 percent more balls out of the strike zone than the average hitter. You make contact nearly 7 percent less. If you’re going to swing at more pitches out of the zone, you’d better be good at hitting bad pitches. However, our data says you’re not. Because you’re not having a ton of success at swinging at pitches out of the zone while up in the count, you need to take those pitches. Instead of making an out on a bad pitch, work the count."

With all that in mind, Adam, now go get Chris Sale tonight.

Psychology studies have shown that forcing our brains to process information in an unnatural way can lead to poor physical performance. Can Jones really process this information naturally?

Indeed, dozens of studies now support the intriguing notion that substantial self-control efforts on one task disrupt our ability to control some aspect of the self, even in a completed unrelated subsequent activity. For instance, trying to suppress disgust when watching a violent film led to less physical endurance during a hand grip task afterwards (Muraven, Tice, & Baumeister, 1998); completing a Stroop color-word task led people to share far too few or far too many personal details about themselves when meeting a stranger (Vohs et al., 2005); and ignoring irrelevant word streams while watching a person being interviewed led people to perform worse on measures of analytical intelligence (Schmeichel, Vohs, & Baumeister, 2003).

This is where a manager truly manages his players. A successful manager starts in spring training, discussing the organizational philosophy openly with his players from day 1. This truly is a conversation, with a back-and-forth flow and plenty of questions.

When Jones is on a hot streak, his manager watches carefully, commenting on what he’s doing well and building Adam’s confidence. Jones is more likely to be comfortable being approached midseason with a foundation of trust supporting his weight. Inevitably though, hot streaks end. Every hitter gets sick. When he’s in the midst of a struggle is the time to strike, psychologically. At that point we want to know what Jones needs to stop feeling ill and play on that wish.

The best managers or hitting coaches will swoop in at that time, delivering the evidence as medicine. Jones won’t be able to get the spoon in his mouth fast enough. Coaches and managers who know how and when to deliver the message are the most valuable tools a front office has. By the time a change needs to be made, the player trusts the organization to have his best interests at heart. If a message is being relayed from a unified front, executives and field staff standing shoulder to shoulder, there is less chance of taking sides or resisting.

I always envisioned myself as a three-hole hitter until my weaknesses were exploited at the major-league level. When I went to the Rays, Joe Maddon hit me everywhere from first to ninth. I remember the days I hit in the middle of the lineup. I was flattered and, frankly, surprised. But after a few months of comfort in the organization, I felt more certainty about where I was slotted. I knew that wherever I was in the lineup, I’d be in a position to succeed. I understood that my perceived weaknesses were negated by solid matchups on a day that I hit fourth. I knew that if I was called upon to pinch run or play D, it was because I gave the club the best chance to win that game. It didn’t happen overnight. I trusted our data and I trusted Joe Maddon. He’d earned said trust, because he and others spent the time explaining the organization’s philosophy to me when I was “toasty” (as Joe called it) and when I was worthless.

The trust was invaluable when they came to propose tweaks to my game. They showed me evidence that I hammered the pitch down in the zone and scuffled on the pitch up. I assumed the opposite throughout my entire career. The delivery of the information was not in one dose, but sooner rather than later, I began to recognize the validity of this information. I tried to lay off the pitch up more often. It was effective, not always, but enough to make a difference.

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to ideal communication within an organization. Trial and error will be required every step of the way. These questions can no longer be set aside, however. The data is there for the taking and the playing field is evening out. Extra wins will be tallied in the column for the team that best disseminates their goods.

The hills are flush with gold and everyone knows about it. Go.