Playing the game by the numbers is going to take a hit as Major League Baseball opens its COVID-abbreviated 60-game schedule when the New York Yankees take on the defending World Series champion Washington Nationals on Thursday at Nationals Park.
As they say, the use of analytics doesn’t play itself out in a short season or series the way it does over the course of a 162-game season.
“It’s too small a sample size,” Arizona Diamondbacks manger Torey Lovullo said.
Lovullo went on to explain that in a normal season, his club would use matchups from the previous season for the first 30 games before transitioning into the fresh data. But 30 games this year will already be half a season.
“We’re very aware of that,” he added.
Analytics cover everything from pitcher-batter matchups to how many times a team shifts its infielders depending upon the tendency of where a batter hits the ball, whether on the ground or a line drive. The data has become so refined during recent seasons that managers move infielders on every pitch.
Last season, the Los Angeles Dodgers led MLB by shifting 50.5-percent of the time, with the Houston Astros right behind them at 49.5-percent. With the firings of analytically-driven general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch because of the 2017 sign-stealing scandal, change was headed to Houston anyway, even before old-school manager Dusty Baker took charge. Baker, 71, has a .532 winning percentage managing mostly from the gut for four MLB teams over the course of 22 seasons.
The Dodgers, though, are one of six western teams that are very analytically driven. They include the Diamondbacks, San Francisco Giants, Los Angeles Angels, Oakland A’s, Colorado Rockies and San Diego Padres.
The Dodgers, under president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and manager Dave Roberts, know they’re going to have to adjust.
“It’s going to be tougher and I think that’s a very fair point,” Roberts said. “There’s a track record that certainly matters. But you’re talking about a longer view and a larger sample. It’s going to have to be a combo. It’s the eye. It’s what you feel. And some analytics as well.”
For the Dodgers, that will be a vastly different approach.
The Angels are led this season by veteran manager Joe Maddon, who introduced the extensive use of the shift while looking for any edge during his days as skipper of the small-revenue Tampa Bay Rays. Prior to that the shift was used intermittently to thwart left-handed power hitters like Barry Bonds and Ted Williams.
Maddon then went on to Chicago, where the Cubs actually began to diminish use of the shift during the seasons following their win of the 2016 World Series, the team’s first in 108 years. In 2019, the Cubs were last among the Major League’s 30 teams, having utilized the strategy 12.7-percent of the time. The Angels last season under Brad Ausmus were 23rd in MLB, shifting just 16.8-percent of the time.
This season, however, lacks the build up to define any regular defensive trends.
“I think the way to describe it is it’s kind of like September baseball, and being in the playoff hunt and being solvent,” said Maddon, who was given his pink slip by the Cubs after last season. “No matter what you use, you have to manage it like you have no time to make up any ground.”
It’s also worth noting that the world-champion Nationals used the shift 14.3-percent of the time last year, good for 27th in MLB. On his arrival as manager in 2018, Davey Martinez started to minimize the shift solely because his star pitchers Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg don’t like pitching to it.
The success of the shift, and thus pitcher-batter matchups, is contingent on the pitcher hitting a spot of the plate, depending upon the batter and the infield alignment. If the pitcher misses his spot, the entire system collapses. The less data, the lower chances for success.
The shift in part has led to the “launch angle” trend of players attempting to lift the ball in the air and over the infield. As the use of shifts have gone up from 2.6-percent per plate appearance in 2010 to 44.6-percent in 2019, home runs and strikeouts have increased along with it.
The unintended consequence of the shift were these records last year: 6,776 total home runs (11-percent higher than the previous mark), and 42,823 strikeouts (the 12th year in a row that figure was higher than the previous season).
The Dodgers were very adept at the shift, saving 39 runs defensively because of it the last three seasons — second most in MLB. The Nationals were not, saving only two during the same period.
“When you have great pitchers like Strasburg and Scherzer, there’s really no reason to shift,” said Martinez, who was Maddon’s bench coach in Chicago and Tampa Bay prior to moving to Washington. “They pitch to contact anyway and get a lot of ground balls. You do what they’re comfortable with.”
When a team has a smaller sample size of games – and thus plate appearances and pitches – it has to change its entire approach.
The Giants were a middle of the pack analytics-driven team under former GM Brian Sabean and manager Bruce Bochy, who retired at the conclusion of the 2019 season. Under president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi and new manager Gabe Kapler, computer-driven baseball was expected to become a way life.
Kapler, who was fired last year by the Philadelphia Phillies after two unsuccessful seasons, said the expected approach has already been different as the Giants conclude nearly three weeks of summer camp.
“The small sample of the 60-game season is not as challenging as the small sample of this modified camp,” he said. “I think the biggest and most exciting component is that we really have to put our scouting caps on. We’ve only had a handful of at bats for our position players and a handful of innings for our pitchers. From an evaluation standpoint this has been pretty refreshing.”
And once the short season starts?
“You just try to get the most out of your roster,” Kapler said. “I see the challenges of it.”