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OC Register: Thirty major league teams, one algorithm? Not so fast, say executives


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What’s in a baseball algorithm?

That’s a multimillion-dollar question these days. Chicago Cubs pitcher Brad Brach told the team’s beat writers last week that his free agency ended with six or seven offers that were “all about the same.” He ended up signing a one-year contract worth $4.35 million with an option for 2020. That’s good money for anyone, even a middle reliever, but something left Brach feeling frustrated.

“It’s kind of weird,” he said, “that all offers are the same that come around at the same time and everyone tells you there’s an algorithm, and you figure teams have different ones.”

Has the method for evaluating a baseball player truly been reduced to an equation that looks more or less the same from team to team? In an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch last week, the agent for Cardinals shortstop Paul DeJong seemed to echo this idea: “If the balance on the scale tilts so far in the direction of strict analytics,” Burton Rocks said, “baseball’s game is going to suffer, baseball’s global marketing will suffer because it is the player’s personalities that drive interest in the game.”

It’s no secret that analytics hold more influence over front office decisions with each passing year. Like it or not, baseball is more of a numbers game than ever. Here’s a better-kept secret: where hasn’t analytics taken a stranglehold over teams’ decision-making processes? If not for players like Brach or DeJong, for whom do the algorithms differ?

I put these questions to executives this week at the annual Cactus League media day for managers and general managers. Their answers pointed to a less homogenous climate than the most jaded free agents would have you believe. One outspoken player agent I spoke to described the gap between the most and least analytically reliant front offices as the “Grand (expletive) Canyon.” Yet within the industry, there isn’t even consensus about which front office uses analytics the most and which uses analytics the least.

“We don’t have an algorithm,” Arizona Diamondbacks general manager Mike Hazen said. “We certainly look at all the objective information that’s put out there publicly and privately. We have scouts, and I don’t think other teams have access to our scouting reports. We obviously have personal histories and makeup that we gather from around the league that I would doubt other teams are getting.

“I’m not sure that (teams’ player evaluation processes) look as similar as you’re alluding to, but there may be some similarities at least within the objective data, because a lot of that’s public.”

While a team’s scouting reports remain private, there’s a reason nearly 100 scout positions have reportedly been eliminated across Major League Baseball in recent years. Much of the data clubs once relied on scouts to gather – pitch velocity, pitch movement, a hitter’s tendencies, a fielder’s range – can be quantified with more precision than ever. A lot of this quantitative data is publicly available, much of it via MLB’s Statcast technology.

With fewer scouts on the payroll, and more data publicly available, the information gap between the best and worst scouting departments in baseball should shrink (in theory). But how does one quantify a player’s “personal history and makeup” that the Diamondbacks scrutinize? Can it even be quantified?

“It’s all qualitative,” Hazen said. “I don’t have anything quantitative. We try to gather as much information as we can, try to get to know who they are.”

I put the same question to Reds general manager Nick Krall, and a difference quickly emerged in baseball’s allegedly homogenous algorithms.

“You can look at it a couple different ways,” Krall said of a player’s makeup. “You can put all the qualitative stuff into a list, and try to figure out a quantitative viewpoint.”

At least one free agent was weighing offers that differed by $100 million.

Manny Machado ended one of the closest-watched free-agent pursuits in years Tuesday, reportedly agreeing to a 10-year, $300 million contract with the San Diego Padres. Wednesday, one report indicated that Machado could have expected a $220-240 million payday from the New York Yankees. The Chicago White Sox’s final 8-year offer reportedly included two option years that would have paid Machado a total of $320 million.

Machado’s free-agent case was somewhat of a unicorn. He is 26 years old, coming off his most productive offensive season ever, after having switched to a premium position (shortstop) in 2018. Unlike some free agents, Machado did not receive and reject a qualifying offer last November. That would have cost his signing team a draft pick.

Machado’s free-agent case was typical in one respect at least. His 2018 season, split between Baltimore’s Camden Yards and Dodger Stadium, demonstrated the power one ballpark can have over a hitter’s impact. Machado had a .360 batting average, .448 on-base percentage, and a .691 slugging percentage in Baltimore last year. In Los Angeles, he slashed .279/.360/.514. For every front office, what a hitter will do in their ballpark can cause quantitative evaluations to vary wildly.

“You look at our ballpark, it’s a hitter’s park,” Krall said. “Different players are probably going to perform a little differently than they would in Seattle, Cleveland – the larger parks. Whether it’s your lineup or ballpark, every place has different factors that go into creating their team.”

“We think about it with every player we acquire,” Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto said. “The right-hand gap hitter usually does better in our park than the right-hand bomber, until you get to that crazy power level. The pitchers, our ballpark usually provides more of a soft landing for the fly-ball pitcher, similar to what the Big A did. We were able to build staffs that we might give up a few more homers, but it wouldn’t cripple us because our ballparks allowed us to use that to our advantage.

“We thought about it all the time: trades, free agents, whatever.”

Hovering above it all is the process of building a roster, which can also depend greatly on a team’s peculiar personnel. Take the example of veteran infielder Wilmer Flores, who signed a one-year, $4.25 million contract with the Diamondbacks in January.

“We talked to (Ketel) Marte before we signed Wilmer Flores because we knew that signing a second baseman was going to have an impact on our second baseman,” Hazen said. “We needed to make sure Ketel was going to be able to handle center field before we made that move.

“He told us he was fully on board with doing whatever. If that conversation goes in a different direction, you might change your strategy in the offseason.”

So yes, there are still differences in how each team goes about its offseason business that no single algorithm can account for. Even in 2019.

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