WASHINGTON---First there was “Moneyball,” the Brad Pitt homage to empirical analysis of sports. Then came Clint Eastwood’s “Trouble with the Curve,” the recent homage to old-fashioned scouting and human intuition in assessing baseball talent.
To which should the sports fan pay the greater heed?
Well, the folks at Bloomberg News (actually a new operation called Bloomberg Sports) convened a private gathering the other evening, starring Dan Duquette, the executive vice president of baseball operations of the Baltimore Orioles, and Bryan Minniti, the assistant general manager of the Washington Nationals.
Both teams had fabulous seasons last year and while Minniti is a comparative newbie compared to his older counterpart, they were both interesting in mulling the state of the sport with Al Hunt, the prominent Bloomberg reporter-editor and a capital media mainstay.
The session began with a rather fascinating example of the sort of analytics Bloomberg is hawking to sports teams, initially in baseball and also in soccer worldwide. It was a breakdown of every single pitch thrown last season by Tim Lincecum of the San Francisco Giants.
There is probably no angle they haven’t pursued. Want to see what pitches he threw when the count was 2-1 against left-handed batters? And video of each one? Every possible pattern is dissected, along with where a ball was hit if it was hit. What appeared to be dozens, potentially hundreds, of criteria in breaking down his performance could be quickly highlighted by a click of a computer key.
For sure, “Moneyball,” both the original Michael Lewis book and the subsequent movie, has been dissected ad nauseam and it’s clear that virtually every team relies pretty heavily on numbers crunching assessments (with a few relative exceptions, said Duquette, notably the Atlanta Braves).
As for the Eastwood movie, and its protagonist’s belief that one has to “just go with the sound” when bat hits ball, he conceded that there are a few old codgers who may still go that route. Duquette, who is one of a curious number of baseball executives who are alumni of elite Amherst College, recalled his being a young scout, watching games in the Cape Cod League, and sitting near an old hand who said, “I go by the sound and buy the paper in the morning” to see how the game actually wound up.
And lest one think today’s data obsession is all that new, Duquette reminded that Earl Weaver, the Orioles famous manager who died recently, was way ahead of the sport in using analytics, in particular on-base percentage and a radar gun to track when a pitcher’s speed was decreasing.
For sure, analytics are particularly helpful, said Duquette, in assessing the impact of trades and positioning one’s players defensively (knowing the hitting tendencies of the other team). And, yes, they are a boon to fantasy league participants.
But there remain many weaknesses, especially in assessing young talent.
The subject of initial talent evaluation was the most interesting part of the session. Shortcomings were conceded by Minniti, a young statistics and math major from the University of Pittsburgh and thus a prototype of the sort of young gun now infiltrating the sport
Why do the National Football League and National Basketball Association have better luck in drafting players?
As Minniti said, amateur statistics are simply far more ambiguous, given dramatically different levels of competition. There, you do have to rely heavily on scouting.
And, said Duquette, there is the overarching reality that hitting a baseball demands a significantly high skills level, while pitching is just an unnatural act. “Combine the two and it’s hard to predict performance.”
Comparing a kid who’s played in the back woods of Pennsylvania with one who has played in bigtime Atlantic Coast Conference games is just inherently difficult.
No surprise, and knock on wood, whatever the resulting sound, there still still seems a whole lot of art to go with all the new-fangled science.