Sunday, March 20, 2016

Review: Big Data Baseball (2015)

By Travis Sawchik

To quote a song from the 1960's, the revolution's here.

The analytic revolution in baseball, that is. Teams have hired a group of "smart guys" to pour over data to see how to improve a particular team. It's influencing everything from free agent signings to defensive positioning, and it's not going away any time soon.

Baseball reporter Travis Sawchik takes that premise and gives us something of a case study in his book, "Big Data Baseball." The team to be studied is the Pittsburgh Pirates of 2013, which finally had a winning season after 20 years in the wilderness.

But before we look at the Pirates situation, let's go back to a great point made by Sawchik about the "dark ages" in baseball analysis.

Bill James was a baseball fan who earned money as a night watchman. That meant that after doing his hourly rounds, he had plenty of time to look over box scores and come up with questions about the sport. The drawback was that he did not have the information to answer those questions. He did some counting as best he could (which resulted in the publication of a series of revolutionary books) but eventually hit several walls. The bits of information, he discovered, just weren't out there. But James saw a day when the data would be there, and curious people could investigate all sorts of baseball-related questions.

In the last several years, that data has arrived like a flood. Those curious people now work for baseball teams. In fact, some of them were employed by the Pittsburgh Pirates - which brings us to this particular book.

The Pirates had been losers for a couple of decades and were near the bottom of the league in revenues so that there were no quick fixes out there. They wanted to get better, and they wanted to do it relatively cheaply and efficiently. Luckily for the Pirates and their fans, analysts Dan Fox and Mike Fitzgerald had some ideas on how to do that. What's more, the pair had a receptive audience in general manager Neal Huntington and manager Clint Hurdle.

The Pirates wanted to be more efficient on defense, so they shifted their player alignment much more than other teams based on statistical patterns. Suddenly, ground balls were gobbled up by fielders instead of leaking through for singles. The Pirates wanted more strikes from their pitching staff, so they signed catcher Russell Martin to "frame" pitches - a technique designed to get more borderline calls from umpires. Suddenly, ERAs of Pittsburgh pitchers went down. The organization wanted more ground balls, so pitchers were told to start throwing more two-seam fastballs. That worked too.

Presto - the Pirates were winners again. They made the playoffs in 2013, starting a renaissance in Pittsburgh baseball that continues to this day.

Sawchik goes into good-sized detail here about how important it was for everyone to buy into the program, so to speak. The Pirates made sure that Fox and Fitzgerald were around the team a lot to answer questions, and their ideas were accompanied by easy-to-understand charts and illustrations. See how this batter always, always, always pulls the ball over the course of a year? Doesn't it make sense to move the infield and outfield that way? Eventually, everyone got it.

It's at first surprising to see the level of detail that the Pirates were willing to disclose about their methods. But then again, the sport remains dynamic, and this year's trends won't be next year's realities. All teams are shifting more these days; it's just a matter of degree. When hitters learn to go to the opposite field more - and be good at it - it will cause a reaction on the defense. And so it goes.

"Big Data Baseball" isn't as technical as the title might indicate, and Sawchik wisely puts a human face on the principals involved. The Pirates' adaptations to analytical trends aren't the whole story behind their rise in the standings - a little talent helps too - but it's a good-sized part of that tale. The book accomplishes its goal nicely of offering a close-up view of one team's moves in the information age, and therefore will be well received by those seeking an understanding of the game today. In simpler terms, nicely done.

Four stars

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