April 1st, 2013

Stats vs. No Stats—a Controlled Experiment?

Over the last week, two articles appeared discussing two teams’ contrasting approaches to making baseball decisions. The Washington Nationals were called a “scouting first” organization that integrates statistical analyses into team decisions. By contrast, the Philadelphia Phillies seem proudly defiant of the trend to incorporate advanced metrics into their decision criteria. While there are a large number of MLB teams that put significant energy and dollars into objective analysis of data, the other end of the spectrum is often a mystery. Who are the clubs and how do they process information. In recent years teams like the Orioles, Dodgers and Giants have been accused of shunning stats in favor of intuition or the perspective and wisdom of career baseball people. However, when pressed these teams typically deny an aversion to the numbers side of the game and in fact tout their otherwise low-profile prowess in this area. It now seems that the Phillies are willing to be the proud flag-bearers for a shrinking group of ballclubs who believe that “new stats” fail to add value to decisions. We may finally have a controlled experiment of the stats team vs. the no-stats team. If two clubs, who fit those descriptions were to maintain their loyalty to their respective internal decision processes, it would be interesting to see how they perform over the next 4 or 5 years.

So who is our poster-child for the stats gurus? In the opposite corner, representing the stat heads, we have the Houston Astros. Truth be known, the opposite corner is actually quite crowded with teams that strive to make stat analysis a potential competitive advantage, with the Tampa Bay Rays at the top of the list, but we’ll choose the Astros as our subject for our controlled experiment. Under the leadership of former Cardinal executive Jeff Luhnow, Astros have assembled a team that more closely resembles a NASA lab crew than a baseball front office. From former NASA engineer Sig Mejdal, the team’s Director of Decision Sciences, to Assistant GM David Stearns and Pitch f/x guru Mike Fast, Luhnow has attracted a top-notch staff. Team CEO George Postolos seems fully bought-in to Luhnow’s approach and the baseball world is watching to see how the Astros fare over the next five years.

I like matching the Astros against the Phillies , because this match up also has a bit of handicapping embedded in it. The Phillies have been a competitive club, who some believe can still contend for the NL East, while the Astros are thought to be the worst team in baseball—by a lot. Given the predictions of how each team is expected to perform in 2013, we’re probably giving the Phillies a 20-win per season head start for the coming season. We can see how long the Astros take to close the gap and try to assess if the two teams approach to decisions was responsible for the outcome.

My view is that well thought out problem solving—quantitative and qualitative—can add enormous value to decision processes. Over my career, I’ve seen analytics supplement intuitive judgment, experience and observation on hundreds of occasions, almost always leading to higher quality decisions. I’ve seen baseball teams integrate analytics with scouting information and the wisdom of veteran baseball people to improve the confidence in their decisions.

The baseball data world is changing rapidly. Just six years ago baseball was producing about 900,000 data points to capture the outcomes of each pitch thrown and ultimately of each plate appearance in a major league season. With the introduction of Pitch f/x and related datasets, beginning on a full scale basis in 2008, we now have over 15 million annual data points that chronicle the baseball season, ranging from the angle of break on Derek Holland’s slider, to the most popular two-pitch sequence by Jered Weaver. There are literally thousands of questions that we could only speculate on six years ago, that we can answer objectively today. Even if you believe that statistical analysis may not have been a difference maker in 2006, the 15x increase in data we have today changes the game. It can help reduce the risk on $100 million contract decisions to a manageable level. I’m not arguing against the scouting perspective. The scouting perspective is critical and often the lead horse in a decision process. But that’s different than excluding statistical analysis from the ultimate decision.

My bet on how the controlled experiment turns out: I would expect the experiment will be aborted before we reach our five-year timeframe, as the Phillies will eventually modify their decision processes to integrate more quantitative information. If that change occurs, it may be interpreted as an answer to the controlled experiment.

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