How Much Information Do Hitters Need?
For almost a decade now baseball’s front offices have been harvesting analytical insight which could positively influence on-field performance. Well educated and highly trained individuals front office staffers have been slicing and compiling video, PitchF/X data, and now StatCast data in attempts to deliver potentially beneficial information to a roster of players who, by and large, have varying degrees of interest in receiving it. Since the conduit of communication is occasionally faulty, one of the growing trends over the last few seasons in Major League Baseball is that teams have been hiring analytically savvy coaches to work the dugouts and clubhouses. These new hires with real on-field baseball experience are able to distill the information into digestible bites for the players.
The Twins recent hire Jeff Pickler doesn’t pretend to be a heady stat guy, but his experience with technology has made him uniquely qualified to dissect the video and data while working with players. As an assistant coach with the University of Arizona Wildcats in 2009, Pickler introduced the video BATS system to the program. The BATS system captures all plays on video, adds the necessary metadata, and is able to index and recall at-bats at a click of the mouse.
“The thing about statistics — and this includes BATS — is that it allows you to explain the 'how' and 'why,' as opposed to just the 'what',” Pickler told the Arizona Daily Star in 2009. “We can all see the 'what' — we can see a guy's 3 for his last 14, that he might as well not be in the lineup tomorrow. The 'how' and 'why' is a little more complicated; that's what the data and video is able to show us. … We can figure out the how and why, and maybe fix things a lot sooner.”
Pickler’s role with the Twins has not been crystallized and yet his addition could be necessary to maximize the growing mountain of information.
And for coaches and players, the growing mountain of information can be overwhelming. As Tom Brunansky once said after he assumed the duties of the Twins’ hitting coach, he was fed enough data to “choke a cow” and that was before launch angles and exit velocity were in the common lexicon. Taking all of that info and trying to deliver the message to his hitters takes tact. The key to coaching is to be able to help players make adjustments to their weaknesses without drowning them in the numbers. Boiling it down, it's the old line from Tommy Boy about trusting the butcher. For instance, if the data shows fastballs on the outer-half of the zone have proven to be a hitter’s kryptonite, coaches should set up drills that helps address the issue. That way players can continue their careers blissfully unaware of the amount of computing and brain power went into solving that problem.
While the insight can be valuable, using it can be a matter of personal preference for players. Some may crave it, others may avoid it at all costs. For Jose Bautista, one of the game’s most impressive and cerebral hitters, knowing the information is a key component of his success. In 2011 he shared with the Toronto Star how he uses this data. Bautista revisited a matchup with White Sox pitcher John Danks.
“I know he only throws a change-up away and a cutter, which is a small slider, inside,” Bautista told the Star reporters. “He complements that with a fastball on both sides of the plate. He only throws like 7 [percent] curveballs. He threw me five curveballs. I didn’t swing at any of them because I eliminated that pitch from his repertoire before the game started. So I knew anything that had a big spin or that started up in the zone would either be a ball or a curveball.”
Bautista’s preparation and knowledge allowed him to look for one pitch in one zone or one area. That being said, longevity plays a role just as much as being fed a detailed heat map or chart breakdown. Bautista was able to draw upon his years of experience to know what the shape of Danks’ curveball was. Or the tilt of his slider. There’s no substitute for major league reps yet a hitter can layer on information to better their odds. For instance, recent Oakland A’s acquisition Trevor Plouffe said that over his career he was able to internalize what certain pitchers were doing and pair that with the data nuggets in order to capitalize in certain situations.
“I think you get to know pitchers around the league and understand what they are trying to do to you,” Plouffe said last spring training. “And also we have so much data now, we can look and see, 2-1 count, seventy percent of the time this [pitch] is coming. If you have seen a guy enough and you understand what his breaking ball does, why not look for it in that count? If he wants to throw it for a strike it’s probably going to go.”
Historically, that information was available through observation. Players weren’t asked to trust the data like they can with PitchF/X and StatCast in the modern era. In the not too distant past they also had to simply trust the scout or peers.
"When I came up, there was none of this," Atlanta's Chipper Jones told MLB.com in 2009 regarding the proliferation of video. "You basically relied on word-of-mouth from your teammates to get the pitcher's repertoire and what their tendencies might be."
Former Twins third baseman Corey Koskie recently shared his thoughts on using analytics as a player earlier this month at the MinneAnalytics hosted SportCon at St. Thomas in Minneapolis.
Koskie was asked by the moderator Mike Max how much information he wanted to know going into an at-bat. Koskie responded by saying he was a ‘see-ball, hit-ball’ player in his career. The more information he got, the more it clogged his brain. Past experience getting burned when playing the percentages had created a bit of a distrust for the big lefty.
“I didn’t want to be the one guy that gets up in a situation where I’m like, 3-2, runners on second and third and this guy throws a change-up (at) 3-2 seventy-six percent of the time or eighty-two percent of the time and the pitcher throws a fastball right down the middle and I was sitting on a change-up,” Koskie told the crowd.
Koskie pivoted and said that he did have one example where trusting the information paid big dividends for him and the team.
“We were in the ALDS against the A’s and Tim Hudson was throwing,” Koskie said. “Paul Molitor, who the Twins had him doing some advanced scouting, and he comes up and says, Corey, I know how you feel about this stuff but when Tim Hudson gets 2-and-0 he throws a change-up ninety-seven percent of the time over the last four weeks.”
As it would just so happen, Koskie found himself in the exact situation during the third inning of Game 1 of the 2002 ALDS. The Twins were in a 5-1 hole at the Coliseum courtesy of some shaky defense. With one out, Cristian Guzman laced a single to center, bringing Koskie to the plate. Hudson quickly fell behind 2-and-0.
“So I’m stepping in and all this stuff is going through my mind. Should I chance it? Should I chance it? Timeout, timeout,” He recalled as Molitor’s advice came flooding into his mind. “I took a step out, I said, you know what? If I’m ever going to do this now is the time because I have a ninety-seven percent likelihood he’s going to throw a change-up here and I gotta sit on this thing because if I don’t sit on this thing and he throws it and I’m sitting fastball, I’m going to look like an idiot anyway, so why don’t I just sit on this thing?”
Koskie, of course, sat on it:
For hitters, there is no right or wrong answer when it comes to how much information you should consume. Koskie had a fairly solid offensive career relying on his own experience to guide him. Plouffe has found the data to be a good supplement to his internal catalogue of pitchers. Bautista, meanwhile, believes the information to be a vital part of his mental preparation. Coaches, on the other hand, need to examine all the data in order to be effective.
From the outside, with the hiring of Pickler as well as James Rowson as the hitting coach, the Twins appear to be moving toward working smarter.
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