Molitor's Management Style
“I think whoever believes in that sabermetrics stuff never played the game and won’t understand it. There’s no way you can measure playing outfield. Only eyes can do that,” the 39-year-old Torii Hunter told a room full of media onlookers, whirling recorders and broadcasting cameras last Wednesday. That would be only the fourth-most troublesome thing he said during the introductory press conference.
Here’s the thing about Hunter’s opinion on sabermetrics: It doesn’t matter what he thinks.
The stats community releases plenty of deep sighs whenever a player makes a reference to sabermetrics being nothing but a bunch of nerdery for Harry Potter enthusiasts to post on the internet between live-action role playing sessions. It doesn’t matter if Hunter thinks UZR stands for Untamed Zebra Riders and measures space lint; Hunter and other players do not need to know or understand the data, they just need to execute.
Take Glen Perkins. Perkins might be the closest thing to a stathead in the major leagues. And though he will tell you he looks at fielding independent pitching numbers to help balance himself between outings, once he hits the field the numbers disappear.
‘‘The only thing I analyze when I’m out there is what stuff I have and what the hitter is doing,’’ he told the Star Tribune’s Jim Souhan in 2013. ‘‘All the numbers, all the stuff that I love, doesn’t play when you’re on the field. None of that stuff is a scouting tool for a player facing another player.’’
Like Hunter, Twins second baseman Brian Dozier wants little to do with the sabermetric fielding data and shares the same sentiment in regard to those who do use it.
"Obviously that's part of the game now more than ever. I really don't (pay attention to it) because as far as defensively, sabermetrically, anything like that, I think it's people behind a desk trying to dictate how you play the game," Dozier told FoxSportsNorth.com’s Tyler Mason this past April. "That's not the way the game's been played. Nobody can see what's inside of you.”
Haters gonna hate. Players gonna play.
In spite of the fact that Hunter may think sabermetrics is on par with unicorn droppings, his new manager Paul Molitor “believes” in the sabermetrics stuff and had played the game a little bit himself.
“My reaction to Torii’s sabermetrics declining considerably in the past few years, that doesn’t concern me,” Molitor told reporters in sunsoaked San Diego on Tuesday during the Winter Meetings. “Now you can measure range and all those things, but I’ll take his experience and knowledge and throw him out there with a couple of young outfielders and take my chances with no hesitancy whatsoever. Yeah, he’s 39. He’s not 29. We all get that, but I’m confident about what he’s going to bring to our team from many different areas including not being concerned about his defense.”
In not so many words Molitor acknowledged that Hunter’s range has diminished, which is what the sabermetric stats were saying about him all along. The response was a diplomatic managerial answer. Ultimately, Molitor views Hunter’s defense -- at least the portions that are not measured by ultimate zone rating or Inside Edge’s video scouts -- as a significant upgrade over Oswaldo Arcia.
“I watched how Scottie [Ulger] worked with [Arcia] last year in the outfield, and they’ll go out there in right field and Scottie will hit balls in corner and say this ball is a double. Your objective is not to play it into a triple,” Molitor explained. “During the game someone will hit it down the line and he’ll try to slide and stop the ball before it gets into the corner and it turns a double into a triple.”
Choosing to downplay Hunter’s defensive data does not mean Molitor is avoiding the statistical side of the game as a manager. Molitor credits his time around some of the game’s forward-thinkers at the helm, particularly former Brewers manager Tom Trebelhorn.
“I was fortunate being around guys like George [Bamberger], and Harvey [Kuenn], and a young Buck Rogers in his first time managing, and then a young guy like Tom Trebelhorn comes in and kind of innovative and a new thinker and you learn from that.”
Trebelhorn was one of the early adaptors of statistical analysis in the dugout. According to his book “Behind-the-Scenes Baseball”, Doug Decatur recalls his time as a statistical consultant for Trebelhorn and the Brewers, writing over 200 stat reports that he would fax the then-Brewers manager. In 1991, Decatur would provide Trebelhorn with information for best bullpen deployment or batting order optimization, ideas that are almost standard now and available online but were groundbreaking at the time.
“I’m learning more about sabermetrics all the time. Obviously, as a coach last year, I was exposed to them at a deeper level than I had been as a minor league player development person,” Molitor said.
At the major league level, the available data can be enough to “choke a cow” as hitting coach Tom Brunansky tells it. Or it is like “drinking out of a firehose” as former pitcher Cole Devries described it. For Molitor, as a coach he was able to take it in at a slower pace.
The exposure to data last year was something he sought out on his own, according to Twins’ manager of baseball research Jack Goin. When he was hired as a coach, Goin and his team briefed Molitor on what they could provide him and how he could obtain it. From there, Molitor was highly proficient at procuring information and implementing it into action, such as in the form of an increase in infield shifts.
Now the team’s manager, Molitor is seemingly headed towards expanding the use of the information but with caution.
“I’m going to try to learn what I think is valuable in assessing who plays, lineups, all those type of things. But I’m going to hopefully have enough confidence in myself to have a feel for players, and flow, and season, and momentum where I can trust some of that too. But I think with all the things that are out there, you can overwhelm yourself. But obviously some of it makes sense, and it’s proven to be successful in how managers integrate it into their system both defensively and offensively.”