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How Much Information Do Hitters Need?

Work smarter, not harder.

That’s a mantra which permeates the corporate world, imploring workers to take full advantage of tools and resources available to improve productivity. It’s cliche, to be sure, but there is something behind the notion that production can be improved by simply leveraging existing systems and processes. When it comes to getting the information into the hands of the hitters, the Minnesota Twins appear to have moved in the direction of working smarter.
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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13 Comments

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HitInAPinch
Jan 27 2017 04:39 AM

This explains an awful lot about Bautista.He's a thinking man's hitter.I'd make a bet that Miguel Cabrera does the same.Both make it seem really easy.

 

So, question:How, when, why do MLB teams start loading up prospects on this type of information?The top one I think of is Buxton.How long do you wait on a players natural physical abilities before introducing them to metrics? 

 

On the reverse side, same questions for the pitchers.

 

If I were to guess, I'd think at least some organizations are starting an intro to advanced stats at the MiLB level.

    • gunnarthor, brvama, dbminn and 2 others like this

Good article.  I view this as - work on the technical in practice (individual weaknesses), and remember (simple) tendencies in the game.

My 2 favorite personal memories of this:

 

My only High School home run was off a pitcher that, unusually, started me off with a curveball in my first 2 at bats.  So I looked curveball in the 3rd at bat.  He threw 3 straight fastballs, only 1 for a strike - so in my mind the % chance of getting a curve is skyrocketing with each pitch.  Pitch 4 went downtown.

 

Amateur ball:  pitcher was throwing 1st pitch FB's to all of our RH hitters - which no one seemed to notice but me (LH hitter).  2nd time thru the order, I'm in the hole, after the at-bat is over - I call the guy in front of me over and simply say "Guess first pitch curveball".  It settled into the cornfield beyond the left field fence nicely.

    • goulik and Hosken Bombo Disco like this
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Tom Froemming
Jan 27 2017 08:33 AM

Awesome stuff. Hopefully the coaching staff can figure out the right amount of info to feed Buxton. Regarding Bautista eliminating a pitch, I was always surprised opposing hitters didn't just refuse to swing at Francisco Liriano's slider. Could say the same about Tyler Duffey's curve, but I suppose that's tougher to do on pitches guys throw 30-40% of the time.

    • HitInAPinch likes this
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Parker Hageman
Jan 27 2017 08:46 AM
So, question:How, when, why do MLB teams start loading up prospects on this type of information?The top one I think of is Buxton.How long do you wait on a players natural physical abilities before introducing them to metrics?

 

 

I believe baseball is starting to realize how much information they have and how important it is for players to have a basic understanding of how it works. The Boston Red Sox bench coach Tony Lovullo discussed how their organization emphasized it from day one so that when those draft picks or signees reached the big leagues, they weren't overwhelmed by the data reports. 

 

 

“What we’ve done here is we’ve applied concepts to the entire organization from player development all the way through to this level, and we’ve talked about how important it is to have a high baseball IQ,” said Lovullo. “It’s a credit to these guys, because they take that information and they apply it for their own success.

“There used to be a little bit of a separation because the concepts weren’t so crystal clear, but now you have young players that come in and the concepts have been talked about from the day they signed. It’s fresh in their mind once they get here. So we’re talking about it here to big league players, the young players join that force and it becomes very powerful.”

 

 

This offseason Houston (I believe) was hiring coaches for their minor league affiliates specifically with analytics backgrounds in order to communicate the message to the players better at a lower level. So when a guy like Byron Buxton reaches the bigs, the language he hears is the same thing he heard at low-A ball. 

 

Again, the hitting side is just one aspect of using data. Pitchers and fielders have to get used to being fed reports regarding pitch breakdowns and various positioning in the field. 

    • gunnarthor, brvama, TheLeviathan and 2 others like this

Nice article.  I don't know how individual players digest information but I think it's a really good thing for them to have it.  Obviously, Bautista is a very smart hitter but he has tons of natural ability as well so it's certainly not a cure all but if the information can be used to make the transition to the major easier (Buxton/Kepler), let's hope Pickler helps a lot.

 

The Molitor nugget is interesting.  I'm more than done with him as a manager but he certainly is a very smart baseball mind.  Not sure why he isn't a better (in my view) manager.  

    • Oldgoat_MN and d-mac like this

Fascinating stuff as always, Parker.  Thanks for this!

 

It really is incredible how much information is out there and how beneficial some guys find it and how detrimental others find it.  

    • Jerr likes this

 

This explains an awful lot about Bautista.He's a thinking man's hitter.I'd make a bet that Miguel Cabrera does the same.Both make it seem really easy.

 

So, question:How, when, why do MLB teams start loading up prospects on this type of information?The top one I think of is Buxton.How long do you wait on a players natural physical abilities before introducing them to metrics? 

 

On the reverse side, same questions for the pitchers.

 

If I were to guess, I'd think at least some organizations are starting an intro to advanced stats at the MiLB level.

This has been developing dramatically in MiLB the past few years, even at the low-A level.

 

In 2013, the Twins' first year in Cedar Rapids, there was virtually none of this sort of analysis done or shared with players, and I suspect the same is true in most organizations. How do I know? Well, to share information, you have to gather information and I didn't see the little tell-tale video cameras set up to capture pitch information at any of the Midwest League stadiums I visited.

 

Those cameras arrived in CR a couple of years ago, along with video monitors in the coaches offices where you often see a coach sitting and watching video with a player or two before games, but you didn't see the cameras everywhere you went in the MWL.

 

This past year, I didn't go to as many road games as I had in the past, but I saw them at each of the few MWL ballparks I visited.

 

The thing to keep in mind, though, is that, unlike in the Major Leagues, the mountains of information culled from video available of every swing a hitter takes and every pitch a pitcher makes is not available to everyone across MiLB, so while a team can analyze a lot of data on their own players, the data on opposing players has been much more limited.

 

To my knowledge, there hasn't been a shared depository of data throughout MiLB. Of course, since the very purpose of MiLB is player development, it's also much more likely that whatever a pitcher, for example, might be working on in May is not necessarily going to be the pitch he's trying to master in July, so tracking tendencies might be an iffy proposition.

 

But, yes, this is a long-winded way of saying that higher-tech analytics are being applied more and more in the minors, including within the Twins system.

    • brvama, Oldgoat_MN, HitInAPinch and 2 others like this

Trends are all well and good when it comes to pitching but, in the end, on any given day, a pitcher may have better command of one pitch over another, which will change the percentages. 

 

Hitters should know the tendencies of a pitcher going in to the at bat, but that has to be coupled with observing what the pitcher is doing on any given day.

 

Trends are all well and good when it comes to pitching but, in the end, on any given day, a pitcher may have better command of one pitch over another, which will change the percentages. 

 

Hitters should know the tendencies of a pitcher going in to the at bat, but that has to be coupled with observing what the pitcher is doing on any given day.

Of course thats true, but a pitcher like Tim Hudson had his changeup working most days, and any starting pitcher has their fastball working or they're not pitching in the middle innings. Increasing the odds from 50/50 FB/change moves the needle quite a bit. Good article.

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Parker Hageman
Jan 27 2017 02:19 PM
In 2013, the Twins' first year in Cedar Rapids, there was virtually none of this sort of analysis done or shared with players, and I suspect the same is true in most organizations. How do I know? Well, to share information, you have to gather information and I didn't see the little tell-tale video cameras set up to capture pitch information at any of the Midwest League stadiums I visited.

Those cameras arrived in CR a couple of years ago, along with video monitors in the coaches offices where you often see a coach sitting and watching video with a player or two before games, but you didn't see the cameras everywhere you went in the MWL.

This past year, I didn't go to as many road games as I had in the past, but I saw them at each of the few MWL ballparks I visited.

 

 

Not only do they have video, they also have Trackman radar -- the same data captured by StatCast. I think there are still some questions regarding how to implement that data but they have been capturing plenty on their own players and data on other players when they visit. 

 

 

    • SD Buhr and HitInAPinch like this
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HitInAPinch
Jan 27 2017 03:27 PM

 

This has been developing dramatically in MiLB the past few years, even at the low-A level.

 

In 2013, the Twins' first year in Cedar Rapids, there was virtually none of this sort of analysis done or shared with players, and I suspect the same is true in most organizations. How do I know? Well, to share information, you have to gather information and I didn't see the little tell-tale video cameras set up to capture pitch information at any of the Midwest League stadiums I visited.

 

Those cameras arrived in CR a couple of years ago, along with video monitors in the coaches offices where you often see a coach sitting and watching video with a player or two before games, but you didn't see the cameras everywhere you went in the MWL.

 

This past year, I didn't go to as many road games as I had in the past, but I saw them at each of the few MWL ballparks I visited.

 

The thing to keep in mind, though, is that, unlike in the Major Leagues, the mountains of information culled from video available of every swing a hitter takes and every pitch a pitcher makes is not available to everyone across MiLB, so while a team can analyze a lot of data on their own players, the data on opposing players has been much more limited.

 

To my knowledge, there hasn't been a shared depository of data throughout MiLB. Of course, since the very purpose of MiLB is player development, it's also much more likely that whatever a pitcher, for example, might be working on in May is not necessarily going to be the pitch he's trying to master in July, so tracking tendencies might be an iffy proposition.

 

But, yes, this is a long-winded way of saying that higher-tech analytics are being applied more and more in the minors, including within the Twins system.

Thanks for the response! 

 

Not only do they have video, they also have Trackman radar -- the same data captured by StatCast. I think there are still some questions regarding how to implement that data but they have been capturing plenty on their own players and data on other players when they visit. 

Exactly. I should have clarified that that's what those cameras are feeding. Triangulated so they feed all of the data on pitches, exit velo, etc., to the laptop in the pressbox.

 

 

So, question:How, when, why do MLB teams start loading up prospects on this type of information?The top one I think of is Buxton.How long do you wait on a players natural physical abilities before introducing them to metrics? 

 

 

 

Information is great only if you can use it.Buxton has been having a problem handling certain pitchers. So telling him that there is a 97% chance that he will see a slider as the next pitch will do zero for him, if he cannot handle it.On the other hand, if his issue handling certain pitches is because he does not recognize them, information might take care of the guess work, or make him make more educated guesses.But still he has to handle or lay off pitches...

    • HitInAPinch likes this

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