April 1, 2010

Statistical Analysis and the Twins, Together At Last?

Last offseason during an appearance on KFAN radio I commented that the Twins were one of the increasingly rare MLB teams without any sort of department focused on statistical analysis. Assistant general manager Rob Antony brought up my comment in an interview a couple days later and noted somewhat tersely that the Twins' decision-makers did use stats, but in doing so pointed to OPS, home/road splits, and other fairly mainstream, publicly available numbers.

My point was never that the Twins ignored all stats, because that has likely never been true of any front office, ever. My point was that for better or worse they didn't employ the advanced statistical tools that have become available recently and are in fairly wide use across MLB. In other words, I wasn't talking about OPS or home/road splits. I was talking about PitchFX data, play-by-play defensive metrics, and other info the average fan can't find in 30 seconds online.

In an effort to clear the air and get some clarification I sent Antony an e-mail and he was nice enough to respond with an explanation of the Twins' stance on the issue, which made it pretty obvious to me that they indeed did not have a department devoted to statistical analysis and were not using the types of advanced tools to which I was referring. All of which brings me to an interview Antony recently did with "Over the Baggy" blogger Parker Hageman.

Like me Hageman is very interested in the growing world of baseball analysis and data, so the interview focused on the Twins' involvement in those areas. Antony shared tons of great info, including the fact that the Twins "just hired a guy whose sole focus is statistical analysis." He added: "Gathering information and creating databases. This will be his first year. The guy that we brought in will start creating systems to build a foundation of our own that we can look at."

Obviously the success of such a system depends on the people involved and how much weight the front office gives the analysis being presented, but that's precisely what I had in mind last winter and I'm thrilled to hear the Twins have finally hopped on board. And despite his publicly disagreeing with my statements back then, Antony admitted to Hageman that "we're probably one of the last, if not the last, team to address it with a person dedicated solely to that."

Better late than never, for sure, although several of Antony's other responses in the interview suggest that the newly hired stat guy will definitely have his hands full getting his voice heard or perhaps even understood. Antony made a number of worthwhile points regarding the limits of statistical analysis and how the Twins have succeeded without it, but also showed what is to me at least a startling lack of knowledge on the subject for an assistant general manager.

For example, when asked if he knew what the statistic FIP stands for Antony said that he "just saw this one the other day" and guessed "first strike in inning pitched." The answer is Fielding Independent Pitching, and both the FIP stat and the analysis behind it have been around for years. Similarly, he didn't know that BABIP stands for batting average on balls in play, which is a fairly basic concept and one of the building blocks of statistical analysis.

Whether or not the Twins actually use or even value stats like FIP or BABIP, it shocks me that the assistant GM isn't at least aware of and reasonably familiar with them. As for what stats he does make use of, Antony explained that the Twins "look at a lot of home/roads splits" and "we're big on OPS, we're big on WHIP" while admitting that those are "traditional things that I know people have gone beyond and gotten deeper."

Antony provided a couple of specific examples to further hammer that point home, describing Nick Blackburn's potential for improvement as "instead of being an 11-11 guy, we believe he could easily be a 15-9 guy" and saying that he'd "rather sign a guy" with a high RBI total than a high slugging percentage "because you win with runs." Evaluating hitters on their RBI totals and pitchers on their win-loss records shows how being so behind the times impacts decisions.

I'm certainly not suggesting that the Twins must become a stat-driven front office--they've had plenty of success on their own terms and are coming off a particularly strong offseason--but I am suggesting that being legitimately involved in the expanding universe of statistical analysis would be beneficial to their long-term outlook and it's disheartening to hear how little they've dipped their toes into that water so far.

Hiring a stat guy is a big step in the right direction and one that Antony and company deserve credit for taking, but even if he does a terrific job crunching numbers, creating databases, and presenting valuable analysis he faces an uphill battle to make a big impact in an organization that's a decade slow to adapt. Hopefully the front office has an open mind, because the Twins' scouting and development combined with some new-school views could be a beautiful thing.

40 Comments »

  1. A strange (or possibly not so strange) aspect of using advanced quantitative analysis in sports is that the teams are owned by people who have amassed insane amounts of wealth in the business world. I can’t imagine anybody running a business valued near $1 billion without using commonly known methods of economic analysis, the “new” realm of stats uses the same principles but applies them to better understand the value of on field performance. It is simply a matter of understanding your investments, if you can get better value at a smaller cost or find better ways to predict future performance you would be crazy not to want to do that… right?

    Comment by jason — April 1, 2010 @ 12:42 am

  2. Aaron, what do you think about Wilson Ramos getting transitioned to third? Or would it be better to just trade him?

    Comment by Dane — April 1, 2010 @ 1:51 am

  3. I wasn’t surprised at all that Antony wasn’t familiar with FIP. I was a bit surprised with BABIP. Anyway, I’m optimistic the Twins will be open minded about statistical analysis going forward. I don’t think they would hire someone otherwise. That said, I’m sure progress will take time.

    This also made it pretty much official that the ‘scouts v. stats’ non-debate is over in MLB itself.

    Comment by drivlikejehu — April 1, 2010 @ 2:41 am

  4. BABIP might be the most worthless stat I’ve ever seen. So if someone gets 500 at bats and strikes out 499 times, but gets a single in that other AB he’d have a perfect number? All statistics in baseball can be misleading…qualitative analysis, I believe, is the most reliable way to judge talent.

    Comment by me — April 1, 2010 @ 7:06 am

  5. Right, me. Guys strike out 499 times out of 500 ABs all the time. And the silly stats guys always ignore the 99.8% strikeout rate, not to mention the .002 OBP, and focus on a 1.000 BABIP.

    Comment by SBG — April 1, 2010 @ 7:21 am

  6. I agree with the tone of your article but I flipped my lid when Antony said they really value RBIs. The fact that the Twins’ top front office guys are so ignorant when it comes to advanced stats makes it easier for other teams to get the upper hand when dealing with the Twins by simply digging into all the statistics available. All of a sudden, another team has a level of knowledge about a player that the Twins simply don’t have.

    Comment by JoeK — April 1, 2010 @ 7:39 am

  7. I agree with me that in a vacuum BABIP doesn’t necessarily give you a whole lot. I believe this is true with a large percentage of the “new” stats available. There tends to be a lot of interpretation and subjectivity in many of these numbers, as they continue to be refined.

    While I am a firm believer in the usage of these numbers to help make decisions, they simply will not replace the need or importance of continued scouting. Stats will never identify work ethic, approach, mechanics, etc.

    Somehow I don’t think that stats would have helped Mike Piazza get drafted at all, much less in the 62nd round, but a scout doing a favor brought in a future HOF player.

    Continue to keep an open mind folks…

    Comment by biggun — April 1, 2010 @ 7:40 am

  8. I’m sorry SBG, but if a player had a 1.000 BABIP I’d sign him without even looking at any of his other stats! Turn that logic around, stats guys look at all the stats in context of each other. The Twins look at only a third of available stats that often tell little about a players true value. Which one makes more object sense? Use all the tools you have for evaluation, or use a third of the tools? The Twins are the one’s who look foolish in this situation.

    Comment by JoeK — April 1, 2010 @ 7:42 am

  9. 1) Gleeman for Twins Stat Guy!

    2) I actually think the Twins FO might be fairly open to new statistical ideas. In my experience talking to casual fans about advanced statistics, it’s actually fairly easy to get them conceptually on board with the basics like the value of BABIP and the limits of BA versus OBP and stuff like that. The caveat, of course, is that the person you’re talking to has to want to listen and be open to the idea that there’s a better way to look at things. Heck, just the other day I was chatting with someone and explained the basic concept behind wOBA, and he seemed to at least engage in the idea. Similarly, blogs and facebook groups are increasingly accepting these ideas and discussing baseball in those terms. My point is – these people have no real need to accept new-fangled ideas, but they’re accepting the ideas because the ideas speak for themselves. The Twins seem to have accepted the fact that they, too, have an interest in understanding these ideas – they wouldn’t have hired a stat guy otherwise. If they’ve decided that they need to listen to this stuff, I think the arguments will speak for themselves.

    Comment by David — April 1, 2010 @ 8:04 am

  10. me,

    Not only would the stats guy have to be retarded to ignore 499 strikeouts, but he would also have to be a really bad stats guy to not realize that 1 event (BIP in this case) is a statistically insignificant sample size (something which is taught very basic maths courses).

    Comment by zebano — April 1, 2010 @ 8:07 am

  11. Stats are never used in isolation. No one says they batted .300 and said it was a great year… That being said, not understanding BABIP and things such as Pitch F/X has not helped them correct in season atrocities and put some of those performances in context. Or put down a line-up with the worts hitters in the #2 hole all year.

    Not to mention the economics of it all around being able to appropriately evaluate/value talent. More info = more informed decisions = better decisions = better performance.

    Comment by MC — April 1, 2010 @ 8:10 am

  12. At this point it’s so late in the sabermetrics game that the Twins just hiring a stat guy means nothing and if anything might have a toxic effect. The original point of sabermetrics at its core was to do a quantitative analysis on finding undervalued players and strategies to give a team a competitive edge. This was great for teams like the A’s in the late 90s-early 00s but it all but went away as teams like the Red Sox, Blue Jays, Yankees etc. all caught on. Now instead of inspiring ‘outside the box’ valuations, it IS the box.

    There’s an excellent panel discussion on this with Rob Neyer and assistant GMs from St. Louis and Arizona on Baseball Prospectus Radio Podcasts. The key now is not whether or not you use stats in decision making. The key is HOW you use stats and how you manage so much data now that they’ve fully integrated quantitative methods into the GMing game.

    In the anecdotal trial of this past winter, the Twins NOT using sabermetrics is what led them to this outstanding off-season. The entire league rushing to clamor toward on defense and outfield range lately led to such a high valuation of Carlos Gomez that the Twins got JJ Hardy straight up. Not only that, but it made Jim Thome dirt cheap because sabermetrics deflated his whole value due to the fact that he doesn’t play defense.

    So, sure I think it’s a good thing that the Twins have a stat guy. But this guy needs to not only know the stats, he MUST have original and insightful to manage the data, otherwise the Twins are just going to be a day late to the other big market teams and will be swearing that they’re getting undervalued players like Mark Teahen and Alex Rios like another late to the stats game team I know.

    Comment by TMW — April 1, 2010 @ 8:50 am

  13. I’ve been critical of you in the past, so I have to give credit where credit is due. Great post, well said.

    Comment by Roark — April 1, 2010 @ 8:52 am

  14. April Fool’s!!! I hope this is a joke column and Rob Antony is not that retarded. My god. “First Strike in inning pitched” Wow.

    Comment by Kyle — April 1, 2010 @ 8:53 am

  15. Nope, not a joke. I read the article he mentioned previously. I think it was last week. I did raise my eyebrows too when I read the original.

    Comment by Jeff — April 1, 2010 @ 9:03 am

  16. I can just imagine the reports Gleeman would write as the Twins stats guy:

    I wrote in this space months ago that player X would be a “valuable pickup” with “great potential upside and limited risk”. Unfortunately, you didn’t listen to me.

    Comment by Ben N — April 1, 2010 @ 9:14 am

  17. four words… Crazy like a fox

    Are we really to believe that the Twins have “ignored” sabermetrics all this time?

    The Twins say what they say to gain an edge. If you believe what Rob says as truth, shame on you. This is another stroke of Twins genius in an attempt to gain an edge on other teams.

    Comment by ernie — April 1, 2010 @ 9:14 am

  18. Saying that sabermetrics would’ve stopped us from signing Thome is silly. Again, it’s looking at certain statistics in a vacuum. Offensively his stats hold up as well as any other hitter, and that’s what we signed him for. Thome’s poor defense won’t hurt the team because he won’t be playing any defense.

    Comment by jason — April 1, 2010 @ 9:21 am

  19. No, it’s not a joke. I thought the interview was quite interesting, but he really did have to guess at the meaning of FIP. Still, better late than never. The best we can probably hope for is for the Twins to use the info from the crunching of the numbers to prevent them from doing something stupid, rather than actually gaining an edge.

    Comment by SLH — April 1, 2010 @ 9:26 am

  20. Now that I’ve seen Hardy, I agree that trading Gomez straight up for him was a steal.

    Comment by Dave T — April 1, 2010 @ 10:50 am

  21. I think you are all misinterpreting BABIP. To me, it’s only useful when compared to the average of the league. And, a higher BABIP may indicate that the player got his fair share of luck and is actually an sign that his next season’s performance may return to the norm.

    Comment by Schnoogens — April 1, 2010 @ 10:58 am

  22. Good piece AG.

    In regards to the stats guy they’ve hired, I tried to follow up with Antony to get an interview set with that person to see what his/her background is and what they may be doing. Antony referred me to Brad Steil (Director of Baseball Operations) and Jack Goins (Admin) who will “help guide” the new stat person. Apparently, Steil and Goins had been heavily involved in a lot of the statistical info that they used for arbitration cases, contracts, etc. I have calls into the both of them but I have not yet heard back.

    Another media source told me last week that his source within the Twins organization actually called the position an “internship”.

    Comment by Parker Hageman — April 1, 2010 @ 11:27 am

  23. As many of you have said, it will all be on the Twins to change their philosophy for the team to be World Series caliber. Antony goes on and on about OPS and WHIP, but look at our team, of course Mauer and Morneau have great OPS, Kubel may continue his great run, and Cuddy just posted his second solid year of .800+ OPS. And WHIP? Well, yea it’s wonderful that Baker’s WHIP is so low, but that just means he’s always around the plate, hence his high homeruns given up. I’d much rather have a guy like Matt Cain’s 2008 for example, where his WHIP was 1.30+ but his ERA was 3.76. That performance on a team with offense would generate more wins then Baker’s consistent 4.00+ ERA seasons. Let me know when the Twins have landed that ace pitcher who K’s up people and has the low WHIP to go with it. (Linc, Sabathia, King Felix, Greinke, etc.) Then I’ll like our World Series chances.

    Comment by Kurt E. — April 1, 2010 @ 11:33 am

  24. The Stat Guy would have vetoed the Garza & Bartlett trade but been overruled by the Attitude Guy who would have suggested that Young would benefit from the change of scenery. This year the Attitude Guy says Punto will bunt his but off for the $5M option.

    Comment by Peter — April 1, 2010 @ 11:57 am

  25. So they half-ass it and hire single inexperienced intern-type who needs “help” right from day one?

    The Mariners they’re not.

    Comment by Not David — April 1, 2010 @ 12:11 pm

  26. The Twins really need to clean house in their front office. Go grab Kim Ng from the Dodgers, install a full stats department and clear out some of this dusty old thinking already.

    Comment by Gendo — April 1, 2010 @ 1:33 pm

  27. also me has no idea what BABIP is for :(

    Comment by Gendo — April 1, 2010 @ 1:36 pm

  28. Gary Huckabee of Baseball Prospectus once said in an interview that he perceived the “stats vs. scouts” or “quantitative vs. qualitative” divide to be a false dichotomy, because the numbers do reflect ability. Advanced statistical methods are just another means of scouting. For example, a scout may observe a pitcher for a few games and write that he “misses bats” in his notebook, or might note that he has 30 Ks in 25 innings pitched. They are both observations of events.

    A commenter above notes that stats will never capture “ethic” or “mechanics”, but if those things matter, won’t they be reflected in on-field performance, and hence the objective measures of performance?

    Comment by kermit — April 1, 2010 @ 2:42 pm

  29. “I’m certainly not suggesting that the Twins must become a stat-driven front office…”

    Then what were those previous 9 paragraphs all about?

    Comment by ben v — April 1, 2010 @ 3:00 pm

  30. This may be one of the most depressing articles about the Twins I have ever read. As an MBA in a near-billion dollar business, the thought of not using quantitative analysis when making a decision and instead going by what some scout who we happened to have worked with for years says about a guy who has “lights out” home/road splits and trading for him rather than looking at concrete data seems ludicrous. Or, I guess it explains the Delmon Young for Garza/Bartlett deal.

    Comment by Jeremy — April 1, 2010 @ 4:36 pm

  31. Rats. I was hoping for a “APRIL FOOLS!! The Twins have leapt to the forefront with an amazing stat laboratory chock-full of brainy stat wunderkids!”

    Comment by Jason O — April 1, 2010 @ 5:00 pm

  32. “Then what were those previous 9 paragraphs all about?”

    How about that they at least have basic literacy in the metrics every other organization in baseball is using to judge players?

    Comment by Gendo — April 1, 2010 @ 5:05 pm

  33. I think the whole article is an April fools joke, and they haven’t hired a stat man at all!

    Comment by A fool — April 1, 2010 @ 7:46 pm

  34. I’d rather win with the way the twins have been doing it than lose with number the way the other 22 or 23 teams have been doing it. Including the master Billy Beane. The game has a heartbeat, and momentum plays a bigger role than numbers. Some players make others better.

    Comment by Nick — April 1, 2010 @ 10:17 pm

  35. Stats are great…as I have grown older, I have learned the importance of many of them in recognizing differences between seemingly similar players. However, I think giving stats priority over a scout’s notes when evaluating players is, and will always be, a mistake. I dont need to know a guy’s zone rating to tell if he can cover a lot of ground, or if he takes good routes to the ball. Some things you just can’t see on TV, or learn from stats. Another aspect of a player’s performance in coaching. Anyone that played sports at any level can attest to the fact that some coaches can make a player worse. Scouting can identify those players that are being hurt by stubborn coaches who are unwilling to adjust their coaching techniques on a player by player basis. However, all that being said, this is a many faceted issue, and it is a good thing that the Twins are expanding their methodology for evaluating players.

    Comment by (the other) Neil — April 2, 2010 @ 12:02 am

  36. “Taking for granted that the alternative to art was arithmetic, he plunged deep into statistics, fancying that education would find the surest bottom there; and the study proved the easiest he had ever approached. Even the Government volunteered unlimited statistics, endless columns of figures, bottomless averages merely for the asking. At the Statistical Bureau, Worthington Ford supplied any material that curiosity could imagine for filling the vast gaps of ignorance, and methods for applying the plasters of fact. One seemed for a while to be winning ground, and one’s averages projected themselves as laws into the future. Perhaps the most perplexing part of the study lay in the attitude of the statisticians, who showed no enthusiastic confidence in their own figures. They should have reached certainty, but they talked like other men who knew less. The method did not result faith. Indeed, every increase of mass,—of volume and velocity,—seemed to bring in new elements, and, at last, a scholar, fresh in arithmetic and ignorant of algebra, fell into a superstitious terror of complexity as the sink of facts. Nothing came out as it should. In principle, according to figures, any one could set up or pull down a society. One could frame no sort of satisfactory answer to the constructive doctrines of Adam Smith, or to the destructive criticisms of Karl Marx or to the anarchistic imprecations of Elisée Reclus. One revelled at will in the ruin of every society in the past, and rejoiced in proving the prospective overthrow of every society that seemed possible in the future; but meanwhile these societies which violated every law, moral, arithmetical, and economical, not only propagated each other, but produced also fresh complexities with every propagation and developed mass with every complexity.” Henry Adams

    Telling, that 100+ years ago they were working the numbers and not really trusting them. Nowadays we have guys with zero input to any decision-making in a specific field working the numbers and fully confident of everything their numbers tell them. I hold with Neil. Every player deserves individual attention, and numbers don’t tell the whole story.

    Comment by Snortwood — April 2, 2010 @ 1:47 am

  37. This has to be an April Fool’s joke, right? There is absolutely no way in heck that a senior MLB front office official should be allowed to keep his job and make some of the comments Antony’s “quoted” as providing.

    I’m calling it a joke, if only to preserve my sanity…

    Comment by FMelius — April 2, 2010 @ 8:37 am

  38. Yeah, and if any of you knuckleheads really knew anything you would be working for MLB and not posting here.

    Comment by Slick Watts — April 2, 2010 @ 11:54 am

  39. Scouting, player development, and simple first hand watching of players are more important than stats imo. The Twins have had great success relative to their payroll and to that end they obviously know what they are doing.

    But I do agree that it is very disheartening to know that an assistant general manager knows less about advanced metrics than I do, and I am just a fan spending a few minutes here and there following the team. Maybe the club should hire Gleeman to run some classes for them.

    But honestly what gets lost in this all is the fact that stats very accurately depict the past but don’t necessarily tell you what to expect in the future all the time. Typically your best hitters will have the most RBI’s. And in most cases a guy’s defensive reputation is an accurate depiction of his defensive abilities.

    It is more the exception than the rule where we find cases of traditional metrics being grossly out of line with a player’s actual abilities.

    But for Christ’s sake they should at least know what the damn acronyms mean.

    Comment by Jake the flake — April 2, 2010 @ 1:25 pm

  40. The Other Neil and Snortwood… who is suggesting the Twins do anything to diminish their excellent scouting department? To steal a line, stats and scouts are beer and tacos. You want both, not one or the other. They should help paint a more complete picture when combined.

    Back to the heart of the matter, when an AGM talks about pitchers in terms of wins and hitters in terms of RBIs it betrays a basic lack of understanding of the engine of baseball, which is concerning given the man’s job. It is disappointing but unsurprising that he is unfamiliar with decade-old industry accepted concepts like how batting average on balls in play affects year-to-year volatility in batting averages.

    Comment by Jonathan — April 2, 2010 @ 9:13 pm

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