Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane penned an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal yesterday discussing the next generation of baseball data collection, a tool called Statcast. Statcast will provide three-dimensional location and movement data for the ball and the players on the field. Beane claims (and for the record, I agree) that this wealth of data will improve our understanding of the game at all levels; from fans to the coaches and decision makers in front offices.
In the article, Beane also predicts that we may well discover an entirely new breed of baseball players which may change the way we evaluate young talent:
“Having advanced performance data at even the most junior levels will make it less likely that players get filtered out based on 60-yard-dash times or radar-gun readings, and more likely that they advance on the merits of practiced skills. The ability to “paint the corners” of the strike zone, to swing only at pitches within that zone, and to manage the subtle footwork required of a difficult fielding play is accessible to any player willing to commit to the “10,000 Hour Rule” (the average amount of practice Malcolm Gladwell, in his book “Outliers,” says is needed to excel in selected fields). A whole new class of players whose skill sets previously were not fully appreciated will be able to reach the highest levels thanks to a more nuanced understanding of their abilities.”
And let’s not get tied up in a debate of scouts versus the stat-nerds: Everyone is using numbers, it’s just a matter of what numbers. Every scout knows a player’s batting average, his fastball velocity, his 20-80 power score. This new information will be parsed and analyzed by stat guys and verified in the field by scouts, just like teams (besides the Phillies, I suppose) are using the advanced analytics we have now in conjunction with their personnel.
My favorite part of the article, however, comes when Beane alludes to the possibilities of a tool like Statcast might provide teams in putting together an ensemble of talent. Up to this point, most sabr-style baseball analysis has focused on how players’ true talent performs independently of those around them; in the future we may use data to determine how a team can function better as a unit of those individuals, greater than the sum of their parts.
And this is where it’s incredibly exciting to be an A’s fan. Yes, they look like the best team in baseball in 2014 before Beane made a blockbuster trade to make the roster look even more like an unstoppable juggernaut. Look closer, though, and you’ll see that this is a team explicitly built to function as a unit greater than their individual talents. Position platoons, three catchers, shifts and ample rest from the cadre of utility men and role players. This is a team that doesn’t lean too hard on any one player and, reminiscent of this year’s NBA champion Spurs team, rests its stars rather than running them into the ground. Remember: Two of our All-Star position players (Derek Norris and Brandon Moss) were in strict platoons as recently as last year. Moss’s own words in this Ken Rosenthal article seem to agree with this philosophy, if you give players the tools and opportunities to succeed the results can be inspiring.
The Oakland Athletics are a special team in 2014. While the future is uncertain for 2015 and beyond, it’s good to know that GM Billy Beane and the A’s front office are still at the cutting edge of baseball thought, trying to put the best possible team on the field with the resources they have. We may not be selling jeans here, but — as we saw on Sunday with new pitcher Jeff Samardjiza — green and gold looks good on everyone.