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Monday, April 08, 2013

Barsch: Analytics and Hedgehogs: Lessons from the Tampa Bay Rays

Think my kids threw that “Sonic and the Silicon Warriors” book away years ago…

But enabling that hedgehog-like approach to pitching is a culture of measurement and analysis.  To illustrate, the SI article mentions that pitchers are encouraged to have a faster delivery (no more than 1.3 seconds should elapse between a pitch and hitting the catcher’s glove). Pitchers are also instructed to throw the changeup on 15% of deliveries. And while other pitchers try and focus on getting ahead of batters, the Rays have discovered it’s the first three pitches that matter, with the third being the most important.

In terms of applying analytics, the Rays rely on a small staff of “Moneyball” statistical mavens that provide pitchers with a daily dossier of the hitters they’ll likely face, including they pitches they like and those they hate. And analytics also plays a part in how the Rays position their outfield and infielders to field balls that might otherwise go into the books as hits.

The Rays are guarded about sharing their proprietary knowledge on processes and measurement, and for good reason, as last year they had the lowest earned run average (ERA) in the American League and held batters to the lowest batting average (.228) in forty years. Even better, they’ve done this while spending ~70% less than other big market teams and winning 90+ games three years in a row. That’s nailing the hedgehog concept perfectly!

Seeing a case study like this, where a team or organization spends significantly less than competitors and gets better results, can be pretty exciting. However, an element of caution is necessary. It’s not enough to simply follow the hedgehog principle.

The strategy of a hedgehog-like “focus” can be highly beneficial, but in the case of the Tampa Bay Rays, it’s the singular focus on a critical aspect of baseball (i.e. pitching), joined with analytical processes, skilled people and the right technologies that really produce the winning combination.

Repoz Posted: April 08, 2013 at 12:46 PM | 22 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: rays, sabermetrics

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   1. Spectral Posted: April 08, 2013 at 01:25 PM (#4407532)
Perhaps I'm missing something, but I don't see how this is more hedgehog-like than fox-like.
   2. salvomania Posted: April 08, 2013 at 01:43 PM (#4407552)
To me it seems more vole-like, if you've ever studied voles.
   3. Fernigal McGunnigle has become a merry hat Posted: April 08, 2013 at 02:18 PM (#4407597)
Perhaps I'm missing something, but I don't see how this is more hedgehog-like than fox-like.


It's hedgehog-like if you consider pitching in its entirety as one thing. But in that case there are only about four things in the baseball universe (pitching, hitting, baserunning, defense), meaning that a fox isn't really that much more diversified. So it's not a great use of the concept.

I think a real hedgehog approach would be a maniacally obsession on one or two bits of pitching -- trying to boil down all pitching success to working quickly, for example. Some pitching coaches who are famous for being able to teach a single pitch might make good hedgehogs. Roger Craig could have been a guy who just made a living teaching the split fingered fastball to people, or maybe if and when Johann Santana is done he'll spend time in Spring Training every year teaching minor leaguers how to throw the circle change. Those would be true pitching hedgehogs.

A successful hedgehog strategy for a franchise might be an obsession with pitcher health, if the franchise can actually do something significant to improve it. If you can keep all of your MLB pitchers healthy and keep injuries from derailing your pitching prospects, then you could be pretty mediocre at all other aspects of teaching pitching and still probably come out ahead of everyone else.
   4. Zach Posted: April 08, 2013 at 02:28 PM (#4407610)
For example, SI writer Tom Verducci says “The Rays are to pitching what Google is to algorithms.”

They do one thing very well and lose money at everything else?
   5. Dan Lee is some pumkins Posted: April 08, 2013 at 02:36 PM (#4407618)
Come to think of it, Zach, that sounds exactly like the Rays.
   6. Spectral Posted: April 08, 2013 at 04:32 PM (#4407764)
Yeah, thanks for #3, that says what I was thinking in a way that I was too lazy to write out. That the Rays seem to focus heavily on pitching, but do so in a variety of ways seems distinctly more fox-like to me, in that they seem to "know" quite a few things rather than one. I'm not really sure that framework is all that useful for this instance though. The tale of what the Rays are doing is super interesting, but I don't think it's about hedgehogs vs. foxes.
   7. John Northey Posted: April 08, 2013 at 04:41 PM (#4407768)
For health the Rays have been amazing too. Look at their starting rotations over the years...
2012: 4 with 31+ starts, +1 with 23
2011: 4 with 29+ starts, +1 with 23
2010: 5 with 29+ starts
2009: 3 with 30+, 2 more with 20+, #6 has 18 and #7 6 starts - that was it for starters
2008: 4 with 30+, 1 with 27

As a Jay fan I am in awe. We lost 3 starters in 4 days last summer. For the Rays that would be a bad number to lose in 3 years. They obviously are doing something different and it is working wonderfully.
   8. smileyy Posted: April 08, 2013 at 04:44 PM (#4407770)
Is "the third pitch matters" actually important, or is it one of those inevitable consequences like "The team that scores the second goal wins more often"?
   9. SG Posted: April 08, 2013 at 04:50 PM (#4407775)
Is "the third pitch matters" actually important, or is it one of those inevitable consequences like "The team that scores the second goal wins more often"?


Well, the majority of the time it's probably the difference between 2-1 and 1-2 so I suppose it makes sense that it's the most important pitch.
   10. You Know Nothing JT Snow (YR) Posted: April 08, 2013 at 04:56 PM (#4407780)
For example, SI writer Tom Verducci says “The Rays are to pitching what Google is to algorithms.”

They do one thing very well and lose money at everything else?


Google does one thing well enough to fund their ineptitude elsewhere.
   11. Walt Davis Posted: April 08, 2013 at 05:09 PM (#4407797)
Google does one thing well enough to fund their ineptitude elsewhere.

While the Yankees do one thing well enough to fund the Rays' ineptitude elsewhere.

YR ... you missing an obvious opportunity to dig at revenue sharing is causing me to question my faith in humanity.
   12. You Know Nothing JT Snow (YR) Posted: April 08, 2013 at 05:33 PM (#4407824)
Google does one thing well enough to fund their ineptitude elsewhere.

While the Yankees do one thing well enough to fund the Rays' ineptitude elsewhere.


An interesting use of the word "fund". Perhaps someday I'll pick your pocket so you might fund my steak.
   13. Greg Pope thinks the Cubs are reeking havoc Posted: April 08, 2013 at 07:27 PM (#4407968)
I may have missed this over the past few years, but who is generally thought to be "responsible" for the Rays' current run of success? Was it the owner who went searching for a GM to implement Moneyball* (therefore making it the owner's idea)? Or did they get impressed by the GM during the interviews and decided to give the new ideas a shot (therefore making it the GM's idea)? Or did it bubble up from the manager? Did they just get lucky and hire a few assistant GM's that had good ideas?

*Using Moneyball as shorthand here for whatever you want to call the Rays' philosophy.
   14. JJ1986 Posted: April 08, 2013 at 08:02 PM (#4407997)
who is generally thought to be "responsible" for the Rays' current run of success?


Dayton Moore and Dan O'Dowd.
   15. valuearbitrageur Posted: April 08, 2013 at 09:40 PM (#4408062)
who is generally thought to be "responsible" for the Rays' current run of success


Whoever allowed them to pick at the top of every draft round for over a decade.
   16. valuearbitrageur Posted: April 08, 2013 at 09:55 PM (#4408069)
An interesting use of the word "fund". Perhaps someday I'll pick your pocket so you might fund my steak.


Maybe someday Bernie Madoffs sentence will be reduced so he can get out of jail by surrendering 10% of what he stole, then he can walk around free and be just like the Yankees when he ####### about how the courts "picked his pocket".

Traditionally the Yankees owe 40% of all game revenues to their opponents. They set up YES to hide massive streams of revenues from their game partners, and cry about paying back a fraction of what they should owe as revenue sharing.

The Yankees should just leave the MLB so they can play 162 games a year of their A squad vs, their B squad so other teams stop "leeching" off their greatness.
   17. You Know Nothing JT Snow (YR) Posted: April 08, 2013 at 10:24 PM (#4408084)
Maybe someday Bernie Madoffs sentence will be reduced so he can get out of jail by surrendering 10% of what he stole


Yes, the Yankees are so like Bernie Madoff. The Yankees situation is obviously akin to an imprisoned felon. Egads you hysteric, go lay down.

Traditionally the Yankees owe 40% of all game revenues to their opponents. They set up YES to hide massive streams of revenues from their game partners, and cry about paying back a fraction of what they should owe as revenue sharing.


The Yankees are the top-drawing road team in baseball each and every year. Having the Yankees on your schedule means a massive windfall for any team fortunate enough to see the pinstripers come to town. Oh, but that isn't enough. Bud's national league cronies need to get their beaks wet too. And let's pick the players' pockets while we're at it, because the Yankees willingness to pay market value for their short careers offends the oligarchs. The Yankees subsidize the luxurious lifestyle of half the league's plutocratic owners and you're crying for more confiscation so that David Glass can buy more private jets and pocket whatever he finds left over. What's the matter with Kansas indeed.
   18. ellsbury my heart at wounded knee Posted: April 08, 2013 at 11:03 PM (#4408103)
Whoever allowed them to pick at the top of every draft round for over a decade.


There's some truth to this - Longoria, Price and Upton were all top 5 picks, but most of the Rays other role players haven't been high draft picks. Shields, Zobrist, Jennings, Joyce, all those guys were later picks or from other organizations. They've gotten superstars from the draft, but they've been smart about development and getting other players too.
   19. birdlives is one crazy ninja Posted: April 08, 2013 at 11:26 PM (#4408127)
In terms of applying analytics, the Rays rely on a small staff of “Moneyball” statistical mavens that provide pitchers with a daily dossier of the hitters they’ll likely face, including they pitches they like and those they hate. And analytics also plays a part in how the Rays position their outfield and infielders to field balls that might otherwise go into the books as hits.

Do former Rays players sign a non-disclosure agreement? It seems like this something that could be easily verifiable and it would be interesting to hear about variations in organizational pitcher preparation.
   20. Walt Davis Posted: April 08, 2013 at 11:43 PM (#4408137)
including they pitches they like and those they hate.

I'm guessing that for 95% of batters it reads

HATES: low and away; up and in
LOVES: fastballs inner half from belt to mid-thigh; hanging breaking balls
RECOMMEND: How many times do we have to tell you to keep the ball down and on the outer half? Then see if you can get him to chase up.
   21. Jack Carter, calling Beleaguered Castle Posted: April 09, 2013 at 12:05 AM (#4408148)
Pitchers are also instructed to throw the changeup on 15% of deliveries. And while other pitchers try and focus on getting ahead of batters, the Rays have discovered it’s the first three pitches that matter, with the third being the most important.

In terms of applying analytics, the Rays rely on a small staff of “Moneyball” statistical mavens that provide pitchers with a daily dossier of the hitters they’ll likely face, including they pitches they like and those they hate. And analytics also plays a part in how the Rays position their outfield and infielders to field balls that might otherwise go into the books as hits.

The Rays are guarded about sharing their proprietary knowledge...


As well they should be. A difference of half a dozen games a year wouldn't surprise me, between a team that dives into this stuff and a team that has a bench coach shooing the SS a couple steps to his right for certain batters and yells "throw strikes!" a lot.
   22. Bug Selig Posted: April 09, 2013 at 12:38 PM (#4408474)
Whoever allowed them to pick at the top of every draft round for over a decade.


I'm still waiting for that classic Rays/Pirates WS.

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