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Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Billy Beane on the Future of Sports: A Tech-Driven Revolution

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.

The current modus operandi of building rosters to maximize the sum of individual talent also will be challenged; data compiled using new technologies will enable management to assemble players in new ways, emphasizing their ability to complement one another. Whereas current metrics describe players’ performance in isolation, front offices will increasingly rely on statistics that measure a player’s value in the context of the rest of the team, picking up externalities such as how a player’s defensive abilities may compensate for the deficiencies of those playing around him.

In a new twist to the “old school vs. new school” debate in sports, technology-based roster-building and algorithm-driven decision-making thus will be the strongest propagators of the traditional virtues of teamwork and chemistry. (I should note here that these opinions are my own—and not those of my club, the Oakland Athletics, or Major League Baseball.)

Technology will create an equally drastic shift in front offices. Aspirants to the front office already are just one click away from decision makers, thanks to social media. It is not uncommon for a blogger’s analysis post to show up in a general manager’s Twitter feed—a level of proximity and access unheard of a decade ago. Many sports franchises are already hiring analysts based on their work in the public sphere; as social media become more targeted and efficient, the line between the “outsiders” and “insiders” will narrow.

Dillon Gee Escape Plan Posted: July 08, 2014 at 02:44 PM | 10 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: analytics, billy beane

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   1. Jolly Old St. Nick Is A Jolly Old St. Crip Posted: July 08, 2014 at 05:31 PM (#4746480)
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


I can see the 10,000 hour rule helping with finetuning a pitcher's control and a player's fielding footwork, but I'm skeptical about how much good it would do for a batter's strike zone recognition. I'd like to think that Alfonso Soriano's utter strike zone cluelessness was simply a matter of laziness or indifference or both, but I think it's more likely that he simply wasn't born with whatever judgmental gene it is that would enable him to recognize a strike from a ball that's a foot outside. How many players over the years have shown the ability to cut down on strikeouts on a consistent basis as their careers progressed, and how many of those players didn't have a relatively low strikeout rate to begin with?
   2. Transmission Posted: July 08, 2014 at 05:52 PM (#4746526)
# 1 - you're in good company for being dubious about the 10,000 hour idea. There's pretty much no one left who is both A. more invested in research than in selling books or sounding like a pseudo-intellectual who also B. thinks there is much merit in the 10,000 hour idea.

http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20121114-gladwells-10000-hour-rule-myth

Just to give one of many, many summaries.
   3. McCoy Posted: July 08, 2014 at 06:03 PM (#4746540)
Billy Beane never should have written that book.
   4. Pasta-diving Jeter (jmac66) Posted: July 08, 2014 at 06:43 PM (#4746569)
Billy Beane never should have written that book.

he sure as hell shouldn't have spent 10,000 hours doing so
   5. Everybody Loves Tyrus Raymond Posted: July 08, 2014 at 07:25 PM (#4746597)
How many TJ surgeries does it take to get through 10,000 hours of throwing a baseball?
   6. bjhanke Posted: July 09, 2014 at 04:32 AM (#4746764)
Jolly - As far as I could tell, the only thing in Moneyball that I would not expect the average MLB scout to know is that strike zone judgment (aka the ability to take walks) is a tool, not a skill. Why would they not know that? Not because they are stupid, but because it's hard to see, if you're judging by a game or three that you saw the player in during one of his minor league stops. Hence, the usefulness of Paul dePodesta and his database. Because taking walks is essentially a tool, I would not expect it to improve that much with practice, either. In short, I think you're on to something in your comment, and that this something has to do with all tools. You may be able to practice for more power by building up your arm muscles, but that's not the technique of hitting homers; it's the physical fundamental.

Now, as to whether this applies to all ballplayers who are Tools, that I do not know. - Brock Hanke
   7. Jolly Old St. Nick Is A Jolly Old St. Crip Posted: July 09, 2014 at 07:39 AM (#4746776)
You may be able to practice for more power by building up your arm muscles, but that's not the technique of hitting homers; it's the physical fundamental.

It's certainly possible for a player to increase his home run totals to some extent by a combination of swing adjustment (going to a slight uppercut) and an increase in selected muscle buildup, because those are "skills" that can be worked on independently. Another such skill would be the ability to read a pitcher's motion in order to be able to predict when he's going to throw to the plate and when he might try a pickoff. This can be done by studying videos of pitchers' motions, as many players already do today.

But OTOH, I don't think that these skills can be taught:

---The ability to lay off a bad pitch, especially one with a late break.

---The ability to accelerate quickly on the first step. IOW Jeter's got a variation of the same problem in the field as Soriano does at the plate, and while you might be able to reduce the effects of the problem by better positioning (as Jeter himself may have done to some extent), I doubt if even 100,000 hours of workouts would have given him Ozzie Smith's superhuman reflexes and reaction time to the ball coming off the bat.

---And as a further variant of the Jeter problem, I don't think you can teach a baserunner to accelerate to full speed on the first or second step. It may be possible to reduce the effects of that problem by building up the leg muscles and increasing one's ability to "read" pitchers, but good luck in making every 9.5/100 yard dash baserunner into the new Rickey Henderson.

   8. Shooty Survived the Shutdown of '14! Posted: July 09, 2014 at 08:14 AM (#4746782)
I'll say this for Billy, he's not afraid of change or the barbarians at the gate. I think that's a rare trait for someone as entrenched as he is.
   9. snapper (history's 42nd greatest monster) Posted: July 09, 2014 at 08:54 AM (#4746794)
The current modus operandi of building rosters to maximize the sum of individual talent also will be challenged; data compiled using new technologies will enable management to assemble players in new ways, emphasizing their ability to complement one another. Whereas current metrics describe players’ performance in isolation, front offices will increasingly rely on statistics that measure a player’s value in the context of the rest of the team, picking up externalities such as how a player’s defensive abilities may compensate for the deficiencies of those playing around him.


This seems highly dubious.

The interaction effect in an individual sport like baseball is likely to always be smaller than the talent difference between available players.

It's not like you're ever going to have 6 +5 defense, 100 OPS+ 2B lying around, and you pick the one that matches your other defenders best. Maybe the interaction effect makes your 1.0 WAR 2B a 1.2 WAR 2B, but he's still not going to start over your 2.3 WAR 2B.
   10. Ron J2 Posted: July 09, 2014 at 10:19 AM (#4746833)
#6 I'm sure you've read Diamond Appraised. In there Craig Wright discusses more than a decade of scouting reports on Joe Morgan.

The one I find most fascinating is Morgan as a minor leaguer. He wasn't graded outstanding at anything (including speed) and they completely missed the fact that he was always on base.

On a somewhat related note, the scouting report on Ryne Sandberg complains that he took too many pitches.

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