The Cubs have officially entered the modern age.
Up to now we've heard the Cubs new information systems but yesterday, thanks to Blogs with Balls and Bloomberg Sports, we had our first chance to see what those systems would look like. Color me impressed.
For some reason I was expecting to see something more like data bases, much as you see on sites like Fangraphs or Baseball-Reference. Instead what we saw was a versatile system that can store all kinds of information and put them into colorful, easy to read charts and graphs.
During one example, we were shown pitch charts from Matt Garza. The system can tell you everything about what he threw, when he threw it, where and how often. You could see his trends/patterns in the pitches he threw in any given situation. If you want to know what Matt Garza threw on 3-1 counts with 2 outs and a man on first, you could select those parameters and then the system generates a colorful, visual break down of that information. You could find charts for matchups with batters and even specific at-bats. The system could then provide you an actual video of any individual pitch you select.
You also have screens with subjective scouting information. The best part of it all is that it's all in one place, making it efficient and easy to use. That seems to be one of the major improvements over some of the older systems. It wasn't mentioned that the Cubs had one of those older systems, but...
But before you think baseball is becoming too computerized, Cubs Asst. to the GM Shiraz Rehman assured everyone that there is still a strong human element in play. He talked about the scouting reports which are subjective and have a subjective element, of course. The interesting point that was brought up was that many teams use Bloomberg Sports and similar systems, but there is a lot of room for human creativity when creating the system as well as interpreting the data and how to use it. In that vein, it's great that the Cubs finally have the right people in the front office to make the best use of this information.
The systems can be used by everyone in the organization, from the front office to the coaching staff to the players themselves. It can be used for evaluations and advanced scouting/game planning by the staff. Coaches and players can use the film to break down their performances. The data and video added can be added so quickly that the player can use the information shortly after the game.
Rehman did not get into a lot of specifics, of course, so as not to give away their knowledge and strategy, but the meeting gave you a good general feel of the information that was going to be available and how it can be used.
The end of the meeting was a Q & A session. Here's a summary:
- When asked if they missed on players using statistics, Rehman said "all the time" and it's best to use all their information at their disposal (scouting, stats, video etc.). It's a blend of the subjective and the objective. Human behavior and individual abilities matter so they'll use subjective tools such as scouting to assess personality/intangibles and whether they think a player can adjust and make changes.
- If players have a small sample (i.e. versus a pitcher in interleague play), they have similarity modules and look at how hitters did against pitchers with similar profiles.
- A couple of questions were about player value and how cost control fits into it. Rehman seemed to imply that was one way they were planning on customizing the system for that and they were still refining/adding some things. When asked if they use WAR to value the financial worth of a player, Rehman did say that is a tool they use (or rather their own version of WAR and other measurements of value). He did say it doesn't break down that neatly in the market though. Sometimes they know they are overpaying a player based on their models, and they just have to decide whether it's worth it to add that extra year or money in order to get him signed.
- A couple people asked about player use and he said it varies on player and background. Some are very aware of statistics and use them while others do not. At this point Bill Squadron, the head of Bloomberg Sports, chimed in and said coaches and players can use the system for training. He gave the example of a coach using the video and data to see how a pitcher does when he uses a certain release point or you can break down very precisely how fielders get jumps on a batted ball.
- They have data on players in the Caribbean and are hoping to build more in the Pacific Rim countries such as Japan and Korea.
Afterward, I wound up speaking briefly with Shiraz Rehman, who has a very good sense of humor, it turns out. It was a fun exchange more than an interview. At first he recognized my name, Arguello, and I thought it was going to be because of the blog, but instead he asked me if I had sent him a resume. I told him that I had not, but I could if he wanted me to. "Any scouting positions available?", I asked half-jokingly. He just smiled but didn't really answer. I gave it my shot, I guess.
I did have his attention so I figured I should ask him something about baseball. We didn't talk specific Cubs players (although we somehow ended up using Rob Deer as an example of an aggressive hitter) but I asked him if it was possible to teach a more patient approach even if a player is in a later stage in his career. He said ideally it's better to acquire players with an approach that fits the team's philosophy, but an approach can certainly change and he's seen it happen many times. Players do learn and get better. He used an analogy to golf where he said players often start off trying to hit the ball as hard as they can, but eventually learn different approaches and different swings over time. "Not me", I said. "When I golf I still swing like Rob Deer no matter what the situation."
Overall, a very friendly, easy going guy and I was getting the feeling I could talk baseball with him all night but I had to end it there, unfortunately. There were others who wanted to speak with him.