Cubs fans have been celebrating for months now as they finally hired some forward-thinking executives. Much fun was made of the old-ways of Jim Hendry and his staff, many times deservedly so, but those types of evaluations still have tremendous value, most notably when you're talking about high school and international amateurs.
But can old subjective school scouting and development still play a role in finding a new market inefficiency?
I think it can, even if the previous statistical record suggests otherwise. This is not to diminish the value of statistical data. It is central to any team's success to employ a more modern method of statistical analysis. But considering almost every team now does it to some degree, has it ceased to become the unique outside the box thinking that once gave a handful of teams a huge advantage?
Statistical analysis is still a tremendous tool and is perhaps the biggest key to a Cubs resurgence, but I also wonder if the pendulum hasn't swung just a little.
If I may make an analogy here, the way I look at statistical projections is the way you might look at betting on the horses. Sure the 3 to 1 favorite is the most likely to win. It's the safest bet and given the choices and data, a win is the most likely outcome. But most people have the same information, will bet on the same horses and in the end you will almost certainly lose more money than you win if you only bet that "most likely outcome" every time.
Sometimes the key to winning with horses can be knowing which longshot to bet on once in a while and make your big gains there.
One longshot the Cubs seem to be betting on this year is Jeff Samardzija as a starting pitcher.
What a pure statistical analysis/projection discounts is the possibility for individual improvement. That is not because analysts think it doesn't happen, but because it's impossible to quantify with objective measurements. It recognizes player improvements as larger, general trends but does not account for a skill or two that a player might develop on his own.
Let's look at Bill James' projections for Samardzija: (all in relief):
7.34/5.28 strikeout to walk ratio
It's not encouraging and while there is some variance among other prognosticators, there isn't anyone out there who sees him as being much more than just a replacement level pitcher.
But Bill James will be the first to admit he doesn't know all the nuances of baseball on the field. This is an excerpt from an excellent interview he had with the guys at Obstructed View.
There are many areas of the game that I know nothing at all about... I know nothing about international baseball. I know nothing or next to nothing about pitch calling (from the catcher’s standpoint). I know next to nothing about what is called mechanics. All that stuff about who lines up where on a relay throw; because I didn’t play the game at a high level, I don’t really understand that. There’s a lot of stuff I don’t understand.
So given that gap between statistical analysis and the nuances of the game on the field, how do you use numbers to account for whatever mechanical adjustments Jeff Samardzija made to improve his command and secondary pitches over the offseason? How do you account for a change in approach in terms of objective analysis?
The answer is you can't.
I've talked to a few of my industry sources and they believe it's absolutely possible for a player to make that kind of dramatic improvement practically overnight. The odds aren't necessarily geared toward that happening, but if it did, it certainly wouldn't be the first time a player suddenly turned things around. We once saw the Cubs own Ryan Dempster go from inconsistent reliever to a #2-3 type starter, though his case is a bit different because he had been a starting pitcher in the past. He'd already had the repertoire of a starter, it just wasn't needed in the bullpen. To a lesser degree, we saw Matt Garza out-pitch expectation last season. At the time, Fangraphs' Dave Cameron compared Garza with the decidedly mediocre Aaron Harang. Yet a change in his approach allowed Garza to trump even the most optimistic 2011 projections. The same could be happening with Chris Volstad this season. Admittedly, though, a big year from Samardzija would top all of those cases and easily be the biggest surprise.
I'm not knocking advanced statistics by any means. I use them frequently in my own analysis and projections, as you all know. What I'm saying here is that I'm not sure that's the only way to think outside-the-box anymore. Most teams have the ability to track and utilize modern statistical data now, so taken in isolation, those numbers don't give teams the same kind of edge that it used to.
Maybe it's not as much anymore about just identifying and following the right trends and playing the best odds. That will always be a part of modern baseball, but perhaps a new market inefficiency will be the ability to spot those players who may be just an adjustment or two away from bucking those odds. It's more art than science and it takes combining the right player with the right scouting, instruction, and development. Only time will tell if Samardzija will be that player this season.