When it comes to finding hitters, are Cubs working smarter?

This is a Boston Globe article by Alex Speier which centers around their dynamic CFer Mookie Betts, but it’s worth noting that he was selected while Theo Epstein was still running the ship.  What’s more interesting is why they selected him and how they went about evaluating him.

Under Epstein, the Red Sox were just trying out a newly developed “neuroscouting test”.  It works very much like a video game where the players have to quickly read and react to the direction the seams on the baseball are facing.  In a sport where pitchers throw in the mid 90s and you have a split second to recognize, the Red Sox were trying to objectively measure this ability with technology.  You can read about it in more detail in the article linked above.

Betts aced the test and has since quickly emerged as one of the top young players in baseball despite being undersized and selected in just the 5th round.  It was no surprise to Epstein and the Red Sox.

The obvious implication here is that we have to believe Epstein brought some version of this system — perhaps an even more advanced one by now — to the Chicago Cubs.

We have lauded the Cubs for their ability to scout hitters on and off the field, but now we have to wonder whether they’ve had a little help.

When the Cubs were leaning Mark Appel early in the draft, did Kris Bryant’s performance on such tests help tip the scales? What is even more intriguing is to speculate on Kyle Schwarber.  The Cubs front office was said to have been blown away by Schwarber during the interview process — we know they love Schwarber for his mental makeup and leadership skills, but did getting blown away include his performance on those kinds of tests?  Is that part of the reason why the Cubs decided to invest the 4th overall pick on a player with an uncertain defensive position, especially for an organization that had plenty of hitting but lacked impact pitching?  The Cubs have said they would have picked Schwarber even if Carlos Rodon had been available to them.  Did it help them reach a consensus on Albert Almora (who was also said to have blown the Cubs away during the interview process)  and Ian Happ as first round picks?

Beyond that, there are the early overslot hitters, a few of whom raised some eyebrows in the industry — Jacob Hannemann, Mark Zagunis, Donnie Dewees and DJ Wilson as well as sleepers like Chesny Young, Rashad Crawford, Charcer Burks, PJ Higgins.  Hannemann has struggled but the others have shown a knack for consistent contact.  It’s clear Young, Burks, Higgins, and Dewees have very good hand-eye coordination and that Zagunis seems to recognize pitches pretty much right out of the pitcher’s hand.  Crawford continues to gradually  translate raw athletic ability to production on the field. We can even extend this to polished IFA hitters such as Gleyber Torres and Eloy Jimenez

This is all speculation, of course, but the Cubs certainly have a lot of confidence when selecting hitters and confidence for this front office stems from having as much information as possible.  And if that information is quantitative, then so much the better.  There is more to hitting than how quickly a hitter can process — approach, mechanics, bat speed, strength, the “looseness” of their  bodies, etc. — but processing speed is certainly a factor, especially when it comes to recognizing pitches, which can ultimately make or break a hitter.

But when I think of Betts, I think of out of the box picks — especially those hitters early in the draft — and in that sense a few players stand out for the Cubs.  We mentioned Schwarber who was picked much earlier than expected.   Mark Zagunis was another overslot pick who many had lower on their board.  He too lacked certainty at a defensive position when drafted.  Almora was also originally slated as more of a mid-round pick, so he too was a bit out of the box, though in the case of Almora he had a fallback as an excellent defensive CFer.  Schwarber offered no guarantees at any position.

But other than Schwarber, the other player who stands out to me here is D,J. Wilson, a pick that had some experts and fans scratching their heads.  Not many had him pegged as a 4th rounder, much less one that would require such a big overslot bonus to sign.  Many questioned his ability to hit, especially for power, but the Cubs insisted otherwise.  Based on what I have seen so far — including his late summer and fall performance, the HR derby run to the finals, and his crackling assualt on the breaking ball BP machine, the Cubs may have been right on the money with that pick.  And while I don’t like to make these kinds of comps, is there another player in the Cubs organization that more closely resembles Mookie Betts in terms of size, speed, athleticism, explosiveness, and surprising pop than DJ Wilson?

It’s interesting to think about, but it’s not information we will ever be privy too.  As Epstein was quoted in the article, “I can’t talk about that stuff,” he laughed, “because then I’d have to kill you.”

Well, we don’t want to take that risk but if we connect the dots and look at some of the sometimes surprising picks and investments the Cubs made on outside-the-box hitters, it is hard not to wonder what kind of information the Cubs had that others may not have.

They may not be just working harder, they could be working smarter as well.

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  • Didn't Carlos Beltran have some whacked out pitching machine that had special dotted or lined balls he used to identify different pitches?

  • In reply to historyrat:

    Don't remember, but that would not surprise me.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Read a story former umpire Ron Luciano once told about Ted Williams. Back when Williams was managing the Washington Senators after his playing days, he told Luciano and one of his coaches he could identify the stitches where he hit the baseball. Luciano doubted him, so Willaims had pitcher Dick Bosman throw him so practice pitches. Williams got 9 out of 10 correct, as a 53YO. Maybe one of the most amazing baseball stories Ive ever read.

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    In reply to historyrat:

    Edger Martinez comes to mind. He would paint letters on Tennis Balls and try to train his eyes to be able to see what letter it was as it flew by.

  • In reply to Joseph Winner:

    Gregg Jeffries had a similar workout routine for hitting with numbered tennis balls.

  • In reply to historyrat:

    I remember reading a story on SI about Josh Hamilton's revival. I remember he used balls in the cage that had different colored numbers or something similar.

  • I don't think it is a coincidence that Ted Williams had the vision and processing speed necessary to be a fighter pilot.

    This is absolutely a huge part of succeeding as a hitter at the highest level. If the Cubs and other teams have discovered ways to quantify the information and test for it that is a big deal. Wouldn't shock me though. As you said, there are certainly other physical factors involved, but if a guy has every physical trait necessary but lacks the ability to identify and process visual information fast enough the athleticism is all for naught. I think the tests would be as or more advantageous in identifying players who will not be able to translate their abilities to the field.

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Ted Williams had 20/15 vision. Also used to pick bats with the thinnest handles possible.

  • In reply to mutant beast:

    Keen visual acuity...thin-handled bats...add whip-like wrists and you have player named Ernie Banks.
    They say he was pretty good for some team in Chicago.

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    In reply to Michael Ernst:

    That is one of my favorite facts about Ted Williams. It makes total sense that having such great hand eye coordination would make you an ace fighter pilot. He also apparently would shoot pigeons from the outfield bleachers at Fenway with gun. Not that I condone killing pigeons but that still is amazing vision to do that. BTW can you imagine if he did that now? He would be going to jail, and the humane society would be protesting Red Sox games.

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    Has it been confirmed or written somewhere that if Appel was available i.e. Astros had taken Bryant, the Cubs wouldn't have selected him ?

    Well now w that article out, you can bet the rest of the league is going to be running similar tests if they haven't already.

  • In reply to Jim Odirakallumkal:

    Don't believe so. I know that was what they said about Carlos Rodon. I can tell you I was not a fan of Appel during either of his drafts. I was able to see Bryant, Gray and Appel that draft. Grey would have done much better in the Cubs system then Appel.

  • In reply to KGallo:

    How time flies. Hard to believe its been 2 1/2 years since that draft. Loved the video of your response to the Cubs picking Bryant.

  • In reply to couch:

    I already knew they were going to draft him. Lol

  • In reply to Jim Odirakallumkal:

    I don't think that will ever be fully confirmed, but there are rumors there was some division early, but that all had settled on Bryant in the last 2 weeks or so.

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    In reply to Jim Odirakallumkal:

    Scarier thought: The Cubs were swept in a 3-game series in Colorado the last week of September in the 2012 season. Had we won 2 out of 3, the Rockies would be picking ahead of us, and would have taken Kris Bryant.

    As much fun as Kris Bryant in Coors would be, glad that didn't happen!

  • In reply to Zonk:

    The Rockies really wanted Bryant. And would have taken him #1.

  • Found it John.

  • In reply to historyrat:

    Thanks, Todd!

  • Neuroscience of how the body processes visual stimuli is a burgeoning practice. The subconscious brain can analyze info in .2 seconds or less and send signals out to the rest of the body to react to.

    What should be coupled with the visual processing is the ability to de-stress. Cortisol and Norepinephrine can muddle reaction times. Having mentally tough players , i.e. Guys who can shrug off stress are guys who can process quicker and add in the mental focus to situationally play the game properly.

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    In reply to Gator:

    I read that it takes about .45 seconds for a 90mph fast ball to reach the plate. So someone not only has to see it but actually move his hands and the bat and get the bat on the ball, and hit it fair. That is some reaction time!

  • In reply to Jonathan Friedman:

    To be fair, there's a fair amount of processing you have with arm slot and release that add to the .45 seconds. That and there's a fair amount of motion that happens in order to reduce the amount of time that a batter has to actually extend their swing. But, it's still a nonsensically short period of time.

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    In reply to Jonathan Friedman:

    Well. no. Assume the Pitcher is 6'-0" tall. He is standing on the rubber at 60'-6" away from the plate. Assume a 12/6 delivery and the ball leaves the pitcher's hand at ~ 52' away from the plate: 90 MPH * 5280ft/mi/3600s/hr = 132 ft/sec. So 52ft / 132ft/s = 0.394 sec.

    Compare to a 100 MPH fastball (Chapman) = 0.355 sec ...11% *less* time to react!

  • Interesting read.

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    It is also amazing to me that not only do batters recognize the pitch coming out of the pitchers hands but then have the quickness to actually move their hands with the bat and put in on the ball! It's one thing to have an idea of what the pitch is going to do, but then to physically do has always astounded me. A 90mph fast ball going 60'6" takes about about .458 seconds, 100mph is .412 seconds. How do they do it?

  • Great read and its always fascinating to see teams try and grasp the next competitive advantage or exploit the next market inefficiency.

    The testing as it is described however seems almost incomplete or one-half of a complete simulation that is needed. If neuroscience testing tests more the ability to read and recognize, it seem like you need something that more exhaustively tests the "react" portion (more than just clicking a button). Something that measures the ability of the major muscle groups of the body to move with the precision and coordination needed to actually execute the react command of the brain.

    In this case, it seems like a geeked up whack a mole simulation might be the next baseball gadget to help with this process.

  • In reply to ripiceman:

    Thanks. And that is exactly what this is...trying to find that next competitive advantage, Obviously Betts is a very good player in so many ways, but anything that tips the scales like that is valuable.

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    I've always liked the fact that the team's take a quantitative approach to decision making.

  • Zagunis, pinch hitting specialist of the near future.

  • very informative John, you appear to be clued in deeper than most others. This analyst tool is but another tool in the tool box, that said it seems to have produced dividends beyond the old school ways.

  • In reply to rnemanich:

    Thanks...always a combination is best. There is so much good data out there now that the Cubs would be foolish not to take advantage of it.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    John actually what you reported quietly is similar to what we found back in the day when LOTUS 123 and then Excel allowed financial numbers crackers perform in private equity when that world sought undervalued businesses for acquisition and dismantlement. There are other measurements including various psychological profiling regarding senior managers (the projections never have worked well since they have so many presumptions based on unfounded or unknown future challenges) but measuring past is quite strong.

    The thing is knowing reaction time, capability based on eye sight recognition over muscle reactions and then overlaying that with other subjective or objective measurements regarding hitting the ball allows decision makers a better prediction model.

    There is always knowledge that divides the competition, and Cubs seem to have some sort of advantage and also know its value.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    This is interesting stuff, thanks for pointing out the Boston Globe piece. I'm completely with you that a combination of approaches is always the way to go and I'm mystified why so many folks in the game and in the fan ranks seem to take new knowledge as a threat. Aren't we always seeking something new? Another angle to look at? Certainly anyone that's ever competed at virtually anything will understand the thirst for it. Things change, ways of doing business change and I'm glad the Cubs organization is run by smart people always looking for the next advantage.

  • In reply to TC154:

    Eventually with enough data, you can find actual correlations between performance and evaluation, which is a massive tool for scouting both intraleague and recruitment. It saves time because you're able to shortcut some steps, money in the recruiting process, and again, a lot of time if you can narrow down expectations based on correlated performance data.

  • I bet the Cardinals are trying to figure out the Cubs evaluation process. Did you see this quote from Cardinals VP of Stadium Operations?

    "We'll be right up there with the best of them now," said Joe Abernathy, vice president of stadium operations for the Cardinals. "It's amazing how technology has evolved in 10 short years. Technology has progressed considerably since we put this in back in April 2006.
    "But we did get upset actually when the Cubs had a better videoboard than us. Especially with how it ended [in the National League Division Series] and all they're doing now, we don't want to be sitting behind the Cubs in anything."

    Can't wait for the season to start!

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    Thanks, John. That is a really great article. I like their illustration of 2 HS hitters, both with other-worldly .800 BA. But one manages to recognize the pitch 5' from the pitchers hand, the other one at 30'. In high school the difference in result can be relatively negligible as they would both, likely, be able to get their hits, but when speeds start increasing then that additional time to make the decision can be invaluable. It is also something (eye-sight) that cannot be "taught." It can be refined, but someone not able to recognize early enough will likely never be able to make up for that deficiency. The difference between Billy Beane and Darryl Strawberry (or Lenny Dykstra?). I am still a huge fan of Moneyball, though I recognize it has shortcomings. What this seems to do is answer one of the core mysteries of the book: Can we find the difference between 2 talented young players that sets them on such different trajectories?

    OT: I think sometimes Moneyball is misunderstood. It is not a book about baseball but uses baseball to illustrate a point. Lewis' other books are all about economics, markets, and how to make a killing by going against the traditional grain. I have read several of his other books and they almost all are the same: a few eccentric people/characters make a killing while the far more numerous, but less intellectually inclined, come off as chumps through ignorance or laziness.

    FWIW when Theo came to the Cubs I remember him commenting that when the Cubs took Baez in 2011 he thought, "WOW, that is a change," or something like that. It was implied that he thought Baez was a quality pick and was surprised that the Cubs made it...not exactly an endorsement of previous picks. I wonder if they neuroscouted Baez and if he did well too.

  • John, this may be the most interest article I have read of yours in the years I have been reading you. This is so interesting and begins to help us fans clue in on how the Cubs are managing to find guys that seem to be producing when others seem to question them, clearly Bryant was an easier selection than Schwarber. These articles are the exact reason why I read and love this site. Thank you.

  • From March 2014....

    Baseball is a borrowing culture, and Epstein laughingly concedes that his version of "The Cubs Way" -- a 100-plus-page manifesto given to each player and employee -- includes aspects of the Red Sox's blueprint, which aped the Indians' blueprint before that. Cubs scouts are expected to be the first ones in a prospect's home. Hitters are put through a battery of proprietary video-game-style tests to gauge hand-eye coordination and pitch recognition. Cubs players at every level are required to play these "games" daily. This reliance on "neuro-scouting" is a byproduct of Epstein's contention that analytics are flat because anyone with a credit card and a laptop has access to the same information as big league decision makers. The scouts are expected to determine the answers to an exhaustive list of questions. Who is the family's decision maker? How clean do they keep the house? Who does most of the talking? Is this the type of kid who'll be able to handle living away from his parents and girlfriend?

    "The currency of the draft is information," Epstein says. "Scouting information, statistical information, makeup information, medical information. In each of those buckets, we have to drill deeper if we want to have an advantage."

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    In reply to Ghost Dawg:

    I love the comment about the draft. Last year I was so excited as Benintendi kept dropping in the draft. Then 1 spot before us the Sox take him! That is why I think draft order should be determined by previous 2 YEARS record rather than single year, or maybe a 2 year weighted record (2x most recent full season, 1x season 2 years ago).

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