June 23, 2016

Statistics Level Baseball's Playing Field

Originally appeared on The Wall Street Journal
By: Ben Lindergh and Sam Miller

Last summer, an independent-league baseball team in California called the Sonoma Stompers entrusted its season to us, two writers with backgrounds in baseball statistics. We signed players, guided strategy and told the fielders where to stand for the most effective defense. We had no experience running a team, but we did have data, and we promised the owner of the Stompers that we would use it to build a new kind of baseball team.

But we also had a blind spot: There wasn’t much reliable data on our own performance. How do you measure a manager? More daunting: How do managers measure themselves?

Baseball is made for number-crunching. The matchup between pitcher and batter is one-on-one combat with a clear resolution. The metrics are tidy. But our own contributions fell outside the bounds of baseball statistics. At the end of the season, we knew our team’s record but not which wins we had helped to create. We slouched away unsure of how well we had done.

Until a Stompers pitcher named Santos Saldivar got signed by a major-league club.

To understand Mr. Saldivar’s career, you have to know the baseball hierarchy. Each of the 30 big-league teams has a farm system of minor-league affiliates, stocked largely by high-school and college players taken in the annual amateur draft. The independent leagues exist outside of that farm-system structure, employing players who washed out or weren’t wanted but are still trying to catch a scout’s eye.

A year ago, Mr. Saldivar believed that his statistics at Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., would make him one of the fortunate few. As a senior, he had broken the school’s single-season strikeout record, set by his former teammate, Jose De Leon, who had been drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2013 and become one of baseball’s highest-ranked prospects.

After completing his college schedule, Mr. Saldivar stayed sharp by signing with the River City Rascals of the independent Frontier League, expecting a brief stay before getting the call to follow in Mr. De Leon’s footsteps. The hoped-for notification never arrived.

Mr. Saldivar is short. That’s the whole story of why he wasn’t drafted. Tall pitchers have advantages: They release the ball closer to the plate, giving batters less time to react. They throw “downhill,” making their pitches harder to hit squarely. Their bigger bodies make them more durable, and they are seen as “projectable,” that is, able to add bulk and strength as they age. A pitcher like Mr. Saldivar—who’s about 5-foot-8—is easy for scouts to overlook.

Mr. Saldivar’s stint with the Rascals didn’t last long. He was released after just one start, replaced by a pitcher who had a bum shoulder but was 6-foot-6 and a former major-league draftee.

When we took over the Stompers, we didn’t know that Mr. Saldivar existed. Most pro teams outside of affiliated ball are filled from the informal network of players who know other players and vouch for one another, or from the cast of wannabes who email baseball resumes to scores of teams, hoping for a hit. But the vast majority of qualified 22-year-olds don’t enter this network. They just disappear.

We weren’t content to limit our view to the network. One of our consultants, former San Diego Padres analyst Chris Long, cautioned us that “99.9% of the talent is sucked away in the draft.” But he gave us hope that within the remaining .1% we could find promising players whom the major-league teams had missed. Using spreadsheets crammed with college statistics, we discovered and signed Mr. Saldivar.

Our hope paid off. In his 13 games for the Stompers, he displayed an impressive array of pitches, ranging in speed from the mid-60s to the low-90s. He finished with a 2.04 earned-run average—the best in the league by a starting pitcher—and almost 11 strikeouts per nine innings.​

Last month, a friend in the Milwaukee Brewers front office emailed us about our experience overseeing the Stompers. We mentioned, offhandedly, that he should sign Mr. Saldivar. More vital than our recommendation was the data we had accumulated.

If any Brewers scout had seen Mr. Saldivar during his college career, he hadn’t bothered to write a report. So we sent all of the information from his stint with the Stompers: the stats we had parsed and presented; the PITCHf/x data we had collected by persuading a company called Sportvision to install its expensive camera/computer system at our small-town field; the video we had filmed and edited after hours of road trips.

Two days later, the Brewers bit. Just as we had done last summer, they signed Mr. Saldivar without watching him pitch in person—making him the first Stompers player ever to be signed by a big-league club—and assigned him to their Rookie League team in Helena, Mont.

Hardly anyone plays independent baseball because they love it. They play because they want to move up, to get the call that Mr. Saldivar got from the Brewers. Most aren’t good enough. Even those who are rarely reach a major-league organization. It’s just too hard to attract the right team’s attention.

For most of last season, we struggled to assess how well our tactics were working. The players said that our stat-driven scouting reports had helped, but there was no way to be sure. Now, at last, we know that our data made a difference. “Having the full combination of the PITCHf/x, video and stats is really helpful,” our Brewers contact told us, “especially since I doubt we’d get eyes on [Mr. Saldivar] otherwise.” Our greatest triumph hadn’t been adding an underappreciated player to the roster but helping him to leave.

In retrospect, we should have played up that possibility. When we introduced ourselves to the team, we soft-pedaled our devotion to data, wary of being perceived as “Poindexters” or, worse, Big Brother. But our numbers-based approach wasn’t a threat. It was a lifeline for players such as Mr. Saldivar, whom traditional methods had missed. Technology like PITCHf/x promises to flatten fields; it sold the Brewers on Mr. Saldivar because they could accurately compare his stuff to that of other professional pitchers, despite differences in stature, setting and quality of competition.

In baseball or any other industry, quantifying performance provides a competitive advantage to companies that aren’t at the top of the food chain. Prospective employees are more likely to view a less glamorous job as an appealing option if they know that their contributions can be measured and shared. Losing Mr. Saldivar hurts the Stompers in the short term, but dropping his name during recruiting calls will help them to reseed their roster for years to come.

Good management produces its own data points: the employees who get called up to The Show. Mr. Saldivar’s promotion suggested that we had done our work pretty well.