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As Baseball Changes to a New Way of Managing, Will Bill DeWitt’s Experiment Pay Off?

You say you want a revolution?

Major League Baseball is having one.

Just look at most of the managers that are being hired now. Younger. Fluent in analytics. Their minds have been liberated from old-school fallacies that don’t help their teams win games.

These new managers fit baseball’s new paradigm: Alex Cora (Red Sox), Mickey Callaway (Mets), Gabe Kapler (Phillies), Dave Martinez (Nationals). And actually this movement took hold with many of the pre-2016, or pre-2017 hirings. Dave Roberts (Dodgers), Andy Green (Padres), Torey Luvollo (Diamondbacks), Bud Black (Rockies) … and, in late 2015, Craig Counsell (Brewers.)

These gentlemen don’t fear the future. They don’t fear knowledge. They don’t close their minds to new theories. They aren’t insecure. They aren’t paranoid. They don’t fear data. They aren’t offended by the presence of nerds in the analytics department who are paid to dish information that can provide a tactical advantage. The new managers aren’t stuck in the past, or resistant to change, just because they were trained in the game at a different time … before all of these fancy numbers and ideas surfaced in big-league front offices. These new managers tell the analytics nerds to come downstairs to the skipper’s office to share their findings.

Hold on….

What about THE HUMAN BEINGS, the anti-progress grumps holler.

Baseball is PLAYED BY HUMAN BEINGS.

FLESH AND BLOOD human beings.

COMPUTERS DON’T PLAY BASEBALL.

REAL MEN play baseball out that diamond. They have a heartbeat. You can’t ever forget about the heartbeat. The HUMAN side.  Can a COMPUTER tell you that it’s a good idea to give the second baseman a day off because he just broke up with his fiancée and needs to clear his head? Does a damn COMPUTER let you know that the eighth-inning setup reliever is too hungover to pitch in a day game?

Never forget … this game is PLAYED BY MEN!

Relax, Sparky.

Not only do the new-breed managers understand that this is a game played by men who have hearts and brains and emotions and moods and real-life emergencies at home … but because the managers are younger, they can better communicate with the wave of young players that are being rushed to the big leagues … and the younger players can relate to the younger manager.

And Sparky, you need to understand something.

You don’t have to make a choice here.

It isn’t one or the other.

You can have a manager who comes to the job with excellent communication skills, who can build good relationships with his players … and believe it or not, he can tend to the human element and also understand that the analytics department is part of the team … the nerds are his friends, not his enemies.

The enlightened managers know that it is possible to have the best of both worlds.

A manager can bond with his team.

A manager can make his team better by utilizing meaningful, relevant information.

A manager can love his players, respect his players,  show empathy and concern for his players. A manager can know what his players are going through, and when it’s best to give them a day off.

A manager can also do the right thing for his players by maximizing their chances to succeed — and make more money — by putting them in favorable matchup situations rather than do something stupid by deploying the player in a way that gives the advantage to the other team. And yes, Sparky, the nerds in the analytics department can make sure the manager has all of the necessary information to make the right decision … as opposed to, well, you know, being a blockhead manager that will put his players in a position to fail.

Sparky, it is possible for a manager to embrace his players … and embrace the advanced statistics.

Just ask Dave Roberts about this. The Dodgers manager won 104 games this season, won two postseason rounds, and reached Game 7 of the World Series before losing to the  Astros. Or ask A.J. Hinch, the Astros’ manager who was participating in a championship parade Friday.

Their players love Roberts and Hinch.

And the analytics guys love the managers too.

“The job has changed,” said Astros team president Reid Ryan, in comments made to the Washington Post . “Now you have to be able to manage up, to ownership and the GM, and manage down, to the players. The manager becomes the link between what an advanced analytical front office is doing and making sure the players are able to be themselves, not be overwhelmed by the information, and at the same time relay those messages.”

It really isn’t all that complicated, Sparky.

Numbers can help human beings improve  their baseball performance.

That’s why the Astros rely on their “Nerd Cave” for guidance.

The Astros team that just won the World Series. And the Nerd Cave residents will definitely be receiving World Series rings.

It’s called teamwork, Sparky.

“Our game has evolved to the point to where everyone has to choose to what extent they apply analytics,” Hinch said. “We all have them — really smart people who are working behind the scenes to provide that kind of information. How you use them is going to be the competitive advantage. If we think we have different ways to maximize performance, we’re going to use them.”

Hey! What about the HUMAN ELEMENT?

“My job is to tie it all together and make it work,” Hinch said. “We believe in people. We believe in scouting. We also are forward-thinking in gathering and using information. But we do understand and appreciate the human element.”

In a story relayed by the Washington Post, Astros pitcher Charlie Morton is a perfect example of how an analytics staff makes a difference.

The Phillies gave up on Morton at the end of the 2016 season. He didn’t pitch much because of injuries, and this looked like the end of the line for a 33-year-old pitcher who had endured multiple surgeries to get repaired and keep playing. But the Nerd Cave took a look and noticed a slight increase in Morton’s velocity in 2016. Their research turned up something interesting: for all of his pitching problems, Morton’s curve ball had one of the highest spin rates in the majors.

As Hinch told the Washington Post: “The more you dug into him, the more you realized that the weapons were there.”

The Astros deemed Morton worthy of a gamble. He signed a two-year contract for $14 million and got to work on refining his mechanics to add velocity … and he welcomed the Astros’ advice to use his curve more frequently.

Were the Astros nuts?

Apparently not. Morton was the winning pitcher in Game 7 of the AL Championship Series. And the winning pitcher of World Series Game 7. Even though Morton got hit hard and allowed seven runs in an ALCS loss to the Yankees, he went on to work 15.1 innings and give up only two runs in his final three postseason appearances.

The Astros were put together by GM Jeff Luhnow, who holds two degrees from Penn (economics and engineering) and an MBA  from Northwestern in business administration.

We know the Luhnow story in St. Louis.

Visionary Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt Jr. recruited Luhnow out of the business sector to set up a new model for player procurement and development. A model that was heavy on analytics and forecasts and value assessments. This was in the early aughts, and a lot of people thought DeWitt was crazy?

What was DeWitt thinking, hiring some braniac from corporate America who had an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern? All of the Sparky types were aghast. What does this Luhnow guy know about hitting a curveball? He isn’t a BASEBALL MAN!

Sparky may have noticed that Luhnow’s model paid off in a big way, with sustained success for the Cardinals including two World Series titles (2006, 2011.) Astros owner Jim Crane, a native St. Louisan, hired Luhnow to come to Houston to oversee the Astros’ massive rebuild. And other Cardinals’ analytics staffers joined Luhnow in Houston.

DeWitt’s enlightened initiative on drafting, development and roster construction brought Luhnow into major-league baseball. Luhnow played a role in the Cardinals’ two World Series championships, and under his leadership the Astros won their first World Series in their 55-season history.

DeWitt indirectly helped make the Astros’ championship possible.

It’s interesting to see the Cardinals restructure their coaching staff in an effort to have a more analytics-friendly dugout. A dugout staff that would enthusiastic about working with the analytics department. A new set of coaches that could be a positive influence on manager Mike Matheny by helping him see the value of analytics. If Matheny is sincerely open-minded about all of this, he definitely can become a better manager.

Wouldn’t it have been a lot easier to find a new and more progressive-minded manager instead of hiring a team of progressive-minded coaches to help the current manager become more fluent and knowledgeable about analytics?

Good question. But I think I know the answer.

DeWitt, baseball president John Mozeliak and GM Michael Girsch strongly believe in Matheny’s leadership skills. But their hope is that Matheny will grow, evolve expand his thinking and become a fully developed manager. And Cardinals management wanted to help Matheny reach that higher level by surrounding him with coaches who will work to get him there.

DeWitt doesn’t overlook the human-element part of baseball. He thinks it’s important. But the chairman also knows his team has lost ground by clinging to old-school bromides that lead to poor strategy decisions during games.

This is quite the experiment.

Matheny opens his heart to his players. He is a leader of men.

Now Matheny must open his mind to data and lead his men to more victories.

Thanks for reading …

And have an awesome weekend.

–Bernie

More: There’s a Huge Gap Between the Cardinals and Baseball’s Best Teams