“Big Data Baseball” A Big Hit

Big Data Baseball retells the story of the 2013 Pirates through the prism of their analytical strategies.

Big Data Baseball retells the story of the 2013 Pirates through the prism of their analytical strategies.

The Pittsburgh Pirates sneaked up on a lot of people in 2013. In fact, at our sister site, FanGraphs, nobody pegged them as a playoff team. And with good reason. The Pirates hadn’t had a winning record in 20 years, and had fallen on their faces in the second half of each of the two previous seasons. That came to a close in 2013, as the team would improve by 15 wins and reach the postseason. That season has been broken down by Travis Sawchick in his new book Big Data Baseball: Math, Miracles, and the End of a 20-Year Losing Streak (Flatiron Books, 256 pages, $18.38 on Amazon) — which releases to the public today. The book, his first, has been buzzed about in the sabermetric community for months, and it has back cover quotes from Ken Rosenthal, Jonah Keri and FanGraphs’ very own David Laurila.

Plenty of people were responsible for the 2013 Pirates, and plenty get their due in the book. It begins with a focus on manager Clint Hurdle and general manager and senior vice president Neal Huntington, but as the book progresses, one finds that there really isn’t a main character/central figure. This makes it all the more interesting and compelling that Sawchick — who has been the Pirates beat writer for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review since 2013, and has won national Associated Press Sports Editor awards for enterprise writing — has woven together the many stories that make a baseball season in today’s game.

In 2013, the Pirates underwent some radical changes, with none being more radical than the team ramping up communication between front office and field personnel, which led to the field staff embracing big data baseball strategies. Most visibly, this was borne out through the Pirates’ defensive shifts. It would be unfair to label the shifts themselves as revolutionary, as the Pirates didn’t lead baseball in shifts in 2013. But that wasn’t just it. Data influenced their decisions in at least two other ways — two-seam fastball usage and pitch framing. In the latter case, that meant specifically targeting Russell Martin. Moreover, the team accepted not only data but the people behind the data — specifically Pirates analysts Dan Fox and Mike Fitzgerald. Both get star turns in the book.

As the book weaves from offseason to spring training to the actual games of the regular season, and finally the Wild Card play-in game triumph over the Cincinnati Reds (bonus points to Sawchick for not getting bogged down in retelling the intricate details of each game, but rather picking a few important games/moments leading up to that Wild Card game) plenty of others get their moments. By my unofficial count, at least 16 people who were members of the Pirates organization in 2013 get a little shine/backstory. I’ve already mentioned four — Hurdle, Huntington, Fox and Fitzgerald. Add to that list the following people:

  • Rene Gayo — Then and now, the team’s director of Latin American scouting
  • Perry Hill — Then the Pirates minor league infield instructor, now the Marlins first base coach
  • Nick Leyva — Then and now, the team’s infield coach (and also the first/third base coach)
  • Kyle Stark — Then the director of player development, now assistant GM
  • Ray Searage — Then and now, the team’s pitching coach
  • Players Clint Barmes, Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, Starling Marte, Russell Martin, Jordy Mercer and Charlie Morton. All but Barmes and Martin are still on the team.

There are some great nuggets of info in each. One of my favorites was Gayo’s story, which among other things recounts how he came to sign Marte out of the Dominican Republic. There’s a great anecdote near the end of the book about Fitzgerald and Neil Walker. There’s also a great bit about how Hill nailed sawed-off pieces of PVC pipe into the ground at all the Pirates’ minor league ballparks to show players where to stand. This bears out in Mercer’s story as well, and it leads me to wonder if Mercer perhaps is getting/will continue to get the benefit of the doubt when he struggles offensively because he was raised in the Pirates’ new defensive system. The book recounts how Mercer was exposed to Hill’s “pegs” first in High-A, then Double-A and Triple-A before graduating to the majors as a full-fledged convert to the Pirates’ defensive philosophy. Jung-ho Kang has hit very well this season, but his playing time was limited at the start, perhaps because he needed time to acclimate to the Pirates way of playing defense. Just a thought.

Big Data Baseball isn’t just about the Pirates.

big data baseballSawchick writes this in the acknowledgments, and if you get to this line after reading the entire book, it will be a pretty self-evident statement. For one thing, look at the cover. While the Pirates’ color scheme and the team’s 20-year losing streak are heavy/invoked on it, the words “Pittsburgh Pirates” are noticeably absent, nor are there any images of Pittsburgh  players. While this book’s subject is the Pirates’ 2013 season, it is a fairly objective read. Perhaps that is because Sawchick was new to the Pirates beat in 2013, or perhaps he was simply able to measure his words, but the book does not read in homerish tones. If anything, the book is a love letter to sabermetrics.

One of the things that made Moneyball so great is that we got to peel back the curtain on Bill James and on AVM Systems, among others. There are plenty of similar stories throughout Big Data Baseball. John Dewan, from his time with Project Scoresheet to STATS Inc and finally Baseball Info Solutions, is prominently featured, as are James, Sportvision and TrackMan. Baseball Prospectus, our sister site FanGraphs and even little old us (Sawchick refers to The Hardball Times as a “hobbyist” site, which is certainly not the worst way to describe us) are mentioned more than once, and our own Dave Studeman and his development of xFIP also get mentioned.

But Sawchick digs much deeper. Consider this an unofficial list of the people/websites/businesses that are name-checked throughout: Sean Lahman, Bill James Online, Strat-O-Matic, Alan Nathan, Brooks Baseball, ESPN K-Zone, TruMedia, Beyond the Box Score, Dan Turkenkopf, Jonathan Hale, John Walsh, Mike Fast, Max Marchi, Craig Calcaterra, the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Voros McCracken, Tom Tango, Jon Roegele’s Tommy John database, Tom Verducci, Scorecasting, Baseball America, Zephyr Bio Harnesses, Andrew Koo, and of course, The Book. There is also a reference list at the end of the book with specific books and articles that Sawchick cited or were critical to his writing, which will hopefully lead casual fans down the sabermetrics rabbit hole.

I mentioned Moneyball. There will inevitably be comparisons between Moneyball and Big Data Baseball. But there are key differences. For one, Oakland GM Billy Beane was the central figure/main character of Moneyball, and Big Data Baseball is not written in a similar vein. In fact, there are wide swaths of pages where Huntington is hardly mentioned, if at all. The same goes for Hurdle.

Second, Lewis got the idea for his book after the 2001 season and spent the 2002 season with the A’s in real time and many of the insights in Moneyball are gleaned from the access he was granted as events were unfolding. Sawchick had plenty of access as a beat writer, but by his own admission in the acknowledgments, he didn’t hatch the idea for this book until the 2013 season had ended. As such, there are points in the book where he jumps ahead to 2014, and there is an epilogue on the ’14 season as well. This never feels out of place because of the tone Sawchick sets, but it is certainly a big difference from Moneyball. And that’s good, because another Moneyball would have been boring.

If there is one place the book suffers in comparison to Moneyball, it’s that we’re living in a post-Moneyball time and no front office is going to lay out the details of its game plan in full now that most/all front offices are trying to gain advantages through analytics. Part of the reason is that even with all the data at our fingertips now, there are few easy answers, and the Pirates have succeeded in large part by integrating Fitzgerald and Fox into team meetings and the club’s day-to-day life on the field. That level of communication and trust is hard to build and hard to replicate. One example, from the chapter “Magic Act,” is illustrative:

It’s math-y, but there’s still the whole arts-and-science debate,” Fitzgerald said of implementing big data. “I’d argue there is an art to that sort of stuff. I think that’s the biggest thing.”

But where do the subjective and objective meet? Fitzgerald cites an example. Say a batter excels against fastballs on the outer half of the plate from left-handed pitchers. But then what about the two lefties in the Pirates’  bullpen? Tony Watson and Justin Wilson both have rare, for left-handed pitchers, upper-90s fastball velocity. Maybe that batter has done damage against four-seam fastballs on the outer half, but how many 97 and 98 mph fastballs has he actually seen and hit? Here is where Fitzgerald and Fox dig deeper, seeking more subjective and objective information.

“So it’s an art in the sense of what we get from the raw information doesn’t always tell the whole story. How were the pitches set up? Were there runners in scoring position that were tipping pitches [to the batter]? At the end of the day you can make the argument that [the art] is just refining the data, but in a way there are still situations that come up where there is gray area and you have to massage through it,” Fitzgerald said. “I like to think that is where we do damage, where we can get value out of it.”

This is a fantastic example, but if the result of those data mining, theorizing and strategizing were laid bare, other teams would be able to plug in and play with them a lot easier. As such, the book has some passages similar to this one, from the chapter “Arms Race”:

Several times in the second half of the 2013 season Cole either had his start pushed back several days or skipped, although the Pirates were not open about their specific inning, pitch or workload limit for Cole.

“We do have some proprietary stuff we do in terms of workload. That information is made available to the coaches, and they have asked for various parts of it at various times. Not only starters but also relievers,” Fox said. “I don’t know how everything was arrived at [with the Cole situation], but I do know the stuff we provided was part of the process.”

So what was involved? Pitch types? High-stress innings? Total pitches?

“All of the above and some other [measurements],” Fox said. “A lot of the [preventative health models] work better with the more detailed information you have, so the PITCHf/x era is sort of the demarcation line.”

Now, can you read between the lines there and develop a framework for how the Pirates do things? Absolutely. But they’re not going to help you.

If you’re looking for a little more nitpicking, one thing that stuck out as I read is that Andrew McCutchen is conspicuously absent in the book. He is mentioned a couple of times, but not in the detail that other players and team employees were. While McCutchen is not really central to the plot of how the 2013 Pirates used data to change their fortunes, he was the near-unanimous 2013 National League MVP, and played a significant role in getting the Pirates to the postseason, so it seems a bit odd that he is more or less left out of the book.

Big Data Baseball sets out to tell the story of how the Pirates changed their fortunes, and it succeeds in resounding fashion. It is not just a book for Pittsburgh Pirates fans, though. It is also shows how today’s and yesterday’s sabermetric landscape has helped shape the game, and it will likely serve as great fodder in strategy sessions for baseball’s 29 other teams, and for baseball analysts everywhere. The Pirates were able to change how they go about their business, and Sawchick makes sense of it all from both high-level and nuts-and-bolts views. While he doesn’t extract any specific formulas from the Pirates front office, he shows clearly how changed happened for the Pirates, and he does so without packing the book with fluffy, meaningless back-patting kinds of stories that render many non-fiction sports books hard to read.

Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.
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NL Central Hub
7 years ago

Looking forward to this one. Thanks for the write-up!

7 years ago

I was not that interested in reading the book before, but this review got me interested. Thanks for the review.

7 years ago

Regarding McCutchen, it’s a bit similar to how the main talents of the A’s 2002 squad – Hudson, Mulder, Zito, Tejada – are similarly given short shrift.

It’s incredibly rare for a team with no backbone All-Star talent to fare well. But what teams like the A’s, Pirates, and Rays excel it is taking advantage of that talent and build around it. Baseball is one of the team-iest team sports. Plenty of superstars have languished on lousy teams – Troy Tulowitzki for example.

I really liked Jonah Keri’s title then of his Rays book, the Extra 2%. Sums up how all this isn’t a magic pancea, but can give you edges that turn 80 win teams into 85 win teams and so on.

The Will To Win
7 years ago

“A Big Hit” – in the wallet! I think I’ll pass on Moneyball 2 and put the money down towards a couple of tickets to an actual game!

Michael Bacon
7 years ago

Just finished reading this wonderful book, so now I can say to The Will To Win, “You have made a terrible mistake, sir. This book is CHEAP AT TWICE THE PRICE.”
The book is exceptionally well-written; it flows as gracefully as Roberto Clemente playing RF.
Andrew McCutchen is mentioned in the book, and that is enough because he is not instrumental in the main focus of the book. The focus is the HUMAN RELATIONSHIP between the statheads and baseball players, coaches, etc. The focus is on how the statheads helped the TEAM to be a better TEAM. It would have been wrong for the author to concentrate on trying to write an “old-school” type baseball book when the focus is the “new-school.”
I enjoyed this book IMMENSELY! I mean, break out all the old sayings, such as, “I could not put it down,” and “It is a real page-turner,” etc. My only regret is that it was not longer…like double the number of pages.