Yesterday, John Shea of the San Francisco Chronicle asked, “Dodgers lose World Series their way; do Giants want to emulate them?” I appreciate how we all didn’t jump down his throat for saying something so silly, and it’s possible he didn’t write the headline, but he did go ahead and write this silliness:
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts was criticized for his decision-making in the five-game loss to the Red Sox, though the decisions were based largely on data supplied by Andrew Friedman’s front office.
Boston manager Alex Cora wasn’t flawless, but more of his decisions worked. Then again, the Red Sox are a historically outstanding team, so perhaps it was more about his players making him look good.
In any case, the Red Sox, though also heavy into analytics, are said to be more willing than the Dodgers to mix new school with old school, and much of that stems from Dave Dombrowski, an old-school general manager who buys into new-school principles, but not to the Dodgers’ extreme.
I’m actually giving you the bulk of the column here. It’s not a well-written piece by any means, and it was belched out specifically to ignite this anti- anti-analytics post, but I’m taking the bait because in combination with Shea’s opinion and Jon Morosi’s report yesterday about the team’s interest in Farhan Zaidi for their GM job — which Chris Haft then posted to the Giants’ MLB.com site — it seems clear that there’s something “in the air” about the Giants’ new direction and it’s clear that men of a certain age will continue to shout in our faces about how much they hate statistics and how numbers are ruining the game. Is there something to their 50+-year old manrage?
Farhan Zaidi didn’t play the game and he’s a huge nerd. He also helped remake the A’s into the team they are now. And since he’s been the Dodgers’ GM, all they’ve done is win the NL West four straight years and been to the World Series two years in a row. He took someone else’s roster and made it better, something Bobby Evans was unable to do. If you want to know more about Zaidi, read this piece in the LA Times from last year.
If the argument comes down to “analytics are bad because they never win — you need gut, grit, and hustle to really win” then only winners can be deemed successful. Fact of the matter is, the Red Sox and Dodgers represent two very heavily analytics-minded teams facing off in the World Series. You had two analytics-driven teams face off in the World Series last year. What did John Shea have to say about that?
The moves Roberts makes in a game are predetermined as part of the Dodgers’ analytic-driven strategy, but Roberts used his gut when deciding to summon Brandon Morrow in the seventh, and it backfired. Roberts said beforehand he’d stay away from Morrow, but the setup man said he wanted in and appeared for the third straight day and fifth time in six days. He had nothing. He threw six pitches and coughed up four runs.
This addled way of looking at baseball really is quite something. All good baseball managers game plan before a single pitch is thrown. “Predetermined” is something Tony La Russa has been lauded for — if this happens, then I’m gonna do this; in five batters, I’ll need to make this move — and that Bruce Bochy has done for his entire managerial career. The only thing technology has done is helped speed up the process and plan for more eventualities.
Farhan Zaidi or someone of his ilk won’t come to the Giants and remake them in their image. That’s the fear. But the fear belies the truth: you have to work together. Zaidi has to work with Baer (he’d be reporting directly to him), he has to work with the people who are already there. Sure, he can make personnel changes as he so desires, but that won’t happen wholesale and it won’t happen immediately and it won’t happen with malice.
Fear of change always supposes that the invading force will simply impose its will on the invaded innocents. For one thing, the Giants aren’t innocent — they’re one of the worst teams in baseball since the second half of 2016. For another, numbers don’t have a gut’s bias. And then there’s this (from the LA Times article):
Zaidi subscribes to what he considers a ‘perverted form of optimism,’ a belief in the power of joyful pragmatism leavened with perspective on the unlikelihood of his journey.
Beyond that, the Giants have stolen another team’s direction before: when the Padres recognized the impact Petco Park had on offense, they switched to a pitching and defense team. When the Giants re-signed Brian Sabean back in 2007, Peter Magowan (then the managing general partner) explicitly mentioned the Padres’ model as one the team should follow in working its way back to prominence.
The Giants followed the Padres’ model so well they won three world championships in five years while the Padres failed to reach the playoffs. So, on that note, Larry Baer has explicitly stated that the team will become more analytics driven and by possibly pursuing Zaidi has implicitly stated the team is looking to the Dodgers for their next actual model. However, just as they’ve done before, the Giants will find a way to take what someone else has done and make it better.
So, no. As before — as always — there’s absolutely nothing to journalists and color commenters lamenting the use of statistics / analytics. Technology isn’t ruining baseball and it won’t ruin the Giants.