“Cleveland had Kina Trax, or something like that…in their big league stadium for like almost the last decade, and they are like a half decade…ahead of anyone who wants to implement this technology tomorrow.”
Eric Longenhagen on Effectively Wild episode 1922
I have been listening to Effectively Wild since podcast episode 100 or so. That was nearly a decade ago. It is, in my opinion, the best resource for someone who wants a simple way to improve their overall baseball knowledge. The above quote, and the conversation surrounding it, was a stark reminder of what the new Royals front office is going to have to do if they truly want to catch up to the elite data usage teams. This statement's main point is that collecting data is not enough, that is just the beginning. You implement the data collection, and then it takes time to hone your skills in interpreting the new data, and then you need to figure out how to use the information to tell players what to do to actually improve. As far as I can tell, the Royals started to implement some of this style of data collection in 2019.
Becoming a data-driven organization is a long process. One that John Sherman has at least seen part of in his time in Cleveland from 2016 through 2019. There are many lists out there about what it takes, but here is the bare minimum that I came up with:
1. A dedicated management team
2. Careful data collection
3. Hiring the right people to run the systems
4. Hiring the right people to manage the data
5. Hiring the right people to transmit the information from data scientists to the players
6. A commitment to open dialogue; if the players don’t understand why they won’t listen
7. An understanding of what data can and cannot do
8. A willingness to iterate and continually update and defend your decisions with logic
That’s before we begin talking about understanding uncertainty and other fun data things. The Royals are slowly moving in this direction, and they are behind. That might make you assume I would tell them to start sprinting to catch up, but that is not the way to do this. Sometimes understanding cannot be accelerated, and sometimes going faster is dangerous. For me, this is a necessary step for a team that wants to compete consistently because you need to make good decisions and to continually make good decisions you need to understand why your previous good decisions were good (also why the bad ones were bad). And you also need to figure out what your limitations are through this process as well because the players are still people and scouts know stuff too. Context matters a lot.
The thing is, long journeys, hard journeys, are not only sometimes worthwhile but can be the things we treasure most after the fact. You cannot lose sight of that in the middle, or you will never reach the finish line. Another thing from the podcast was a rather stark reminder of what can happen if you do implement these systems well.
“I mentioned earlier that stat about only 8 and 2/3 innings pitched on the Astros staff this year from pitchers who had an ERA above the major league average.”
He went on to say that only one team, the 1979 Orioles, had ever done better. If you want more details about how the Astros pulled of this feat en route to this World Series, you will need to listen to the podcast for yourself. Ben and Meg are delightful, so you should listen to them anyway.
What I am really trying to tell you is buckle up. The ride is about to begin, and it is hopefully going to be a long one. If not, this will end poorly.