The Pirates’ Sabermetrics Road Show

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The first time I called Mike Fitzgerald, quantitative analyst for the Pittsburgh Pirates, I got his voice mail. Fitzgerald, I later found out, wasn’t screening his calls; he was on the phone with bench coach Jeff Banister, whom the Pirates drafted out of college before Fitzgerald was born. It was an off day for the team, and Fitzgerald was using the rare breather in baseball’s exhausting regular-season schedule to visit his hometown of Wilmington, Massachusetts. For most front-office types, “off day” is a relative term: If they’re not in the office, they’re working remotely or are on call to field requests. Pittsburgh’s coaches, Fitzgerald joked when we connected, were once adamant about making their off days real respites from the grind, but with the Pirates two wins away from securing a wild-card spot for the second straight season, they, too, are using their hours away from the park to prepare for upcoming opponents. And when coaches have questions, Fitzgerald is often the first person they call.

In his third season with the Pirates, the 26-year-old Fitzgerald has become something of a sabermetric pioneer, the bleeding-edge embodiment of the trend toward teamwide, data-driven decision-making that began before Moneyball and has accelerated since. However, Fitzgerald’s statistical skills, while considerable, aren’t what separate him from his counterparts with the other 29 teams. The former math major at MIT is comfortable with R, SQL, and other tools of the analyst’s trade, but every club has someone (if not several someones) like Fitzgerald providing reports and recommendations. The difference is in how the Pirates have deployed him.

For most teams, the effort to revamp the traditional player-evaluation process into a sophisticated synthesis of scouting and advanced stats has followed a three-part plan. The first and second steps are hiring a general manager who’s receptive to statistical analysis and surrounding him with the resources (both human and technological) to make sound decisions. The Pirates took Step 1 in September 2007, when they hired Neal Huntington, who had previously served as an assistant GM for the saber-savvy Indians.1 Step 2 took place in 2008, when Huntington hired Baseball Prospectus analyst Dan Fox as director of baseball systems development and assigned him to build what would become MITT (Managing, Information, Tools, and Talent), the Pirates’ in-house, one-stop digital storehouse. With that, the brainpower was in place.

Incentivized by baseball’s growing revenues, almost every team has installed an analytics department and a GM who’s open to recent research. The factor differentiating front offices, then, isn’t necessarily the quality of their number crunching, but the quality of their communication, a subject that Astros GM Jeff Luhnow expounded upon earlier this summer, shortly before firing manager Bo Porter. To make the most of their R&D dollars, teams are increasingly focusing on figuring out Step 3: minimizing baseball’s upstairs-downstairs drama by ensuring that front offices and field staffs are on the same page (or at least in the same book).

In their attempts to foster closer ties to coaches, some front offices have operated under the principle that it takes one to talk to one. Last winter, the Tigers, Nationals, and Angels followed the Rays’ lead by creating a new kind of coach. The titles varied from team to team —“defensive coordinator,” “defensive coordination and advance coach,” “player information coach” — but in every case, a team put someone with prior professional coaching experience into a new role as a liaison between front-office execs, advance scouts, and coaches. The approach seems to have worked: In Anaheim, where player information coach Rick Eckstein started this year, manager Mike Scioscia has embraced a more stat-friendly approach after clashing last season with analytically oriented GM Jerry Dipoto.

In Fitzgerald, though, the Pirates have built a unique bridge between backgrounds. Most quants spend much of the season sequestered in the equivalent of what the Astros call their “nerd cave” — an office from which analysts periodically emerge to interact with coaches but rarely to travel with the team. Fitzgerald, meanwhile, makes most road trips: If the Pirates are playing, he’s almost always at the park. I surveyed several analysts from other front offices, and none of them knew — or would admit to knowing — of another employee with Fitzgerald’s statistical expertise who travels close to full-time with a team.2

While Fitzgerald offers input on player evaluation and roster construction — prior to last season, he stumped hard for free agent Russell Martin, who now rivals Andrew McCutchen for the title of Most Valuable Pirate — his role has gradually evolved to incorporate more direct, in-season interaction with coaches. In 2012, Fitzgerald’s first season in Pittsburgh, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle requested that Fitzgerald and Fox start sitting in on some meetings before home games with Hurdle, his coaching staff, and the Pirates’ video and in-person advance scouts. All parties felt that they benefited from that trial run. “By the time last season came around,” Fitzgerald recalls, “Clint had reached out to Dan and said, ‘I want to get you guys in on every meeting.’” En route to the Pirates’ 2013 playoff berth, Fitzgerald and/or Fox attended every home meeting in person and called in when the team was away.

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Last offseason, Fox and Huntington floated the idea of Fitzgerald becoming a fixture on the road. Some managers might have resented the suggestion, regarding Fitzgerald’s presence as an intrusion into the field staff’s traditional domain. Hurdle, however, was happy to have the help. “If you think you have an idea that he could do better or that we could do better, he’s not territorial,” Fox says.

“The big thing for us was speeding up the feedback loop,” Fitzgerald explains. Even in an ultra-connected world, calls, texts, and emails go unanswered, unreturned, or worse, unmade, eating up time that could be better applied in other ways or depriving both coaches and analysts of important information.

For Fox, the advantage of sending Fitzgerald on the road is the speed with which the front office can respond to changing conditions. That wasn’t possible without “having somebody there that hears more of the conversations and is a part of more of them,” he says. “In the past, during home stands a lot of information would get shared, but not as much when the team was on the road. There are a lot of things that come up on the road that maybe we forget about or we lose some of that by the time it gets translated back to us, and so we can’t act on it effectively.”

Another major benefit has come from the unexpected ways in which conversations between former pro players and analysts like Fitzgerald and Fox can inspire new research.

“We’d have a conversation with those guys at home and they’d kind of lead to new reports, new ways of breaking down opponents, and we started incorporating those down into the game plan,” Fitzgerald says. “It’s a lot easier when you’re just a hotel room away or sitting in the same room in the clubhouse to be able to say, ‘Hey, you know what? I was thinking about this. Can we take a look at that?’”

Even if an idea originates upstairs, consultation with coaches can improve its implementation by offering insight into how players will respond.

“This year has helped given us a lot of perspective, where from Dan’s and my viewpoint, it’s easy for us to whiteboard something out and say, ‘Oh yeah, this should work, we should do it now, let’s get at it,’” Fitzgerald says. “It’s good, because then we can have dialogue with [the coaches], and they can raise points from their end, like, ‘This would work in this context,’ or potentially, ‘We need to tweak this,’ because when you come out of the lab setting, this is kind of how it works in real life.”

Fitzgerald and Fox have discovered that coaches tend to be visual learners. “We both found that more often than not, if we can figure out a way to communicate something visually, we can show it to these guys, and then all of a sudden, the message that we were trying to get out in words in six to seven minutes, they pick up in 20 seconds,” Fitzgerald says. Even video clips can be compressed into an easily absorbed image, he adds. “Instead of saying, ‘We have 35 video clips for you to go through,’ we can say, ‘Here’s a quick heat map of what happened with all these 35.’”

The Pirates’ analysts are understandably stingy in providing details about ways in which Fitzgerald’s constant presence in the clubhouse has helped, but they cite several areas in which he’s offered input: defensive positioning,3 optimizing the batting order, identifying favorable and unfavorable matchups, and exploiting opponents’ weaknesses. Fitzgerald also keeps coaches apprised of leaguewide changes that could influence their thinking. “When the run environment changes, how teams operate, and potentially how team managers operate within a game, should change a little bit,” he says. Although Fitzgerald sits in the video room off the dugout during games, sometimes attends team meetings, and answers some simple, factual requests from players, he doesn’t try to proselytize, preferring that any messages about approach and preparation come through the coaches.

Fitzgerald provides one specific example of a Pirates philosophy that was born out of collaboration between coaches and analysts: their belief in the benefits of pitching inside. “That’s a good example of one of the things that we did not have as an idea coming in,” Fitzgerald says. “And that’s a thing that [Hurdle] and [Banister] and probably many other guys had brought up, of, ‘Hey, listen, can we prove this? Because we think it’s true and we have a pretty decent idea of a handful of guys who [are susceptible to it]. Is there a way to go through and identify other guys who may be susceptible to it as well?’”

It’s a deceptively complicated question, but Fitzgerald says that he and Fox were able to provide statistical support for the coaches’ hunch. “We don’t need that perfect correlation,” he says. “From a theoretical perspective, we’ve definitely tried to become a little more lenient in terms of what we deem to be significant and what we deem to be enough to allow us to go in and roll the dice with it.”

As a byproduct of that inside approach, Pirates pitchers lead the league in hit batters, just like last year.4 “[The coaches] believe [the strategy works], they’ve seen it work, they know it,” Fitzgerald says. “Now we’re just giving them more opportunities to make that bet.”

In theory, any team could copy the Pirates’ communication methods. In practice, those methods require the right personnel. While some analysts with other teams lament the close-mindedness of coaches who ignore the information they provide, Pittsburgh’s old-school staffers accept that their positions require continuing education. “Clint reads everything,” Fitzgerald says. “It’s unbelievable.”

Fitzgerald’s interpersonal skills are an equally important part of the puzzle. “For a guy who is so sharp analytically, he has tremendous feel for situations and what to say and when to say it, and rapport with people,” Fox says. “That’s not easy to find.” Nor do the relationships that Pittsburgh’s brain trust has built develop overnight, even with the right people in place. “It’s taken a long time to be at the place where we’re at now, where the relationships are there, and they trust what we give them and we trust what they’re saying,” Fox adds. “Everything has jelled a little better over time. So maybe the competitive advantage is that it takes time to build it and once it’s there, you need to be able to sustain it.”

Fitzgerald wouldn’t want to do without either one of what he calls the “sabermetric world” or “the old-school coaching world.” “They kind of get played up like they’re two polarizing ideas, but in reality I think they’re a lot closer than that,” he says. “The cool thing for us … is that we’ve found the middle ground in there. From case to case, it’s an ebb and flow in terms of which side it may lean on, but both sides have stretched each other. We now think about things and look at things a lot differently than we did three years ago. I think Clint and those guys would agree that they do the same.”

The Pirates are playing a lot differently than they did three years ago too. And while even the analysts can’t quantify the impact that the team’s traveling sabermetrician has made, it’s only a matter of time until other clubs try to find their own Fitzgerald.

“We know that eventually, everything gets out,” Fitzgerald says. “If you can be one of the first ones in on a different concept or idea, and you can figure out how to put it to good use, then the window is going to be closing on you. But the earlier you get in, the better off you are.”

Filed Under: MLB, Pittsburgh Pirates, Mike Fitzgerald, Dan Fox, Neal Huntington, Clint Hurdle, Sabermetrics, MLB Stats, MLB Playoffs, 2014 MLB Playoffs, Baseball, Ben Lindbergh

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Ben Lindbergh is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ BenLindbergh