LOS ANGELES — The Dodgers and Houston Astros are playing in the World Series this week. But this is also the Proprietary Information Super Bowl.
Fifteen years into the post-Moneyball era, an analytics department is as essential to a major-league team as fungo bats and sunflower seeds. In the early 2000s, the disparity between the sophisticated and the unsophisticated was wide. Not anymore, every team now searches for advantages in algorithms and metrics, taking the data available from sources like StatCast, PITCHf/x and Trackman and squeezing it for all its worth.
“You should know there are at least a half a dozen, maybe 10 teams that are all in on analytics,” says Dodgers team president and CEO Stan Kasten. “Most of the teams in the playoffs were those kind of teams.”
But the two that survived, the Dodgers and Astros, are among the industry leaders, considered by many to be the two most committed and sophisticated in their pursuit of wins hidden in the decimal points.
In 2012, the Astros brought in Sig Mejdal and his master’s degree in operations research and cognitive psychology and gave him the very un-baseball title of “Director of Decision Sciences.” The former NASA employee is now listed as a special assistant to GM Jeff Luhnow for process improvement.
The Astros are the envy of the industry — if corporate espionage is the measure. An employee of the St. Louis Cardinals was sentenced to 46 months in prison for hacking into “Ground Control,” the Astros’ internal database.
In 2015, ESPN the Magazine tried to rate all professional teams on the sophistication of their analytic efforts. The Astros were the highest-ranked baseball team. The Dodgers didn’t make the top 10 among MLB teams in that ranking. Andrew Friedman had just been hired as the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations and the front office transformation of one of baseball’s crown-jewel franchises (with all its resources) had just begun.
Video: Dodgers vs. Astros World Series preview
“I knew when I came here it was an area that was becoming more and more important and we had to beef it up,” Kasten says. “I saw what was happening and if we didn’t get ahead of the curve, we’d fall behind. And we are the Dodgers. We can’t ever fall behind.
“I thought we were maybe 50 percent of the way to where we needed to be when I hired him. I way overestimated how far behind we were falling. We were probably only 20 percent of the way to where we needed to be.”
The Dodgers now have what is believed to be the largest research and development department in baseball.
“I’ve heard that. I’ve seen that written. I don’t know if that’s true,” Dodgers GM Farhan Zaidi says in the guarded manner the team’s executives adopt when any question strays toward this topic.
There are at least 15 people listed on the Dodgers’ front-office roster as members of the research and development department. There are more but the Dodgers won’t say how many.
Players who come to the Dodgers from other organizations recognize the difference.
“Just the sheer numbers as far as the bodies, the staff that is analytically-driven,” says Dodgers reliever Tony Watson who spent 6-1/2 seasons with the analytically-open Pittsburgh Pirates before joining the Dodgers this summer. “Then I later found out it’s the largest R & D in baseball. ... Coming from Pittsburgh, it’s definitely bigger. That’s the focus. And it works. The numbers don’t lie.”
Like the Astros, the Dodgers use those numbers to search for even the smallest advantages in everything from injury risk evaluation and prevention to pitch sequencing and defensive positioning. Individual players are given road maps to maximize their skill sets. For Watson, that meant being told he didn’t necessarily have to rely on his fastball as much as he always had. For Brandon Morrow, it was learning that a high fastball is not always a bad thing.
“The way that they take those numbers and present them simply is a big deal — because a lot of those numbers can be overwhelming and confusing, to be honest,” Morrow says. “If they just gave you all the numbers, you wouldn’t know where to look or what to focus on. They do a really good job of taking those numbers and then showing you how you can be successful or taking those numbers and cutting out the part that’s going to help you and only presenting that part.”
Outfielder Cameron Maybin went from the Angels — behind the curve analytically until the recent efforts of GM Billy Eppler — to the Astros this season and suddenly was immersed in “a lot of talk about spin rate and a lot of talk about launch angle.” The Astros’ offense was one of the most productive in baseball history, focusing on driving the ball to do damage, not just pile up hits.
“It’s pretty cool stuff,” Maybin said. “A lot of days in the lab. I think they’re on to something special.”
Sometimes it’s hard to tell what they’re on to, as Kasten found out.
“Because I’ve done this so long, I know what all 1,200 people who work here during a game — I know what their jobs are,” he says. “Except when I walk into that part of that department. Everyone has a cubby and white boards all over the place with complex mathematical formulas.
“One day, I just stopped in the middle of the room and said, ‘Okay, I know you all are screwing with me. None of this means anything. You just want me to look at it and shake my head.’ Which of course cracks them up.”
All of that math has no doubt helped the Dodgers’ bullpen put up a postseason-record 23 consecutive scoreless innings heading into the World Series and prodded their lineup toward its disciplined approach at the plate.
But will it add up to the decisive edge in a World Series title?
“I don’t know,” Kasten says. “But I do know that I have lost a World Series in extra innings of Game 7 and I lost a World Series on a baserunning error in the eighth inning (with the Atlanta Braves).
“So how much of an advantage do you need it to produce to be meaningful?”