The use of and reliance upon analytics is a hot-button topic in baseball, but don’t expect the numbers game to end anytime soon.
As baseball’s data revolution rages on, the Boston Red Sox find themselves in an interesting spot. The Sox are at a crossroads amid the ongoing search for a new leader in the baseball operations department to replace the recently fired Dave Dombrowski.
The Red Sox rode the initial baseball analytics wave to previously unseen heights shortly after the turn of the century. Theo Epstein and his baseball operations department embraced the numbers and World Series titles followed. Eventually, however, the Red Sox started to invest more heavily in scouting and fell behind as the rest of baseball surged forward within the analytics community.
As Red Sox senior vice president/assistant general manager Zack Scott explained to Fangraphs, a large focus in recent years had Boston playing catch-up with the rest of the league as it pertains to analytics. Scott, who leads the club’s analytics charge, revealed to Fangraphs that Boston’s research and development department is a 15-person team, a unit that grew under Dombrowski despite his industry-wide reputation as an old-school baseball man.
“We actually grew on his watch more than on any GM’s watch, in terms of size of our department,” Scott told Fangraphs. “… He was very open to learning, so they were just slightly different conversations with a different level of engagement.”
Of course, the hiring of Alex Cora as Red Sox manager also sped up the process. Cora came from the Houston Astros, where he saw the Astros go from a perennial loser to World Series favorites. The Astros are at the forefront of baseball’s analytical movement, and it’s working. Just six years removed from a 92-loss season, the Astros are getting ready to play for their second World Series title in three seasons and have won at least 100 games in each of those three campaigns.
Scott credits Cora for a greater “demand” when it came to analytics. That’s an ongoing process, and it hasn’t been without some bumps in the road. The Boston Globe’s Alex Speier recently documented the organizational shift, noting philosophical differences led to some potentially uncomfortable situations. According to Speier, former pitching coach Dana LeVangie sometimes clashed with the analytics department, especially in 2019.
“Those disagreements at times consumed the energy of the coaches,” Speier wrote last week. “According to multiple team sources, the staff spent more time this year hashing out disputes amongst themselves than they did in 2018, with the result that there was less time spent working with players.”
Scott unsurprisingly didn’t offer any specifics, but did say this about the ongoing process: “When you’re trying to do stuff really fast and roll it out to the proper audiences — whether it’s on the evaluation side, or the on-field strategy side — there are going to be hiccups along the way.”
So, what does this all mean for the Red Sox moving forward? It sure sounds as if an appreciation for and reliance upon analytics will be a key component for the next head of baseball ops, especially considering Cora’s stance on stats and the stat-driven nature of Sox owner John Henry.
“John is very generous in investing in my department, and values the kind of work we’re doing, so I fully expect that whoever comes in will share those values,” Scott told Fangraphs. “The relationship I have (with the new GM) will thus be important.
” … Right before Dave came on, there were several meetings and discussions where (Henry) expressed a concern that we had lagged behind the rest of the industry. It was a great opportunity for me to present to him where we were at that time, where we wanted to be, and how I thought we could get there. He was extremely supportive, and we put together a multi-year plan to grow the department.”
Interestingly, this seems to indicate a shift in philosophy on Jersey Street. Henry told reporters prior to the 2016 season the club became too reliant upon analytics. That started a string of three straight division titles that concluded with a historically good, World Series-winning club in 2018. Now, as the Red Sox try to rebound after missing the playoffs, one of Henry’s quotes from 2019 stands out.
“I won’t go into all of it, but there were various aspects of our overall philosophy that needed tweaking, and we did,” he said.
It appears the Red Sox have reached a similar (while simultaneously completely different) conclusion just a few years later.