Late in a conversation with Stanford ace Mark Appel, talk drifted to the use of advanced stats in the college game. What kind of statistical analysis was he familiar with? How much did the coaching staff give players to think about? Was he up-to-date on recent research?
“Oh, dunno much about that, but Dean Stotz usually has a page of information for us,” the right-hander told me. “It’s pretty intense.”
Stotz’s name might not be familiar to most baseball fans. After all, coach Mark Marquess is the face of the Stanford program -— as he has been for the past 34 years. But every year for more than three decades, Stotz has been at Marquess’ side. Though he’s listed as the hitting instructor, third base coach, erstwhile pitching coach and current primary recruiting coordinator, Stotz has perhaps a less-formal -— but another highly important -— title: dean of stats.
Talk to him for more than a minute, and a deep understanding of the game rockets to the surface. Talk to him for an hour, and you’ll leave wanting to know more about baseball.
That pitching sheet? “It’s pretty elaborate,” Stotz says. In trying to incorporate peripheral stats that can be of value to the players, he asks his pitchers to fill out a pitching chart after their games. Each note they take feeds a statistical category that, in turn, provides the staff and their students with a teaching moment.
For example, each pitcher is asked to match the results of their at-bats with the first pitch of the at-bat. When they got a first-pitch strike, what happened? Appel, Stotz says, had 57% strikes on the first pitch last season. Sixty-seven percent of those at-bats ended in outs, while 10% were walks and 23% were hits. But across the league, only 6% of the walks happened after an 0-1 count. Stotz is aware that some researchers say that batters hit .333 on the first pitch —- but, as with any good researcher, he has his own numbers on the subject. “Fifty percent of the time, the hitters take the first pitch,” he says. “Twenty-six percent of the time, they hit it foul. Twenty-four percent of the time they put it in play —- and only 33% of those balls are hits. That means —- if you throw a first-pitch strike —- 92% of the time, you’ll get an out or an 0-1 count.”
Similarly, the 2-0 count is an important moment. Since Stanford has kept track of bases on balls that score, the team found that 52% of all leadoff walks score, and that the leadoff walk is no different than giving up a hit. (Appel only had two four-pitch walks all season last year.) After a 3-0 count, the batter gets on base 82% of the time, so Stotz points out to his pitchers that if they’re at 2-0, if they throw a changeup, “It better be a strike, because if it isn’t, you’ve pretty much walked him.”
Stotz also noticed that breaking balls have to be thrown for a strike 57% to 58% of the time to be successful in college. But when “you ask a guy to do it in the bullpen, he can only manage six of 10 at best.” So it follows that close misses are important; essentially, if it’s in the neighborhood, you can get a chase, and it will count as a strike. So the team, with the help of their pitchers, tracks close pitches and chases.
Speaking of breaking balls and fastballs, Stotz has found that 55% to 60% fastballs is a very nice ratio. When the pitcher throws 70% fastballs, he can become “too predictable for the hitter.” To figure this out, they’ve charted and use strike percentage and swing-through percentage, too. They had a reliever named Kevin Kunkel who had a season with 38 swinging misses, of which 37 of them begat strikeouts — and all of them came on sliders. Stanford’s data had just shown that the slider was Kunkel’s pitch for whiffs.
“Forget the radar gun,” Stotz says. “It’s not the whole truth.” An average fastball will be hit for lower than a .275 batting average, with a 10% swinging-strike percentage. Appel —- with his 94-plus mph fastball —- only got whiffs on 8% of his fastballs last season. But he got whiffs 27% of the time on his slider, and “that’s one of the things that makes him incredibly valuable,” Stotz says. “He can get you out with all three pitches.”
Stotz has the pitchers track their number of 13-pitch innings and then compare them to the rest of the team’s staff and the league. (Appel went 1-2-3 in 24% of his innings last year.) “If you’ve had a 13-pitch inning, you’ve had a remarkable inning,” Stotz says.
Is this pitching to contact? Sure, Stotz says. But the college game is different from the Major League game —- and even in the Major League game, keeping pitch counts low is important.
“If [Yu Darvish] has 27 starts and can only go 160 innings… he’ll kill the bullpen. The Arizona Diamondbacks had three starters with more than 200 innings last year. If you pitch 200 innings in the Major Leagues, the stats take care of themselves. Appel takes you into the eighth inning in his average start. Jeremy Guthrie gets $8 million to pitch because the sucker has pitched 200 innings four or five years in a row. One-hundred-and-ten pitches in five-and-a-third innings? That will wear you out.” — Dean Stotz
Of course, Stotz admitted that a workhorse with great control — which Darvish could still prove to be — would be as valuable as their substantial investment, but he stood fast behind his contention that keeping pitch counts down was tantamount to success.
Stotz is concerned with the college game first and foremost, but he’s aware of both games and their differences. For example, he’s aware that bunting is most often a bad idea: “You only should bunt if the strategy is that one run makes a huge difference,” he says, referencing his and others’ findings that a lowered run environment makes bunting more palatable. “It’s not a value to move a guy to second base in the pros for sure.”
Neither game is perfect, he says, and “we want the game to be different.” He doesn’t mince words — the new BBCOR regulations, that tamped down offense by deadening the college bat, are “a bad thing.” Why? “You only get ‘x’ number of Peyton Mannings and Andrew Lucks,” he says. “This is eventually going to discourage kids from wanting to play.” What about the next Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera? “The second batter is sac bunting?” he says, implying that such an event makes the game less fun for the participants and the viewers. Fans “want it now,” he adds. “Some guy spent $80 a ticket to get his four kids in, and says, ‘Son, look at this. Son, I spent $600 for this 1-0 game.'” Other leagues “get it,” Stotz continues. “The NFL is doing everything in their power to make the game 31-28. Drew Brees against Aaron Rodgers Opening Day, both teams punt twice and did anyone complain?” Baseball has things it can do, and some without telling anyone. “Would they juice the ball?” Stotz asks.
Working the stats is a special thing for Stotz, but it may not look exactly like the work we see at the big-league level. So much Major League work is done to find the true talent of a player who a team might look to acquire. That’s too difficult for a college team to do when looking at recruits. “We don’t do anything with high school stats. Garbage in, garbage out,” Stotz says.
Statistics, at the college level, provide more internal teaching tools than anything. Figuring out best practices for the players already in the fold seems like the best use of limited resources for statistical gathering, too. With Stotz at the helm —- showing his players the correct way —- Stanford University once again has a top-10 program that’s now streaking toward the post-season. A big part of that is thanks to their Dean and his charts and stats.