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The Opportunity Baseball Organizations Are Missing

I realize the title of the article is a very bold statement. If you are looking for conclusive proof through overwhelming data, I would suggest checking back several years from now, well after what I discuss will have largely played out. What I will offer, however, are signs and anecdotes that a significant opportunity does exist. That opportunity: A systematic process for both identifying and fixing hitters performing below potential.

Coming from an investment research background, I was able to discover several specific things where consensus views are either misplaced or do not exist. While I can’t get into specifics in terms of the “what” (yet), the “how”, and “why”, I was able to find these things are interesting to consider. This article (and possibly series of articles) could be considered a “ride along” if you will, where I will share some key parts that I believe are interesting to an analytically-focused baseball audience. Further, there is an upcoming fork ahead where a decision will be made as to strategic direction – attempting to influence wins or selling products. If the latter, I will detail everything either here or on a to-be-established blog.

There are different paths to research success. The keys that I’ve observed are: 1) Determine the primary drivers – i.e. pick a narrow lane, 2) Go deep to discover where consensus views are misplaced or do not exist, and 3) Constantly ask yourself where you might be wrong or what could you be missing. When I started research into hitting, it was this last item – the lack of self-questioning — that really stuck out. The coaching side of baseball at all levels seemed cemented in its views, clearly unwilling to consistently ask itself these very important questions. After almost getting punched by a coach several years ago, I was convinced that the emotion, ego and attachment to opinions that befall many smart investors were likely creating a large opportunity.

One more investing parallel and then I’ll get to some data. In the 2008 financial and housing crisis, one of the primary reasons that a tremendous opportunity to bet against the housing market arose was that the models, based on historical data, assumed housing prices would not decline on a nation-wide basis. However, a small number of investors, focusing on fewer, yet more significant signs were able to make billions by betting against the models and strongly-held consensus views. Similar to this example, baseball organizations don’t believe an opportunity exists because the historical data indicates that it doesn’t. Let’s take a look.

In the past nine years, there have been 92 cumulative changes to the hitting-coach position across major-league baseball. The pitching-coach position, on the other hand, has turned over only 45 times in the same period. The average age of the position is 52.6, and the coaches have an average 19.7 years removed from active play (read – all have significant legacy views). It doesn’t appear that any are adding significantly more value than the group and no individual or organization is consistently fixing broken hitters with recurring success. I believe the real signs are in the anecdotal evidence, which tell a completely different story.

Anecdotal Evidence an Opportunity Exists

J.D. Martinez – In early 2012, I sent a letter and video to his prior organization discussing the opportunity in fixing his mechanics, as well as the opportunity through a systematic process of identifying and fixing underperforming hitters (much the same as you are reading here). In December 2013,  after seeing the specific changes I was looking for, I made the following comment to Dan Farnsworth’s article – Rule 5 Darkhorse J.D. Martinez:

“…..These changes are some of the most significant (and in the right direction!) that I have seen for a major league player….. if he keeps moving his swing in this direction, he will be a major offensive producer in the next few seasons.”

He was released just a few months later. You likely know the rest of the story. Credit and thanks to Dan Farnsworth for writing the article.

Alex Bregman – Upon his major-league debut, I noticed a significant flaw that would likely prevent him from succeeding at the major-league level, and made the following comment in Eric Longenhagen’s post “Scouting Astros Call up Alex Bregman”:

“….only the power and HRs won’t be there consistently because he is cutting his swing so short. With his current approach, I think he’s going to have a far tougher road than what most are projecting.”

The swing shortness was of a particular type that I had come across with several other players who had used a particular swing-training device. I had a very high degree of conviction as to the likely results.

On August 7th, I noticed he had changed his swing and he and also said “It’s just a mechanical issue that we’re working out to get back to how it was.”  I made the following comment on the same post.

 “….. since his terrible start and now likely subsequent improvement may be cast as randomness, better luck, or just needing more major league ABs, I think the real story here is relatively clear – the changes in his mechanics and approach were the primary driving factors both on the way down and the way back up (hopefully?) and would have occurred regardless of the playing level (AAA or MLB).”

Subsequent to his statement of “getting back to my old swing,” he changed his public comments — stating that he really didn’t make a swing change. I’m guessing so that no one gets thrown under the bus. Since the media bought into the revised, post-spin version of events, that seems to be the current consensus view, even though it is clearly inaccurate.

Looking at these cases and other turnarounds, the key takeaways are:

1) The solutions are not coming from within the organization

In the vast majority of cases, players are finding their own solutions. Players seek out advice from other players as well as outside sources. There are numerous quotes from hitting coaches with comments along the lines of “I don’t mess with the mechanics. When they get here, they already know how to hit.” Many hitting coaches appear to have taken the Hippocratic oath approach of “do no harm.”

2) The examples of significant and sustained turnarounds are extremely limited

I screened for players with below-average wRC+ for at least two seasons and also a wRC+ of 120 or more for the past two years. J.D. Martinez was the only return. There have been other notable improvement stories – Jose Altuve, Josh Donaldson, Manny Machado, Nelson Cruz and Anthony Rizzo; however, all were generally at least average or better before the improvement.

Using the same methods that identified the players above (as well as other players commented on this site), I find approximately 50 players at the MLB level who are performing well below their potential and could realize transformational improvement – if given the correct prescription. I won’t bore you with the complete list, but here are the top seven.

 

Depending on how things transpire, as noted in the first section above, I may go into detail on both the video and data analysis that leads to the conclusions above in future posts.

The Gap in the Middle

With baseball’s data/analytics side not going deep into mechanics and the coaching/player development side not doing significant research challenging current views, it is not too difficult to consider that there might be an opportunity gap in the middle, relative to new thoughts on mechanics. When I examine how these organizations with vast budgets and resources are missing key things, this “gap in the middle” seems to make the most sense. In hindsight, it was definitely a source underpinning my findings.

I believe it is fairly safe to say that baseball organizations are definitely missing something – it’s just a matter of the size of the opportunity. The recent fly-ball emphasis is a case in point. It’s somewhat ironic that this is being cast as something “new” when Ted Williams wrote and talked about it (i.e. the swing should not be down but up in the general plane of the pitch) 47 years ago. I am confident the “fly-ball movement” is not the magic bullet many seem to believe. Pursuing this path will only divert focus away from a more valid, comprehensive, and systematic solution.

Arguably, there is no other sport where mechanics play such a significant role in a player performing to potential. Without question, teams and coaches have struggled with this issue, given the high turnover of the hitting-coach position and the lack of consistent value-added input in regard to mechanics. Given the connection of mechanics to performance and performance to value, the possibility of an effective solution should not be considered lightly.

In weighing the evidence, on one side, there is significant historical precedent indicating systematically fixing players has not been possible. Clearly, even the best hitters in the game have not been able to transfer what largely exists in their muscle memory to other players. On the other side, there are a few anecdotes that may not seem significant in isolation; however, taken together, there is a logical story line that warrants consideration. The probability that the signs above are purely random and that they also have no connection to the bigger picture as discussed is extremely low. Given the stakes, shouldn’t organizations be asking themselves “What could we be missing?”