The Fallacy of Analytics vs. Old School Baseball
By Andy Singer
Photo of Aaron Boone by Kathy Willens, AP. Photo of Joe Girardi by Michael Dwyer, AP Photo
As Yankee fans and media have worked to dissect what went wrong with the 2020 Yankees, an undercurrent narrative has emerged. Frustration has has bubbled for years at the direction in which baseball as a whole is headed. The proliferation of “three true outcomes” hitters (hitters who mostly walk, strikeout, or homer in all at-bats) has seemingly hit the high-water mark. Runners rarely attempt to steal bags, as the risk vs. reward tend not to balance out. Due to shifts, launch-geared swings, and power pitching, fans rarely see plays like hit-and-runs or fake steals to create advantages for groundballs based on infield positioning. Lastly, starters who can be counted on to throw 7 innings in a start are quickly becoming a dying breed, replaced by a variety of strategies to cobble together multiple bullpen arms to accomplish the job that used to be left to a single starter.
Before I go any further, please understand that while I very much enjoyed the game I grew up watching, I also greatly enjoy the game I see today. However, I realize that there is a growing faction of fans and media that do not feel the same way, and they have grown restless with the baseball that’s being played on the field. This has boiled over in much of the analysis I see today of the state of the New York Yankees. While I think most people at least acknowledge the necessity of understanding advanced metrics and concepts, many observers think that the Yankees have become too dogmatic in their approach towards analytics, team building, and coaching. While I am as upset as anyone about the lack of a World Series championship in 2020, I think it is important to understand the context in which analytics are applied in the modern game. More to the point, the idea that the Yankees are a team that over-relies on analytics just doesn’t hold water when we dig a little deeper.
I mentioned it briefly in Friday’s Mailbag, but one of the movements the Yankees have proven to be at the forefront of is attempting to blend analytics with old world baseball feel. The Yankee system, including the Major League coaching staff, is littered with people who are baseball lifers who came up through the amateur and professional ranks playing the old school game, but who have also embraced modern analytics enough to incorporate the inherent advantages and probabilities they create into their coaching. Bench Coach Carlos Mendoza is a perfect example of that idea: a young, multi-lingual coach who can communicate both traditional and analytical concepts to a wide range of players. Mendoza is young enough to still be able to related to players, but has also spent the better part of a decade in a variety of coaching roles in both the Minor and Major Leagues, from Manager to Infield Instructor. That was the idea behind hiring Aaron Boone, though many argued at the time with Boone’s lack of coaching experience, a gap that has reared its ugly head any number of times throughout his tenure as Yankee manager.
To see an example of a team that has over-relied on analytics above and beyond all else, one only has to look at the hated Astros as an example. Just prior to the sign stealing scandal that erupted this past year, the Astros made a move that flew somewhat under the radar in popular baseball circles: the Astros fired the majority of their in-person scouts. Not only was this move panned across the league, very few baseball voices thought that firing scouts would lead to more wins on the field. I could never imagine the Yankees making such a move, and I think I’m right in feeling that way. More to the point, the Yankees have been lauded by multiple people in the know (Keith Law among them) of being a team that succeeds at blending analytical analysis with traditional scouting methods for player and team evaluation.
In fact, one could argue that the recent shift by the team to more overtly incorporate analytical methods in the big league clubhouse was a shift to keep up with the Joneses. There was a fascinating discussion on the R2C2 Podcast back in February (I’ll provide the link, but won’t embed it here due to some questionable language – start at the 13:40 mark: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iyCtD93BiOs) in which Sonny Gray discussed his experience in New York. Whatever you think about Sonny Gray, one of the things he talked about was the lack of numbers he was provided during his time in New York; numbers he felt he needed to be his best, and analysis and coaching he’s received since he got to the Reds. CC Sabathia even noted that as much as everyone loved Larry Rothschild, even he noted that the team was behind on modern pitching analytics and coaching. Over the last few years, the Yankees have sought to fill gaps in their coaching as opposed to preaching a dogmatic approach.
I think that the old idea of analytics guys versus old school guys in baseball is an antiquated and dangerous idea promoted by popular media such as the popular movie adaptation of Moneyball (I highly recommend the book, but the movie, while entertaining, doesn’t quite capture Michael Lewis’ analysis) or worse, Trouble With The Curve, which was thoroughly trashed by anyone working in modern baseball. In truth, analytics seek to explain the game we see with our eyes, and provide data to both clear up our own misconceptions and give us confidence in opinions we form with our eyes. Old world scouting and statistical analysis can live in harmony. The Yankees have worked to add more data to their analysis in the last few years, and the coaching staff is working to balance feel with analytics. They might not always succeed, but the answer to fix the Yankees is not to remove data and analysis from the equations. The Yankees have worked hard to add voices to the organization with hybrid backgrounds, and they should continue to seek to fulfill that goal.