Sawchik hits a home run with 'Big Data Baseball'
It would be far too easy — not to mention lazy — to call Travis Sawchik's debut book "Big Data Baseball: Math, Miracles, and the End of a 20-year Losing Streak," Moneyball Part 2. Frankly, as great as "Moneyball" was, it's not on the same level of "Big Data Baseball" when it comes to the content.
"Moneyball" was terrific at explaining the value of on-base percentage (OBP) in baseball, which Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane used to find undervalued players.
On-base percentage — while still a better metric to use instead of batting average — is old news to the stat and sabermetric community. What Sawchik does is highlight the secrets to success by using hidden value for the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates.
For a quick history lesson, the Pirates were the laughing stock of baseball for 20 years, as they endured the longest losing streak in North American professional sports. After two straight second-half collapses in 2011 and 2012, manager Clint Hurdle and general manager Neal Huntington were on the hot seat, knowing that they had to make 2013 a success, or they were out of a job.
When the Pirates hired Hurdle, a big part of it was due to the Pirates feeling he was a manager who would adapt from the old-school mentality of managing, as the book illustrates. After managing the Colorado Rockies, Hurdle had a brief stint with the data-heavy MLB Network as an analyst. The Pirates, a small-market team with a payroll consistently in the bottom 10 percent of a sport without a salary cap, needed to find a way to be competitive. It wasn't with an increased payroll, but it was by installing an analytic department within the team - a model that the Tampa Bay Rays used to lead them to success.
The secret for the Pirates, thanks to quantitative analysts Dan Fox, a former writer for baseball prospectus, and Mike Fitzgerald, a MIT graduate, was to get the most value out of their current roster by aligning their defense in shifts. Instead of having their infielders play in traditional spots, they would align them accordingly for each hitter based on his batting tendencies.
Sawchik describes the resistance that some players had, as it was breaking the mold that they've grown up with since they were kids. In spring training, Kyle Stark, assistant general manager, would put an X on the ground for the players to know where to position themselves. Fox and Fitzgerald would show the players proof that their idea worked, thanks to devices such as PITCHf/x and TRACKman.
Getting the fielders to buy in was one thing, but they had to get the pitchers to buy in, too, including stubborn veteran A.J. Burnett. In order to best utilize the infield shift, the Pirates went away from the straight four-seem fastball for their pitchers, and shifted — no pun intended — to having their pitchers throw more two-seam fastballs and sinkers, which had a downward trajectory to induce groundballs. Pitchers like Burnett and Charlie Morton bought in, and saw the results.
Burnett, for example, according to a chart in the book, threw his sinker just 13.6 percent of the time in 2011. In 2012, he threw the pitch 35.7 percent of the time, lowering his earned run average from 5.15 to 3.51. The importance of defensive alignment could be seen in Burnett's 2011 numbers. Although his 5.15 ERA was high, his xFip — expected independent fielding pitching, which takes into account factors out of his control, such as defense — was just 3.86.
The next step for the Pirates, with their limited budget, was to find hidden gems in free agency that fit the prototype they were looking for. Fox and Fitzgerald found two guys they believed would be perfect for what they were trying to accomplish — veteran catcher Russell Martin and veteran pitcher Francisco Liriano.
Martin's offense in New York with the Yankees left much to be desired, other than his power numbers, which were aided by a hitter-friendly ballpark. But the Pirates didn't want him for his offense. They wanted him for his leadership, throwing arm and his pitch-framing ability. Pitch framing, as Sawchik goes into great detail, is the ability for a catcher to get borderline pitches for strikes. It was another hidden value in the game of baseball that was overlooked by many, but not the Pirates. It's a skill that Martin used to make Jeff Locke — an average pitcher, at best — an All-Star in 2013. He also used it to revitalize Liriano's career, as the combination of pitch framing, an aligned defense, a wipe-out slider and a new arm slot made Liriano an ace during the season.
With pitch framing and defensive alignment comes saved runs. According to Sawchik, every 10 runs saved is equivalent to one win. The Pirates had a 93-run improvement in 2013, good for an increase in 9.3 wins. Using the wins above replacement (WAR) metric, purchasing a player in free agency with a 1 WAR costs $5 million. A player worth a 9.3 wins would cost around $50 million, but the Pirates were able to add that value to their team by shifting their defense and getting their pitchers to throw groundballs without spending an extra penny.
For Martin, in his two years in Pittsburgh, according to Sawchick, a Pirates beat writer for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, he produced a 9.4 WAR, which is worth approximately $50 million on the open market. The Pirates spent just $17 million on him, finding a $33 million value.
The Pirates went on to the National League Division Series, before losing in a decisive Game 5 to the St. Louis Cardinals. But it was a successful season for the Pirates, and the rest of baseball took notice. Teams throughout the league implemented an analytic department, and shifting was taking place in baseball more and more around the league.
"Big Data Baseball," published by Flatiron Books, not only appeals to hardcore baseball fans and Pirates fans, but everyone in general. Sports fans will understand and appreciate the model, while non-sports fans will be able to understand the basic principal ideas, thanks to Sawchik's clear explanations.
"Big Data Baseball" is a home run debut for Sawchik, and is a must-read for all, especially baseball fans.