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Baseball's numbers revolution is spreading to Latin America

From the Dominican Republic to Venezuela, baseball is ingrained in the culture of these countries. The game's analytics? Not so much. But a group of statheads is out to change that. Miguel Tovar/Getty Images

This story also is posted in Spanish. To read it, click here.

When Adam Jones crushed a Hector Rondon fastball -- 98 mph and up at the letters -- for a game-tying home run in the World Baseball Classic this spring, Americans cheered, Venezuelans sank, and one 31-year-old in Caracas had a unique worry:

Did I do that?

That man was Octavio Hernandez, a Venezuelan journalist with a sabermetric background who had been commissioned to produce scouting reports of the Venezuelan team's opponents. Using PITCHf/x profiles (at Brooks Baseball), Statcast data (at Baseball Savant), the wisdom he'd gleaned from a decade reading American stathead sites and a bit of his own original research, he delivered dozens of reports modeled on a Detroit Tigers scouting template that had been slipped to him. He had no idea whether the club's general manager, Carlos Guillen, took these reports seriously, or whether the players had changed their pitches because of them. But he knew what his report on Jones had recommended: "FB BIEN ARRIBA." Fastballs really high.

"It was a blow to my self-esteem," Hernandez says of the home run. At the same time, though, he felt proud that Rondon had thrown the "right" pitch, and he was staggered by the possibility that he had played a role in a matchup between two major league stars. It was like watching a Hollywood movie and having the characters suddenly turn and address him, by name.

From a Twitter account he runs, Hernandez tweeted a vague defense, saying Jones had hit just .186 on fastballs harder than 96 mph the previous season:

Sabermetrics, in all its second-guessability, had come to Venezuela.

As ingrained as advanced analytics now are in major league baseball, the rest of the sport -- the foreign leagues, independent leagues and amateur levels -- is still largely data-dark. Football has the high school team that never punts, and basketball has the school that shoots only 3s. Get away from the major leagues and its affiliates, though, and baseball is mostly gimmick free.

The biggest obstacle to using data is not having data. In the majors and in much of the minors, every pitch is not only recorded but makes up dozens of discrete data points to tinker with. But everywhere else the samples are small, the scorekeepers are unreliable, the technology is minimal and the team budgets are laughable.

"You can get an idea from data available stateside if the player is in affiliated ball, but you're almost never choosing between two affiliated players," says Anthony Rescan, who does statistical analysis for the Sydney Blue Sox of the independent Australian Baseball League. "It's usually two guys who work day jobs around Sydney."

Perhaps nowhere in the world is baseball as central to the cultural identity as it is in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, where major leaguers are produced at a rate far greater than in the United States. Sabermetrics there have spread slowly but persistently. In many ways, the rise of numbers in Latin America mirrors the same rise in the major leagues 20 years ago: There are the entrepreneurs who dream of selling better data to clubs, there are the strategists who join front offices and want to make their voices heard, and there are the evangelists who want to enable the broad public awareness of stats. Here are three of them:

The strategist

Hernandez didn't even play baseball growing up, making him just about the only boy around Puerto La Cruz who didn't. He was a standout tennis player, which earned him a scholarship to study journalism at the private Santa Maria University. While still in school he got his first job in journalism, covering politics, crime and economics. Then his paper needed somebody to fill in on the baseball beat.

Even without playing, he'd fallen in love with the game as a child by studying, each morning, a box of stats. It was 1993, and national hero Andres Galarraga was chasing a .400 batting average with the Colorado Rockies. Hernandez would check and recheck the MLB stats to see the progress of Galarraga, who was at .400 halfway through the season, and John Olerud, who was making a comparable run for the Toronto Blue Jays. He studied not only Galarraga's stats but also those of the rest of the major leagues; he absorbed not only stats but also a love of the game.

After putting FanGraphs-style analysis into his baseball coverage, he was asked to serve his country for this year's World Baseball Classic. And last month, the Leones De Caracas general manager, Jose Manuel Fernández, reached out to him. He and the team's president, Luis Avila, wanted to make him their assistant general manager.

"A couple weeks ago I was on a march, a demonstration, breathing tear gas, because we have a political system that is crumbling the whole state. To think about baseball makes me a little guilty at night."

Venezuelan journalist Octavio Hernandez

The Leones are considered the Yankees of the Liga Venezolana de Béisbol Profesional, the top Venezuelan winter league. They've won more championships than any other team, have a wider fan base, have fielded major league stars Omar Vizquel, Asdrubal Cabrera and Galarraga, and in 2006 snapped the country's 16-year drought in the hypercompetitive Caribbean Series. The chance to work for them -- to work with players at such a high level, to serve a fan base that Hernandez estimates at 7 million Venezuelans -- was unthinkable.

But Hernandez was also ambivalent. Venezuela has been skidding toward institutional collapse: After years of mismanaging its oil industry, the state can no longer provide basic services. Protesters and militarized police forces have for months clashed in scenes of fiery chaos. Dozens have been killed in the protests and crackdowns, and hundreds have been injured, all in a city that was already among the world's most murderous.

"A couple weeks ago I was on a march, a demonstration, breathing tear gas, because we have a political system that is crumbling the whole state," Hernandez says. "To think about baseball makes me a little guilty at night.

"But what I remember is, no, baseball is not necessary to humanity, but we can add to the analysis of humankind, to humanity's way of thinking, with the way we analyze baseball. If we analyzed politics here the way we analyze baseball, we maybe wouldn't be like this right now. If we were more focused on facts we could be a greater society."

So he proceeds with his plans: to calculate leaguewide park factors so his organization can do a better job of player evaluation; to incorporate recent baseball research into the club's coaching and strategies; to share statistical scouting reports with his players, about three-quarters of whom will come from the American affiliated system.

There will be obstacles. While we're talking on Skype, his power cuts off, and he tells me that this happens anytime it rains. (There are approximately 135 rainy days per year in Caracas.) The outage interrupts his attempts to upload video of a pitching tryout, which his sluggish internet service had already spent four hours huffing toward. Thanks in part to the economy, which has seen a catastrophic devaluation of the local currency on the black market, he has no financial incentives with which to entice players. He says some teams won't even send players to the Venezuelan league, citing security.

And, of course, there's the most prosaic obstacle of all, the same one Paul DePodesta had to deal with 15 years ago when he was general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers: that his players and coaching staff will ignore his novel stats.

He's not worried.

"We put a man on the moon!" he says. "Well, not us Venezuelans. But humankind! We can handle this."

The entrepreneur

Hector Acevedo's dad has been a scout for 30 years. Hector, like "every Dominican," played ball, but when he got to the age when teenaged Dominicans get contracts with major league clubs, his dad gave him some advice: Don't sign, Hector. You're not good enough.

So he didn't. He went to college and studied business administration, then became a pitching coach with a private training facility in the Dominican Republic. A number of his students now play in American minor league systems, but his dad's career always hung over him.

"I've always felt like I needed to be my own," he says.

In 2015, he got into sabermetrics, after taking an EDX course taught by a Boston University lecturer. Earlier this year he flew to Phoenix for the SABR Seminar, where, he was delighted to find, major league team officials wanted to talk to him.

That's because he's trying -- so far, unsuccessfully -- to bring the technology of PITCHf/x, TrackMan, neuroscience, swing sensors and more to the Dominican Republic. He wants to build a sports science lab where players can provide the sort of swing and pitch data that major league clubs evaluate their own players with.

In one sense, Latin America is the last place in the world where pure scouting survives. In the United States, it doesn't matter how much a scout loves a player; if the guy isn't there when it's his team's turn to pick in the draft, there's nothing he can do. But in the Dominican Republic, scouting remains an art form of not just evaluation but persuasion -- persuading the player, persuading your boss.

But it also all happens in a country that is not so much hostile to data as it is indifferent to it, Acevedo says.

"We're not an organized country," he says. "Data is a form of organization, of order, and we don't have that here. We don't keep records. In the U.S. you can know, 'Oh, my grandpa was from Scotland.' You have long records. We don't know where our grandfather is from. You guys always have, 'Oh, 70 percent of people eat bananas in the morning.' We don't have that. It's not that we don't find it 'cool.' It's not part of us.

"Lately, in politics they use a lot of polls, but people think that's corrupt because people buy polls here. In politics they have polls, and in baseball they have homers. Data is measured in 60 yards, how hard you throw, and how many homers you hit in BP. That's the data."

That, he says, is data that in the best cases misses some kids, and in the worst can be fudged by trainers or scouts.

"There's a ton of money going to the wrong players," he says. "Whereas if you have spin rates and all that -- if you have enough data that the American guys in an office can see it, those types of situations wouldn't happen as much."

So far, he has failed to improve the system. He has been in touch with TrackMan and Sportvision (the company that developed PITCHf/x), both of which asked to see his business plan. A number of teams return his calls, which has been encouraging: "I understand I'm just a trainer, not Pedro Martinez, and that we have a lot of bad guys doing business down here."

His goal is to build a business and to help make the market more efficient so the kids who deserve to get signed do. But it's also to inject a more organized approach into the broader Dominican culture. In the Dominican Republic, baseball is everybody's north star, but only a handful of boys will actually get signed. For the rest, Acevedo says, it can still be educational. It can show the power of math.

The other day, he was with his dad and another scout, and his dad started to needle him.

"Who needs stats," he says his dad told him. "You just need to see a swing. Stats is s---."

"But I really believe this has merit," Acevedo says. "I believe also in scouting. But we cannot lie to ourselves. We see the great things that analytics is doing in baseball. It could happen here, too. I don't think it's going to fail."

The evangelist

In 2008, the Venezuelan League published the "Encyclopedia of Baseball," a history of the league. It came with a CD supplement that had statistics of all LVBP players, from the 1940s through the 2005-2006 season.

The work was published in PDF format. Searching for players was difficult. Using the stats for broader statistical queries was impossible. Jose Montilla, a computer engineer in Venezuela, decided to do something about it.

Montilla had played ball only in neighborhood games growing up, and "the truth is that I was really bad," he wrote in an email. (His answers have been translated from Spanish.) He's not sure how he fell in love with baseball, except by cultural osmosis.

"Maybe it just has to do with Venezuelanity," he wrote. "In Venezuela we love baseball. There's talk of baseball in every corner of the country, seven days a week. Over the years I have been more interested in the history and the statistics than in the game itself. That doesn't mean I don't like the game anymore -- only that I have known a facet even more attractive to me."

He converted that PDF into plain text and used it to arm a database of Venezuelan stats. It was just for his own personal use at first, but in 2009 he put it on a site called planetabeisbol.com, a hangout for Venezuelan sabermetricians, and later moved it to its own site. The database was especially valuable to Venezuelan journalists, so it didn't take long for those journalists to write about Montilla's work. Juan Vené, one of the most-read sportswriters in the Spanish world, included it in his column.

"The statistics of Venezuelan baseball are no longer a mystery!" he wrote, encouraging Montilla to keep developing the database. "There are a lot of interesting, enormous names in history, and a divine romance."

Indeed. Barry Bonds played in Venezuela -- he hit seven home runs in 160 at-bats as a 21-year-old, and Montilla has a picture of him in his Magallanes jersey. Greg Maddux pitched in Venezuela, throwing 96 winter league innings after his rookie season with the Cubs. Miguel Cabrera has played a full season's worth of games in Venezuela, putting up numbers that won't appear on his Hall of Fame ballot but that meant everything to his countrymen.

Montilla went back and filled in gaps that were in the "Encyclopedia of Baseball." He now updates the data every morning. He spends, by his estimate, six hours a day on the project, at the discount of his real job and his free time. He pays licensing fees for the stats and gets help from all eight teams' front offices.

"This site, to date, has not generated a single Bolívar of profit," he says.

These three are not alone. The Leones de Escogido (in the Dominican Winter League), the Toros de Tijuana (in the Mexican League) and the Industriales of Cuba's National Series have all employed statistical analysts. Venezuela got a SABR chapter in 2013; the Dominican Republic got its own in 2015.

At last year's SABR convention in Miami, three ESPN Deportes journalists joined Ozzie Guillen on a panel to discuss covering baseball for Hispanic fans.

"We're trying to educate people on sabermetrics in Spanish with terms that are nonexistent," said Leonte Landino, an ESPN Deportes producer and the chair of the SABR chapter in Venezuela.

Added Ernesto Jerez: "How do you tell our audience that a player is leading in VZR? He's not thinking of a stat, he's thinking of something he has in his home."

Broadcasters faced the same challenge for American audiences 10 years ago. Now WAR is on the back of baseball cards.