SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Stats versus scouts -- are we really still talking about that? To put this canard away for good, let’s do this: look at how the San Francisco Giants, reigning world champs, use metrics on defense, not as the data stream to drive decision-making but as one among many that inform decisions both tactical and strategic.
This is an argument about baseball: that there’s an interpretive divide, two different world views that cannot be reconciled. On the one hand, you’re presented with stat-spangled performance analysis and the comfort it provides because its language is mathematical and numbers are supposed to provide certainty. On the other, you have scouting-derived information, reliant on the softer factors of individual evaluation, observation and opinion. That's a rich seam of knowledge enriched by decades’ worth of man hours, and it speaks to us through people and shared experience.
But to put them in opposition probably says more about our predisposition to express ourselves with just one or the other. That’s a pity because the purportedly “scouty” Giants, with a front office and coaching staff long in the service of this one organization, seem to happily embrace analytics in the way most organizations do.
If you ask bench coach Ron Wotus, a man who has been with the Giants for 27 years and is entering his 18th season as a big-league coach, it seems the team has struck a happy balance of everybody wanting to use whatever works, as long as they’re talking about one thing: winning. To help them do that, performance analysis tools and metrics have a place in the Giants’ defense decision tree.
Wotus sees the information defensive metrics provides as a place to start.
“We utilize that stuff,” Wotus said. “The numbers, the zone ratings and those things, they’re interesting to talk about and look at. But a lot of that really doesn’t tell the whole story of the quality of the player, his knowledge of the league.”
Which is a big "but," but that’s where integrating that kind of data with scouting, coaching and player experience is crucial, especially when you move outside the opponents the Giants see regularly.
“There’s so much information today, you’re crazy if you don’t look at it,” Wotus said. “It helps you learn about the opponent, so we make notes on certain things. That’s where we use more of it. You know the players in your division, and the statistical information isn’t always as important there, when you’re talking about defense. But you go outside your division, we don’t know those players as well. So I try to look at not just the statistical information and spray charts but video because even the spray charts don’t tell the whole story. You can look at where the balls are going, but you’re not reading the swings, you’re not seeing who they’re hitting the balls off of, and that’s what we do here: We dissect it a little more.”
That means diving even deeper into the data, instead of relying on the outputs of any interpretive metric to provide a final answer.
“We keep our own spray charts, so we get stuff from Baseball Info Solutions, a lot of the charts, identifying shift candidates, but we do a lot of it in-house, where we chart the hitters against our pitchers, which is totally different because Tim Lincecum and Jake Peavy are totally different guys than Clayton Kershaw, for example,” Wotus said. “So we try to blend the two. But when we go outside the division and we don’t have the history with our own people, the information gives us a good starting point. If you don’t look at it, you’re missing the boat.”
Integrating that information becomes important in tactical decision-making, as teams act upon the information to put a player in position to deliver -- or deter opponents.
“I think the best example I can give is our belief on how and when to adjust,” Wotus said. “We have the information everybody has, but for instance, if you look at attempted bunts, with Pablo [Sandoval] for instance, if there was a possible bunter, we always kept him way in. So they didn’t bunt; that’s a simple adjustment for a player. If we feel there’s a possibility for a bunt, maybe Casey [McGehee] will play in more. We look at the counts when people bunt and when they’re most likely to do it; we put a lot of detail into that information, and in the season, I’ll be passing that information to all of our infielders. That’s one thing that’s really good about our group; no egos, everybody wants to get the edge, and we have good communication back and forth.”
Perhaps nothing captures the Giants’ adaptive use of metrics more perfectly than Juan Perez’s Game Seven catch down the left-field line in the World Series last year, when he speared Nori Aoki’s line drive off Madison Bumgarner. It was a perfect synthesis of player skill executed with the benefit of multiple sources of information: his own direct experience seeing the ball off the bat from Aoki before (described perfectly here) and from coaching inputs.
“You need both ability and information,” Wotus said. “You start with a plan, and [third-base coach and former All-Star outfielder] Roberto Kelly was in charge of moving him there. And whether it’s the player adjusting on his own or a coach helping a guy adjust and move in a situation, that was a product of continuity and guys’ communication. That’s the best recipe for success. Not every player wants to be moved, not every player wants to be told certain things. It’s a delicate balance. You want players to play and perform confidently, so you have to pick and choose what you give the player.”
That said, the Giants aren’t top-down in terms of making these decisions. They’re constantly integrating and reintegrating players’ perspectives.
“The information we get is very good, but the instinct of the player and what the player is seeing on the field, a lot of time, overrides the statistical information,” Wotus said.
So what the data give the Giants is suggestive instead of prescriptive?
“Exactly. But sometimes, we put more credence in the information, when it’s glaring,” Wotus said. “It helps you confirm what you’re seeing. For instance, if we think Casey [McGehee] should be playing a guy to pull, and the hitter gets the bat head out there, it confirms what we’re seeing from the data. It’s just another confirmation that we’re approaching this the proper way. But that’s the problem: Say you go into a game saying, ‘This guy is a shift candidate,’ and you throw the first pitch of the game, and he’s late, and he hits the ball the other way. You’re saying, ‘Wait, he doesn’t hit the ball the other way’ -- but he is now! You have to adapt, you have to adjust, and you have to stay in the moment.”
It’s also important to work from an understanding of each player’s individual skills.
“Exploiting individual player strengths -- those things are built in, not into the statistics, but knowing the player’s ability, knowing the player,” Wotus said. “Going back to Pablo, his best strength wasn’t closing on a bunt quickly. So instead of keeping him back and giving people opportunities, we’d play him really close. Some people in the World Series were asking, ‘Why’s he in so close?’ Because we don’t want that guy bunting to get on base. He’s not going to hit the ball that way, but we don’t want to give him a hit. Those are things you can do. Shortstops with good arms can play deeper at times. Fast runners are going to play more shallow. There are little nuances to defending the opposition that are more baseball-related than statistic-related. But the statistics help you when you don’t know players to know what to expect from them.”
In addition to working with the analytics, Wotus gets to be the video guy. Then he bundles all of it together and works with each player. It’s a level of attention to detail that relies on good personal interactions and open conversations between coach and player.
“I go to our infielders, and I do that individually -- not in a meeting,” Wotus said. “I’ll let the first baseman know what he needs to know, the second baseman what he needs to know, the shortstop. Most players, the [opponents] they know, they know. There might be something that comes up that we want to make them aware of from the statistics, but we use their instincts and experience. The guys they don’t know, they rely on us on a little bit more, until they’ve faced that player a few times and have played against him. That’s where the information is more valuable: to your ability to communicate it to the player without clouding their mind with useless information and just giving them what you feel will help them perform better. It’s a balance, but I have a great group of guys, and they want the edge.”
As the everyday shortstop, Crawford sees the virtue of this collaborative approach.
“We go over a scouting report before every game during the regular season, but Ron puts something together on every hitter and kind of says where I should start,” Crawford said. “Then we’ll feed off each other. He’ll see something, and I’ll see something, and just kind of talk about it and kind of build a new scouting report based off that pretty much every day.
“Outside the division, that’s where Ron especially comes into play because of the scouting reports or because he’s seen the guy before,” Crawford said. “He looks at a lot of video, so that’s where he really helps me out. Inside the division, I have a feel for the hitters.”
Just a few weeks into his stint with the Giants, new third baseman Casey McGehee is enjoying the benefits of this approach.
“Ron has been great,” McGehee said. “He’s told me what he likes to have guys do and has asked me about what has worked for me in the past, and we’ve come to a middle ground. He’s confident in himself that he can ask me about my opinion, and I feel like I can give him an honest answer without him taking it the wrong way, and vice versa.”
This is where the rubber meets the road -- not in the numbers, but in the people who use them. Which leaves the Giants doing everything exactly as you would want them to, as far as being equally comfortable with statistical information and personal experiences of players in a way that keeps all of them engaged and prepared to execute. Coaches using metrics to talk to players, relying on the players’ experiences, watching video, using scouting info? Sounds like everyone is speaking the same language: baseball.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.