Twins thrive without sabermetrics

In the midst of a little Sports Illustrated primer on which teams are using sabermetrics and which teams aren't, we find this nugget:

    Twins assistant GM Rob Antony says the field is changing so much that the stats teams are criticized for not paying attention to one year are considered out of date the next. And there is still plenty that sabermetricians haven't figured out how to measure.

    "Sabermetrics has picked us to finish like fourth or fifth three years in a row. So you figure their numbers out," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "Numbers are good bases to go off things and try to figure things out, but for every number you throw out there that's not supposed to work, the human element's always coming. Bad pitch, guy gets a hit. But he's not supposed to, still rips a pitch in the gap. Those are all great things and, over the course of time probably prove out pretty good. But I like the human element and I like the heart way better than I like their numbers. And that's what I'll always stay with.''

This is perfectly consistent with everything else we know about the Twins and their front office. Aaron Gleeman:

    Last offseason during an appearance on KFAN radio I commented that the Twins were one of the increasingly rare MLB teams without any sort of department focused on statistical analysis. Assistant general manager Rob Antony brought up my comment in an interview a couple days later and noted somewhat tersely that the Twins' decision-makers did use stats, but in doing so pointed to OPS, home/road splits, and other fairly mainstream, publicly available numbers.


    Antony made a number of worthwhile points regarding the limits of statistical analysis and how the Twins have succeeded without it, but also showed what is to me at least a startling lack of knowledge on the subject for an assistant general manager.

    For example, when asked if he knew what the statistic FIP stands for Antony said that he "just saw this one the other day" and guessed "first strike in inning pitched." The answer is Fielding Independent Pitching, and both the FIP stat and the analysis behind it have been around for years. Similarly, he didn't know that BABIP stands for batting average on balls in play, which is a fairly basic concept and one of the building blocks of statistical analysis.

    Whether or not the Twins actually use or even value stats like FIP or BABIP, it shocks me that the assistant GM isn't at least aware of and reasonably familiar with them. As for what stats he does make use of, Antony explained that the Twins "look at a lot of home/roads splits" and "we're big on OPS, we're big on WHIP" while admitting that those are "traditional things that I know people have gone beyond and gotten deeper."

Nothing against Antony; he can't be expected to value modern analysis if his bosses don't. And the Twins seem to be making at least one small effort to join the 21st century. From an interview with TwinsCentric, here's Antony again:

    TC: Do you guys have your own internal database that has this information or do you reference other websites?

    We look through a lot of websites. We look at a lot of what you guys do. What you guys put together, we take all that information into consideration…the problem I have is that a few years ago when we traded [Jason] Bartlett to Tampa, they said the reason they wanted him was that he had the highest UZR, he’s got the best Zone Rating out of any shortstop. Alright. We watched the guy; we liked him and thought he was a pretty good shortstop too. A year later, people were writing “What happened to Bartlett?” His rating dropped off to 15th from number one. He wasn’t any different the next year – the stats said he was – but I’m not sure he was any different from the next year.

    That’s why the defensive part of it is the hardest part for statisticians to get their hands around. And I think that’s still the case. I think that people have legitimate things that they base it on, to come up with those numbers and to rank guys out, but you treat it kind of with a grain of salt. You go with what your scouts are saying. Sometimes though you might call your scout and say “You’ve got this guy at a 6 range. The Zone Rating doesn’t back that up. You sure you want to stay with a 6 range?” He might say “I will stay with a 6 range, he’s got great first-step quickness” or he might back off and say “You know what, I didn’t see a lot of plays – he didn’t have to go to the hole that much – but he seems like he has first-step quickness.” Then he backs off from his 6 range.

    It generates a good discussion. We don’t ever just sign a guy based on his written report. We call the guy that wrote the report. We want verbal confirmation; we want to hear his voice that he has conviction and belief in it. That’s a roundabout way of saying we look at all forms of information.

    TC: But specifically, you are not collecting all this data, such as marking down plays that Bartlett made in the hole, or to his right?

    We do not. We just hired a guy whose sole focus is statistical analysis. Gathering information and creating databases. This will be his first year. The guy that we brought in will start creating systems to build a foundation of our own that we can look at.

I don't see any way around this ... the Twins are way, way behind most of the other good teams in this area. Hiring "a guy," however talented, isn't going to change this. I can tell you stories about other sabermetric-unfriendly teams that have hired guys -- smart guys, all of them -- and then ignored 95 percent of their advice. You wonder why they even bothered. I think sometimes the general managers sincerely believed the information was valuable but just didn't have any idea how to use it; sometimes they were just doing what they thought they were supposed to do ("Hire nerd to play around with numbers: check.")

Yes, the Twins have been successful for a long time, despite an utter lack of sophistication regarding statistical analysis. Wouldn't they be even more successful, though, if they had even a passing familiarity with some of today's basic analytical precepts?

Of course, sometimes it's better to ignore the stats, particularly if you're not looking at the right ones. When the Twins needed a starting pitcher last summer, they weren't dissuaded by Carl Pavano's 5.37 ERA -- presumably because they watched him pitch, and saw that he was throwing better than his ERA suggested -- and Pavano first helped Minnesota reach the playoffs, then pitched seven fine innings against the Yankees (albeit in a losing effort).

J.J. Hardy suffered through an awful 2009 with the Brewers, statistically. The Twins didn't care, and improved themselves significantly by trading for Hardy this winter.

Yes, I'm picking the Twins in the Central this year. Why? Because that's what the sabermetrics say. And also because Ron Gardenhire is one damn fine manager.