ESPN The Magazine's annual "Analytics" issue includes an ambitious ranking of all 122 teams in the four major pro sports based on the strength of each franchise's analytics staff, its buy-in from execs and coaches, its investment in biometric data and how much its overall approach is predicated on analytics.
Five MLB teams ranked in the top 10 -- the Astros (second), Rays (fourth), Red Sox (fifth), Yankees (sixth) and Athletics (ninth). The Marlins rank 116th and the Phillies dead last at No. 122. (The top 10 included no NFL teams and just one NHL team, as MLB and NBA franchises have put much more emphasis into crunching data.)
Mind you, this isn't a ranking of success, but a ranking of the emphasis each franchise places on analytics. In baseball, it's difficult to separate the analytics side of operations from the scouting side, or from the ability for a club like the Red Sox or Yankees to spend money. Did the Red Sox sign Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval because of some secret-sauce formula -- or simply because they're good players and they had the money to buy them? How much of the success for a small-market team like Pittsburgh is tied to its recent emphasis on analytics and how much to the Pirates' years of losing, which resulted in high draft picks?
Anyway, I thought it would be fun to present a chart of each franchise's total wins and losses from the past three seasons, broken up into the different categories that the magazine used for the the MLB clubs. Have the more analytical clubs fared better?
Don't read too much into this. For example, the Dodgers are listed as "Believers." Well, I'd say under the old-school Ned Colletti regime a better classification would have been "Skeptics." The new front office -- Andrew Friedman came from Tampa Bay and Farhan Zaidi from Oakland -- will undoubtedly be "All-In," given the histories of Friedman and Zaidi.
The Red Sox, with their combination of brains and money, have had two awful seasons sandwiched around a World Series title and have made the postseason just once in five seasons. Was the World Series run just luck? How much do you attribute it to analytics? And if they were so smart in 2013, what about 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014?
Overall, at least based on this subjective dispersal of teams, there is a slight correlation between more analytics and more success. Yes, the Cubs and Astros -- who basically purged talent and rebuilt from scratch -- drag down the overall winning percentage of the "Believers" group. Maybe those franchises will turn things around; of course, so many losing seasons brings higher draft picks and the subsequent purging of talent and payroll then clears room to sign free agents like Jon Lester. I'm not sure how much credit should be given for purposely constructing losing teams. (Which is different from saying I disagree with the strategy; if your ownership is willing to stomach some bad baseball, it's a strategy that can work.)
All this isn't to say analytics are a nonfactor. Of course they're important. For one thing, you have to keep up with the rest of the sport, even if the advantages to be gained are small. A lot of small advantages can add up. Look at the Astros' signing of Collin McHugh, a nondescript pitcher waived by the pitching-poor Rockies. The Astros studied the PITCHF/x data on McHugh and saw a curveball with a good spin rate and took a chance on him. As Business Week reported:
The Astros’ analysts noticed that McHugh had a world-class curveball. Most curves spin at about 1,500 times per minute; McHugh’s spins 2,000 times. The more spin, the more the ball moves during the pitch -- and the more likely batters are to miss it. Houston snapped him up. "We identified him as someone whose surface statistics might not indicate his true value," says David Stearns, the team’s 29-year-old assistant general manager.
Maybe some team would have lucked into McHugh. But the Astros had a reason they wanted him. That's not luck. A team like the Pirates -- with 20 straight losing seasons from 1993 to 2012 -- finally broke .500 and reached the playoffs the past two seasons with a lot of help from analytics. As much as any team, they filter data and defensive alignments and pitching patterns down to the field staff (and thus to the players). Despite a mediocre starting rotation the past two years, they've made two postseason trips.
On the other spectrum, a team like the Twins got passed up after a nice run of playoff seasons in the 2000s. They always focused on strike-throwing, finesse pitchers (plus Johan Santana). But as the rest of baseball began developing more and more power pitching, the Twins were left in the dust and have put out some of the worst rotations in modern history in recent seasons. This offseason, despite defensive metrics that rated their 2014 outfield as one of the worst in the game, they signed 40-year-old Torii Hunter, once a Gold Glover but now an old guy with poor range. You can't make decisions like that in 2015 and expect to contend.
Then there's the Phillies, famously anti-sabermetric and a popular whipping boy for statheads. I will say this, however: As much as general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. gets criticized, the primary reason for the collapse of the Phillies in recent years isn't just one bad contract to Ryan Howard, but a systematic failure over many years to develop talent in the farm system. That's scouting more than analytics ... and maybe just the cycle of the game. You build a winner. You never draft high because you're winning. That team gets old, and you don't have young talent ready to step in. Few franchises escape that cycle.
But the ones that do? Odds are they're looking at a lot of data and constantly looking to the future for the next big thing.