How MLB's analytics revolution is getting to clubhouses

Sam Fuld's unique position with the Phillies organization is part of an increasing desire in baseball to utilize analytics as a teaching tool. Aaron Doster/USA TODAY Sports

Before Sam Fuld appeared in 598 major league games and attracted a following as a scrappy outfielder, he earned an economics degree from Stanford. A few years ago, he would have had two choices upon retirement: Go to work for a big league organization as an outfield-baserunning coach or pursue a job at an investment banking firm on Wall Street.

Now a Plan C career path exists for Fuld. Four months ago, it took him to a conference room at Spectrum Field in Clearwater, Florida, where he spent several days explaining weighted on-base average to 63 Philadelphia Phillies in English and Spanish.

Fuld, 36, joined the Phillies in November as the team's major league player-information coordinator. His mandate is clear: to bridge the divide between the statistical and scouting worlds and dispense knowledge to players who are receptive to new ideas.

MLB organizations are embracing a new reality: Valuable insights can be conveyed every day, and they're more likely to resonate with players when delivered by a front-office member of the uniformed fraternity than a front-office official with a statistics degree and a 2400 SAT score.

"Just having that perspective and having some dirt in my spikes, I think it helps," Fuld said.

As clubhouses trend in a more open-minded direction, players such as Joey Votto, Justin Turner, Daniel Murphy, Josh Donaldson and Jay Bruce have blended new-age thinking and their natural skills for improved performance.

The analytics-as-a-teaching-tool narrative took a quantum leap a year ago, when Logan Morrison, Justin Smoak and Yonder Alonso all went "launch angle" and posted the best power numbers of their careers.

In the constant quest for an edge, teams are adding a new position to help players enter the age of enlightenment. In November, the Red Sox hired Ramon Vazquez as "a liaison between the major league club's advance scouting and statistical analysis efforts for the purpose of presenting information to players and coaches." Alex Cora, Boston's manager, had seen how valuable Alex Cintron was in a similar role with the world champion Houston Astros.

In Anaheim, former MLB closer Andrew Bailey is an assistant to Steve Soliz, the Angels' catching and information coach. Bailey is filling a role similar to the one Brian Bannister has used to help Boston's pitchers.

As the numbers evolve, front offices are making a greater effort to educate players on decisions that go into shaping rosters. Fuld, primarily a backup over eight seasons with the Cubs, Rays, Athletics and Twins, knows what it's like to be waived, be traded, fight for a roster spot and play a game the same day the charter flight touches down at 3 a.m. Those experiences give him credibility with players in an age of Statcast and evolving defensive metrics.

"It can be difficult as a player to know you're being evaluated on something you're not familiar with," Fuld said. "That shouldn't be the case. Players have the right to know exactly what matters when it comes down to decision-making. It's important for peace of mind and the emotional and mental value of knowing everybody is on the same page. The divide between the front office and the players can often be toxic. I've seen that, and it's not healthy.

"The other key component is determining areas in which players can improve and looking at things players are unaware of. Maybe a pitcher has a really good slider and doesn't know how good it is because he's never been shown the evidence or been shown how many times he's thrown it. The public data is getting better and better, but it's a bit daunting knowing where to look without somebody there to tell you."

Fuld began his individual outreach to players in the Grapefruit League in group meetings also attended by Phillies general manager Matt Klentak, assistant general manager Ned Rice, manager Gabe Kapler and several coaches. The Phillies have a large Latin American representation, so special assistant Jorge Velandia and team translator Diego Ettedgui helped fill the gaps for Spanish-speaking players when Fuld delved into runs created plus.

Rhys Hoskins and Scott Kingery were among the players with an interest in hearing Fuld's message. Three months into the season, they've learned they can approach him with questions at their convenience rather than avoid him out of fear he'll try to cram new-age rocket science down their throats.

"If something is glaring, Sam might say, 'Take this for what it's worth, but this is what the statistics are showing, and it's something you can focus on if you want,'" Hoskins said. "Maybe I think I struggle with the inside fastball or sliders in the zone. He shows me, 'Hey, you're hitting .380 on sliders in the strike zone or the fastball in, so go ahead and offer at it.' He's a veteran, and he has multiple years in the game, so I think it carries a little more weight."

Each year, stories emerge about players taking the initiative to improve their performance. Colorado reliever Adam Ottavino benefited from a visit to the Driveline Baseball facility in suburban Seattle and some work on his mechanics and his pitch mix. Former first-rounder Colin Moran revived a flagging career with some swing changes in Pittsburgh after it became clear his approach wasn't cutting it in Houston.

Cleveland pitcher Trevor Bauer was once considered a rogue voice when he arrived in professional ball from UCLA and shared his innovative approach to training and analytics. Now that he's relatively in the mainstream, Bauer expects more organizations to hire uniformed personnel as conduits, and for coaches to become more proficient in speaking the same language as front offices.

"Now more than ever, you have information about how to improve a player and what he needs to do, but there's a divide because you need to find people who are good at actually coaching and teaching it," Bauer said. "You need people who've played enough to be able to communicate with players and also be able to understand it intellectually and communicate with the front office. It's a rare combination.

"A lot of players don't want to hear about spin rate. But if the coach knows a pitcher's spin rate is down, and he knows how to coach spin rate, he can say, 'Hey, why don't you try this grip on the ball, and if you put a little more tension on it, I think it will help you get the ball down a little bit better.' Or, 'It will give it better shape.' That's stuff players can understand.

"A lot of players don't understand 'X this' or 'Y that.' But they understand, 'Stay behind the ball or try to take the hand to it or see the ball' or whatever. More than ever, that position is important, because baseball is shifting toward analytics. Period. It's not gonna stop. And that's a good thing."

Some players understandably chafe over what they perceive as nitpicking -- particularly from outsiders who have never played the game. Eric Hosmer, no darling of the analytics community, signed a $144 million contract with San Diego after years of being pilloried for his high ground-ball rate. In his first season with the Padres, Hosmer ranks 12th among MLB first basemen with a .779 OPS and 14th with a 1.2 WAR. He's logging numbers close to his career norms, with a ground-ball rate of 60.4 percent -- third-highest in the majors.

After taking years to refine their approaches, some big leaguers are reluctant to tinker with success. Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich is a .290 career hitter with a Silver Slugger award on his résumé, but he also hears how he could benefit from getting the ball airborne more frequently.

"The FanGraphs and analytics people are always telling me, 'You need to hit more fly balls,'" Yelich said. "Every year, wherever you go, there are guys who come in the locker room and say it. I'm like, 'OK, let me change my swing. How is that going to go?' Nobody knows. A lot of work goes into something like that. It's a big risk, and I feel like the way I've gone about it these first five years is all right.

"Hitting is so hard as it is. I understand no ground ball has ever gone over the fence. That's their biggest argument: 'You can't slug with a ground ball.' Well, nobody is trying to hit ground balls, except for a few guys like Dee Gordon or Billy Hamilton. They don't really mind hitting a ground ball. That's their game. But at the same time, there's a right way to go about trying to drive the ball and have success in the other aspects of the game."

In his role with the Phillies, Fuld routinely plants seeds that could germinate into fully formed ideas. He alerts hitters to numbers that show they have better results against first-pitch fastballs than they realize or reinforce a pitcher's gut instinct that his cutter is effective against lefties.

Mechanical changes are a more collaborative effort. Fuld once trained with Morrison in the offseason, and he knows how many hours of cage work went into the swing changes that helped LoMo hit 38 homers for Tampa Bay last season. If the Phillies think a player could benefit from a swing adjustment, hitting coaches John Mallee and Pedro Guerrero become part of what Fuld calls a more "holistic" approach.

Bailey, in his work with the Angels' pitchers, has found there's no one-size-fits-all approach. Some players welcome input, while others might get bogged down from information overload.

"There's a fine line between pitching according to certain statistics and numbers, and the feel of the game you can't quantify," Bailey said. "We want our players to be able to do a little bit of both."

The Phillies, long perceived as behind the curve analytically, have made changes throughout the organization. The day they hired Fuld, they named former Orioles scout Ben Werthan as their minor league player-information coordinator. Werthan conveys a similar message and trains prospects to think critically on their way to Citizens Bank Park.

"Every year, some of the newer methodology resonates a little bit better with players, and certainly with young guys who are growing up on it," Fuld said. "They probably knew what WAR was when they were 12 or 13 or 14, where it would have been meaningless to someone my age."

When given a pop quiz, Hoskins does an admirable job of explaining wOBA -- a metric that measures a hitter's offensive contribution by assigning values to home runs, triples and so forth. But he picks and chooses the information he incorporates into his daily repertoire. Hoskins doesn't spend much time online checking his BABIP or monitoring his exit-velocity ranking, for one simple reason:

"That's why we have Sam."