“I was not interested in ideals. I was interested in results.”
— The Middle of the Journey, Lionel Trilling
As is sometimes the case when you try to tackle a topic as broad as “Red Sox Analytics under Dave Dombrowski,” a lot gets left on the cutting-room floor. So I’m returning to my story from late March — have I mentioned not everybody reads every spring training story? — to tackle some of the ancillary elements of Boston’s expanded analytics department.
1. Security of information has become a primary concern
When word broke two summers ago that the Astros’ Ground Control database had been hacked, “it was shocking,” said Zack Scott, Boston’s vice president of baseball research and development. “We were having some conversations [with Houston] around that time, and we weren’t happy to see that out there. I know no one involved was happy. It was not a good look for a lot of people. We didn’t end up doing a trade with them, but the fact that some of our players were discussed with them, that’s not something you ever want out there.
“It definitely sparked a conversation with us. Are we protected? We had that dialogue, and it was good. We’re better off for it in a lot of ways, but we felt bad for the Astros, we felt bad for all the players and the executives whose information was put out there. That’s not what everybody wants.”
Indeed, as the Red Sox have gone about replacing Carmine with Beacon, security is one of their chief concerns. Carmine is old-school; it works on individual hard drives and requires regular updates. The proliferation of WiFi since the creation of Carmine means that Beacon can be available without individual updating anytime, from anywhere, on any kind of device.
Does that leave it more susceptible?
“We cannot have that kind of incident happen,” Scott said of the Houston hack. “We’ve taken steps. I’m happy with it. That’s the first thing we really addressed, from a development standpoint. We designed something first, and when we started building it, [security] was the first thing. Let’s get the best security we can. I’m very pleased with where we’re at with that.”
With executives moving freely around the game, and with many former Red Sox executives landing in new places, are Scott and the analytics team concerned about their processes being taken out the door?
“I would hope people aren’t writing down certain formulas and algorithms and different things they’ve learned and taking that with them and immediately programming it into their systems at their new place. Some people probably don’t know how to get that or they may not have access to it,” Scott said. “Our team’s not delivering the formula. We’re delivering more the results and explaining our methodology more broadly.
“But yeah, there are certain ways of thinking about the game that they’ve learned…. You can’t stop people from taking things they learned and that become a core part of their knowledge and have that separate that out of their brain. That’s not realistic.
“To me, the value in what we do, at least analytically, it’s just how decisions are made. It still comes down to good sound decision-making and not so much just having that information.”
2. Although Dombrowski was considered behind the times analytically when hired by the Red Sox, he has fully embraced the department with Boston.
When the Red Sox introduced Dombrowski back in August 2015, it seemed to signal a shift away from analytics. John Henry said that day that “there’s been an overemphasis in the media about the level to which we’ve performed data analytics,” and one spring later the owner doubled down by saying “we were never probably as far toward analytics as people thought we were.”
For those who attributed the franchise’s nigh unparalleled run of success over the last dozen years to Boston’s — and Henry’s — analytical bend, this was worrisome. But since taking over, Dombrowski has supported and embraced the analytical department. He went along with the plans to expand it with more personnel, and he’s found it more and more useful as time has gone by.
“I’m not going to lie to you: Anytime we have a change, even when we went from Theo to Ben, you still don’t know once they get in that seat how things are going to change, how they’re going to value different things, how they’re going to prioritize things,” Scott said. “There’s always some uncertainty no matter what kind of change you have.
“To me, it’s just he had less experience with it. It’s pretty easy to say we’ve got all this tracking data; what kind of questions do you want us to try to answer with that? And that’s really no different than any process we’ve ever had.
“To me, all I really want is a leader who will engage in that process; ask the baseball questions that are most interesting to you, and we’ll try to answer them to the best of our capabilities. And he’s very much engaged in that process. It’s no different than any of the other bosses I’ve had.”
“I’m amazed at times how many projects Zack and his staff are working on at one time,” Dombrowski said. “It’s mind-boggling when you think of it.”
“Like all good baseball executives, Dave values information — all different types of information, whether it’s scouting information, analytical information, medical information. They’re all pieces to the puzzle,” said assistant general manager Brian O’Halloran. “The proof is in what we’ve done: We’ve expanded analytics during the period that Dave has been here, we continue to value all aspects of what goes into decision-making, including analytics.”
3. While the analytics gap has narrowed across the game in the last decade, the availability of tracking data and the looming boom of biometric data threaten to create significant edges once again.
It’s been common over the last several seasons to discuss the flattening of front offices — the way that every team is smart now, and more than that, every team is smart in much the same way. There are no longer any organizations that eschew analytics entirely.
“There’s a much higher percentage of teams that are significantly investing in this area,” O’Halloran said. “I wouldn’t say analytics is more or less important than it was 15 years ago. But I do think it is more important now that we put more resources toward it just because of the amount of data.”
“I definitely think it’s a smaller gap,” said Scott. “Maybe it’s self-preservation, but I’m always going to believe that there’s ways to get an edge in everything we do.”
In that vein, the explosion of tracking data — think Statcast — in the last few seasons allows for deeper, more granular analysis and greater differentiation within that analysis. The team that figures out how best to leverage tracking data into a competitive edge will have a huge advantage.
I personally liked Scott’s breakdown of outfield defense in this regard:
The next horizon appears to be biometrics — something like wearable technology to track players’ health within workouts and games. Sometime in the not-too-distant future, teams may be able to measure a player’s heart rate under various stressful circumstances, perhaps gaining insight into who handles pressure the best — and solving the age-old debate over whether clutch players really exist.
The Red Sox are busy preparing for that and other possibilities.
“There’s always stuff on the horizon we probably don’t even know is coming,” Scott said. “All of a sudden you’re going to have this new dataset, and you want to always be in a position to start analyzing that as soon as possible. There’s a huge benefit to being first on something, and then everyone tends to catch up. That’s the way things often work.”
4. The sport is as dynamic as ever.
Toward the end of my long conversation with Scott, as he talked about how much he loved being able to do this kind of analysis in the sport and for the team he loved growing up, I said something along the lines of, “Baseball isn’t as staid a game as it’s often made out to be.”
“That’s the beauty of this game to me,” Scott said. “One thing that I’ve always enjoyed about working with the Red Sox is no one ever thinks they know everything about the game. It’s this game that’s been around for a long time. Everyone has had the attitude that we can always learn more. If you work anywhere, if that’s the attitude, that’s a good healthy perspective. That will keep you humble.”
AM I ALLOWED TO BUMP ANOTHER OF MY STORIES FROM EVEN FARTHER BACK?
Sure, it’s my post!
Fernando Abad hasn’t pitched in any of Boston’s first six games. I predicted this possibility.
GOOD RED SOX STORIES SINCE OPENING DAY
Can’t remember a Red Sox story as fun to read as Scott Lauber’s on the old Boston outfield considering the new Boston outfield.
THE RED SOX AREN’T THE ONLY TEAM IN BASEBALL, YOU KNOW
The Reds — the Reds! — look like one of the most fascinating teams in baseball with their bullpen experiment. Michael Lorenzen is emerging as the most fascinating piece of it.
AND BASEBALL ISN’T THE ONLY THING WORTH READING ABOUT
I had to pause multiple times reading this, because unexplained laughter in the press box is frowned upon.
WHAT I’M READING
The only novel the noted critic Lionel Trilling ever wrote, The Middle of the Journey often reads less like it was written in 1947 and more like a late 19th- or early 20th-century tale of class romance. It reminded me of works such as Effi Briest or The Good Soldier — a burgeoning relationship its focal point, underpinned by political philosophy.
That probably makes it a more digestible read overall; novels-as-political treatise tend to be terrible. However, I picked up the book because it purportedly presaged McCarthyism in America, and part of me longed for the political debate to be more thorough and more explicit throughout.