May 30, 2009 at 4:08 pm by Capitol Avenue Club under Atlanta Braves, Chipper Jones, Front Office, Quotes, Statistical Analysis
Yes, this organization is fundamentally flawed. And by “this organization”, I mean the Atlanta Braves. No organization is flawless, not a single one. But a lot of organizations are fundamentally sound but flawed in the execution of their fundamentals or flawed in that they caught some bad breaks. Everyone catches bad breaks and everyone catches good breaks. We see it all the time in all aspects of baseball. How often do we see a set of 3 spectacular defensive plays that the team couldn’t duplicate if they tried, then during the following half inning we see an infield single, bloop single, wild pitch, and sacrifice fly to put your team down 1-0? It works both ways, every team catches good breaks and bad breaks, both on the field, with personnel decisions, etc. And I am of the belief that in the long run it all evens out. Regression towards the mean. But the teams that are met with the most success, despite their bad breaks, are the teams that are fundamentally sound. And we are not.
First of all, we haven’t always been fundamentally flawed. In the 1991 off-season John Schuerholz’s chief goal was to improve the defense. And it worked. Not only because the Braves went from 26th (of 26 teams) in defensive efficiency in 1990 to 4th (of 26 teams) in 1991, but because they went from the worst record in the majors in 1990 (65-97) to the third best record in the majors in 1991 (94-68) and won the NL West. Now, John Schuerholz had no idea what defensive efficiency was, I’m fairly confident the statistic hadn’t been invented yet, but he saw a problem with the team (defense, they weren’t turning balls put in play into outs) and he put his effort into fixing it. And it paid plenty of dividends. And for the next 15 years, the Braves were built around a model of pitching and defense. During ten of these years, they had the greatest trio of hall of fame pitchers to ever occupy the same rotation: Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Greg Maddux. And they always backed it with a great defensive unit. Because Schuerholz knew, in order for your pitchers to succeed, they need good defenders behind them.
We were a fundamentally sound organization. We had a game-plan, we executed it, and we won. That’s the definition of being fundamentally sound. Developing, executing, and seeing positive results from an effective strategic plan. If a problem arose, we looked at it and fixed it, much like we did our defense in the pre-1991 off-season.
And our game-plan was good. Watching that team was very fun. That game plan, that model for success, that strategy won us 14 consecutive division championships. An unprecedented accomplishment that will likely never be duplicated. And it shouldn’t. Greatness like that is meant to last forever. And even if it is duplicated, when Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, and Tom Glavine go into the hall of fame, we will forever remember that magical 1991 team, that 1995 world championship, and that completely unprecedented run of 14 playoff appearances. It won’t be forgotten. It will last forever. 100 years from now, the 1991-2005 dynasty will be chiefly remembered as a trio of hall of fame pitchers with a good supporting cast dominating night after night, but it’s the strategy of pitching and defense that really should be remembered as well. The philosophy that took our team from worst to first and kept us there for 14 years. It should be remembered. It was an impeccable strategy. And we were fundamentally sound.
But everything has a shelf life. It’s only a matter of time before the faster, more capable, and more efficient microprocessor is released and your computer is out of date. Within 2 years, a computer is virtually worthless because people can buy a much better one for much cheaper than you paid. That’s what makes the decision to upgrade a computer, a fairly large investment no matter what type of budget you’re on, a very difficult one. The rate of technological growth in today’s society is remarkable. And our strategy was like the Pentium II, which came out in 1997. In 1991, it was so advanced, so much more efficient and capable than anything anyone had ever seen, nobody stood a chance. For a few years, people tried to duplicate it. The Pentium I came out in 1993, but it still paled to the Pentium II, and teams got close, but they were never able to reach our level of sustained success. In 1995, our Pentium II was still the hottest technology, and it took us to a world championship. In 1997, the Pentium II, the microprocessor that we were using, became available to the public. Yet we were still able to get by because we had 6 years of practice using it, it was brand new to the other teams. And we continued to dominate. But in 1999, the Pentium III came out, and we were behind by default. Fortunately, through the implementation of new RAM, a spiffy video card, and a new motherboard, we were able to more than keep up with our competition. Sure, maybe we aren’t as efficient and capable as the Pentium III, but we’re really good at what we do and we’ve upgraded what we have around our Pentium II such that we’re still good enough to stay in it. And this continued through 2004. And in 2005 we were able to squeeze that last bit of useful life out of that Pentium II and make one final playoff appearance.
The baseball community as a whole is largely superstitious towards unconventional thinking. And today the Atlanta Braves, for whatever reason, are a more traditionally grounded organization than most, and thus are even more superstitious towards unconventional thinking than others. In 1991 we weren’t superstitious towards unconventional thinking because there were no expectations. We had been so bad for so long that we might as well try something new and radical, because what did we have to lose? Nothing. We had absolutely nothing to lose. We had no past to live in, no proven track record of sustained success, and no pride whatsoever. It was the perfect opportunity to tear down the walls and try something radical. And we did. And it worked.
But since then we’ve won 14 consecutive division titles and become very “set in our ways” and opposed to unconventional thinking. And not without reason. When you do something well for 14 years and win your division 14 times, you’re usually going to keep doing it and it will usually be the best decision. Even if you’re using a Pentium II processor when the rest of the world’s running dual core. But you’re eventually going to find that in order to keep up, you’ll have to upgrade your processor. There’s only so far you can go with the Pentium II. It’s a matter of fact. And our fundamental philosophy has passed its day in the sun, it’s time to upgrade.
So why is our strategy not relevant anymore? What has changed in the baseball community? What “technologies” have been developed that make our fundamental philosophy flawed? The answer is advanced statistical analysis. The rate at which new statistical analysis is presenting itself is unprecedented, much like our stretch of 14 consecutive division titles. Statistical analysis has always been a part of baseball. And trying to quantify success and using numbers to predict the future is not a new thing, in baseball or in general. But the rate at which the field of advanced statistical analysis is expanding in baseball is completely unprecedented. New metrics, new research, and new important findings are discovered every day. Countless formulas, spreadsheets, and volumes of data are consumed and manipulated daily in an attempt to quantify success, predict the future, and try to answer subjective questions with entities that are non-subjective by definition– numbers. Much like from 1991 to 1998 we spent going from the 50 MHz 486 microprocessor to the 450 MHz Pentium II processor, statistical analysis didn’t advance much until about 2003. But from 1999 to 2004 we went from the 600 MHz Pentium III microprocessor to the 3400 MHz Pentium IV microprocessor, an unprecedented jump in efficiency and capability. Since 2003 statistical analysis has shot through the roof and is one of the driving forces in front offices around the country. And the teams that have been met with the most success since 2003 have been the ones that routinely employ statistical analysis in their decision making process throughout all aspects of the game. From ticket prices to managerial decisions to draft strategies to trades, statistical analysis is a must for an efficiently run and successful organization. And this goes for any type of organization, but especially a baseball organization.
Now, the Braves are not the team that is least apt to use statistical analysis. That would be the Minnesota Twins (which is interesting because their fans are some of the most educated and statistically savvy fans in the country), but to say the Braves aren’t big on statistical analysis is an understatement. They just prefer not to go there. I don’t see why. Maybe it’s because they think they’re “too good” for it or their old-world philosophy is impeccable and can’t be shattered by the wimpy application of mathematics and scientific process. I don’t know, but they don’t like to use it. Which is the fundamental flaw of the organization. Relying completely on statistical analysis would be an even bigger fundamental flaw, but largely ignoring it is a fundamental flaw as well. A happy marriage can be reached between statistical analysis and old-world scouting and player development. Unfortunately for the organization, that happy medium is yet to be reached.
Fortunately for the organization, however, statistical analysis suggests that everything Schuerholz did with regards to pitching and defense is what you have to do to win. For this reason, the Braves are never out of the race. They may not use statistical analysis, but they’re doing the same things that the teams that do use it are doing on the defensive side of the ball. Schuerholz’s strategy was brilliant. And it is still used today, with the support of statheads and meatheads alike. It’s the way you prevent runs. Pitching and defense. The way we teach our pitchers to work is also supported by statistical analysis. We teach them to get ahead of hitters. This is a proven strategy. And it works. You can see it or you can do a research study to prove that it works. It’s common sense, when you’re ahead in the count you’re going to have better results. Duh. That’s why our strategy of pitching and defense works. It works. We’re usually near the top of the league in run prevention.
But since the advent of rapidly expanding advanced statistical analysis, it hasn’t been good enough to excel on only 1 side of the ball. And this is the downfall of the organization. Statistical analysis tells us to do one thing on the defensive side of the ball. And that is to get ahead in the count by getting strike 1 and strike 2. Shouldn’t it stand to reason that on the other side of the ball you should probably try to get ahead in the count as well? I mean, using no research whatsoever, doesn’t that make sense? Research shows that hitters preform better when they’re ahead in the count. It’s always “advantage: pitcher” until the hitter gets ahead. Once you’re ahead in the count, you control the plate appearance. Once you’re behind the pitcher controls it. Universal truth. But getting ahead in the count isn’t something you can do on command. You can’t “make” a pitcher throw you ball 1 or ball 2. You just can’t do it. If a pitcher decides to throw a strike and properly executes it, you can’t get ahead. What you can do is be selective.
This next leg of the article I’ll start with 2 quotes. The first is from Bill James:
Well, it is hard for a power hitter to sustain production without selectivity. The pitchers probably know what you get your home runs off of. . .high fastball, late-breaking slider, spot the change early, whatever it is. If you’re going to swing at the first pitch, they’re not going to throw you your meal ticket on the first pitch. So. . .of course it’s a problem.
The second one is from Chipper Jones:
For me, plate discipline is being able to know what pitch you want to put in play before you step in the box and not swinging at anything else but that.
And finally, I get to my point. The manifestation of the fundamental flaw of our organization is our hitters’ complete disregard towards plate discipline and selectivity. The only two hitters that display any sort of selectivity at the plate are Chipper Jones and Brian McCann, both of whom are coached by their fathers. I’m not putting the blame on anyone here. I don’t necessarily think it is Terry Pendleton’s fault or Bobby Cox’s fault or Frank Wren’s fault, but something must be done. We must teach our hitters to be more selective at the plate. In the minor leagues at every level, from the Gulf Coast League to the International League, our coaches should be constantly preaching selectivity at the plate, as they should be at the MLB level.
Selectivity doesn’t necessarily mean drawing a ton of walks. It means picking out your pitch and swinging at the pitches you can do something with. If the pitcher walks you along the way, so be it. Or if he throws you two fastballs that knick the outside corner and you roll over a breaking ball and ground out, so be it. Because there’s nothing you can really do with a fastball on the outside corner anyway. Even if you know it is coming. Waiting on a pitch that you can do some damage with it the key to success at the plate in baseball. And our organization isn’t doing a very good job of getting this into the heads of our hitters. Something needs to change. And it needs to start with the front office. I don’t know if we need to make personnel changes or if Frank Wren just needs to have a meeting with all of the involved parties and say, “look, we’ve got to be more selective at the plate, and I want our hitters focusing on that at every level of the minor leagues and with the big club”. But something needs to change. And it needs to happen soon.