Information age hits baseball
Of all the pitches Pedro Martinez unleashed last season, 55 percent were fastballs, 18 percent were changeups, 15 percent were curveballs, and the rest were cut fastballs, which break much like sliders. But the deeper the Red Sox ace pitched into games, the more likely he was to live or die by his fastball.
When Martinez faced righthanded batters with runners in scoring position after his 100th pitch, for example, he fired his fastball 90 percent of the time, his curve 5 percent of the time, and his cutter the other 5 percent. Hitters never saw Martinez's jarring changeup in those situations, according to research compiled by Tendu Inc., one of the 21st century firms revolutionizing the national pastime.
The manager of the future -- maybe even the next manager on Yawkey Way -- may be expected to know all that about Martinez and more. Much more. About Martinez and every other player in the game.
In an era when computers have replaced people across the professional spectrum -- from typesetters to switchboard operators to assembly-line workers -- advanced technology is changing the way baseball is managed and played at a pace that makes Martinez's signature heater look like a lollipop pitch. And field tacticians who fail to embrace the movement may risk joining Grady Little among the ranks of the unemployed.
"Certainly, managers who are not allergic to computers will proliferate in the years ahead," Sox president Larry Lucchino said. "We're in a transition stage where there is a shift in what the ideal manager may be. It's quite simple. We've lived through an information revolution that has affected every aspect of our lives. Why shouldn't baseball be similarly impacted by the sea change?"
Why shouldn't the next Sox manager know Derek Lowe allowed opponents to hit only .219 last season against his 91st to 105th pitches of a game but .438 against his 106th to 120th pitches?
Or that free-swinging Nomar Garciaparra hit .340 last season when he put the first pitch in play (the league average was .338) but led the league with a .467 average when he worked the count to 3-2?
Or that Jason Varitek hit .315 at night and only .188 in the daytime?
For every pitch in every game of every season -- there were 702,293 thrown in the majors in 2003 -- batteries of computer inputters log every aspect of the action, from the ball's path toward the plate to its eventual landing spot, with spectacular precision. Overnight, teams are updated on the most complex statistical minutiae imaginable, with industry leader STATS Inc., providing the bulk of the information and newcomers like Tendu aiming to further expand the horizon.
The quaint old pastime is evolving into an alphabet stew of cutting-edge research. Theories once confined to the domain of math whizzes with a passion for baseball increasingly are part of everyday business in the big leagues, a crossover largely inspired by Bill James, a pioneer of modern statistical analysis whose hiring by the Sox last year as a senior adviser underscored principal owner John W. Henry's intent to exploit the best available research.
Henry calls it "quant," for quantitative analysis. He has used it to make a fortune in the financial market and manage more than $1 billion in investment funds. He also expects others, most notably his manager, to make the most of it.
It's not enough, for example, for a manager to know he can create more than 741 billion lineup combinations with a 25-man roster, as James has calculated. The manager also would do well to study a player's ZR (zone rating) and RF (range factor) to help measure his defensive ability. The skipper absolutely should be familiar with a pitcher's WHIP (walks and hits allowed per inning pitched) and a hitter's OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage), formerly known as SLOB (slugging percentage plus on-base percentage).
Computer-generated analysis has been part of baseball for a generation. But its complexity has mushroomed, and now comes Tendu, which has developed software that would allow the next Sox manager to know, for instance, which type of pitch Mike Mussina of the Yankees is most likely to throw -- at what speed and to what precise location -- at any point in a count.
Newly signed Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson, who served as Oakland's pitching coach the previous six seasons, helped design Tendu's software and credits it for immeasurably helping the A's supplement information provided by STATS Inc., and other sources. He said Terry Francona, the Oakland bench coach who is a front-runner to become the next Sox manager, regularly used the sources to help develop "Cliffs Notes" for A's pitchers and hitters.
"One of my favorite quotes," Peterson said of using statistical analysis to prepare for games and manage them, "is, `In God we trust. All others must have data.' "
Last year, only the A's and Mets subscribed to Tendu. Next season, the company expects at least 10 more teams to sign up for the service, though the Sox appear so well stocked with their own analytical treasure trove that they may take a pass. As James observed last week to Sox executives, "In the old days, the issue was getting the information. Now the issue is sorting through the Niagara of information and seeing what is useful and not getting overwhelmed by it."
After all, a manager may need a minute to reach for his chewing gum. Or some time to maintain camaraderie in the clubhouse. Or deal with the media. Or stay abreast of medical issues. Or handle myriad other demands.
In the eyes of Sox executives, Little found too little time to absorb and apply the volumes of analysis they generated for him. Yet Little clearly was more receptive to statistical research than diehards such as Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire, who has guided the Twins to the playoffs the last two seasons despite his disdain for quantitative analysis.
When team officials confront Gardenhire with statistics, he told reporters in spring training, "I show them the door."
For every advocate of cutting-edge technology, there remain old-school adherents who prefer making judgments based on years of firsthand observation and experience.
"There are still some people in baseball who believe it's very much a human game and the only way decisions can be made is to have a guy like Don Zimmer sitting next to you and telling you he has a hunch about something," said Ron Antinoja, Tendu's president, from the company headquarters on Bainbridge Island, Wash. "They generally have the attitude that the technology is not something that's helpful to them, but I'm slowly breaking down the barrier."
The Sox are helping, at least indirectly. That's why Francona and their other candidates to replace Little have pledged their allegiance to the movement. But don't expect the next skipper to look too futuristic.
"We're going to be an organization that depends on all the information that's available," Lucchino said. "But we're not going to have Robomanager out there."
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.