Big League Advance is trying to help minor leaguers by pushing the boundaries of analytics

The company's predictive model for pitcher durability loves Red Sox ace Chris Sale. Here's why.

Chris Sale
Red Sox starting pitcher Chris Sale during the 2018 season. –Patrick Semansky / AP Photo

For those who think baseball analytics has reached its zenith, Michael Schwimer has an unequivocal response.

“The idea that everyone in baseball has access to all the data and that the ‘Moneyball’ era is dead, I disagree,” Schwimer said. “I firmly disagree.”

He is the founder and CEO of Big League Advance, an analytics-focused sports startup that’s begun to draw attention for its ambitious minor league baseball business model.

“This is really what we do as a company.”

As a recent Sports Illustrated article on the company explained, Big League Advance seeks to provide woefully underpaid minor league players short-term financial help in exchange for a percentage of the player’s career earnings. The company has raised over $150 million in funding, providing more than 120 minor leaguers with an average upfront payment of $350,000.

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Yet Schwimer insists that the company, which he founded after retiring from his own baseball career in 2013, has a broader focus.

“This is really what we do as a company,” he said of the analytics focus. “Yes, we invest in players, but we are an advanced analytics company. We are a predictive modeling company. We just happen to be doing it in baseball because that was my passion.”

To help build Big League Advance, Schwimer has recruited a team of analytics experts. At the head of this group is Jason Rosenfeld, a Harvard graduate who was the Lakers’ director of analytics before leaving to join BLA.

“I was exposed to a lot of different sports dating back to my time at Harvard,” Rosenfeld said of his analytics background. His addition, Schwimer said, along with additional analytics experts, will help the company grow beyond its original minor league baseball confines.

“In bringing the team on, we’re really seeing what else we can do in sports to use predictive modeling,” he explained. “That’s what Jason and his team are focusing on.”

“We’re doing more than 25 different measurements during a pitcher’s delivery.”

When Schwimer references predictive modeling, one of the earliest – and notable – examples that BLA developed was one that it claims can help to forecast a pitcher’s durability.

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He explained the process:

This is obviously near to my heart, because my career ended with a labrum tear in my shoulder. I was reading on all of this medical information, theories from brilliant doctors like James Andrews, biomechanics specialists, human body specialists, trying to analyze everything.

And the thought was if all of these doctors are saying this is a healthy way to throw, then the inverse of it should lead to injuries. That’s easy to test for, right? You can look at videos of all of these pitchers. What I found was really nobody has any idea what they’re talking about. When you look at the data, it did not suggest that people who threw a certain way were less likely or more likely to get hurt than the others.

Instead, BLA’s team believes it has developed a model that takes the bigger picture into account.

“We’re doing more than 25 different measurements during a pitcher’s delivery that are critical to determining the stress you’re putting on your elbow and your shoulder,” Schwimer said.

“Chris Sale is the single greatest example.”

To form their predictive model, BLA examined how different movements and angles affect a pitcher’s “kinetic chain.” In this, they discovered an unlikely early takeaway. A player that has often been considered an “injury risk” was, in fact, largely not.

“Chris Sale is the single greatest example,” said Schwimer. “I was looking at all of this, and my original modeling actually had Chris Sale with a very high risk of getting hurt, because he does a lot of things in his delivery that if you break it down, he does this or that, and it looks like it’s going to cause injuries. He had like five or six things. But then Jason says no because his body was in all of these positions previous to these angles, which actually work perfect for his body in the kinetic chain.”

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Sale encountered an elbow injury in 2018, though he has largely managed to avoid issues after years of skepticism regarding his unique delivery.

Rosenfeld offered a further explanation:

It’s really the relationship among all of the different variables. Factor A might be negative, factor B might be negative, factor C might be negative, but in conjunction, they might be positive. You see this a lot in statistics. A lot of things, if they’re moving in the same direction, that can mean one thing. But when they’re moving in a different direction, that can mean something else.

And it really comes down to biomechanics and the kinetic chain. It’s important to look at everything as a whole, as opposed to individually saying, ‘This is bad, this is bad, this is bad, thus he, overall, is bad.’

When asked if he’s consulted the medical community since developing the model, Schwimer said BLA is simply going beyond what’s previously been examined.

“The answer is I’ve talked to tons of them,” he says of doctors in the field, “and they’ve given their theories on it, but they have basically what I had at the beginning. ‘In general, this is bad, or this is bad,’ but I haven’t talked to anybody who was good at figuring out the kinetic chain and then quantifying that to determine what a good delivery looks like.”

“I look at things as a big picture.”

The long-term future of the company lies in a multifaceted sports analytics approach, according to Schwimer. Still, his own ambition will always be in baseball.

“My goal — I want to make enough money in whatever we’re doing in any kind of sport to where I can help fund a minor league union,” he said. “I think that would be really cool.”

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And in his dealings with minor league players, he hasn’t met resistance to BLA’s model.

“I have not talked to a single player that is vehemently against what we’re doing,” he said.

Yet the company was dragged through a 2018 lawsuit by former Indians prospect Francisco Mejia, who is now with the Padres. Mejia initially claimed he had been deceived and preyed upon by BLA. Eventually, Mejia dropped the suit and even apologized for the initial action. Schwimer believed that Mejia had received bad legal advice.

“I think that it’s not really from a players’ standpoint that we’re getting pushback, but there are other people that are looking to be profitable on something like this that I guess I didn’t foresee.”

Ultimately, Schwimer foresees a wider world for BLA to inhabit. His reasoning is simple in a sports setting: With a steady stream of recommendations from Rosenfeld, he’s trying to build the best team.

“The team that we have, in my opinion there’s no better advanced analytics group,” he said.

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