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Rosie DiManno: Baseball not just a game of numbers, it’s how you read them these days

Rosie DiManno: Baseball not just a game of numbers, it’s how you read them these days
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Anthony Alford says the growing use of analytics takes some of the “natural instinct” out of baseball but admits knowledge is power. “I understand what they’re doing with it and the reasons behind it.”  (Icon Sportswire / GETTY IMAGES)

Alford was so fixated on checking with the darn thing, where he should be situating himself, that the ball was already hit before he lifted his head.

To be serious, nobody would actually call this cheating. It’s all part and parcel of analytics, Baseball 2.0, computer-generated. A primer in the pocket.

All the players are given these cue cards before they take to the field, as much a tool of the trade as a glove or a rosin bag. Knowledge is power and baseball is in thrall to numerical enlightenment, with stats-science geeks in front offices across every league subsuming what was once scouting expertise territory.

“The games is changing, especially with the analytics,” Alford said Thursday. “Then again, you see people who are big into it winning the World Series. Boston is big into it, New York is big into it, L.A. is big into it. Kind of hard to say, ‘Oh, it doesn’t work.’ ”

Now the Jays are big into it, cranking out data to be interpreted for the benefit of players who often don’t grasp the esoterica of such information. Not the obviously helpful stuff, like where a batter is more likely to hit, and in the air or on the ground. But the arcane stats: wOBA and WRAA and WRC+ and BQR-S (bequeathed runners scored, which actually sounds kind of poetic.)

In this transitional era, data-crunchers are taking over the game and players who drink the Kool-Aid are consumed with new-age gestalt about spin rates and velocity and launch angles.

“It does kind of take away from your natural instinct,” Alford said. “But at the same time I understand what they’re doing with it and the reasons behind it. The information I look at, I understand. Like, the spread sheet tells me where the ball is going to be hit so you can position yourself and have a better chance of robbing the guy of a hit … It all boils down to making outs on defence, right? I don’t have to look in the dugout or wait for the coach to move me.”

On the offensive side of the equation, however, Alford admits he’s often perplexed by the data bombardment.

“At the end of the day you still got to barrel up to the ball. I’m not going out there saying, ‘I’m trying to have a 45-degree launch angle here.’ Baseball is hard enough. I might have the right exit velocity and launch angle to hit a home run, hit a double, but as far as trying to make myself hit the ball at a certain angle and a certain exit velocity, I don’t look at that at all.”

There are believers and non-believers. Traditionalists who don’t think they should need a PhD to hit a ball and revolutionaries who mock the dinosaurs.

Many players do gather around computers to track their own performance data and that of opponents, convinced comprehension will give them an edge. Most baseball executives now encourage highly detailed metrics awareness and, like the Jays, have spent small fortunes on fancy technological equipment, including Edgertronic cameras for video that captures movement at more than 1,000 frames per second, and the Rapsodo camera which measures pitches in real-time metrics. Both are deployed at Toronto’s minor-league complex.

But some baseballers, Luddites apparently, think: Meh. Or huh?

“The game’s going in a direction now that they feel pretty strongly about a lot of different metrics that I’ve only heard of and don’t necessarily understand,” catcher Luke Maile said. “But the cool thing about the game now is that it’s not really important for us to understand them. It’s kind of for other people to decide.”

Meaning he isn’t required to worship at the altar of analytics if he doesn’t wanna.

“I tell everybody the fastball hasn’t changed in 150 years, no matter how much spin rate metrics you put on it. It’s the same pitch. You’re just qualifying it. As players we’re just trying to hit the ball hard, run hard, catch it, do all the basic things taught to us when we were four years old.”

There are definitely heretics all over the majors who aren’t dazzled by metrics flatulence. And they’re not all old farts grumbling as the game passes them by.

“There’s so much that goes into that stuff, so many numbers that are beyond me,” outfielder Dalton Pompe saidy. “It just takes away from what the game really is and what it’s always been. Like these cards in our pockets that tell us where to play. These machines spit out probabilities that I guess help us play better. But I feel that sometimes it takes away from your own instincts, the purity of the game. Less of you playing, more of where the computer tells you to play, which is very weird.”

Last week, when the Jays played the Phillies in Clearwater, manager Charlie Montoyo deployed a four-man outfield when facing Bryce Harper. Montoyo claimed he didn’t need to consult with the data diarrhea for that purpose.

“For him, it was just because his first couple of at-bats, we’re thinking he’s not trying to get a base hit.” He probably wanted something more exclamatory in his debut with the Phillies. “So it was perfect timing to do it. But if a player is a 60-, 70-per-cent flyball guy, say, why would you have an infielder on this side when he’s not going to hit the ball that way?”

Hence the reviled shift.

In any event, Harper didn’t like it one bit. Neither did Pompey, strictly as an observer who loves baseball.

“My position on it is, yeah, we’re trying to win the game, you’ll do anything to win the game. But at the same time, there’s never been four outfielders and there shouldn’t be four outfielders. I just don’t think it’s right.

“If a guy hits the ball in the gap, he deserves to get a hit.”

That might make him an infidel in the Blue Jays organization.

“It is what it is, I guess. The game’s changed a lot. I’m guessing it’s going to continue to change. It’s just unfortunate for somebody who likes to see baseball played kind of old school.”
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