29 June 2018

Buck Showalter Enjoys Analytics, Except When He Doesn't

Buck Showalter presents himself as an old-school baseball man who patronizes modern analytics. He'll defend certain things he likes -- defensive shifts, batter/pitcher match-ups, platoon splits -- but when he's backed into a corner or trying to be funny, he won't hesitate to take shots at analytics or non-traditional ways of looking at the game.

In interviews, Showalter can come across as thoughtful and open while in after-game briefings he may wildly spray peculiar accusations about analytical approaches. Here are some examples. Interviewed by David Laurila of FanGraphs, Showalter provided some insight into how baseball is changing (and also how it isn't). Many fans won't agree with every point, but again, it was interesting and contemplative, and included quotes like this:
“One thing about analytics is that we all question what we don’t understand. You need to learn, so during the spring we do Analytics for Dummies. That’s what we call it. We take our most veteran baseball people, our on-the-field lifers, and bring them upstairs to go over every analytic there is and find the [equivalent of a] .300 batting average in every one of them. We take the black cloud of unknown away from it.

“What we’ve found is that most of our veteran people go, ‘Oh, really? That’s all it is?’ They’re not demeaning it, they’re just saying, ‘Now I understand.’ Know where the .300 batting average of WAR is, and what it tells you. Just as important, what doesn’t it tell you that you have to be aware of.
Communication and being open to new ways of thinking are both extremely important. But it's hard to get the idea that Showalter is really open when he's saying things like this after last week's wild 10-7 win over the Braves in 15 innings:
Showalter on how to explain quiet game getting crazy: “Well, the launch angles ... No, that’s baseball. That’s why you don’t play it on a computer and it’s not purely analytical. That’s why people come, because things happen that aren’t supposed to happen on paper. And there’s three outs in an inning and everybody gets their turn. You can’t hand the ball to your best shooter or your best running back. You have to wait your turn in the batting order. It’s such a team game and there’s just so much ...
No one said anything to Showalter about launch angles. It's also like it's become his job to destroy straw men at arbitrary times.

Then, while describing a nice read on the basepaths by Adam Jones yesterday, Showalter said this:
“I can’t tell you how few people will score on that ball,” Showalter said, “and that’s a baseball player, that’s a lead, that’s a secondary lead, that’s anticipation of the swing through the zone. He’s a third base coach’s dream. In fact, we’re going to show it in the next advance meeting.

“So where does that show up in evaluation or analytics? His anticipation, his baseball player skills. That is a really hard ball to score on.
There are, in fact, baserunning metrics that take into account the ability to get a great read and take an extra base. Advanced analytical departments in organizations can do even better than what is publicly available for identifying how well a player performs on the basepaths. Statcast can also be used to show leads, secondary leads, and how baserunners respond to a ball in flight. But OK, sure, no single statistic is completely perfect or tells the whole story.

These sort of combative stances against analytics in general sort of made sense during the Orioles' run up until 2017. Showalter's teams were routinely winning games despite the deck being stacked against them, and it was hard to figure out exactly how they were doing it. Perhaps they didn't get enough credit for defying the projections for years and continuing to win.

But those days are over. At 23-57, the Orioles are the worst team in baseball. The Marlins, who were accused of tanking before the season started by shedding the team of talent (and payroll), have nine more wins.

In an interview with Jayson Stark in May, Showalter discussed many of the same things that he talked about in the FanGraphs conversation above. But he also starts the interview off with something troubling:

"I want to verify what my gut is telling me." No, that's not what you want! In some situations, that is fine, but our guts are often wrong. You want to be challenged! You want analytics to tell you that leaving Zach Britton in the bullpen in a must-win game is a mistake (they do). You want them to tell you that it's a mistake to use Jace Peterson or Craig Gentry as a leadoff hitter (they do).

Analytics are not the enemy, and I'm not sure who Showalter is trolling at this point. Who does he think is not getting enough credit on a team that's 34 games under .500? What are the Orioles doing that is proving many in the analytical community wrong? And why is he being so combative?

If these are just parting shots Showalter is making to someone (Dan Duquette, perhaps?) on the way out the door, that seems awfully petty. But by some accounts, Showalter could still be the O's manager beyond this season or even shift to a front office role. The Orioles don't need to continue employing a troll. They need someone who is going to search for real answers and try to fix this mess by using whatever means necessary.

Jon Shepherd contributed to this article.


Pip said...

There’s so much debate about who is really making the decisions. Who signed Rasmus? Who gave Tillman a major league contract? Who ignored Flaherty? Who refused to deal players at or near peak value? Who ignored the pitching? Who gave Machado the blessing to become a bad Shortstop instead of an elite third baseman? And many such questions.
If that was all done over Buck’s screaming objections, then he gets a pass. If he instigated or endorsed these moves, he should be gone yesterday, regardless of timing and replacement.
But even though we are aware of organizational dysfunction and lack of communication, and we have strong indications that Brady is taking over most of Dan’s duties, we don’t know anything for sure. Regardless, I think Buck’s day is done, and I’m not really interested in anything he has to say anymore.

Matt Kremnitzer said...

Yes, it's confusing, but you can't separate Buck from many of those decisions.

V. Blekaitis said...

Buck has made his share of mistakes and perhaps he doesn't embrace analytics as much as he should.
But he figured out a way to right the ship in 2012 by sending Tillman down enough times until his mechanics were straightened out. He came to the conclusion that Zach Britton would never make it as a starter and turned him into a dominant reliever until he got hurt.
The one thing I'll remember Buck for (assuming he's gone after the season is done): he realized that you can cover for deficiencies in the starting rotation by having a plethora of good arms in the bullpen. Other teams have followed suit by only asking that---apart from their aces---they get 15-18 outs and the bullpen will do the rest.
In a division arguably with the greatest concentration of hitter's parks of all of the divisions in baseball, that's not bad strategy.
If he has one old school flaw: he's loyal to certain players perhaps to a fault. But that's why players love playing for him, by most accounts.
Apart from judging a player's ability by employing metrics, today's managers still have to do what all good managers have always had to do: they have to understand how to motivate their best players. IMO, Buck did a good job at that.
Earl Weaver left Eddie Murray alone because he understood he was self-motivated. He liked giving other players an occasional kick in the pants (Jim Palmer was one of his favorites, for a variety of reasons).
In the end, IMHO the failure of the Orioles was expressed well in an earlier column by one of the writers here. You can't have an organization that has three heads making decisions that often conflict with one another.
I'm hopeful that perhaps the team will be sold to another owner who will restore the old "Oriole Way" to the organization: everybody is on the same page, from the lowest tier of the minors to the Big Show.
The new GM will inherit a very high draft pick---perhaps the first one in the draft. Let's hope that this person is up to the task ahead.

Unknown said...

Pssst.... Buck.... the analytics are there to tell you the truth you don't want to be seeing or are missing for some other reason - not to re-enforce what 'your gut has already been telling you'. SMH.