Baseball’s Next Competitive Advantage Isn’t Analytics. It’s Culture.
Matthew Obernauer worked in the Colorado Rockies front office from 2013-2021.
Mark Allen remembers his first impression of Shane Bieber in 2016 as a junior at UC Santa Barbara: solid pitcher’s frame, a clean, repeatable delivery and fastball command that “could hit a gnat in the ass.” Bieber was a stalwart for the Gauchos that season, pitching 134.2 innings in 18 starts and walking just 16 batters. But Bieber lasted until the fourth round of the 2016 draft because of what he lacked: premium velocity (his fastball sat mostly 89-90 mph) and a big league-quality offspeed pitch.
“I liked the delivery. I liked the way he moved. But his breaking ball wasn’t very good and his changeup he threw too hard,” said Allen, who was then a pitching crosschecker for Cleveland and is now the pitching coach at Illinois. “In my report, I remember saying ‘That sucker’s navigational skills with a heater (are) well above-average. But by the time he got to the fifth inning, his GPS started glitching.’ He started running out of gas. I wondered how good of shape he was really in.”
Upon drafting the 6-foot-3 righthander, Cleveland’s player development staff went to work with Bieber on a development plan. Over the next two years, Bieber scrapped his fringy slider for a spike curveball to give him a pitch with depth. With the benefit of Trackman data, they developed a curveball with a spin axis that almost perfectly mirrors the axis of his fastball, so hitters struggle to identify the pitch based on spin direction. With Bieber’s natural repeatability, he could maintain consistency of that axis to help create one of the nastiest breaking balls in the game.
Bieber and the team also went to work on the pitcher’s body, transforming him from a college kid with a thick lower half throwing 89-90 mph to the future big league ace averaging 94 mph.
“Can we attack the legs? Can we hit the chest, shoulders, arms?” Allen said. “And then from a pitching development standpoint, where does he need to work for (pitching coaches)? We need to make sure he can move well with his delivery and that he stays flexible.
“There was constant communication. It was the perfect balance of analytics and data, scouting department appreciating certain (analytic) criteria in certain areas and using some of Shane’s unique qualities (while) knowing that the breaking ball and the body needed to come along and these were going to be targets when he came in.”
Anytime a fourth-round pick develops into a Cy Young Award winner, the credit first and foremost goes to the player. But finding someone like Bieber and assisting in his development requires dozens of people from a variety of disciplines—not just scouting and coaching, but analytics staffers, analysts of Statcast, Trackman, or Rapsodo data, high-speed video and motion capture or biomechanical data specialists, strength and conditioning and medical staff, among others. It requires experts who can explain their insights in ways that others can understand and people who can ask probing questions in areas outside of their specific expertise. It requires a process which synthesizes data insights and human judgment to make the best decisions and execute on them. And it requires an environment in which experimentation, collaboration, and listening are all prioritized as tactics that allow as many ideas as possible to emerge and that all of those different viewpoints aren’t just heard and understood, but trusted and synthesized effectively. In a word, it requires something that baseball people often talk about but rarely define: culture.
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For years, a popular myth has grown around baseball. The story goes like this: at the dawn of the 21st century, front offices were powered by tobacco juice and gut instinct. Player evaluations relied on little more than a glance at some baseball card stats and an old scout’s say-so. Then Michael Lewis wrote “Moneyball,” shining light on a shadowy realm called “analytics” and making the public, as well as team owners, aware of the tremendous value hidden there. Clubs created departments devoted to the subject, and into this breach came Ivy Leaguers, data analysts, engineers, website developers and predictive modelers. Front offices were transformed into something like Wall Street trading desks and general managers into celebrity CEOs. To the horror of old-school baseball men, the lessons of the private sector transformed the culture of baseball and its leadership forever.
However, the myth falls short in several places. First, it falsely casts “old-school” scouts and coaches as incurious and “new-school” analysts as know-it-alls. During my time working in a baseball front office, I have never encountered a scout, coach, or analyst, no matter how experienced, who wasn’t eager for any information that could help them do a better job. Secondly, it overestimates the degree to which front office culture was impacted by ideas outside of baseball. Rather than transforming the culture of front office leadership, in many ways the early years of the “Big Data revolution” simply took the existing baseball culture and slapped technology experts and data analysts on top of it.
In recent years, some clubs have begun to examine and attempt to improve their decision-making processes, often bringing ideas from outside the baseball industry to do it. But there are still many lessons that baseball leaders can learn from business, government or other areas of society.
Lesson #1: Building an Ideal Front Office Structure
When people think of analogues to baseball front offices, few consider the Central Intelligence Agency. Yet similarities abound: like baseball scouts, CIA case officers are sent to far-flung parts of the world and asked to return with actionable intelligence. Similar to analytics staffers, analysts at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., sift through and scrutinize “all-source intelligence”—information from human sources, intercepted communications, satellite imagery, embassy reports, open-source materials—looking for patterns or anomalies that operators on the ground may not know about. As baseball clubs use technologies like Trackman, Rapsodo, Hawkeye and a variety of wearables, so too does the CIA employ an entire science-and-technology directorate devoted solely to creating and improving tools and capabilities that can expand intelligence collection and the quality of that information. (Think of “Q” in the James Bond movies and then think of a department full of those people.) And at the top of their respective bureaucracies, both Agency and front office leaders must synthesize the information coming from all those different sources.
As in baseball, the CIA has been transformed by technological advancements that have allowed intelligence experts access to a level of information not dreamed of when the Agency was first created. To adapt to digital age realities, the CIA faced a challenge, one common to many large organizations: how to update its business model and long-standing institutional cultures. This meant better integrating and harmonizing its distinct directorate cultures, shaped by decades of bureaucratically-established silos. Silo-based case officers and analysts often struggled to understand or trust each other, making it harder to build the kind of collaboration often necessary for intelligence breakthroughs. But the CIA wasn’t going to stop using its new forms of intelligence-gathering, so it had to find a better way for the different groups to work together.
So in 2015, CIA director John Brennan undertook the largest reorganization since the Agency’s founding. They took the four existing directorates—operations (the case officers on the ground), analysis (the all-source intelligence analysts at Langley), science and technology support (those focused on logistics, communications, security, etc.) along with a new Directorate of Digital Innovation (cyber intelligence)—and combined them into mission centers along geographic and functional lines, with a director and deputy director at the head. Instead of working within individual silos, a China case officer, for example, would work more closely with China analysts, as well as China support, science and technology and digital innovation officers.
The plan was not met with universal acclaim inside the CIA.
“When we started this, there were people who really hated this. I mean, absolutely hated it. They didn’t want to do this,” said Peter Clement, a retired deputy director of intelligence. Clement began as an analyst on the CIA’s Russia desk in 1977; from 2015-2018, he served as deputy director of the Russia-Eurasia mission center in the reorganized Agency. “We’ve literally amalgamated all these different cultures into one office unit, which was huge, particularly (because) the differences in the cultures are like night and day.”
The directors also faced some officers’ concerns about their career trajectory.
“If you’ve spent your whole career working in a directorate and you think, ‘I know the system. I’ve made all these relationships. I’ve networked. I know all the right people.’ And suddenly someone says, ‘Hey, now you have these two new bosses and one is from an alien culture,’ there’s a fair amount of angst,” Clement said.
To combat these issues, leaders of the mission centers focused on creating the trust that would lead to cooperation.
“We realized our challenge was to try to generate some level of trust and sharing between these very different cultures (analysis and operations),” Clement said. “How do you manage them in a way that brings about a greater synergy through sharing of knowledge, innovation (and) best practices in a way that makes each of them stronger in their specific mission area?”
In the Europe-Eurasia mission center, the answer was to put those people from different backgrounds in front of each other as often as possible. In the first year, the center had senior management meetings three times a week—probably more than they needed, Clement admitted. But the meetings served a larger purpose.
“First, you get to know the other people, but you also get to know their cultures and much more about the nuts and bolts of what they do. You can say, ‘I got people who can help you with that problem,’ ” Clement said.
They also scheduled regular off-site meetings—the idea of a group of spies meeting for after-work beers may seem odd, but for these case officers and analysts, it was crucial to help understand their co-workers as more than people who may hold different views.
Sometimes, when it needed to address serious differences of opinion over strategic analysis, the mission center even had its analysts switch their research focus for a period of time. The CIA had used rotational assignments in the analysis directorate dating back to the 1990s, but it was particularly helpful in creating analysis breakthroughs within this new, more collaborative Agency model.
“You move a couple economists into the political group and a couple political analysts into the economist group, even if they’re not trained economists,” Clement said. “But you spend 6-12 months working with these people and you start to learn from the inside, ‘Ok, this is how these guys think. This is how it works. That’s going to help me.’ ”
Baseball teams don’t have to copy what the CIA has done in building out an organizational structure. But over the last 20 years, front offices have accumulated experts across a variety of fields. The clubs that will succeed in the next 20 years will be the ones that consistently ask: how well are those people talking to each other? How can we create the most effective collaboration? And how do we minimize the inherent frictions among those groups while amplifying the natural connections between them?
Lesson #2: The Importance of Range
When a new general manager is introduced at a club, baseball reporters and fans inevitably ask the wrong questions: is this a “scouting guy” or an “analytics guy”? And how will this new leader balance the answers derived from large data sets with what his or her eyes are seeing?
A baseball front office in 2021 doesn’t (or shouldn’t) work that way. The research and development department isn’t just one ingredient in a decision-making stew and general managers aren’t cooks mixing two parts data with one part “gut-feel.” Instead, R&D should act as the circulatory system to all of the other organs within baseball operations. No one would argue that because your heart is working well, you don’t need your lungs or liver anymore; neither would you say that because you have a robust data operation, you don’t need scouts evaluating amateur and professional players, coaches helping players in the minor leagues, or a big league manager guiding the ship. However, just as a circulatory system delivers oxygen-rich blood cells to allow vital organs to operate at peak capacity, so too should a club’s data operation deliver important, usable information so that every other part of the baseball department can work at its best.
So rather than focusing on “balance,” it’s more important to think about integration: how does a leader plan to integrate data into each aspect of their decision-making: player acquisition, development, game preparation, etc.? And how will the leader create a team that can spot when their data modeling is insufficient to the problem or plain wrong, and adjust quickly and effectively?
The business world has dealt with many of the same questions for years, said Shunyuan Zhang, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School. Zhang outlined two different methods in which data can be used in decision-making within the business sector. One is by “augmenting” human decisions. Here, the data team recommends a decision, usually based on a predictive model, and the leader either follows that recommendation or makes small adjustments based on information not captured by the data. (The closest analogy to this method may be the “stat models” that some teams employ for the amateur draft). Another is by “supporting” human decisions.
“It’s not necessarily that the data team will give a decision,” Zhang said. “It’s more like digging into the data, summarizing the data pattern and providing the insights behind the data and giving to the decision-maker the data insights as input.
“The decision-maker himself or herself is like a model. (They) take into account a lot of factors, with one of the factors being the data insights provided by the data team. The decision-maker needs to decide whether the data insights are useful and relevant.”
“If implemented correctly,” Zhang believes the second, “supporting” method is the most effective. But there’s a catch.
“The problem is finding the right staffer to bridge different subgroups to ensure knowledge transfer to ensure smoothness of operation,” Zhang said. “That kind of staffer—it’s a question of whether you can find this talent and make sure this talent has a very specific set of responsibilities. That’s difficult.”
So how do you get the kinds of people who can bridge different groups within a front office operation? The answer is by identifying and cultivating “range.” Range, as coined by David Epstein’s book of the same name, posits that the best path to success is through relentless experimentation, creating a breadth of experience, and “actively cultivating inefficiency.”
In areas from product development to public health, organizations have suffered from hyper-specialization, Epstein wrote.
“Increasing specialization has created a system of parallel trenches in the quest for innovation,” Epstein stated. “Everyone is digging deeper in their own trench and rarely standing up to look in the next trench over, even though the solution to their problem happens to reside there.
“The most impactful inventors cross domains rather than deepening their knowledge in a single area.”
It’s easy to see examples within front offices. When baseball officials encounter a co-worker from another field of expertise who can also “speak their language,” the effect is striking. One person compared it to finding a soulmate—realizing that the attractive person you saw across the room is also someone you can comfortably talk to about anything and who will understand you.
“It’s incredibly refreshing to know that they’re looking at the player from a totally different lens but are able to take a step back and try to see them through yours,” one scout from a National League club said. “And I think immediately you feel some accountability in your own right to do the same for them.”
Anyone with the desire to do so can develop range, whether they are old-school baseball people or new-school data analysts. And because anyone can develop range, if an organization focuses on cultivating that breadth of knowledge, then its future leaders could come from anywhere. And if other clubs were to poach any of those people, there would be a deep bench of potential leaders ready to build on that culture.
Lesson #3: Creating a “Yes, And” Culture
Point at random to any major league organization and you’re likely to find at least one person working there who’s convinced that his or her club is doing something wrong. If many employees have the same complaints that relate to the organization’s core strategies, that club likely has serious problems. But even employees of successful teams talk passionately about issues that don’t get media coverage but which feel critically important to them: which scouting areas lack sufficient crosschecking coverage, how Latin American players are transitioned to their first stateside affiliates, the rate at which minor leaguers move through the farm system, etc.
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It’s not that organizations don’t know what they’re doing. It’s the nature of the people who have chosen to work in baseball. For the most part, they are hyper-competitive; at one point in their careers, nearly all of them have worked for far less money than they could have earned outside the game because having their successes and failures spelled out created the stakes that make things interesting for them. Even entry-level staffers have spent years daydreaming of what they would do if they ran a baseball team, in ways that someone at a banking job didn’t spend their formative years dreaming about banking. Above all, the best baseball people I have encountered are passionate about the game and what they do. They don’t stop thinking about baseball when the work day ends—they can’t, and they wouldn’t want to.
However, poor organizational culture can often stifle the inventiveness that arises from that passion. This is true in any industry, but especially in baseball, which is reverent of tradition and the way things have always been done. To find a model that maximizes creativity, clubs should look to another highly-competitive industry filled with passionate strivers: improv comedy.
Since 1959, The Second City theater has been one of the country’s most influential venues for improvisational comedy. Its alumni list reads like a “Who’s Who” of American comedic writers and actors, from Bill Murray and Julia Louis-Dreyfus to Stephen Colbert and Tina Fey. But in addition to performing and teaching improv classes, the company also works with businesses to improve creativity through techniques developed on stage.
The primary building block of this work is an exercise known as “Yes, and … ”, which requires that one actor accept the premise that their partner has created (“Yes”) and then improvise, building on that idea (“and … ”). On stage, it helps actors create sometimes absurd, sometimes genius comic premises, characters and jokes on the fly. But, as Kelly Leonard, a longtime creative executive at The Second City, noted, it also helps to generate creative ideas or innovation practices in any group context.
“People’s default position is to do nothing or say no,” Leonard said. “What we know about humans is that they cut themselves off. We self-censor. We self-judge. So the best ideas, which usually only come from a lot of ideas, don’t ever get surfaced. We end up going with the first thing that sounds reasonably okay.”
The process of creating a Second City show from original idea to Opening Night takes roughly 12 weeks. Much of that time is spent collaborating and iterating thoughts and ideas to get to a polished, finished product.
“We say ‘no’ a ton when we’re building these shows,” Leonard said. “We just don’t do it in the first four weeks.”
To hone their listening skills, improv actors often play a game called, “Last Word.” In the game, two or more people have a conversation in which the last word that one scene partner says must be the first word that another partner uses. When people from office settings try the game, they’re often flummoxed. Soon it becomes clear that they have a habit of “checking out” on their conversations in mid-sentence.
“When we break it down and ask, ‘So why don’t you listen to the ends of people’s sentences?’ they say, ‘Well, I got the gist of it,’ ” Leonard said. “When you’re improvising on a stage, you’re making up the script as you go along and the last few words could have crucial information. How is that different from real life?”
These concepts from the improv comedy world are more than just tricks to help teams get to the best ideas. When done correctly, they allow people in hierarchical organizations to feel seen and heard. Instead of grumbling after hours to friends, family, or like-minded coworkers, employees’ ideas can be brought into the open where they can be most useful. It sounds like a touchy-feely notion, especially in a baseball culture that has long admired stoicism as a personality trait. But that same baseball culture also creates a drive among front office staffers to be in the “inner circle” of decision-making, and what is that but a desire to feel seen and heard? In an industry where there are fewer jobs and promotions than people who want them, simply listening and encouraging ideas from all quarters is crucial to maintaining a culture where coworkers see themselves as teammates and not rivals.
At this moment, baseball clubs have more intelligent, creative people working in all departments on their behalf than at any time in the game’s history. The clubs that best utilize all of the brainpower at their disposal will be the ones that win.
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If Cleveland’s success developing pitchers began and ended with Bieber, the industry could write it off as a one-off triumph. Most clubs can point to at least one development success story of their own. But over the last decade, Cleveland has made a habit of acquiring pitchers, through the draft or trade, who they have then helped to reach new heights as professionals.
In addition to Bieber, Cleveland has drafted and developed current rotation members Zach Plesac, Triston McKenzie, and Aaron Civale, among others. In 2021, those four combined for a total of 5.6 fWAR over 483.2 innings, yet only McKenzie was drafted higher than the third round.
Cleveland isn’t the only club to have built competitive advantages through a combination of old-school and new-school methods. But its success has continued even as other clubs around MLB have hired away many front office staffers. Since 2015, three different clubs (Blue Jays, Twins, Cubs) have hired one or more Cleveland staffers at a team president or general manager level. But even with that brain drain, the organization remains a model for pitcher development. Since 2015, Cleveland ranks behind only the Dodgers in fWAR from pitchers, despite ranking 25th among all clubs in total payroll over the same period. The club reaps the benefits not just in terms of wins and losses on the field, but in areas directly related to franchise value: greater attendance, television rights fees and fan engagement, including, potentially, with future revenue streams such as sports gaming.
And the next wave may be coming already. Last season, 19 of the organization’s 21 selections in the amateur draft were pitchers. Many of their selections, including Tommy Mace (supplemental second round), Tanner Bibee (fifth), Jack Leftwich (seventh) or Franco Aleman (10th), didn’t light up radar guns or post huge strikeout numbers in college. But like Bieber, they have solid pitcher’s frames, repeatable deliveries and fastball command. Others, like Doug Nikhazy (second) and Aaron Davenport (sixth), have unique traits to their pitches—for Nikhazy, a unique fastball spin axis that carries the pitch above bats, and for Davenport, a curveball with elite spin rate. They looked for specific, innate traits, trusting that the people in their minor league system can develop the rest.
Not every player will pan out, but if the future is anything like the recent past, it should be enough to make Cleveland’s rivals extremely nervous.