- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 28, 2019

The Baltimore Orioles finished with a 54-108 record in Mike Elias’ first year as general manager, but that hardly meant the season was a failure.

Orioles fans know the former Houston Astros executive and Yale alumnus has a multiyear plan to rebuild the woeful franchise; they believe in the gospel of “Astroball.”

Forty years after statistician Bill James began to popularize advanced analytics in sports, and 16 years after the baseball book “Moneyball” entered the American consciousness, the analytical revolution has crash-landed in the Washington-Baltimore sports landscape.

Often called sabermetrics in baseball parlance, the idea includes minute analyses of players’ performances and aiding in-game coaching decisions based on historical data.

Teams are protective about the way they put the numbers to use. But by and large, baseball clubs are valuing measures such as exit velocity over runs batted in when evaluating a hitter, NFL teams can dream up new plays based on what player tracking technology tells them, and basketball coaches find benefit in analyzing shot charts that are more intricate than ever.

The tool is not universally popular, and a divide between old-school and new-school philosophies has emerged. In 2015, Charles Barkley called analytics “crap” and said its practitioners “never played the game [and] never got the girls in high school.”

But many teams’ decision-makers aren’t paying Mr. Barkley any mind. The Orioles try to replicate the “Astroball” blueprint for a World Series title, and the Wizards have hired basketball’s version of Bill James as an assistant coach — even without coaching experience in the pros.

Mr. Elias said analytics is destined to permeate other sports.

“It’s not a possibility; it’s a certainty,” Mr. Elias told The Washington Times last summer. “No industry is going to be immune from the pressures of making better decisions.”

From NASA to the baseball diamond

Playing in the same division as the wealthy New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, the Orioles seemed like a prime candidate for the “Moneyball” approach — in which the Oakland Athletics of the early 2000s dug deeper into analytics to identify affordable players that could compete with the big boys.

But the Orioles‘ approach now more closely mirrors the Astros’ approach earlier this decade — in part because of a new pipeline for executives between the two franchises.

Sig Mejdal — a former NASA engineer drawn to sports by reading “Moneyball” — followed Mr. Elias from Houston last year to become the Orioles‘ assistant GM for analytics. The latest hire came this month, when the Orioles brought in Astros international scouting director Eve Rosenbaum for the newly created role of director of baseball development. Reports said her new job will include a focus on analytics and “researching new trends.”

That’s par for the course ever since the Orioles hired Mr. Elias last year. MLB.com reported that the general manager wants to grow Baltimore’s analytics department to about a dozen employees.

Mr. Elias worked in the Astros’ front office when it restocked the team’s talent supply for the future by trading talented older players like Wandy Rodriguez and Carlos Lee for prospects. The team lost 100-plus games three straight years, leading to three straight No. 1 draft picks. All that, plus a reliance on sabermetrics over the eye test in player evaluation, helped Houston win the 2017 World Series.

It can be’ a divisive strategy, especially when its detractors frame it as “tanking to win.” But analytics are not just about long-term decisions for the Orioles. They factor into players’ daily improvements as well: For one example, they began using state-of-the-art camera technology that measures a batter’s launch angle, exit velocity and estimated ball flight at practice.

Mr. Mejdal pointed out that advanced data are just measurements of what’s happening in the so-called real world. He said players and coaches have been open to learning from what the analytics have to say.

“If [coaches] want to do as good a job as possible instead of just using the finite human mind, let’s see if anything could be revealed to them from the data,” Mr. Mejdal said. “So in the ideal world, they’re customers and they’re asking for this and they appreciate it and there’s not [stepping on others’ toes], but instead this partnership making you both a bit better.”

Playing ‘Basketball on Paper’

Dean Oliver contacted Mr. James in 2001 looking for advice. He wanted to write a book about analytics in basketball and hoped Mr. James could suggest a publisher. He heard back months later, only for Mr. James to say he was thinking of writing his own basketball book.

“And I almost quit my job right there,” Mr. Oliver said. “I’ve got to go beat Bill James in writing this book.”

Mr. Oliver didn’t quit; he was granted a sabbatical. And Mr. James never forayed into basketball. In the end, Mr. Oliver’s “Basketball on Paper” was published just a year after “Moneyball” and drew favorable comparisons to the Michael Lewis tome. Among other things, Mr. Oliver invented the offensive and defensive efficiency ratings that are now widely used in the sport.

Mr. Oliver now is in his first year as an assistant coach for the Wizards. He has held advisory roles with NBA front offices elsewhere, but this is his first coaching role since he worked on Caltech’s staff while still a college student.

In that sense, it was an unconventional hire, but Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard said Mr. Oliver brings a different perspective to the staff, particularly in the self-scouting department.

“I’ve already seen his impressions and what he’s been able to do with certain players,” Mr. Sheppard said during camp. “Tell them, ‘Certain things you might notice intuitively, well, here’s why.’ He can take that out a little further and get players a little better — I should say, a high-level view of how to play more efficiently.

“He’s a brilliant person, so that makes it a lot easier.”

There is no better evidence that basketball strategy has grown more analytical than the 3-point revolution, though the logic behind it is simple: With a 3-point line 22 feet from the basket at the corners and 23 feet, 9 inches at the top, why shoot an 18-footer for a smaller reward when the success rates are similar?

“I understand why there are people that say what we’re trying to do analytically is wrong or whatever,” Mr. Oliver said. “There have been things that have been overly promoted or such. But on the other hand, the 3-point revolution is occurring and a lot of that we talked about. There was a lot of talk that we should be shooting more threes, fewer midrange. Is there any one person to credit? No, it’s just happened.”

Mr. Oliver is not one to brag about being ahead of the curve, but he said he is happy that the NBA has been embracing analytics more.

“I think it’s always satisfying to me, when we’re talking about sports or other things, that people are trying to incorporate as much information as possible,” Mr. Oliver said. “They’re trying to be right more often. I think that’s a pretty good general goal for life: to be as right as you can.”

‘The numbers don’t play’

Not every sports team is equally on board with the analytics movement.

In 2015, an ESPN article ranked every team in the four major U.S. sports leagues by how much or little they used analytics in their daily operations. The Washington Redskins ranked 120th overall out of 122 teams — and came in dead last in the NFL.

Now, the Redskins may be turning a corner. They hired Connor Barringer in June for a new position called “football strategy analyst.” Mr. Barringer’s previous job was to break down game film and rate players for Pro Football Focus — a website that uses a proprietary algorithm to grade all NFL players on a 0-100 scale, using advanced statistics such as “drop rate” for receivers or “passer rating against” for defensive backs.

But one hire does not indicate a trend. Before the Redskins hired Mr. Barringer, Doug Williams, senior vice president of player personnel, explained the front office’s preference for an old-school philosophy in an interview with the team website.

“The numbers matter in some way, but I think when you’re watching players, numbers can’t pick players,” Mr. Williams said. “It’s the scout and what their gut feeling is and what you think about that player and what that player can do at the end of the day. We can put all the numbers in, but the numbers don’t play.”

The Redskins declined a request to interview Mr. Barringer for this story.

Football is perceived to be a step behind baseball and basketball in terms of analytics, but not every team is like the Redskins. The Baltimore Ravens have been one of the NFL‘s most aggressive teams on fourth down this year, thanks in part to communication between coach John Harbaugh and football analyst Daniel Stern.

During games, Mr. Stern sits in the booth and feeds Mr. Harbaugh win probabilities in different game scenarios via headset, according to a story by The Athletic. Mr. Stern credited the coach’s “intellectual humility” of not assuming he has the right answer.

“We talk about all the different scenarios, and he basically gives me a percentage,” Mr. Harbaugh told The Athletic. “So what’s the added win percentage of going for it? He’ll give it to me like one, two, three, four, five, six, up to whatever. Then you just decide if you want to do it.”

This may sound like the way of the future to many. But for the Ravens, the Wizards, the Orioles and others, it’s already a modus operandi.

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