You know Zack Greinke. He’s last year’s American League Cy Young Award winner, all the more amazing because he pitched for one of the worst teams with one of the worst defenses in baseball. You know about Zack’s battle with social anxiety disorder, in which he quit baseball for almost an entire season, then asked to stay in AA so he could play for a winning team. You may know that Zack is a fascinating interview, prone to giving long, meandering interviews analyzing the relative merits of Chipotle burritos, elaborating on how baseball is a stage play, and admitting that he cried when Brad and Jennifer broke up.
What you may not know is that Zack Greinke is one of the most advanced thinkers in major league baseball. One key to last year’s historic season, other than Greinke’s treatment with anti-depressants, was Zack’s embrace of statistical analysis. Over the past two decades, sabermetricians have revolutionized our understanding of baseball by calling into question “traditional” statistics and creating new statistics that more accurately assess player value. Last off-season, Greinke was introduced to two of these newer “advanced” stats: FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) and UZR (Ultimate Zone Ratings).
FIP is predicated on two discoveries: 1) Pitchers mostly control strikeouts, walks, hit batsmen, and homeruns, and 2) Pitchers have limited control over whether batted balls turn into hits. On average, the overall Major League BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) is a remarkably consistent .300. So, pitchers with high strikeouts, few walks, and few homeruns will likely have a good ERA whether no matter the quality of the defense behind them. But pitchers who allow a lot of balls to be put in play will likely have a higher ERA because a certain percentage of balls in play end up being hits—either by luck or otherwise. To wit, Zack Greinke was third among American League starters in strikeouts per nine innings (K/9 = 9.50), second in strikeouts to walks ratio (K/BB = 4.75), and first in fewest homeruns allowed for any starter who threw over 180 innings. Thus, Zack led the league in FIP—meaning that he was going to have a low ERA no matter how bad the Royals defense was.
Man-oh-man, was it. The Royals were probably the worst defensive team in the league, by advanced metrics and more traditional stats like Unearned Runs, in which the Royals were last in the American League. This is why Greinke’s great season is all the more remarkable. FIP measure’s a pitcher’s value independent of his defense, but ERA—the most popular way of measuring a pitcher’s value—is somewhat dependent on his teammates’ defense. The question is: How did Zack Greinke have the league’s lowest ERA (2.16 vs. 2.49 for Felix Hernandez) while pitching in front of the league’s worst defense?
Greinke used UZR—a measure of the range and play-making ability of defenders—to understand that while the Royals’ infield defense was atrocious, the outfield was often above average. Thus, at Kauffman Stadium, one of the most spacious ballparks in the majors, Greinke used a rising fastball that induced fly balls. Of course, Greinke got lucky that an unusually low number of his fly balls were homeruns, but Greinke also knew that Kauffman Stadium’s “park effects” indicate that The K gives up significantly fewer homeruns than the league average. More to the point, you would expect Greinke to have a large BABIP because the Royals defense was so terrible, but Greinke was actually under the league average at .292. Using UZR, Greinke understood that he needed to play to the strength of his defense: the very highly rated left fielder David DeJesus and centerfielders Coco Crisp and Mitch Maier routinely tracked down fly balls. Greinke relied less on the iron-gloved middle infield disaster of Alberto Callaspo and the worst defensive shortstop in the history of Major League Baseball, Yuniesky Betancourt. In short, Greinke used statistical analysis to transform a great season into a historic one.
So who is the genius who introduced Zack Greinke to sabermetric analysis? In other words, if dating Kaley Cuoco is winning the Cy Young, then Zack Greinke is Leonard from “The Big Bang Theory.” But who is his Sheldon? That would be Brian Bannister, Royals starting pitcher, former USC art design student, professional photographer, commercial director –and hero to baseball supergeeks across the nation. Bannister is a marginal major league starter, so to stick in the league, he needed a competitive advantage. While Bannister was in the Mets minor league system, he dabbled in advanced sabermetrics to figure out how to improve his performance. Three years ago, after he was traded to the Royals for Ambiorix Burgos, Bannister gave this landmark interview to Tim Dierkes at MLB Trade Rumors, outlining how he uses statistics to try to lower his BABIP. Bannister’s thesis (that more two-strike counts would lead to a lower BABIP) is correct—but only at the margins. The next season, Bannister realized he needed to increase his strike out rate to lower his ERA, but did so at the cost of giving up more home runs, leading to a bloated ERA. Then, at the beginning of last season, using Pitch f/x measurements, Bannister discovered that to survive at the major league level with below average stuff, he needed to turn himself into a ground ball pitcher because, on average, more ground balls lead to outs than fly balls.
Brian Bannister then did something unprecedented in the history of baseball: He used advanced statistical analysis to reinvent his pitching style in mid-career to producing tangible results. Bannister’s scientific method (study, hypothesis, test, analyze, re-hypothesis, re-test) has made him a hero of baseball geeks, who have long advocated that data analysis disproves much “conventional” baseball wisdom. During Kyle Davies starts, you can imagine Bannister sitting at the end of the dugout breaking down UZRs to Greinke and challenging him to games of Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard, Spock to decide who’s going to refill the sunflower seeds.
Sounds like the kind of competitive advantage a small market team like the Royals needs, right? The problem is that Brian Bannister and Zack Greinke play for the organization that has most openly and forcefully rejected the use of statistical analysis in evaluating performance. Royals General Manager Dayton Moore became the mockery of baseball geekdom last year when he admitted that he doesn’t even understand defensive statistics—and, most bafflingly, doesn’t want to. In fact, Dayton Moore has made it the Royals’ organizational philosophy to reject data analysis and simply scout based on what they “see on the field.” Dayton talks a lot about “seeing” and “feeling” a player’s ability, that numbers can’t change what he believes about a player. Take it from the GM himself:
The defensive statistics—I still really don’t understand how some of those statistics are evaluated. I really don’t. When you watch baseball games every single day, it’s very apparent who can play defensively and who can’t.
What’s worse, no organization in baseball would be more applauded by its influential fans for a data analysis approach than the Kansas City Royals. Over the past two decades, no baseball market in America has produced more innovative and influential thinking than Kansas City. The unfortunate part is that this has come from its writers. Bill James, Rob Neyer, Rany Jazayerli, Joe Posnanski, Jeff Passan, Soren Petro, Bradford Doolittle…there’s more where that came from. Starting with Lawrence, Kansas resident Bill James, sabermetric analysis has revolutionized how the game is played. But the Royals, of all organizations, reject the very concept of data analysis, putting it at least two decades behind most franchises in terms of player evaluation. Dayton Moore “believes” in his “Scout’s Honor” methods, and no new ideas or data can make him evolve.
Imagine a mid-sized American city whose newspaper columnists are intellectuals like Paul Krugman, Thomas Friedman, David Brooks, Andrew Sullivan, and Fareed Zakaria, and whose city council was made up of can-do ideas people like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Now imagine that the city was run by a Daley-esque political machine with George W. Bush as mayor.
That’s the Kansas City Royals.
After the universally-mocked Yuniesky Betancourt trade last year, Joe Posnanski wrote that the most frustrating thing for a fan is “root(ing) for a team that so clearly has a different philosophy about sports than you have about sports.” For no fans is this more true than for Royals fans. It’s not just the losing—it’s the fact that Dayton Moore runs the Royals like a global warming denier. Facts? Statistics? Data? Long-term trends? All Dayton Moore knows is that it’s cold right now so global warming must be a hoax. Mike Jacobs hit 32 home runs one year, and he looks like a power hitter, so let’s sign’em up! Yuniesky Betancourt made some pretty good plays when he first came up, so he must have the tools to be a great shortstop. Kyle Farnsworth looks like he should be able to strike guys out, so despite the fact that his ERA hasn’t been under 4.00 in five years, let’s sign him for two years and nine million dollars!
More frustrating is the fact that Brian Bannister and Zack Greinke are the two players in the majors to have embraced and produced results from statistical analysis. And yet, the more criticism Dayton Moore receives from the local media, the more entrenched in his outmoded views he becomes. Now he’s treating statistics like he’s Bush conducting the War on Science. Moore and Trey Hillman now tell us that they don’t have time to lecture fans on why Baseball Men do the things they do. We’re supposed to Trust the Process that will eventually turn this franchise around. For Royals fans, “The Process” is a Kafka short story where the nonsensical labyrinthine bureaucracy leads Judges and Emperors to declare paradoxes as truth, like “Yuniesky Betancourt is a good shortstop” and “Scott Podsednik is a significant upgrade over Mitch Maier” and “Kila Ka’aihue has not earned a shot at the major leagues.” For non-Royals fans, though, I suspect that this is more like a situation comedy. Imagine Leonard and Sheldon as cancer researchers working for Phillip Morris, and you get the idea.