Marek Warszawski

Warszawski: Methods of data-driven Astros trickle down to Grizzlies

Big Data Baseball has finally come to Fresno.

It’s a world where numbers churned out by computers are valued just as much, if not more, than reports filed by scouts.

Where defensive shifts are as common as eye black, and players who get on base at a .400 clip are prized more highly than .300 singles hitters who seldom walk and swing at every pitch in their ZIP code.

Where the old-fashioned radar gun is as obsolete as a rotary phone.

During the first 17 years of the Grizzlies’ existence, we didn’t see much of this brave new world. Sure, the Giants use analytics; they just keep their methods close to the vest.

Fresno’s new parent club is a whole different algorithm … err, animal.

In the data-driven revolution sweeping across Major League Baseball, the Astros are leading the charge riding a white stallion waving a sword.

Look at their brainiac front office.

Before he had anything to do with baseball, Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow spent five years as a management consultant at global firm McKinsey. Among the assortment of business ventures on the Penn-educated Luhnow’s résumé is a stint as founder and president of an online apparel company.

Assistant general manager David Sterns graduated from Harvard. Director of amateur scouting Mike Elias went to Yale. The team employs a “director of decision sciences” (Sig Mejdal) who used to analyze numbers for NASA and a “baseball development analyst” (Mike Fast) who had a previous career designing semiconductors.

Not exactly an assortment of crusty scouts.

How does this emphasis on computer data trickle down to what Grizzlies fans are seeing at Chukchansi Park?

All sorts of ways.

During baseball’s first 120 years, teams were content to station two infielders on the left side of second base and two on the right. Not anymore.

Today it’s common, for example, when a left-handed pull hitter comes to the plate to see the defense position three infielders on the right side of the diamond.

It’s called “shifting,” and no MLB team does this more than the Astros. Likewise, no Triple-A team does it more than the Grizzlies.

“When the information comes in we find each guy’s ‘red zone,’ the place where he hits the ball most of the time, and put a player in that spot,” manager Tony DeFrancesco said.

“Everybody says base hits are up the middle, but these days there’s a guy standing behind second base making amazing plays.”

Shifting doesn’t always produce the intended results. Occasionally someone will mishit a fastball and squib one the other way or drop a bunt against the defense. But most of the time, the numbers prevail.

“I think the shift does come in handy,” said Grizzlies left-handed slugger Jon Singleton, who often faces the shift when he bats. “When a hitter does hit the ball where he generally hits it, and it’s well struck, you’re in better position to make a play.”

The Astros’ adherence to certain statistics can also be seen in how DeFrancesco constructs his lineup.

During the last two years of the Giants regime, Gary Brown typically served as the leadoff hitter. Sure Brown has speed, but leadoff hitters are also supposed to get on base.

During 278 games with the Grizzlies, Brown posted a paltry on-base percentage of .304. Nevertheless, manager Bob Mariano kept writing Brown’s name at or near the top of the lineup.

Contrast that to current Grizzlies leadoff man Nolan Fontana, who entered Thursday’s game with a .455 OBP on the season and .427 for his career.

“We draft those type of guys who are going to get on base and take a lot of pitches, work the count,” DeFrancesco said of Fontana. “He’s definitely the prototype we’re looking for.”

To collect the data they need, the Astros installed a system called Trackman that uses Doppler radar to track every pitch and batted ball in three dimensions.

Mounted on the suite level directly behind home plate, the square black transmitter precisely measures velocity, location, spin rate, angle and trajectory of every pitch and stores the data on a hard drive.

While a radar gun detects a pitch’s rate of speed at a given point, Trackman measures how far a ball travels from the time it leaves the pitcher’s hand to when it crosses the plate. Which is variable.

So when a scout describes a pitcher as being “sneaky fast” or having “hop” on his fastball, there is now irrefutable data to explain why.

Of course, all the numbers in the universe won’t help if you don’t have talented players. Through eight games, the Grizzlies have shown significantly more hitting prowess than in recent seasons.

Take the recently completed series against the Salt Lake Bees. Fresno won Monday’s opener thanks to an eight-run inning, then took Game 2 by scoring five runs in five frames off rehabbing Angels ace Garrett Richards.

Wednesday, the Grizzlies chased top prospect Andrew Heaney with seven first-inning runs before opening Thursday’s finale with a four-run first.

“We have a powerful, explosive lineup that can put up three or four runs at any time,” Fontana said.

Through one homestand, Fresno’s first brush with Big Data Baseball has been a quantitative success.

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