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Sabermetrics' impact grows as baseball delves deeper into the numbers

PHOENIX -- Here's a fascinating statistic: When the Cardinals and Cubs played the opening game of the 2015 season, the first game that Statcast recorded the location and movements of every player on the field -- along with the spin rate, velocity and movement of every pitch, plus various components of the hitter and the ball in play -- 98 percent of the known data in the history of baseball had just been documented. In one game.

You've seen some of this information, such as exit velocity -- the maximum speed of a ball when struck. Why did Ryan Zimmerman hit .209 in the first half, spend 40 days on the DL, and then hit .311 after his return? His exit velocity was way down early on, the result of trying to play through a plantar fascia injury. Why did Mike Trout hit .218 with one home run in August, in the midst of a season with five other months of excellence? His exit velocity was down that month, probably the result of a wrist injury he suffered early in the month while diving for a ball.

When Alex Gordon homered off Jeurys Familia in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 1 of the World Series, we can now dissect exactly what happened. Familia, who averaged 2200 RPM on his four-seam fastball during the regular season, tried to quick-pitch Gordon. His release point ended up slightly higher and his RPM jumped up to 2300, resulting in a flatter pitch without much sink. Gordon crushed the belt-high pitch to tie the score.

This is just the beginning of the next revolution in sabermetrics, as I learned at the SABR Analytics Conference last week.

"When I played it was mostly about the A's and Billy Beane and players who get on base and that was about it," ESPN analyst Aaron Boone said.

Eric Byrnes came up with those same Athletics teams. "One of the first things I was taught as a member of the Oakland A's organization was on-base percentage," he said. "In rookie ball, we had a thing: We had to take until it was 2-0 or we had a strike. As a college player, I'm watching these cookies thrown down the middle. ... But when you're 2-0, you're looking for your pitch and location and to do some damage. They were preaching: Swing with a purpose."

Byrnes remembered sitting with David Forst, then the team's assistant general manager. "He showed me all these numbers I didn't understand. One was OPS. I told him: 'This was the genius number you came up with?' "

If Bill James incubated the revolution with his annual "Baseball Abstract" in the 1980s, and Michael Lewis' "Moneyball" spread the movement into the mainstream and throughout the sport, the next generation is all about more numbers, more knowledge and new ways of finding new knowledge.

Jason Sherwin was a research professor of visual neuroscience at the State University of New York after holding appointments as a postdoctoral research scientist at Columbia and at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory. He's the co-founder of a company called deCervo, which has already worked with seven major league organizations. His objective: to see what the brain is doing when a batter is responding to a pitch.

He and co-founder Jordan Muraskin developed an EEG headset that monitors brain activity as players use an app on their phones or computer -- similar to a video game -- to simulate hitting a pitch. (The simulator uses actual PITCHf/x data, so you can, say, replicate the speed and movement of Clayton Kershaw's curveball). They then capture the player's neural and behavioral metrics of pitch and strike recognition. For instance, Sherwin showed an example player's Neural Decision time (a neural metric) being 31 feet from release and Physical Decision time (a behavioral metric) being at 38 feet.

But here's the key: In their study of college, minor league and major league players they've worked with, those with better response times performed better at the plate, producing higher on-base percentages. While Sherwin envisions his tool as a training device for hitters -- you're facing Kershaw tonight, instead of just reading a boring scouting report or watching video you'll be able to practice "hitting his pitches" -- it also presents a way to evaluate hitters. "It's got scouting potential, 100 percent. How well does he recognize the slider? This can measure that. ... That's something we're seeing teams want it for."

Imagine the potential implications. A team is scouting a player with great athletic ability, tremendous bat speed and a picture-perfect swing. The deCervo Baseball Profile determines the kid has poor pitch recognition on breaking balls. Do you still draft him? Scouts can evaluate a player's physical skills; they can attempt to evaluate his mental makeup; in the future, teams will have a way to evaluate the brain itself.

"We're looking at what happens to the point when the players make that decision," Sherwin said. "We'll view cognitive measurement and accurate cognitive measurement as something we couldn't believe we lived without for the last 100 years. We've focused on the physical aspect. That's going to be the huge impact in the future value-wise."

This might sound like crazy science fiction stuff, but consider where we were not too long ago. As Brian Kenny, the sabermetric-minded host on the MLB Network, said during one of the panel discussions: "Owners couldn't get past their managers for a long time. Why was there such reticence to listen to so many people in this room? Bucking the herd is considered dangerous. We'll ostracize you."

Teams can no longer afford to do that. Everyone is ramping up the size of their Baseball Operations departments, much to the chagrin of Goose Gossage. "It's an easy sell to ownership to invest in this area when you look at the size of the major league payroll and the minimum salaries," Reds GM Dick Williams said. "They are so many young, smart people out there, it makes sense to grow."

Every little edge matters. Heck, just consider the rampant growth of shifting within the game over the past few seasons. As John Dewan of Baseball Info Solutions explained his company's studies on shifting: "Every way we've analyzed this, you save more runs the more you shift. There may be a few things that crop up: You give up some bunts, maybe you don't get a foul pop, but the more you shift you save runs."

And yet some teams still haven't fully bought in to maximizing their positioning. Scott Spratt of BIS presented a study that attempted to evaluate how positioning factors into a player's defensive metrics. The Indians and Astros saved the most runs via their positioning. One of the worst teams was the Braves. Andrelton Simmons, for example, put up terrific defensive metrics in 2015 despite generally poor positioning. No shortstop matched his raw range and throwing ability. In other words, if he's better positioned with the Angels this season, his defensive runs saved total might improve.

Everyone agrees that Statcast data will only enhance the ability to evaluate defense. But all these tools aren't simply a way to evaluate players, something we're already pretty accurate at doing. After all, exit velocity is pretty cool, but it mostly confirms that the best hitters have the higher exit velocity. As we learned with Zimmerman and Trout, however, exit velocity can be used to identify an injury that might be affecting a player's production. Or maybe identify a player who is hitting the ball hard but has poor results. Francisco Lindor started off slow with the Indians last year, but the team was able to go to him and say, "Don't change a thing. You're hitting the ball hard. The hits will start falling." Maybe a pitcher can map his spin rate to a better release point that will improve the movement on his pitches.

The possibilities are endless. Brian Cartwright presented a study that indicated pitchers with a higher groundball rate might give up more bloops and shallow liners that fall in front of outfielders. The Pirates -- who led the majors in groundball rate in 2015 -- have indicated they're going to play their outfielders a little more shallow in 2016.

Maybe you're not into sabermetrics. That's fine. There are many ways to enjoy the game. But even if you're not, you're probably still affected by analytics. One of the panels was titled, "How Big Data and Analytics is Impacting Baseball's Business Operations."

That's right. Teams are watching you. They're starting to track your digital interaction with, say, Padres.com. Maybe they're tracking your in-park behavior or your social media engagement. They're finding better ways to enhance season-ticket renewals or maybe reach a mom who likes coupons with ticket discounts.

You just bought a new Cubs T-shirt? Somewhere, somebody is analyzing that purchase. We're all-in.