Welcome to The Information Age
Technology -- namely the iPad -- is changing the way the game is played
Once upon a time, it was all so simple. Pitchers pitched. Hitters hit. If the stars lined up, somebody with a glove caught what they hit. And that's how baseball games were decided.
Boy, how 1963 was that, huh?
If you think that's how baseball games are decided nowadays, it's very possible you're still listening to music on a "record player." And running all over town trying to buy "film" for your camera. And looking up numbers in a "phone book."
Friends, we just don't live on that planet anymore. And neither does the beautiful sport of baseball -- no matter how unchanged it may look from afar on your old black-and-white TV "set."
Here, instead, is the planet we live on now:
It's a planet in which Rays manager Joe Maddon flips open his iPad in a Starbucks, sips his morning cup of tea and pores over the spray charts that dictate the funky shifts his team is about to unleash on David Ortiz that night.
It's a planet in which it's now easier to find a video of every changeup Ricky Romero has ever thrown with two strikes and a runner on first than it is to find a light bulb at Home Depot.
In other words, it's a planet that has been swallowed whole by technology, by data, by the sheer, massive, unstoppable onslaught of information.
And that Information Age hasn't just transformed baseball. It has practically revolutionized it, and in less time than it takes Ronny Paulino to finish a home run trot.
"I think this is truly the second great renaissance in baseball," says Joe Maddon, a visionary kind of guy whose embrace of technology, info and outside-the-box thinking has made him, for all intents and purposes, the Steve Jobs of managers.
The first great renaissance, Maddon says, arrived with Branch Rickey in the 1920s, '30s and '40s, back when Rickey was pioneering the use of (gasp) farm systems and (shudder) statistics.
And the second great renaissance? That's been taking place, almost imperceptibly, over the last decade -- but to a greater degree, just over the last year or two or three. Looking back, it's not hard to figure out why. Every once in a while in life, a bunch of powerful forces in the universe seem to converge on us at once. And all they do is change just about everything. Well, this is now, officially, one of those times. Think about it:
• All of a sudden, you can watch every one of the 3 billion baseball games played this season -- in your living room, on your laptop, even on your phone.
• All of a sudden, while you were busy doing your laundry or drafting your fantasy team or something, the world was quietly being invaded by an army of sabermetric wizards, capable of computing Justin Verlander's road FIP against sub-.500 teams in games in which he throws more than 20 percent curveballs -- and actually understanding the significance of that.
• All of a sudden, thanks to those creative geniuses at Apple, the average big league clubhouse seems to house more iPads than batting gloves.
• All of a sudden, those clubhouses are being occupied by a new generation of technologically aware baseball citizens who are willing to use that stuff. All of it. Every second of every day.
So the impact of that renaissance is reverberating in more ways than most of us could possibly comprehend. But after working on this story for months, we've concluded there's one group of people in baseball that has felt that impact more than any other:
How? Well, we'd bet that if we polled all American baseball fans on why runs per game and batting average have dropped five seasons in a row, 99 percent of them would answer "steroids" -- or the lack thereof.
SAN FRAN HAD A PLAN
The team that won the last World Series reminds us that there are no magic formulas.
More importantly, the team that won the last World Series reminds us that all information is good information.
The Giants are run by Brian Sabean, a GM who is more old school than new age, a GM who started as a scout, believes in scouts and surrounds himself with great scouting minds.
So in an age in which many teams are firing or de-emphasizing scouts in favor of computer data and video, the Giants prepared for last October by using their best scouts to gather great information every possible way it could be gathered.
They had multiple scouts following every potential postseason opponent.
They also took their advance scout, Steve Balboni, off the road and brought him to San Francisco with fellow scout Joe Lefebvre to break down video, travel with the team and answer questions from players and the coaching staff.
A third group, led by video-operations coordinator Danny Martin, put together an exhaustive package of video-augmented statistical data.
So what happened? The game plans they put together were so dead on and the pitchers they ran out there were so capable of using those plans to dominate that the Rangers hit .190 against them, the Braves batted .175 and the Phillies hit .216. It was the perfect storm of tremendous preparation and near-perfect execution.
"I don't think there are any tricks to it," Giants senior scouting advisor Paul Turco said. "I don't know if there's any one way of doing it. Obviously, the guys on the mound were a big part of it. But in the end, that plan -- what everyone did -- did work. They took the plan, and they all did the job. They pitched. And it was executed to a T. All the information was good, and everything just worked."
And you know what? They wouldn't be wrong. But there's another force at work that we now believe may have been nearly as powerful: information.
Even the hitters are starting to catch on. There was actually a time in which they thought hitting came down to them against the pitcher. Now they're not so sure. Nowadays, says the Nationals' Jonny Gomes, "you can argue it's no longer mano-a-mano. It's no longer 'you versus him.'"
Really? So if it's not "you versus him" anymore, what the heck is it?
"You against the world," Gomes laughs. "That's how it seems, anyway."
Well, it seems that way for good reason -- a reason we're about to spell out, as ESPN.com looks at The Information Age.
HERE'S THE PITCH
In the beginning, you didn't need a Ph.D. from MIT to understand the art of pitch selection. If you had a good fastball, you threw it. And if there was a big strong dude 60 feet away who could hit it, more power to him.
Boy, what a dumb concept that was. Want to get a feel for what pitch selection involves now, here in the year 2011? Listen to how Rockies video coordinator Brian Jones -- who says he and the Rockies were the first to use iPods to customize personalized video content for players five years ago -- describes it. You won't believe we're even talking about the same sport.
Say you're a pitching coach or a catcher, and you have a right-handed pitcher starting tonight against the Astros. You get out your iPad, tap your favorite app and type out, say, "Carlos Lee." Here's how it would go from there:
"You have all these boxes you can change," Jones says. "Say you want to look at all right-handed pitchers versus Carlos Lee. It will pull up a strike zone and a guy standing there, and it will show you, like, every pitch. Then you can break it down by date. You can change the date range, and it will give you his stats, the pitches thrown, swing-and-miss percentage, everything you can think of, for those dates.
"Then you could change it to where you say, 'I want to see all pitches low and away.' And it will change every piece of data [to] every pitch low and away. You can draw a custom area you want to pick on that strike zone, or out of the strike zone, and see all the pitches in those locations. Then, once you draw that, it shows you the data, all his stats and numbers, for that area you've selected, on that type of pitch.
"Then you can change it to runners in scoring position, ahead in the count, behind in the count, two strikes, seventh to ninth inning, anything you can think of. Any situation that you want to break down is readily available to see."
But you think it stops there? Oh, no -- all those stats are synced to a video database of every one of those pitches. So if you want to see how Lee reacted to every slider, low and away, that a right-hander has thrown him in a 1-and-2 count since 2006, that's now possible. You don't just have to read about it. Tap the screen on your iPad and watch it.
And if you don't think seeing all those pitches gives a pitcher a whole different sense of trust in a pitch than reading a scouting report or a computer printout, we can only respond: Are you kidding?
"Now, you can watch for as long as you want, watching a guy swing and miss at a certain pitch," says Derek Lowe, one of just five active starting pitchers left whose career began in 1997 or earlier. "So now, when you get ready to throw that pitch in a game, you have that mental image of watching a certain guy swing and miss at a slider 20 times. It gives you an added boost of confidence, like, 'Hey, if I throw this guy this pitch, I know he can't hit it, because I just watched it for like 15 straight minutes on the video.'"
DOWN FOR THE COUNT
In the beginning (or since 1889, at least), four balls equaled a walk. But three balls once equaled something else: A fastball down the middle.
For more than a century, hitters had faith that if they were patient, if they got ahead in the count, there was supposed to be a reward in it. They were supposed to get a hittable fastball out of the deal. And for all those years, they mostly did.
Boy, whatever happened to those days anyhow?
"Watch how many fastball counts where guys don't throw fastballs," says the Phillies' Ryan Howard. "I've had this conversation with a bunch of guys. I had it with Mark Teixeira like maybe a year or two ago, where we were just saying there's no such thing as a fastball count anymore."
OK, so that's not absolutely true. But the data conclusively shows fewer fastballs are being thrown in "fastball counts" than at any point in recorded pitch-tracking history. We asked our friends at Inside Edge to study 1-and-0, 2-and-0, 2-and-1, 3-and-0 and 3-and-1 counts over the last 10 years. They found that the percentage of fastballs being thrown has been steadily shrinking for all of those counts, except 3-and-0.
What's really fascinating is how much that rate has dropped just in the last two years.
The percentage of fastballs thrown in hitters' counts:
|Count||2009 FB%||2011 FB%|
|All hitters' counts||74.5||72.1|
OK, so that's still a lot of fastballs. But remember, a decline of 2-3 percent represents many, many pitches, just in those counts, over the course of a season. And even this data, says Inside Edge's Kenny Kendrena, is slightly misleading because it includes "cutters" as fastballs, since Inside Edge only recently began classifying cut fastballs as a separate pitch type. So the actual percentage of true fastballs is far lower.
"You even get to a 3-and-2 count now, sometimes it's a crap shoot," Howard says. "You don't know what's coming."
Well, if Howard in particular has that feeling, the data shows us exactly why: He sees fewer fastballs in "fastball counts" (55.0 percent) than any hitter in either league. And that percent has been plummeting precipitously, from 77.8 when he first reached the big leagues in September 2004 to 64.7 percent in his rookie of the year season in 2005, to the 50s shortly thereafter. Some fun.
But if off-speed misery loves company, Howard should know he has plenty of it. Inside Edge tells us eight hitters have seen fewer than 60 percent fastballs in "fastball counts" this year, among hitters with at least 100 pitches in those counts:
WAITING FOR HEAT
|Hitter||Hitter's Count FB%|
Three guys on that list -- Fielder, Kemp and Ortiz -- have seen a major fluctuation in how they're approached just since last year. Fielder was seeing 65.1 percent fastballs in those spots last season. Kemp was getting 66.5 percent. Ortiz was at 68.9.
Welcome to the wonderful world of technology. As soon as the data shows that feeding those men fastballs in those spots can be hazardous to ERAs, the league adjusts -- immediately. So when people start talking about the Age of the Pitcher, no wonder the first thing many hitters think is: There's no such thing as a "fastball count" anymore.
"Guys who have control are throwing those [off-speed] pitches for strikes in just about whatever count they want to throw it," Howard says. "So I think that definitely plays a huge part in it."
HITTING THE SHIFT KEY
In the beginning, Joe Maddon had his magic markers, and he had his charts. And that's how he helped the Angels position defenses back in the "olden" days, when he was still a bench coach in Anaheim.
Of course, those "olden" days were, like, a decade ago. Yep, a decade. But in retrospect, the info back then looks like ancient stone-tablet etchings compared with what he's using these days to devise defenses so innovative they'd make John McGraw's brain explode.
"When we first began, it was very primitive," Maddon says. "All it really was, defensively, was a bunch of lines & where you kept track of where hitters hit the ball against you in the past, against your pitchers."
The amazing thing was that in those days, even aligning defenses like that felt practically scientific. But nowadays, there's not much difference between the way most baseball teams set defenses and the way Dick Lebeau does it in the Steelers' war room.
Thanks to companies like Baseball Info Solutions, all 30 teams know exactly where every hitter in baseball tends to hit the ball. So when you look out at the field and see third basemen practically playing up the middle, shortstops on the other side of second base and second basemen set up on the outfield grass, 75 feet beyond the infield dirt, that's not guesswork, ladies and gentlemen.
That's The Information Age at work in modern baseball.
"Everybody wants to be aggressive," Maddon says. "They want aggressive pitchers. And they want aggressive offense. And they want aggressive baserunning. I want aggressive defense. I mean, if there's any kind of football tenet that I want to draw, I want us to be aggressive on defense, too, and force some issues there. And at the end of the day, when I talk to our guys, we preach: Catch line drives.
"Now who are the better hitters? The better hitters are the guys who hit the ball hard. So if they hit the ball hard, you need to be closer to the spot where they hit the ball hard most often. And if they happen to mishit it, we're athletic enough to go catch it. So that's what this is all about -- trying to get to the spot where the better hitters hit the ball hard most often."
It's no surprise, then, that according to Baseball Info Solutions no team in baseball has applied more unorthodox shifts than the Rays. But they're not alone. Over in the National League, the Brewers have begun shifting on a handful of right-handed hitters. In a related development, their new manager, Ron Roenicke, spent years coaching with Maddon in Anaheim.
"Joe and I used to talk about this a lot when we coached together," Roenicke says, "about how we're putting fielders in places where some guys never hit the ball. So it's about putting fielders in other places. There are times you're going to get burned. But if you look at it over the course of the year, how many hits you might save, that's what you consider before you do it."
Hang on, though. There's more to this than that. The data on the computer, and the video that goes with it, have gotten so precise that teams also know now which pitch is most likely to get a hitter to hit a ball to a certain spot. Here's how easy that is:
"You look at the spray chart on the computer screen and draw a square with your mouse on that area [of the field] you want to see," says Brian Jones. "And whatever balls went through that square, I can see what types of pitchers those were. ... It's like a virtual video spray chart. So your infielders and your pitchers, everyone's in sync."
Now imagine being a hitter, marching up there in a critical spot. He isn't just dealing with special defenses aligned only for him. He's also coping with pitch selection designed to work specifically with those defenses. It's incredible anybody ever gets a hit.
"It's like if you're playing football and you're playing Army," Jones says. "You're not going to run five defensive backs out there if they're going to run the option on you all game. It's similar to that. Why am I going to put four safeties on the left side if there are only going to be two receivers? The answer is: You don't."
AN APPLE A DAY
In the beginning, there were tapes. Big, clunky VHS tapes that had to be loaded into bigger, clunkier VCRs. And that's how players watched video once upon a time.
Eventually, a few of the more advanced teams started editing those tapes to produce custom DVDs for a few technologically savvy players. And as the years rolled along, more and more players started lugging around laptops so they could crank up that video from airplane seats and hotel rooms.
Then came the iPod, an invention that made it possible for players to watch every episode of "Lost" and every pitch against the Blue Jays with just about the same ease. But the screens were smaller than Joe West's strike zone. And loading that video onto each iPod presented major, time-consuming technological challenges. So even the iPod had its limits.
So for years now, teams have been using video in some form or other. But it was just 16 months ago -- drum roll, please -- that life in the video room, as we used to know it, changed forever.
All because of the iPad.
"Now," the Mets' Jason Isringhausen says, "guys are carrying all the information in the palm of their hand. It used to be on tapes this big."
He spreads his hands about 3 feet apart. And we both know those tapes weren't that big (although the VCRs were). But you get the idea.
Thanks to the iPad, "you don't ever see guys reading magazines anymore," Brian Jones says. "It's more guys on their iPads. It's become part of the baseball uniform almost."
When you look around a baseball clubhouse these days, everybody is fiddling with an iPad. We'll never know for sure how many of them are breaking down video and how many of them are playing Angry Birds. But the iPad hasn't just given them all a new toy. It's also a symbol -- of the mindset of the modern player.
"The game has gotten younger," Jones says. "So the pitchers now grew up with more technology in their life. Before, guys didn't know how to use it that much. And you've still got coaches who can't even check their email without help.
"Now we've got 22-year-old kids who have barely even known a life without iPods. They probably barely even know what a CD is. So their adaptation to technology, and not being scared of it, has allowed them to use this information more freely and easily."
At the same time, the technological revolution has brought us apps and innovations that make it possible to load astounding amounts of video onto one iPad, link it to massive quantities of useful data, sort it a trillion different ways and allow these guys to find just about anything they need -- with one tap of their iPad screen.
So Derek Lowe tells a story about visiting the weight room on a trip to Colorado -- and finding Troy Tulowitzki watching video on his iPad while he was working out.
Phillies catcher Brian Schneider tells a tale about leaning back in bed the night before he catches, making a quick run-through of the next day's lineup and letting his brain sift through it all overnight.
Joe Maddon reports he wakes up every morning, heads for Starbucks, opens his iPad, finds an email packed with everything he needs to know to reinvent that night's strategizing and starts plotting out his game plan between sips of tea.
"It's just come so far," Jones says. "Back when we were [loading video] on the iPod, we'd say, 'Man, it would be nice if this was just a little bigger.' ... Now the iPad has just kind of changed everything. We don't have to have these guys come into our video room, to look at the computers. The iPad is with them wherever they go. You see guys in the elevator at the hotel, and they're carrying nothing but their iPads. It's kind of become the new wallet."
TIME TO BURN "THE BOOK"
In the beginning, we're pretty sure there was still information. It just got absorbed and passed along pretty much the same way the cave men did it: Via eyeballs. And mouths. How could that possibly have gotten anybody anywhere?
"When I first started," Lowe says, "it was kind of your own eyes. You had to talk more to the guy who pitched before you or the catcher, or try to use that type of knowledge. I think you had to watch the game more. Now, it's just endless. And sometimes, there's so much [information] available now that if you don't use it wisely, I think it can become a negative."
Well, he's right about that -- to a point. If you don't know what you're looking for, or you don't pay attention, The Information Age can't possibly work for you, except by accident.
But in the big picture, all those skeptics who think the effect of all this information on the modern game is overblown needs to seriously adjust their rabbit ears.
If used intelligently, this is info that works. Period.
If you put enough fielders in spots in which hitters most often hit the ball, more balls get caught. And if you throw enough quality pitches, in unpredictable sequences, in places where those same hitters have the least success, fewer balls get hit hard.
So mull this over again. If used intelligently, is there any argument that the way this info is being applied "can become a negative?"
Let's go back to Ryan Howard. Five years ago, he batted .313 AVG/.425 OBP/.656 SLG, for a 1.084 OPS. But as the data has flooded in -- showing which pitches he hits, which pitches he scuffles against and where he repeatedly hits the ball -- what has happened?
He now sees fewer fastballs than any hitter in the game. He also sees fewer fastballs in "fastball counts" than any hitter in the game. And only a half-dozen players in the sport are forced to hit against as many shifts as he sees.
So what effect has all that had on him? His current numbers: .251/.341/.481, with an .822 OPS. That in itself tells a big part of the story. But there's more. His batting average on ground balls and short line drives over the last two years is just .197 against The Shift, but .278 when he sees no shift. And one year, when the Phillies kept track for a whole season, they computed that he lost 35 to 40 legitimate hits because of The Shift.
So what's the evidence this information doesn't work again?
TEAMS WITH MOST SHIFTS
|Team||Shifts on balls in play|
It makes you wonder why more teams don't devise defenses the way the Rays do. They employ so many unique shifts on so many hitters that 120 more balls in play have been hit into one of their shifts over the last two seasons than any other team in baseball, according to Baseball Info Solutions.
Think it's some kind of fluke that they've also "saved" many more runs this year than any other team in baseball? They're currently up to 62 runs saved, Baseball Info Solutions reports. The next-closest team, the Angels, is at 34.
So why aren't more teams approaching defense the way the Rays approach it? Because some of them are still stuck in a time warp, that's why.
"You have to be willing to use the information," Maddon says. "There's active and passive information. I know there are other teams that are getting a lot of good stuff. But then, are you able to utilize it during a game? Are you willing to utilize it during a game, or even prior to the game?
"I think there are so many old-school tendencies or advocates that are unwilling to go in this direction that at the end of the day, I don't even think they know why they're really unwilling to do this ... Quite frankly I don't know why every team wouldn't want to do it, because the information's there.
"I guess it just depends on organizational philosophy. Are you comfortable with the haphazard, 'I-think-this-is-going-to-work' approach, or the 'this-is-what-happened-in-1987-and-it-worked-then' approach? If you are, that's fine."
But if you are, you're a member of a species that's on the verge of becoming as extinct as the Whooping Crane. And if you're still strictly managing by The Book, because that's how Connie Mack did it, we now know conclusively you're using the wrong book.
"I think The Book is something that should be read and can be read," Maddon says, "but not to be taken literally to the point that it had been for so many years. I mean, after all, the book was handed down pretty much word-of-mouth. ... But as with most things that are handed down word-of-mouth, a lot of things are normally lost in the translation. And furthermore, when that word of mouth was created, whatever year that was, all this stuff was not available."
But it's available now, all right -- eminently available -- to every team in the game. And more of them are using it extensively than at any point in baseball time.
The teams using it best understand there are still human beings involved here. "You can't be a slave to the data," says Reds pitching coach Bryan Price. "You can't overdo it." And above all, he knows, you're still at the mercy of how players use what they've learned. A bad pitch is still a bad pitch -- and the iPad didn't throw it.
"But you can live with a good plan that's not executed," Price says. "It's a lot harder to have a bad plan, or no plan. And one thing about all the information that's out there now: There's no way anyone is going out there with no plan."
And that, friends, is disastrous news for the hitters.
There are always going to be great hitters who rise above all those devious plots to stop them. There are always going to be athletes so talented that there's no safe way to pitch them or defend them. But for the rest of the species, The Information Age is the worst thing to happen to hitters since steroid testing.
"If a pitcher can execute what he's trying to do with a hitter," says Brian Jones, "and he has all this information about him, of where he struggles -- broken down on paper and on video -- I feel sorry for the hitter sometimes.
"If your strength matches their weakness and you can execute, the hitter virtually has no chance."
Unfortunately for hitters everywhere, he has The Information to prove it.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is now available in a new paperback edition, in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.
Follow Jayson Stark on Twitter: @jaysonst