The analytics movement in baseball has shaped the game in so many ways and is generally acknowledged to give clubs that use it properly the power to optimize both in-game strategy and player development. Recently, former Rockies catcher Chris Iannetta voiced his concern over the impact of analytics on the game of baseball. Specifically, he pointed to the increased propensity of the three true outcomes and how it has taken away from the fan experience.
“There are diminishing returns when all you see are home runs, strikeouts, and walks. The product that’s on the field is losing fans more than MLB realizes.”
In the final game of this year’s World Series, Kevin Cash, an analytically-driven manager, made a controversial decision to pull Blake Snell from the game despite him having pitched brilliantly through 5 ⅓ innings and having logged only 73 pitches. The strategy of avoiding a pitcher going through the lineup for a third time (supported by analytics) backfired as the Los Angeles Dodgers beat up the Tampa Bay Rays’ bullpen en route to a Series-clinching victory. This spawned a lot of negative attention to Cash, the Rays, and ultimately using analytics to dictate in-game decision making, at least in such a rigid fashion.
From Moneyball to the Statcast era, there have been skeptics and naysayers all along, but it’s hard to ignore that winning teams tend to embrace using statistical analysis to their benefit. The Dodgers, Rays, and Houston Astros lead the pack when it comes to analytically-driven teams and the results don’t lie. Not only did two of those teams account for both sides in this year’s World Series, but they have built sustainable, winning franchises over the last several years and have a wide competitive window that goes well beyond 2020.
Going back to Iannetta, though, the impact of all the number crunching on the watchability of the game is undeniable. While I am personally a supporter of analytics, I can agree with the sentiment that strikeouts, walks, and even home runs are less exciting to watch than turning a double play or many of the other batted ball variety of outcomes.
With that said, fans want to see their team win and that means employing heavy use of advanced statistics and analytics. Based on a report by Eno Sarris of The Athletic in 2018, the Colorado Rockies are behind the curve ranking second to last in the National League with a total of four research and development analysts (the Dodgers led the NL with 20). Earlier this year, it appeared that maybe the team was turning a corner on this subject. Leveraging empirical data to optimize lineups, pitching approaches, and player development for baseball at altitude is an absolute must for this team to succeed. I bet that Rockies fans would be over the moon if the front office further expanded its research and development team. But, that may turn off some casual fans which could be enough of a reason for the Rockies to stand pat on their view of advanced analytics. I’ll echo Adam Peterson’s sentiment that it’s certainly a viable way for the Rockies to improve within the confines of their budget concerns.
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Earlier this week, the Winter Meetings kicked off (virtually, of course). Thomas Harding of MLB.com recapped his five most impactful moves made by the Rockies during Winter Meetings throughout the history of the franchise. At the top of his list is the signing of Mike Hampton in 2000 to a lucrative 8-year contract worth in excess of $120 million. The remainder of the moves on the list are small in comparison, although not insignificant. Second on the list is the 2011 trade with the Cubs for DJ LeMahieu, which was a huge win for the Rockies. Another move on the list, the free agent signing of Ian Desmond, is one that still affects the franchise as Desmond enters the 2021 season in what could be the final year of the deal. He has a team option looming for 2022.
All signs pointed to teams slashing payroll after a challenging 2020 season, and so far they have done just that. Craig Edwards of FanGraphs checks in on the status of each MLB team’s payroll for 2021; the Rockies currently have the 12th highest.
29 out of 30 teams currently have a lower projected payroll in 2021 than they did in 2020. Colorado’s cutbacks are roughly on par with the league average. These numbers will, of course, change after the Winter Meetings, the arbitration deadline, and the rest of free agency. FanGraphs’ RosterResource projects the Rockies’ 2021 payroll at $142 million once arbitration-eligible players have been signed, which is just $4 million less than in 2020.
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