Cyber analysis at the plate; Orioles: Computerized scouting is changing the way information is stored, as well as the way players are evaluated.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In the tradition-bound world of major-league baseball, the technological revolution has been slow to take root, but the Orioles are trying to position themselves on the cutting edge of the information age.

New general manager Frank Wren made that clear when he hired Bruce Manno, former Milwaukee Brewers executive and computerized scouting consultant, to be the club's assistant GM. Now, it may be just a matter of time before the Orioles take a byte out of the competition.

Advances in computerization and statistical analysis are changing the way some teams evaluate talent and disseminate scouting information, which has created a new -- highly sophisticated -- front-office playing field. Computerized player evaluation has been in use in the NFL since the Dallas Cowboys first attempted to quantify raw skills under coach Tom Landry way back in the 1960s, but baseball is only now getting up to speed on the information superhighway.

Manno isn't just the company computer nerd -- he also performs all of the traditional duties of an assistant general manager -- but his expertise in this area could turn out to be a valuable asset at a time when top-name players are commanding up to $15 million per year.

"We're not doing this just for the sake of technology," Wren said. "We're doing it because, from an organizational standpoint, the tools are there to make you better."

Those tools range from something as simple as a more efficient way to catalog and access existing scouting information to a complex player evaluation system that bypasses many of the traditional baseball statistics.

"I'm very big on what can be done to enhance the tools we have in the industry to help us evaluate and value players," Manno said. "In terms of upgrading our computers in-house, we are being very aggressive in that area. What Frank and I are looking for is a way to extract information as quickly as possible, with software your scouts and other people know how to use so you can be as efficient as possible."

A background in evaluation

But Manno's expertise runs much deeper than that. Before accepting the job in the Orioles' front office, he spent 3 1/2 years as the baseball consultant for a company called AVM (Advanced Value Matrix) which licenses a high-tech performance evaluation system that removes many of the variables that make traditional statistical analysis such an imperfect science.

"You can look at two shortstops hitting .270," Manno explained, "and see one and say, 'There's a .270 hitter,' and then look at the other and say, 'I know that is not a .270 hitter.' How do you quantify that?"

The AVM system would catalog the weak hits and the poor defensive plays that weren't charged as errors and factor them into a rating that would put each player's offensive performance into a more objective context. It doesn't measure strength or skill, but aims to determine more accurately the comprehensive value of an individual player in relation to other players at his position.

"The theory behind AVM is, you look at the pitcher and the hitter," Manno said. "The pitcher's job is to fool the hitter, to make him hit the ball weakly or strike out. The hitter's job is to hit the ball hard and create value for his team.

"Look at that confrontation. If the hitter hits a line drive and you freeze the play while the ball is in the air, the pitcher failed and the batter succeeded. Now, go on with the play and an outfielder makes a great diving catch. Based on the outcome of the play -- by traditional statistics -- the batter failed and the pitcher succeeded. What AVM does is say that the hitter did his job but the center fielder gave tremendous value to his team."

Don't misunderstand. Scouting still is a largely human endeavor, but the advanced statistical analysis provided by AVM -- coupled with the firsthand observations of an experienced scout -- can provide a more complete picture of a player's capabilities and potential because it incorporates every element of every performance.

"If I go to scout Andy Pettitte and see five starts, that leaves 27 or 28 starts that I didn't see," Manno said. "That's a huge margin for error. I felt there was a real place for another tool. I think that's where the value of this system really comes into play."

Not a new idea

Enhanced statistical analysis is not new to baseball, of course. Baseball guru Bill James changed the way millions of baseball fans enjoy the game when he pushed past the traditional Triple Crown categories in the early 1980s, but baseball front-office types have been slow to adopt more than his most general statistical models.

There are a number of teams that subscribe to AVM's service, but Manno declined to say which or exactly how many. He is bound by a confidentiality agreement that doesn't even allow him to admit that the Orioles are a subscriber, but that is fair to assume.

What is not fair to assume is that the Orioles are going to depend inordinately on esoteric statistical data to make baseball decisions. The backbone of a scouting system is still the number, quality and commitment of the scouts in the field.

"I don't think the Dallas Cowboys ever solely relied on computers and took the human element out of the equation," Manno said. "That will never happen. A computer can't evaluate skills and tools. What makes the system become very valuable is this: It's impossible for a scout to see every player and every out of every inning. The system fills in the gaps.

"Now, you've got a wealth of information. You take that and marry it with your scouting reports and you've bridged the information gap."

Seems logical enough, but that doesn't mean that AVM's approach -- or any similar method of player evaluation -- will soon gain universal acceptance in baseball.

Every major-league club uses computers to store information, but not every team is convinced that there is a great need to augment the traditional hands-on approach to scouting.

"For me, it's a filing cabinet," said Anaheim Angels general manager Bill Bavasi. "It's not like the Cowboys, where [the computer] beta-weighted things like how much a guy could bench press or his 40-yard dash time and then spit out the guy they wanted. We don't do that. There's too much subjective evaluation in baseball. But I can go up to my computer and ask for all the young left-handed pitchers with a certain fastball and it will spit that out. It's just filing and categorizing."

Bavasi probably speaks for most baseball executives, who use computers to archive information more efficiently and communicate more effectively.

"We pull up reports," said Detroit Tigers GM Randy Smith, "and the computer can give us all the plus [pitchers] of a certain height, but it's basically a sorting system. So many of our guys aren't fully developed. We're dealing with guys who haven't physically matured yet, so it's hard to set any standard."

Former Orioles general manager Roland Hemond, who now acts as special assistant to Arizona Diamondbacks owner Jerry Colangelo, views computer technology the same way.

"All of our scouts use laptops and everyone in our scouting department is computer literate," he said. "I always wanted to be able to see all the reports over all the years. Now, you can pull that up. You used to dream about it. Now it's being fulfilled."

An edge on the competition

The Orioles and the other clubs that subscribe to AVM are taking it farther, hoping to derive an advantage over the competition in an industry where a small edge can make a huge difference. If it becomes apparent that the more advanced forms of player evaluation are producing improved results on the field, it won't be long before everyone is addicted to it.

Wren, meanwhile, wants to make it clear that his interest in the enhanced exploitation of computer technology is not intended to eliminate -- or even reduce -- the traditional role of the baseball scout.

"I read something recently that made it sound like we're trying to figure it all out with computers," Wren said, "but it's just a way of making [scouting] more efficient."

Incidentally, Wren and Manno are not the first Orioles front-office employees to try to usher the team to the forefront of computer technology. Former manager Davey Johnson tried during his playing days to convince manager Earl Weaver of the value of computerized analysis, and former Orioles statistician Eddie Epstein created his own statistical models to evaluate players in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Epstein, who may be best known in Baltimore for projecting the breakthrough performance of struggling Boston Red Sox prospect Brady Anderson, was a proponent of what might be called macro-analysis, which seeks to project results based on general statistical trends. The AVM system depends on micro-analysis, which involves far more specialized evaluation of individual events.

In some cases, Epstein says, it might be too specialized.

"You can only slice the data so far and then it ceases to be meaningful," said Epstein, who now is director of baseball operations for the San Diego Padres. "I worry that people are slicing the data too far.

"Don't get me wrong. I'm in favor of having as much information as you can possibly have, but if the guy has a track record that shows he has been a great run producer for five years and he's still young and healthy, why go into the micro-details? How much analysis do you need?"

Pub Date: 2/16/99

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