It is a copycat league.
So why is nobody copying the Braves?
Why does mimicry in the majors only come with the newest gadget, metric or job description?
Now, if you think I am about to join all the old men on the lawn to scream about analytics, well, you are wrong. Your organization better be on the cutting edge if you don’t want to fall behind or stay behind the competition.
But at its essence the Moneyball philosophy was always about unearthing undervalued assets, which stereotypically was on-base percentage when Billy Beane became a baseball rock star two decades ago. Today, I think the undervalued assets — the place where you can gain differentiation and an edge — are what generally would fall under an “old-school” umbrella. Such as:
- Playing baseball well, which has greater resonance when it feels like so many decisions diminish or ignore context and favor throw it, spin it or hit it harder.
- Playing your best players as often as possible because — among other items — Wins Above Replacement should honor more the ability of a prime player to keep a less prime player from seeing the field much.
Basically if 25-plus of the 30 teams are reading from the same analytic blueprint in what to value, then how much of an advantage will any gain — especially since teams are constantly poaching who they believe are the best and the brightest from what they perceive to be the most enlightened organizations?
“I’ll say this is probably not politically correct, but I think there’s a lot of groupthink in this game and they probably see us as an outlier,” Atlanta bench coach Walt Weiss said.
The outliers, though, entered Sunday with the largest division lead (11 ¹/₂ games) as they are all but assured of winning a sixth straight NL East title and attempt to win their second championship in three years. They are in the midst of a seven-game span in which they had blitzed the Mets at Citi Field before hosting the Yankees for three games. Are the New York teams taking notes where the Braves zag?
It is not just that the Braves have a coaching staff deep in major league playing and coaching experience and, in Weiss and third-base coach Ron Washington, former managers. For the Mets’ staff has a somewhat similar composition. But it is about general manager Alex Anthopoulos having a policy that the coaches must be fully on board with what is being off-loaded to them daily and then being the ones who deliver what they see as valuable.
This is about emphasis. When there is a coin flip, does the tie always go to the analytics department on acquisitions, game strategy and hirings?
“I don’t know that there is a secret sauce, but I think one of the factors is that we have all the information that other teams have,” Weiss said. “We do a good job with that. But we blend that with the wisdom that comes from being in the dugout many years. So it’s the information and the ability for veteran people to put context to that information. The information is just about probabilities. You have to blend that with what the scoreboard (inning, score, who’s in the game, etc.) is telling you.”
The Braves also are not slavish to load management. Right fielder Ronald Acuna Jr., second baseman Ozzie Albies, third baseman Austin Riley and first baseman Matt Olson started in those positions Sunday night against the Mets for the 117th time in 117 games — and hit, as they often do, one-through-four in the lineup. Manager Brian Snitker isn’t looking for days to get his best players off their feet.
Again, to be fair, when it comes to, say, Francisco Lindor and Anthony Volpe, Buck Showalter and Aaron Boone, respectively, are sticking with prime players — which is easier to do if, like Snitker, you have prime-aged stars at your disposal. But it also reflects a team ethos about getting and staying on the field.
“Playing every day is built into the culture here, handed down from Chipper Jones to Freddie Freeman to now these guys,” Weiss said. “It is the expectation. It is the group mindset.”
Billy Eppler has a scouting background and insists the Mets also are a blend. But when he is talking the talk, the Mets GM’s language is accentuating probabilities and optimization. Again, what wins when there is a tie? Who is reading the metrics? Who is putting them together? Someone has to be the worst at analytics and sports science, etc. There is not a 30-team tie for first regardless of the groupthink.
Brian Cashman has seemed to be trying to regain a foothold here with Omar Minaya and Brian Sabean added to the front office, Sean Casey replacing a theorist as hitting coach and Andy Pettitte around the club more often. Still, what has become entrenched is numbers win.
Again, you better be at the vanguard of modernity in those numbers, biomechanics, etc. But every day a baseball game, not a debate, breaks out. So you better be good at understanding what works best on the field in real time as well.