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Data is dominating within baseball front offices, and the Milwaukee Brewers are on the cutting edge

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Unique evaluation methods drive Milwaukee’s success.

MLB: NLCS-Los Angeles Dodgers at Milwaukee Brewers Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Professional baseball is no longer just a game played on the field, it is series of battles being fought within the front offices of thirty major league baseball teams. The weapons of choice?

Information.

Information that allows teams to effectively evaluate players in terms of current/expected/projected performance, improvement needs, improvement interventions, game-to-game/pitch-to-pitch assessment, opponent game planning, draft analysis, prospect projection, and quite possibly even team/organizational fit. Teams are searching out every competitive advantage by finding new ways to exploit analysis in all of these areas and more.

With this environment in mind, Mark Attanasio made one of the best hiring decisions possible. He hired David Stearns to lead the Brewers front office with the mandate to win more of these battles than are lost. To this point, Steans and company are winning.

Anthony Controvince recently wrote an interesting article about the influence of WAR on major league front offices. In that piece, he quotes David Stearns and other front office executives about the importance of information and evaluation and their impact on the competitive environment of baseball. So instead of batting average, ERA, wins/losses, RBI, and observing, “That’s what they look like,” WAR and other advanced analytics are utilized to a much greater extent. In fact, Mike Petriello tweeted a very simple, yet powerful illustration of how WAR is being utilized and what it demonstrates.

One player’s WAR does not make a case, but I invite you do go to Fangraphs and input any positional player’s name 32 years old or older that was not part of the PED era, click a link for graphs, link age, link to the “advanced” tab and unclick wOBA (might be an interesting exercise to evaluate based on that stat), click WAR and see what you find. There are many players other than Adam Jones that have similar declines (maybe not a perfect bell shaped curve) sometime in their early 30s after a mid to late 20s peak.

Input names like Andrew McCutchen, Hunter Pence, Alex Gordon, and Jonathan Lucroy. You will find that most players, according to WAR, peak around 27 years of age. Performance often remains pretty good (if they were good to start with) into their early 30s. In most cases, the decline starts around 31 or 32. Decent players who decline at this point become league average or worse and are in jeopardy of not being signed. For better players, there might be a resurgent year or two mixed in if they stick around long enough, but by the time positional players are in their late 30s, much less 40s, they fade. There are exceptions to the rule, of course - Nelson Cruz, Edwin Encarnacion, Miguel Cabrera, and Adrian Beltre, to name a handful - but not many. Think about how that informs front offices and their approach to just one area of assessment and evaluation, signing free agent positional players. It is no wonder a reluctance exists on the part of MLB front offices to sign players to long-term contracts.

By the way, pitchers, while more volatile, do not decline in the same way.

As fans, we get emotionally attached to our favorite players. I readily admit, I was crushed Jonathan Lucroy was traded to Texas. Yet that trade was absolutely the right move at the right time. Emotion in front offices may have been more prevalent regarding veteran players in the past. Emotion generally does not enter the equation in modern front offices.

A lot has been referenced concerning front office collusion and free agents not being paid what they are worth. The greater likelihood is that front offices are just getting smarter and are better at creating and evaluating proprietary data, devoid of emotion in the decision making process. As a result, free agents are not getting the contracts they once did. Again I invite you to do the exercise above, and input names of positional players with long term contracts like Albert Pujols, Chris Davis, Jason Heyward (peaked at 25 and went to Hades afterwards), Evan Longoria, and Ryan Braun. None are approaching the value of their contracts. Risk is too great at the end of these types of contracts. That is why David Stearns has always said that their philosophy is to acquire as much young, controllable talent as possible, not older veteran talent or long term contracts.

With Bryce Harper and Manny Machado being just 26 and free agents, it would seem logical that a team would offer a 10-plus year contract at very significant dollars. They are just now entering their prime years. But teams also want to mitigate long term risk that albatross teams like the Angels, Cubs, And Tigers, seemingly even with young players like this. Or at least it seems that way to this point in the off-season. The narrative could change once one or both players sign.

WAR is not the only method of player evaluation used by these very intelligent baseball executives. Going back to the Castrovince article, he quoted David Stearns multiple times. In one quote, Stearns explains how he perceives the importance of proprietary evaluation methods. Stearns said, “I’ve worked for a number of different clubs, and I know first hand that - even those clubs who, maybe, view players very similarly - they value them very differently. It’s market specific. It’s which information clubs emphasize over others. You have to cater how you’re valuing players to your specific situation, and that, by its very self, causes us all to look at players slightly different.”

Thinking back to the examples of the players declining around age 31 or 32 according to WAR, David Stearns went against what that data suggests and signed Lorenzo Cain last year to a five year, $80 million contract as he was going into his age-31 season. Almost everything we see suggests signing Cain to that contract is a risk. Stearns obviously feels differently, but I cannot imagine Mr. Stearns is one to let his gut make decisions for him. His analytics department has obviously identified Cain as being at less risk for a steep decline as he ages. What the evaluation methodology happens to be will be held close to the vest, but there was an algorithm of multifaceted variables likely coupled with scouting data (yes scouting is a form of data collection) that informed that decision. The early returns on that decision are excellent. We will know better in four more years what the final verdict on that signing is.

Phillies GM Matt Klentak stated, “Information is the new arms race in baseball.” Zigging with the Cain acquisition when the market is zagging based on unique data sources mined to maximum effect is a real competitive advantage for Milwaukee. Stearns reinforces this. “That’s our competitive advantage, having and believing we have information or methods or systems that other clubs don’t. We also believe that any advantage we have or other clubs have is fleeting.”

As a Brewers’ fan, it is comforting to know that the front office is led so well. Small market Milwaukee has one of the most cutting-edge organizations in player evaluation, and dare I say, player development. They are on par with the likes of Los Angles, Houston, and Tampa Bay. Decision making in Milwaukee is conducted utilizing cutting edge evaluation informing those decisions. Player development is being enhanced by identifying strengths and improvement areas and addressing them with information and focused coaching. Opponent exploitation is being mastered by opposing player pattern analysis and assessing likely method of attack by said opponent. The front office that connects all the data points best helps their team win more games. Right now, Milwaukee does it as well as anyone.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs