No Virginia; Data and Stats Aren’t “Ruining” the Game
One of the most popular complaints heard these days about both fastpitch softball and baseball these days is that all the attention being paid to data and statistical information is “ruining” the game. Old-timers (or Traditionalists as we’ll call them since they’re not always old and older coaches are often the first to adopt new breakthroughs) in particular long for the days when decisions were made based on experience and gut instinct alone.
Well, the problem with that is a whole lot fewer people actually have great gut instincts than think they do.
And to be honest, experience is really just data/statistics stored in a different way.
The reality is data and statistics can be extremely helpful in developing players as well as making in-game decisions. Let’s look at a few cases where understanding the data and statistics can be a difference-maker.
Setting up batting orders
Traditionalists believe they know who the good hitters are. And barring something crazy they will tend to build their lineups based on those beliefs, even when that approach clearly isn’t working.
Those who use data and statistics on a regular basis will take a look at who is actually hitting well in games – especially who has a hot hand right now – and try to give those players more at bats. It might not always work out, e.g., a hitter who does well in the relatively low pressure 6 spot might struggle more at 2 or 3.
But if certain players are out-hitting others, even if they don’t look like they should be, it’s definitely worth finding out if a lineup shakeup might produce a few more runs.
Using pitchers more effectively
While there are still plenty of old-school coaches out there who think they can ride one arm to a championship, in reality that has become much more difficult to do. Better training for hitters, and quite frankly more exposure to quality pitchers, means seeing the same pitcher three or four times is often an advantage for the offense late in the game.
With data and statistics coaches can see not only which starter matches up best with a particular team but which relievers seem to be most effective following those starters.
For example, say you have a fireballing lefty start the game. She does great a couple of times through the lineup, but then the offense seems to have figured her out.
Who do you put in now? Your next best Ace or perhaps more of an offspeed/spin pitcher? With data at your disposal you can see how well opposing teams have hit each so far after pulling the starter.
While there are no guarantees it will work again, you’ll at least have a starting point for making the decision. You might also use the information to assign specific roles to pitchers, such as middle reliever or closer, based on their effectiveness in different parts of the game – just like baseball does.
By seeing who performs well when you can manage your staff to ensure you’re making the most informed decisions you can while also perhaps saving your best arms for when they’re needed most.
Dealing with defensive shifts
This is probably one of the most-hated aspects of data and statistics, and the one that draws the most complaints. Seeing three infielders stacked up on the right side, or an infielder in an outfieldish position because statistically that’s where a particular hitter normally hits, is believed to be an abomination on the game.
Why? Because your hitter can’t do what he/she normally does and get away with it? Too bad.
Any type of unusual shift is going to create a glaring weakness. A smart offense coach (or player) will take advantage of it. A stubborn one will get burned by it.
I remember watching a Major League Baseball game a few years ago where the defense shifted to the right side, leaving the third baseman roughly between second and third. The hitter took some big cuts and eventually grounded out to one of those fielders on the right side.
I couldn’t understand why that hitter didn’t just bunt the ball down the third base line. He could have walked to first.
I get that contracts may be structured for extra base hits and all that, but the core idea of baseball/softball is get on base, then get to the next base until you make it back home. Laying down a bunt where no one can get to it will accomplish that.
It will also make the defense eventually reconsider the wisdom of those special shifts, so problem solved.
Selecting a pinch hitter
Pinch hitting is a tough role. You’re basically sitting and watching the game with little pressure until a critical situation comes up.
Then you’re put in under maximum pressure. It’s not for everyone, and even great hitters can crumble under those circumstances.
With data and statistics, however, you can see who performs well under pressure – including which bench players do the best job of producing quality at-bats when called on. They’re not necessarily the ones with the highest overall batting average, but they are the ones who are best prepared for the specific circumstances you’re facing.
Having that information at your disposal can help guide you to a better decision. One that is based in fact rather than emotion.
Data and statistics aren’t just valuable for in-game decision-making. They can also be tremendously helpful when you’re trying to improve players in practice or lessons.
A good example is helping pitchers learn how to spin their pitches. Tools such as Rapsodo or the DK ball can measure spin rates and spin directions to help pitchers learn the techniques that will lead to late break on the ball.
A radar unit, particularly one that is running constantly, can help pitchers see whether they are progressing while also holding them accountable to give maximum effort throughout the session.
The same radar unit can measure bat speed and ball exit velocity to determine if a hitter is progressing. Sensors such as Blast Motion that attach to the bat can provide even more data about bat position, launch angles, etc. that can help hitters hone their craft.
And complete systems such as 4D Motion can really get “under the hood” to show whether the way a player is moving is optimal in order to make deeper corrections that can have a profound effect on success.
These and other measurements use proven science to help players optimize their approach to a variety of skills that will help them perform better in the field – without all the guesswork and opinions that often hamper training.
Does that mean data and statistics are a panacea that means coaches no longer have to know what they’re doing to succeed? Of course not.
The most important aspect of coaching remains the ability to relate to players and get the best out of them.
But data and statistics are great tools that help coaches see what they need to see they can focus on the areas that will deliver the best return on investment in every player. The coaches who embrace them, and learn what they really mean, will gain a tremendous advantage over those who still just want to rely on gut instinct.
In my opinion it’s definitely worth the time and effort.
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