Imagine that a Twins athletic trainer scientifically proved a link between pitchers who blew out their elbows, and the sunflower seeds they chewed between starts. Would the Twins’ logical next move be to announce the discovery to the world, and warn millions of potential professionals about the danger the kernels posed? Or should they keep quiet about it, ban sunflower seeds from the dugout and secretly instruct their scouts to focus exclusively on gum-chewers instead?
That ethical quandary isn’t as absurd as it sounds. Major league teams are doing advanced research into a variety of factors that may affect their won-loss record, and they’re not doing it for the greater good.
“The more resources teams devote to research, the more they try to make the information theirs and theirs alone,” said Jeff Passan, a baseball writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of “The Arm,” an extensive and thoughtful examination of what he calls “the most valuable commodity in sports.” In the past, Passan said, “teams were all working with the same data set, interpreting it their own way. Even if you spot something, advantages don’t last very long. But when you have your own data, do your own studies, you might develop an advantage that lasts for years before anyone catches up. That’s the hope, anyway.”
One recurring theme of Passan’s excellent book: As critical as the health of pitchers’ arms can be, an understanding of how to utilize and protect those assets is astonishingly scarce. As Passan wrote: “Today every team treats players in whom they’ve invested tens of millions of dollars — and on whom they’ll spend hundreds of millions more — with all the solicitude of a goldfish getting a sprinkle of its daily flakes.”
Now teams are devoting great sums to correct that. And as the Twins search for their new czar of baseball, an executive who will determine what the team’s priorities will be, it’s worth examining the lengths to which teams are going to find a competitive advantage.
Several teams have emphasized statistical analysis, with the Cubs, Astros, Indians and Angels prominent among them. But perhaps no team has devoted itself to brain power like the Dodgers, a team that employs six executives who have run their own teams previously. The Dodgers have also created a research and development department that includes mathematicians, computer engineers and, perhaps most intriguing, a team of biomechanics experts.
They set up an experiment this summer with about a dozen pitchers who were on the verge of being out of the game, and put them through 10 weeks of proprietary training with Driveline, a Kent, Wash.-based facility that devises training programs to maximize velocity and sharpen mechanics. “They were helping them try to rescue their careers, but were also gathering data on what works and what doesn’t,” Passan said. “They were guinea pigs, but a lot of them saw significant velocity gains.”
Research is also ongoing over what usage patterns best protect elbow ligaments and shoulder muscles, into whether there is an alternative to Tommy John surgery, into how sleep affects performance, and the vision required for optimum pitch recognition. And probably some areas that remain top secret.
“It’s a matter of intellectual curiosity, a willingness to look in creative places,” Passan said. “You want to establish an overarching theme in your organization that you don’t know anything, and the less you know, the more you will go looking for.”
It’s a mission Passan believes the last-place Twins are ripe for.
“If they allow a modern baseball ops department to flourish, the Twins have enormous potential,” Passan said. “The perception [exists that] anything they do in analytics is going to be better than what they’ve done. They are behind. But it’s exciting, I’d think: They have the opportunity to take a substantive leap forward in a short amount of time.”
Like the Twins with Max Kepler, each AL Central team feels it has uncovered a potential cornerstone roster piece in 2016. A look at the newcomers who established themselves this year:
• • •
Tyler Naquin forced his way onto the roster by being Cleveland’s best hitter in spring training, and the 2012 first-rounder hasn’t stopped hitting. His .915 OPS is best on the team, and while he’s faced few lefthanders, his .276 average shows he might not be a platoon hitter for long. And he’s proven he can handle center field.
• • •
His walks have declined and his strikeouts have skyrocketed, giving Danny Duffy, already a serviceable member of Kansas City’s rotation, the look of an emerging ace. The 27-year-old lefty opened the season in the bullpen but has thrived since returning to the rotation, with nine quality starts in his past 11 outings.
• • •
The last major trade that Red Sox boss Dave Dombrowski made with Detroit last year might haunt him, since Michael Fulmer, acquired from the Mets for Yoenis Cespedes, figures to dominate AL hitters for years to come. The 23-year-old rookie has stabilized the Tigers rotation, posting a 2.51 ERA in 20 starts since May 21 and holding hitters to a .201 average.
• • •
The departure of Alexei Ramirez left the White Sox with uncertainty at shortstop for the first time in nearly a decade. Tim Anderson may have ended that worry for another decade. The 23-year-old 2013 first-rounder is batting .280 and is a base-stealing threat, and Chicago manager Robin Ventura this week praised his “remarkable” progress in the field.
Twins owner Jim Pohlad has publicly committed to Paul Molitor as the manager in 2017, despite the team’s 102-loss pace this season. But managers surviving 100-loss seasons isn’t as unusual as it seems; of 22 teams to lose 100 games since 2000, half started the following season with the same manager:
2013 Astros: 51-111. Following season: Bo Porter was fired after 59-79 start.
2013 Marlins: 62-100. Following season: Mike Redmond finished 77-85.
2012 Cubs: 61-101: Following season: Dave Sveum finished 66-96.
2011 Astros: 56-106. Following season: Brad Mills was fired after 39-82 start.
2009 Nationals: 59-103. Following season: Jim Riggleman finished season 33-42; came back in 2010 (69-93).
2008 Nationals: 59-102. Following season: Manny Acta was fired after 26-61 start.
2006 Rays: 61-101. Following season: Joe Maddon finished 66-96.
2006 Royals: 62-100. Following season: Buddy Bell finished 69-93.
2004 Royals: 58-104. Following season: Tony Pena was fired after 8-25 start.
2003 Tigers: 43-119. Following season: Alan Trammell finished 72-90.
2001 Pirates: 62-100. Following season: Lloyd McClendon finished 72-89.