CINCINNATI — David Bell made it clear when he was hired as Reds manager that he would embrace analytics and use that data to help his players perform at the highest possible level on a daily basis. He promised to be more of a new-age skipper, and Reds players say that approach already is paying dividends.
“It’s like a switch has flipped,” said Reds catcher Tucker Barnhart. “All this information is now available where it hadn’t been over the past couple years. That’s not a knock on anyone. It’s just the reality of it.”
Bell has surrounded himself with a coaching staff who have bought into a data-driven approach. James Brand was hired as the club’s Major League Analyst, a new position that requires him to be on the road with the team and compile data to assist with advance scouting of opponents and to help players improve performance.
This represents a cultural shift in the Reds organization.
Not that the club completely ignored metrics under Dusty Baker or Bryan Price, but the players have seen more focus on using them as a tool since Bell was hired.
“There’s so much quality information available to help with game-planning and with players making adjustments faster,” Bell said. “You want the players to use their instincts; that comes with knowing you’ve done everything you can to prepare.”
Brand majored in mathematics and statistics at Purdue University with a masters in business analytics at the University of Cincinnati. His job is to respond to major-league coach and player data and analysis requests. Brand already has made an impact.
“He already is a big part of our staff and what we are doing,” Bell said. “He certainly has a different background than I do, to get those different perspectives. He’s going to get more and more involved. He has fit in very well with the group and already has provided useful information.”
The key, Reds players say, is to not get overwhelmed with the information that now is available to them. It’s important to find metrics that they believe in, data that zeroes in on individual areas where they can improve.
For outfielder Jesse Winker, it’s simply how hard he’s making contact based on the type of pitch, location, etc.
This information can be ascertained by looking at all Batted Ball Events (resulting in outs, hits or errors) using Exit Velocity, which measures the speed of the baseball coming off the bat immediately after contact, or Barrels, which is a batted ball with the ideal combination of Exit Velocity and Launch Angle. A Barrel is said to have a minimum expected batting average of .500 and expected slugging percentage of 1.500.
“I pay attention to how hard I’m hitting the ball, and I pay attention to certain things about pitchers, that I’d rather not go into,” Winker said. “I trust my eyes. I trust how I’m feeling that day. I like to combine those things and go off that. It’s a lot of percentages and numbers. That’s where baseball is now. I think that’s a good place for baseball to be. It’s putting yourself in the best position to be successful. Whatever you want, whatever you need, they’ve got. That’s the cool thing.”
These metrics are not new to baseball, but the Reds now have the process and personnel in place to help compile, dissect and distribute this information to players and coaches in a timely and more efficient manner.
“When you get to the big leagues, you get flooded with information,” said Winker. “It’s just a matter of picking out what you want. Coming into this season, it’s like, ‘Holy cow, there’s even more information!’ The more data you can have the better.”
Winker said the information is critical when the Reds are playing an interleague series or facing a pitcher who they have a limited history against. For Barnhart, it’s two-fold. He needs to prepare himself as a batter while also helping prepare a game-plan with that day’s starting pitcher.
“I have a binder full of information just for this (Pittsburgh) series,” Barnhart said on Opening Day. “As a hitter, I use it more for what a pitcher is trying to do to me. Knowing what pitches are thrown in what locations and where my highest exit velocity is when I am hitting. It helps me look for the right pitches in the right locations. You can get lost in too much data, in my opinion. So there’s a fine line between too much and not enough. I want to get all the information and then I’ll filter it myself.
Bell has found a creative way to use this data for defensive positioning, as well. Rather than rely solely on hand signals from the dugout, the coaches give the outfielders cards or “cheat sheets” that they keep in their pockets to help properly position themselves based on where batters typically hit the ball according to their Spray Charts. That data often is compiled by Jeff Pickler, the club’s new game-planning and outfield coach, with the help of Brand.
“For years and years, it has been the coaches telling an outfielder where to play,” Bell said. “In the end, we want our guys to use their instincts, but when you have that information, it’s the players making those adjustments. As part of that decision-making process, we give them that information.
Bell wants his players to continue to use their baseball instincts on the field. Once the first pitch is thrown, athletic ability and experience takes over. Where the data comes into play is in game preparation. The better a player is prepared for that day's game, Bell said, the quicker a player can make adjustments and adapt to in-game situations.
The Reds aren’t breaking any new ground under Bell, but they are finding better ways to utilize the information that is available to them and perhaps find an edge that could be the difference between winning and losing.
“David does a really good job of playing both sides,” Barnhart said. “He was an old-school player the way he played the game, but obviously he’s not naïve to the data. It can win and lose you games. You’d be naïve not to use it.”