Brewers Hope Analytics Carries Them Through Baseball Playoffs

Oct 4, 2018

The Milwaukee Brewers are in the playoffs. The team last made it to the Major League Baseball playoffs in 2011. One thing that's changed since then is Milwaukee's increased use of analytics, or data analysis.

Analytics, or sometimes called sabermetrics in baseball, has been around for decades. But it came to more prominence in the 2000s. In the 2011 movie "Moneyball," an economist played by Jonah Hill explains one of the concepts: "I believe there is a championship team that we could afford, because everyone else undervalues them. Like an island of misfit toys."

The Brewers now employ people with titles like analytics developer and sports science baseball research analyst. Their boss is Brewers General Manager David Stearns. The Harvard graduate was hired three years ago from the Houston Astros, a team that heavily used analytics while building a powerhouse.

Stearns starts by gathering all the information he can. He says data comes in a variety of formats like numbers or elements from a baseball game like the spin rate of a ball or how fast a ball is hit.

"But it can also come in the form of subjective evaluation. So, what we try to do is glean the predictive elements from all of it and use that to inform all of our decision-making processes," he says.

Stearns says the data analysis affects a lot of what the team does, including where they position their infielders. On top of traditional scouting, the Brewers have also used analytics to acquire some lesser-known players from other teams or pick up higher-profile players, who the data say, still have it.

Brewers General Manager David Stearns (grey pullover, at right center) stands near home plate before a recent game at Miller Park.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

Take for example, Lorenzo Cain. Racine-based baseball writer Max Neibaur says data analysis of Cain's ability to get on base is one reason Stearns signed the outfielder to a big free agent contract this year. "Because [Stearns] understood that, even though Lorenzo Cain might not be going out there and hitting 30 homers and driving in 100 guys, there's a lot of underlying value, " Neibaur said.

Neibaur, who writes for the publication Call to The Pen, says baseball now focuses less on batting average and instead on OPS — on-base plus slugging-percentage, a longtime measurement that gives more weight to extra-base hits.

Some Brewers fans don't like the focus on analytics. They say it takes some of the human element or chance out of the game and that shifting defenders for one batter or numerous pitching changes delays the action.

But, some fans do support the data science. Kurt Paetzke says General Manager Stearns saved money for most of the year by adding to the Brewers bullpen and not signing expensive starting pitching.

"They weren't worried about getting aces from other teams where you're paying them millions and millions of dollars. He's going by the metrics of 'hey, this guy is good against left-handers, good against right-handers,'" Paetzke said.

Sandy Kroner thinks sabermetrics adds an intellectual component to the sport. "It's more of a head game than it always is a physical game, sometimes. And, I think that is why a lot of women really like baseball. 'Cause you get a physical match and a head game, too," Kroner said. 

Brewers Prinicipal Owner Mark Attanasio answers questions from the news media
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

The fact that the people who pay the Brewers' salaries like sabermetrics probably means it's here to stay, at least for now. Brewers principal owner Mark Attanasio says Stearns' analytical skills were one reason he was hired. But Attanasio says old-fashioned or coaching is still very important.

"You can get the players that have that aptitude or ceiling. But you have to be able to then develop them, and I think our guys, if anything, are as hard on themselves and 'What could we have done better with fill-in-the-blank player," Attanasio said. 

All MLB teams also use sabermetrics. Brewers fans are about to see how far their coaches — and data analysts — take a team that has never won a World Series.

Support is provided by Dr. Lawrence and Mrs. Hannah Goodman for Innovation reporting.

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