A lot has been made about how baseball has turned into a data nerd’s dream; where only advanced analytics and trend lines dominate the front office communication with the managers and coaches on the field.
The entire league has access to the same data, but why are the Dodgers the only ones really succeeding? It might be because of the intangibles that go beyond the spreadsheets.
Case in point would be yesterday’s game versus the Colorado Rockies where veteran pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu has been struggling lately after dominating for most of the season. The blame was falling squarely onto the shoulders of the Dodgers rookie catcher, Will Smith.
In analytics, data nerds try to find the patterns within the numbers that can help predict the outcome of similar situations. The key is the sample size and to really understand the variables that have an impact on the desired outcome, but when problems arise and people want to know why, some data nerds might jump to conclusions to get their hot takes in.
JP Hoornstra of the OC Register took a deeper dive into the numbers and showed this after Will Smith’s second outing catching for Ryu:
Hyun-Jin Ryu hit a home run and kept the baseball. His first quality start in more than a month with Will Smith behind the plate was the more significant development Sunday: https://t.co/QuHVKCRKPL
— J.P. Hoornstra (@jphoornstra) September 23, 2019
Ryu failed to complete six innings in each of his next four starts. He allowed 21 runs across 19 innings. His earned-run average rose by a full run, from 1.45 to 2.45. Two of those starts came at home, two came on the road, and each came against a different opponent. The one common denominator? Smith was the catcher.
The Dodgers skipped Ryu’s next start, giving him nine days’ rest before a Sept. 14 outing against the New York Mets. Russell Martin, the Dodgers’ veteran backup, started behind the plate. Ryu threw seven shutout innings in a no-decision.
Again. Sample size is key and understanding all the variables need to be understood before jumping all over Smith.
After the win against the Rockies, where Ryu smashed a game-tying home run for his first homer of his major league career, he was asked about his relationship with Smith. For a lot of major leaguers, it would’ve been easy to throw fresh meat onto the media grill and let Smith roast there for a while.
The numbers were there to justify it, but this is what Ryu responded to questions with:
“Coincidentally when he started catching, I started struggling, so I’m actually kind of sorry to him because I’m well aware of the talk.”
Ryu showed the kind of class and Dodgers culture that has cultivated the young talents of Ryu himself, Cody Bellinger, Corey Seager, Alex Verdugo, Walker Buehler and more on their way. Coincidence is not the same as causation and Ryu took the responsibility of his struggles back onto his shoulders.
“Let the kids play” is a mantra you hear from all the veterans from David Freese to Clayton Kershaw and the talks they have with the rookies on the field, in the locker room and on the road, playing fantasy football, are the kind of data metrics the data nerds just haven’t figured out yet.
If you think of the bricks as the data points, the trust, rapport and chemistry between the young and older players is really the mortar that has produced seven straight division championship teams.