It might not seem like a huge story on its own. New Rangers manager Jeff Banister said his club will have no set lineup, and may change day to day. This, he says, depends on the opposing pitchers and specific things they see in the matchups.
Jeff Wilson of the Dallas-Fort Worth Star-Telegram points out that within the span of a few days, Shin-Soo Choo batted 2nd and 6th, and Elvis Andrus was back and forth between 2nd and 7th. Players moved all over. It's not that players have never switched around before, especially given righty and lefty starters on back-to-back days. Banister, though, is adhering to a different process. "You want to be able to have a stretched lineup," Banister said. "You want to be able to construct your innings such that they give up a better opportunity to score runs."
Maybe this doesn't strike you as extraordinary. But I believe it is. It's a tipping point in breaking down one of the last barriers to the sabermetric revolution: the gatekeeping manager.
Two years ago, I was invited to speak at the SABR Analytics Conference. It's a hoot to some of the guys at MLB Network, who envisioned a WOBA whirlpool on the deck of the S.S. SABR cruise ship. They are correct in that it's not quite a raucous spring break scene. A degree in math or economics isn't required, but it will help you to stay in a conversation at the cocktail reception.
I remember being quite impressed with the ideas of one baseball operations staffer from a team in the National League. He laid out what he and the front office were thinking, and how they thought they could utilize their roster in a way they could win. I thought about it for a moment, and then said, "But you guys aren't doing any of that."
He told me, "Yeah, I know."
"Don't they listen to you?" I asked.
He said, "That's not how it works."
Just two years ago, the best ideas, the most innovative concepts, were not getting to the field. Front offices were packed with smart, young people thinking of the game in a very different way. The way of the post-sabermetric Information Age. Ideas and innovation, though, were hitting a wall all over the league. That wall, for the most part, was the manager.
The old ideas were quite firm -- players have to know their roles. Certain players can hit cleanup, but not in the two spot. The order changed the pitches you would see. Some can pitch the eighth inning, but definitely not the ninth. Leadoff man on? Don't think … bunt! The game was filled with dogma -- never proven, but clung to doggedly.
Banister, coming over from Clint Hurdle's staff in Pittsburgh, was part of a transformational effort in baseball: a total integration of coaching and analytics. The Pirates became a playoff team each of the past two years by maximizing every asset, getting their ideas onto the field, and weaponizing their information.
They not only went all-in on defensive shifts, they had their pitchers throw more two-seam fastballs to get more groundballs and maximize the effect of the shift. They bought low on pitchers who had been failing -- most notably A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano -- studied them, and attacked their issues.
It wasn't any one particular thing with Pittsburgh, it was the Bucs' approach -- to everything. The Pirates have an analytics staffer traveling with the team now. They are continually thinking of new ways to get better, like emulating the NBA's Golden State Warriors and getting more rest for players.
Banister, like Hurdle, seems like an old-school baseball man who saw the light. He came to the Rangers and let loose with this to the Dallas Morning News: "We hang onto tradition. But is it tradition, or is it truth? You've got to seek the truth. If the numbers say the same thing year after year, there's gotta be some truth to it, right?"
I don't want to name the names of the old-school gatekeepers. If you follow the sport, you know who they are. They were trained in a very different time. Only a few years ago, these old salts resisted the wave of open-minded thought, and Joe Maddon was safely tucked away with the low-payroll Rays, where he could only do so much damage. Maddon was the modern prototype of a manager, an extension of an exceptional front office that won 90 games five times in six years. Had he stayed with Andrew Friedman in Tampa Bay, he would still be marginalized. This is not likely with the rising Cubs.
Maddon to Chicago. Hurdle with a model franchise. Banister exporting the new approach to Texas. The shift-happy Astros with analytically-inclined A.J. Hinch. The Orioles over-performing with Buck Showalter every year. The old walls are breaking down, and the best ideas are flowing freely.
More than a decade after "Moneyball," and a full 30 years since "The Hidden Game of Baseball," the fully integrated approach of analytics and coaching has arrived. The teams with everyone on board will benefit from the new competitive advantage.