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Q+A: Travis Sawchik on how the Pirates have stayed ahead of the curve

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H.Darr Beiser-USA TODAY

Travis Sawchik's terrific new book, Big Data Baseball, explores strategies that helped the Pirates to a winning season and playoff berth in 2013. The outline of the Bucs' strategy is familiar -- it involves defensive shifts, ground balls, pitch-framing, and pitching inside -- but the details are very fresh, and the book features dozens of illuminating interviews with coaches and players, and with members of the Pirates' front office. On Friday, Travis answered a few questions about why the Pirates' 2013 season went so well. Here's the transcript, lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Maybe this book will be framed as a book about the Pirates' front office, and to some extent it is. But while there are some really smart people in the Pirates' front office, that's not unique. A lot of teams have that. The people who strike me as the real heroes of this story are people like Clint Hurdle, Perry Hill and Nick Leyva. Does that seem right? Is it really the coaches who are willing to listen who are making things happen here?

I think you hit on an important part of the story. As you mentioned, every front office has some really smart people working in analytics. But not every organization gets all the ideas that the analysts want onto the field. One question I wanted to answer and to learn about is why the Pirates were so successful in doing that, and as I researched the book, they were even more successful [than I imagined] in building that sort of collaboration between traditional coaches and new-school analysts, for lack of a better term.

It's interesting the way the book opens. You weren't around for this, but there was a ton of criticism of the Pirates following the 2012 season, not just due to the Hoka Hey stuff, but coming from a more [general] baseball point of view as well. The way your book opens is with the Pirates in a sort of crisis of confidence following the 2012 season, and adopting a lot of strategies following the 2012 season. Did the Pirates really significantly change strategies at that time?

I actually did have a different opening chapter about the 20 years and a lot of things that went on, but going through the editing process, they just wanted to get right into it. So that chapter disappeared. But I do think why they wanted to get into it so quickly is, while the Pirates did start to shift a little more in 2012, and while Hurdle did start to meet with Dan Fox a little more in 2012, there was a clear pivot point that offseason. The front office and the coaches met, Hurdle and [Neal] Huntington specifically, and said, "Look, there's no nine-figure free agent riding in on a white horse here. A lot of our top prospects aren't going to be ready to help in 2013. We need to find some ways to get more productivity out of the parts we do have."

So a lot of these ideas already existed. Fox had been writing about shifts for Baseball Prospectus in 2007 and 2008. He joined the Pirates in 2008. He'd been around awhile. But these ideas still had not been implemented on the field until 2013. So the Pirates heard that outside noise. There was tremendous pressure on them, and it forced them to look for creative solutions. I think sometimes that desperation creates that necessary urgency to self-evaluate, and I think they did a good job of self-evaluating.

It also seems, though, that the shifting strategy was something that had been burbling in the organization for a long time. You write about Kyle Stark and others implementing it in the minor leagues. Did they maybe just need all that time to get players like Jordy Mercer through the minor leagues with some familiarity with shifts, so that it would work when they tried to do it on a large scale with big-league players?

That's a great question, and that's one thing I learned researching this book. This did not start at the major-league level. While the major-league coaching staff was not ready to go all-in on radical defensive alignments in 2010 [or] 2011, Kyle Stark, who was overseeing player development then, was very curious about these ideas Dan Fox had, and they got together and said, "Okay, they're not willing to try this at the major-league level. Let's go all-in at the minor-league level."

In the book, I have that anecdote where Stark takes all the minor-league coaches out in Spring Training, takes them on a back field at Pirate City, has a can of white spray paint, and shows all the minor-league coaches this generic defensive plan for right-handed and left-handed hitters. He's marking white X's on the grass and infield skin, and that's where it started at the minor-league level. They didn't have the individualized batted-ball data that they had for major-league hitters, but they had a generic template for minor-league hitters based on where the majority of major-league hitters hit balls. So they started implementing shifts at the minor-league level, and the minor-league affiliates started to finish, I think, first and second in defensive efficiency in their respective leagues for a couple years. And that got the attention of the major-league staff, the front office [and] Hurdle.

The parallel thing going on was that [Hurdle] was building a relationship with Dan Fox, starting to trust him more, and he was also seeing statistical evidence that it was working at the minor-league level. That helped buy-in. It helped that Perry Hill was on board with this and was cutting up PVC pipe and hammering it into the infield. I'm not even sure that's legal, but they did it. They're hammering this into the field in their minor-league ballparks so only their players could see it. This was cultivated at the minor-league level, out of sight, and it's not something that was implemented first at the major-league level.

And you also mentioned they had players come through. Jordy Mercer, when he arrived, he was conditioned to do this. There was no resistance from him. All the players coming through now, it will be second nature. From pitchers and infielders, there's not going to be resistance at the major-league level that we've seen from teams like the Cardinals, Nationals [and] Phillies.

You write about how a lot what the A's were doing 10 or 15 years ago was based on a statistic you could find on the back of a baseball card. Now, the vanguard of statistical analysis has moved from that kind of a macro level to much more of a micro level, with people like Mike Fitzgerald and Fox [devising strategies] based on pieces of increasingly granular data, and also with analysts being involved with things like play-by-play defensive positioning, plans to attack hitters, and so on. Now that so many things can be quantified, how much space is there for managers and coaches to do things based on feel?

Analytics is always going to be an important part of the game. This isn't going away. But I do think there's still a knowledge base from playing the game. There's still useful things to be gained by playing the game [and] by coaching it. I think the Pirates did a really good job of integrating that, especially with the ground-ball plan. This wasn't just a top-down conversation. The coaches had questions. Fox and Fitzgerald welcomed them, and they embedded themselves in the Spring Training clubhouse. In 2013, they wanted to become more familiar to coaches and players, and coaches started to come up and ask them questions. "Hey, have you ever thought of this? Have you ever looked at this?" They had a different knowledge base, and I think that helped.

Like, the psychology of pitch sequencing -- they wanted to know what happens after you go inside on a batter if you go outside later in an at-bat. What happens to ground-ball rate? And Fox and Fitzgerald said, "Huh, that's interesting." So they went back, looked at that granular data, dug as deep as they could, [and] found there was something to that. There was a psychological effect that pitching batters inside correlated with ground-ball rate. So that influenced the inside-pitching philosophy.

This was a two-way conversation. This wasn't just the front office saying, "You're going to do this, or you're gone." It was, "Hey, we want everyone involved. We want everyone to put their egos aside, respect each other and have a conversation." I think Hurdle deserves a lot of credit for creating that culture, but I think it's also about hiring the right people.

With so much information available to craft a successful game plan, from defensive positioning information, to PITCHf/x information, to even synthesizing the two, how important is it for players to be smart and adaptive?

It doesn't hurt. I think the data is accepted to different degrees from different players. Charlie Morton -- he understands that ballparks, defenders behind him [and] opposing lineups affect his box score even if his stuff might change. So for the last couple years, he's looked at PITCHf/x data to study movement [and] velocity to see how his stuff is from start to start. He feels that's a better barometer of where he is as a pitcher. Mark Melancon was curious -- "Should defensive alignment be different for pitchers like me that rely on a cutter versus all the other two-seam guys on our staff?" And that got the analysts to drill down a little bit deeper with individualized scouting reports for each pitcher/batter situation. So there's definitely value there. I think more and more players are going to see the value of that.

I think certain players don't care and they're still productive. I don't think Andrew McCutchen looks too deeply into any of this, and he's a perennial MVP candidate. The process he goes about to be MVP level, he might not necessarily need to know the analytics behind it. He just knows the right way to play baseball. So perhaps it will help out certain players more than others. But I do think coaches, managers, players [and] front-office people can all benefit from at least certain aspects of this.

Right, and if there is value there, if there is value in having at least some players who are curious and understand what the analytics team is telling them, how do you scout that quality? One thing that's striking about the book is that it's clear that a lot of the players Huntington acquired, including Morton, Melancon and obviously Russell Martin, were mentally well suited for [the Pirates'] strategy. Of course, that's not what any of us were talking about when the Pirates acquired those players. If you're the Pirates, how do you make sure you get the right guys? As I was reading, I wondered whether, for example, the Bucs asked Chris Stewart about [fellow former Yankees catcher] Francisco Cervelli before they acquired him.

The Pirates always talk about makeup with players, whether that's amateur or professional. But maybe part of the makeup that we were missing is, "Hey, we want really smart guys who are going to accept this information we're about to throw at them, and they're going to understand it [and] utilize it." There's a real advantage there. I don't think you could ever go wrong with having a player who's both talented and bright. So maybe that was part of the philosophy in acquiring those guys.

Russell Martin -- they liked his intangibles, in addition to his pitch-framing. That was part of it. I'm not sure how much research they did on, "Okay, is he going to fully embrace all the data we give him on opposing hitters?" But they knew they were getting a really smart guy who understood scouting reports, who understood pitchers, and who was a great framer. Now, Martin didn't know he was a great pitch-framer. He just had a really good skill that he thought was important, but he didn't know he was 20 runs above average or whatnot.

I probably did a really poor job answering your question, but I do think there is a value in having those types of players, and I do think the Pirates do target makeup. If there's an X/Y axis, talent/makeup, I don't know where the proper median is. But ideally, you want to have both.

How important was Martin to the Pirates' success the last two years, and have they done enough to replace him?

In the local baseball writer chapter awards, I voted for him as the MVP over McCutchen last year. Look, your audience knows about the pitch-framing. We know he had a .400 on-base percentage last year. That's really tough to replace in a catcher. And I think we saw his fiery nature, and who knows what kind of value there is there.

And, you know, the sequencing. The analytical community hasn't come up with a great way to sequence pitches, at least that I know of yet. But Martin thought there was huge value there, he thought that was really difficult to measure, and he got pitchers to trust whatever sign he put down. There weren't a lot of shake-offs with him. That's important, because you're trying to stick to a game plan that's created by the catcher, by the pitching coach, by the pitcher, and you don't want to deviate from that too much in a game. He's watching the swings, he's watching the batters' takes.

So I think he brought a lot of value that hasn't been quantified yet [but] that very well might be in the coming years. I suspect he's even more valuable than the Wins Above Replacement numbers that were tagged onto him. So I think he was their most important player, in some ways, over the last two years, and the hardest one to replace.

Was their anybody in the front office or the coaching staff that was reluctant to be interviewed for this book, or that was less than forthcoming? You're kind of giving away a lot of [information] here.

To the Pirates' credit, most folks I wanted to talk to sat down with me at least once and answered most of my questions. They weren't willing to reveal certain things, and particularly things that they are working on today that they think are still competitive advantages. They weren't willing to talk much about the preventative health maintenance plans. They weren't willing to talk about Gerrit Cole's work limit, I think because they believe they had some secret sauces there that they don't want to expose. But they were willing to talk about things that myself and others had identified as useful tactics. I'll always be indebted and thankful to them for being willing to do that.

That said, certain people didn't want to talk. Greg Smith -- I tried to do some more stuff on the draft process leading to Cole, and [on] the Pirates' player-acquisition philosophy back when he was running the draft, and he did not want to talk for the book. I'm not going to hold it against anyone who didn't talk.

But by and large, the Pirates were willing to talk, and I wonder if part of that was, especially people that were here in 2012, you know the temperature that was around the team, the public narrative, and I think a lot of folks in the general public wanted to clean house. So I also wonder if the Pirates wanted some positive P.R., and someone comes along with a book idea that's going to put them in a good light. I don't know if that was part of the thinking, but it couldn't hurt if you're looking to change the narrative in a more permanent way.

To what extent are teams imitating the Pirates? For example, ground balls were a big part of the 2013 strategy, and in both 2013 and 2014 the Pirates led the majors in ground ball percentage. This season, two teams, the Astros and Dodgers, are ahead of the Pirates, and I thought that was interesting, because those are both analytically-oriented teams.

For the Tribune-Review, I wrote an article about the Pirates' defensive plan that sort of led to this book idea at the end of 2013. And I know that article got passed around to a few front offices. So I do think the Pirates had some influence on defensive strategy, because 2014 was a tipping point for shifts in baseball. They went up, I think, more than 100 percent across the game, and I think the Pirates might have been that tipping-point team where everyone looked and [thought], "Hey, they ended a 20-year losing streak doing this."

And then the ground-ball rate -- I think coaches and front offices have always valued ground balls, but did they think they could teach it systematically and universally and prove it? I think the Pirates demonstrated that you could acquire it, [but] you could also enhance those rates. And I think that might have been copycatted a little bit.

We saw the value of pitch-framing go way up. We saw Russell Martin go from two years and $17 million to a five-year, $82 million deal. So I think some of the philosophies have been copycatted, and that's why it's so important to have some really smart people in your front office so you can go find the next big thing.

So what do you think might be next for the Pirates or the next team to get ahead of the curve?

I think it's keeping players on the field and healthy. I think Will Carroll has estimated that $2 billion has been lost to [injured] pitchers the last six or seven years. That's incredible. It was some astronomical number like that. So if you can cut your days on the DL lost down by 10 percent, that's a huge advantage. Ben Lindbergh wrote that piece for Grantland last year about how the Pirates had the fewest days lost to the disabled list. So maybe they're doing something there. They're wearing those Zephyr BioHarnesses around, and players are seeing what their heart rates are like in-game, or seeing how many calories they're using. I know they've tested the Motus Sleeve for pitchers that's supposed to measure forces on the elbow. So maybe it's this combination of wearables and data to keep players healthy and productive. And I think it was pretty public this spring [that] the Pirates were looking at rest patterns of NBA and NHL teams. I suspect that's where the next big thing is.