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NL Central teams and the use of analytics

Compared to other divisions, the NL Central is strong in its teams' use of analytics. However, some NL Central teams clearly utilize analytics more than others, which could have an impact on the success of these teams in 2015 and beyond.

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John Mozeliak may not understand fashion, but he sure knows how to use analytics in the front office.
John Mozeliak may not understand fashion, but he sure knows how to use analytics in the front office.
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

In case you're wondering, I am writing this a few days ahead of time, and I know that the Cardinals will have played two games by the time this is published. While Spring Training has begun and I am currently home on spring break, I can't help but look out the window and notice the snow still falling here in the St. Louis area. With this depressing, winter-like weather seemingly ruining my spring break, I'm not in much of a mood to write about something as pleasant as Spring Training. (Watching the depressing ending to House of Cards Season 3 earlier today probably didn't help things.) Instead, I thought I'd write about something near and dear to the hearts of many VEB readers: the use of analytics in Major League Baseball.

A couple weeks ago, Ben Baumer of ESPN published his Great Analytics Rankings, where he looked at every team in the four major U.S. sports and discussed how well their organization incorporated the use of analytics, or Sabermetrics, in the context of baseball. (The rankings are an excellent read; I will be referencing them, but I will not quote extended passages, so here's the link.) Baumer categorized every team into one of five different categories: all-in, believers, one foot in, skeptics, and nonbelievers.  Given the fact that many teams didn't even consider using an advanced, statistical-based approach just over a decade ago (pre-Moneyball), it is astounding that over half the teams are categorized as "all-in" or "believers" and just two teams (Phillies and Marlins) are categorized as "nonbelievers." With the increasing importance of analytics in baseball, I thought it would be interesting to look at the teams in the NL Central to see where the Cardinals stand in comparison to their competitors with regard to their use of analytics.

As a division, the NL Central as a whole ranks pretty high in its teams' use of analytics. The Cardinals, Cubs, and Pirates were each categorized as "all-in" while the Brewers ("one foot in") and the Reds ("skeptics") were rated less favorably. Besides the AL East (all five teams rated as "all-in" or "believers"), no other division was as strong in its teams' use of analytics. If the use of analytics does indeed give teams a competitive advantage (as many believe), it appears that the NL Central could be a strong division for years to come.

Chicago Cubs

The Cubs decision to bring in Theo Epstein as President of Baseball Operations in 2011 signaled the team's desire to become more involved in analytics. Like in Boston, Epstein completely reshaped the team's front office, most notably by bringing in expert statisticians like Tom Tango. This past offseason, the Cubs also hired Joe Maddon, who is almost universally regarded as baseball's most forward thinking manager.

The team is clearly headed in the right direction, as they have the #1 ranked farm system and are expecting to see many of these top prospects contribute in a meaningful way this year. Given some of the bad decisions made by the previous regime (most notably the Alfonso Soriano, Milton Bradley, and Carlos Zambrano contracts), Epstein knew that it would be difficult to turn the Cubs around overnight. Instead of wasting money to bring the Cubs a few games closer to .500, the front office swallowed a few years of losing in order to save money and stock up on prospects for when the time was right. As evidenced by the team's signing of Jon Lester this past offseason, the Cubs finally appear to be ready to compete once again.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Neal Huntington took over as Pirates GM in 2007 and promised immediate changes in the way the team evaluated talent. Unfortunately, the Pirates had endured 15 straight losing seasons at that point, including a last-place finish in 2007, and they didn't have the payroll capacity to spend their way back to winning. While it took a few years, the Pirates have finally gotten back to being a winning team, combining smart signings (Francisco Liriano, Russell Martin) and strong player development (Andrew McCutchen, Gerrit Cole). The Pirates have also been successful in getting Clint Hurdle to change his tactics through the use of analytics. In particular they've increased the communication between the front office and coaching staff, ensuring that on-field tactics like defensive shifts get implemented. The Pirates have finally built a solid, young core of talent, and with the 7th ranked farm system, according to Keith Law, they have a good chance of remaining competitive for years to come.

St. Louis Cardinals

While many non-Cardinals fans would be surprised to hear it, the Cardinals were one of the earliest teams to embrace analytics. The Cardinals seemingly quiet and perhaps boring (according to Bob Nightengale) run of success extends to their use of analytics, as they aren't openly publicizing their use of analytics in ways that teams like the A's, Rays, or Astros have done. The team's shift towards analytics began when they hired Jeff Luhnow (among other consultants) in 2003, and Luhnow's growing influence in the front office led to some organizational conflict, resulting in the firing of Walt Jocketty in 2007.  As Bernie Miklasz pointed out recently, owner Bill DeWitt has been a driving force behind the team's innovation and use of analytics, and his understanding of the game of baseball makes him more open-minded than most other owners.

The team has done an especially good job incorporating analytics into drafting and player development, and in the last couple of years, they've increased their focus on defensive analytics. They dramatically increased their number of defensive shifts in 2014, and they recently acquired defensive stalwarts like Peter Bourjos and Jason Heyward. From a traditional stats perspective, neither of these trades would have made much sense, but through the use of defensive analytics, the Cardinals clearly recognize the incredible defensive value these players bring to the team. They also appear to have a solid understanding of Fielding Independent Pitching, as they sold high on Joe Kelly (whose ERA was more than a full run lower than his FIP in 2013) and bought low on bounce-back candidates Matt Belisle and Carlos Villanueva (whose ERAs were more than a run higher than their FIPs in 2014).

Unlike the Pirates and Cubs, the Cardinals didn't have to go through an extensive rebuilding period when their analytically minded front-office took over. The Cardinals managed to piece together competitive teams in 2008-2010 before hitting their current stride of four straight NLCS appearances. (Having Albert Pujols in the prime of his career certainly helped the transition.) The Cardinals are beginning to approach a bit of a crossroads, though, as they have an aging core and a minor league system with few answers that are close to major league ready. The team has also lost a lot of talent in the front office, as Luhnow and Sig Mejdal went to Houston and Dan Kantrovitz was recently hired by Oakland. Given the rise of the Pirates and Cubs, the Cardinals' could be challenged more than ever in the coming years.

Milwaukee Brewers

As Baumer points out in his article, there is some evidence of the Brewers' recent use of analytics, including their increase in defensive shifts and the pitch framing success of catcher Jonathan Lucroy. In general, though, Baumer calls their approach "less sophisticated than that of the top sabermetric teams." Overall, the Brewers have been somewhat successful with an old-school scouting based approach, and GM Doug Melvin has also had some recent trade success. Given the fact that the Brewers play in the smallest market in baseball, their ability to be somewhat competitive in recent years is admirable. Still, this is the same team that gave Yuniesky Betancourt 409 plate appearances in 2013, despite the fact that he hadn't been above replacement level since 2010 (mostly due to his atrocious defense).

The Brewers are only projected to win 79 games in 2015, according to Fangraphs, putting them at 4th in the division. In addition, their farm system was recently ranked 28th by Keith Law. The Brewers aren't in the worst situation in baseball, but they will need to outsmart other teams to have a run of success in the near future. Given the fact that they appear to be going along with the industry with their use of analytics, instead of being on the cutting edge, it is hard to see them overcoming teams like the Cardinals, Cubs, and Pirates in future years.

Cincinnati Reds

I recently wrote about the Reds a couple weeks ago, and I was not very optimistic about their long-term future. In terms of their use of analytics, the Reds appear to be behind a lot of other teams, and this is not a surprise, given that Walt Jocketty, who the Cardinals fired for his attitude towards analytics, is the team's GM. While Jocketty has changed a little bit since leaving the Cardinals, especially in his reliance on homegrown players, he has made some questionable decisions as well. For example, the most recent contracts to Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips call into question Jocketty's understanding of the aging curve. In addition, an argument can be made that Jocketty has not been any more successful with drafting and developing players with the Reds than he was with the Cardinals. Most of the Reds top homegrown players, including Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Todd Frazier, Devin Mesoraco, Homer Bailey, and Johnny Cueto, were drafted and/or signed before Jocketty took over as GM. In describing the Reds, Baumer called Jocketty's vision of an ideal front office "fundamentally different" than that of teams like the Cardinals, Cubs, or Pirates, and it is hard to deny the truth in this statement. It remains to be seen whether the Reds can catch up to these teams in their use of analytics and remain competitive in the NL Central in the coming years.

Overall, the NL Central figures to be a strong division in 2015, as all five teams could have a realistic chance of competing for a playoff spot. With that being said, these teams are headed in very different directions, and I think that use of analytics could be a potential factor. When looking at the 2015 season, I thought it was interesting that there was a correlation between projected standings in the NL Central (courtesy of Fangraphs) and each team's use of analytics. In the standings, the Cardinals, Pirates, and Cubs were projected as the top three teams, followed by the Brewers, and then the Reds.  This correlation also shows up in minor league system rankings, as the Cardinals, Pirates, and Cubs have systems ranked higher than those of the Reds and Brewers.

While I don't want to assume that more use of analytics is automatically better, this may very well be the case with regard to teams in the NL Central, assuming you trust Baumer's characterizations of each team. It would be difficult to argue that the Reds and Brewers are in a better position than the Cardinals, Pirates, and Cubs for 2015 and beyond, and the use of analytics (or lack thereof) could be an important factor. Obviously, it isn't the only factor, as the Reds and Brewers play in the division's two smallest markets and may not have the same opportunities as other teams. With that being said, small market teams like the A's and Rays have had sustained runs of success despite the odds, and it appears that use of analytics was a driving factor in the success of both teams. With the increased competitive balance in Major League Baseball, every team as a fighting (though not equal) chance of being successful, and staying ahead of competitors through the use of analytics may very well be one of the best things any team can do to have a high level of success over an extended period of time.