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On the Rays, baseball’s data revolution, and the daily use of analytics in the modern game

How much data is too much in today’s game?

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at New York Mets Gregory J. Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Big data has taken over Major League Baseball. The use of analytics has revolutionized the game as we know it, from defensive shifts to swing path changes to how teams acquire and develop players. Nearly every aspect of the game has been altered by the proliferation of statistical analysis throughout all 30 MLB clubhouses, including the very day-to-day actions of many players.

One such example came in Wednesday’s matchup between the Tigers and Rays. In the top of the second inning, Rays catcher Jesus Sucre stole a quick glance at a notecard in his back pocket while requesting a new baseball for pitcher Matt Andriese. We don’t know what the notecard said, but Jeimer Candelario struck out on the following pitch, a 2-2 changeup located down and away.

Fox Sports Detroit announcer Rod Allen questioned this innocuous moment the next half inning, asking “Is this where the game is going?” The overall answer, of course, is yes. Big data has taken over. The nerds have won. Statistical analysis, analytics, and any other words you want to use to describe the data revolution are here to stay.

But what about the day-to-day operations of baseball? We’ve seen outfielders check notecards in the past to position themselves for the following hitter. This is the first I’ve seen of a catcher looking at a notecard, but it almost certainly isn’t the first time it has happened. Astros manager A.J. Hinch — another timely example, given the Tigers’ opponent this weekend — often has a filing cabinet’s worth of binders in the dugout to rely upon during games.

I’m not sure how I feel about it. On one hand, baseball is both a mental and physical exercise. By allowing notecards, cheat sheets, and the like on the field of play, players don’t have to remember a full game plan. Coaches can alter infield and outfield position, of course, but relaying information from the dugout to the field takes more time than simply checking a notecard. One could argue that letting outfielders or catchers check notecards marginalizes the mental edge that some of the better players in the game might hold over others.

On the other, it’s not like this is a player’s only avenue to accessing data. As mentioned, coaches can alter positioning, or even relay signs from the dugout. In the above example, Candelario has to have some idea a changeup is coming; he almost certainly has watched video of Andriese before, and knows that one might be headed his way. Even prior to that pitch, Candelario had already seen two Andriese changeups after falling behind 0-2. Notecard or not, Andriese executed the pitch perfectly, dotting the lower outside corner. Big data might have altered Andriese’s changeup in some way leading up to that pitch — from his grip to his arm action, or some other change along the way — but it didn’t help him locate that particular offering for a key strikeout; Detroit’s win probability went down by 4.5 percent on that play.

Personally, I’d probably lean towards banning notecards and other such visual aids on the field of play. It may not change anything — teams could still position players and call pitches from the dugout — but if it even slightly increases the likelihood of an exciting offensive play, I think it’s a worthwhile fix.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments.