Marist Baseball is Challenging the Conventional Wisdom

Billy Beane brought analytics to the Oakland Athletics in 2002, and with it came a baseball revolution. If they were considered the first pitch in what has become an analytical revolution, we are now in the seventh inning.

But why are we not in the ninth inning? Well, as all Major League Baseball teams have been integrating some form of advanced analytics, not every college team is there yet. One college team that has hopped on board, analyzing the numbers side in comprehensive detail, is Marist baseball. However, the Red Foxes did not begin studying analytics until recently.

It was not until this year when the team hired two students from the math department to dissect the numbers and find trends that were difficult to find through video. Not only were these two students playing a role in developing scouting reports, but the team started using a software program known as “Synergy,” to help create scouting reports. Prior to Synergy, the way teams went about creating scouting reports were different.

 “In the past coaches were building scouting reports alone. We would get on the phone and exchange information,” said head coach Chris Tracz. Synergy has eliminated that, allowing Tracz to create scouting reports with his players. It analyzes every pitch, player, plate appearance, game situation, and outcome with supporting video.

Since this program is brand new to Marist, they are still learning all the features it offers. In a time where there seems to be a lot of darkness due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Synergy has been able to offer some light. With this season’s cancelation, the Red Foxes have been able to spend more time on Synergy learning about both their team, as well as their opponents. Sophomore pitcher Ryan Cardona shared they began using this program the middle of February in their opening weekend series at South Florida.

Due to this season ending early, they are left with a small sample size, making certain statistics more difficult to read. One of these is FIP, or Fielding Independent Pitching. FIP is a measurement of a pitcher’s performance that eliminates the role of defense and luck. There are three things FIP believes a pitcher is responsible for; strikeouts, walks, and homeruns. It does not acknowledge hits. Unlike ERA, FIP believes pitchers are not responsible for allowing hits, therefore it should not be counted against them.

Assistant coach, Mike Coss, who works with the pitchers, hoped to get into FIP this year. “We tried to get into FIP. We also thought at the same point there wasn’t a big enough sample size, especially two or three weeks into the season,” said Coss. Tracz, a former pitcher himself, believes FIP is a good stat to look at, like Coss.

While the coaching staff has acknowledged this advanced statistic, someone who is not all the way there yet is Ryan Cardona. Cardona understands that in certain cases a player will get just enough barrel to find grass in the outfield, but “the best pitchers don’t give up hits,” he said. Every time he steps on the mound his goal is to generate as many swings and misses as possible.

Synergy is not the only piece of technology the team has begun using to gain a competitive advantage over opponents. Cardona, who is more of a feel guy, watching video rather than studying the numbers, spoke about Rapsodo. “It is a camera that catches the spin rate of the ball, vertical break, and horizontal break. We are using technology to our advantage,” he explained.

Offensively, it is a bit different. For the longest time, batting average used to be the gold standard. It is what hitters were always measured by. But Tracz acknowledged how it can be a misleading statistic. The offensive statistic he is more concerned with is on-base percentage. Why? He put it as simply as possible. “You can’t score if you are not on base.” The people who study analytics think batting average is a bad statistic to assess a player, mainly because getting a hit is not the only way to reach base. While Tracz is in agreement for the most part, he still believes there is value to a high batting average with runners in scoring position.

The popularity of Major League Baseball has increased these past couple of years, mostly due to the number of home runs being hit. The slow pace of play demanded for more offense. Teams began looking at launch angle and realized the more you tried to hit home runs, the more you actually would. This led to more runs being scored and soon every team adopted this philosophy.

The concept of launch angle had a trickle-down effect to the college level, including Marist baseball. Junior infielder Robbie Armitage, who grew up in Maine where there were fewer baseball opportunities, has slowly begun adjusting to this. “We talk about launch angle. Launch angle was not a thing in the early 2000’s. I was told as a kid to swing down,” said Armitage. Launch angle is the exact opposite of what the junior was told to do as a kid.

The rise of launch angle started three years ago, growing every year since. In 2017, the Red Foxes hit a total of 28 home runs. The following year that number increased to 34. In 2019,  they went on to hit a total of 43, the most within the last decade. Again, teams realized hitting home runs led to scoring more runs. That was exactly the case with the Red Foxes as they scored more runs in 2019 than any other year during this three year time frame.

With the numbers and technology they now have access to, how much are the Red Foxes really using them to make decisions? You hear the classic example of when to take out a starting pitcher. Most coaches prefer the starter not face the order for a third time because they start to see the pitcher better and pick up his tendencies.

When that time approaches within the game, Tracz and his staff are presented with the numbers but they also have their gut feeling that may sway their decision. “If it’s 50-50, I go with the numbers,” said Tracz. There is a lot that goes into that decision whether it be matchup based, pitch count, or bullpen availability, but for the most part Tracz will lean towards what the numbers dictate.

When creating the batting order, many different things are looked at, whether that be numbers, video, or the things you see in practice. “I have never had the batting lineup look the same at the beginning of the season versus the end of the season,” said Tracz. This explains why the number two spot has rotated between guys like Reece Armitage, Robbie Armitage, and Tyler Kapuscinski in just twelve games this year. Tracz went on to note, “We try to put the best hitter in the two hole.” A similar thought amongst the people that study advanced analytics, the two hitter is your best hitter because they possess the ability to both slug and get on base. While the numbers may dictate how a certain lineup is created, Tracz did state that “sometimes the guys just gel in the lineup that makes more sense,” a more old school mentality.

All the different numbers that have been thrown out there can be a bit overwhelming. That does not change the impact it has left on the game of baseball. For the players, it’s not the same for everyone, but for Armitage it can make him overthink things sometimes. Someone who prefers video over the numbers side shared, “the more I think, the more I overthink things.” Part of that may be because this is all new to him. As a child he never had coaches with a ton of insight. “When I got to college, I learned all these resources on how to watch baseball a bunch of different ways,” said the junior infielder.

For the coaching staff it is still a transition. In the major leagues, prior to analytics, the manager was extremely influential on the outcome of the game. Today you are seeing more player managers, ones who have great relationships with players, managing different personalities, and creating a culture that fits all.

I asked the coaches if that has become their new role. Both Chris Tracz and Mike Coss said yes, but to an extent. “We spend so much time with them. The more time we spend with them and the more time they spend with us, we develop that trust,” said Coss.

In the MLB, different people are helping create the lineup card, including the general manager. Tracz joked around how it is still a bit different at the college level: “We don’t have our athletic director making lineup cards.” He has seen his role as a manager slightly shift to managing personalities and creating a championship culture, but the role of the manager at the college level seems to serve more importance than it does at the major league level.

Marist baseball is still learning all the different ways to watch and study the game. While the Red Foxes have started buying in to analytics, this season’s cancellation has forced us to wait to see the type of impact Synergy has on the success of Marist baseball.

Edited by Lily Caffrey-Levine

Header image by Kristin Flanigan

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