Interview with Ari Kaplan, Manager of Statistical Analysis with the Chicago Cubs
Baseball has always been ripe for analytics.
Former Los Angeles Times sportswriter, Jim Murray once said that “baseball’s appeal is decimal points; no other sport relies as totally on continuity, statistics, orderliness of these. Baseball fans pay more attention to numbers than CPAs."
The game is measured from generation to generation, year to year, and game to game on statistics.
It’s how fans discuss the game; and more importantly today, it’s how Major League Baseball teams measure the performance of its players and operations to gain a competitive advantage.
The notion of analytics and baseball will be thrust further into the spotlight when the movie Moneyball (starring Brad Pitt as Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane) is released later this month.
I was honored to speak with Ari Kaplan, the head of statistical analysis for the Chicago Cubs and the first official hire by Tom Ricketts, the current owner of the team, about his role, the importance of analytics in baseball and how the use of analytics continues to evolve.
How did you get into analytics and decide to make a career out of it?
During a research fellowship while an undergrad at the California Institute of Technology, I demonstrated that the statistics generally used (Earned Run Average, Wins/Losses, Batting Average, Saves) were not the best way to explain how players performed. While this is accepted today, at the time saying something like this received lots of attention in the media and in the industry itself.
The owner of a Major League Baseball (MLB) team approached me to offer me a position. Once in baseball, I have been able to contribute in many areas – from technology and analytics to scouting, advance scouting, player development, contracts and arbitration, and business development. I decided to make a career out of it because this is my passion in life and I have been fortunate to have the opportunities along the years.
This is my second full-time season with the Chicago Cubs, and I have consulted with them over the past 15 seasons.
Can you describe what you do on a day-to-day basis?
Being in the Baseball Operations, I have had the opportunity to get involved in many areas. There is the long-term development of our analytics and baseball-related technology to position us to be consistent champions on and off the field.
On a day-to-day basis I help prepare information for the coaches for games, do special projects for the General Manager and other baseball management, and try to stay one step ahead looking for ways for us to improve. There is a rhythm to the baseball season – Spring Training, the MLB season, the Minor Leagues, the draft, signings, trade deadlines, organizational meetings, Winter Meetings. These events set the pulse of what we focus on month to month.
What advice would you give to individuals thinking about going into a career in analytics?
If it is truly your passion, get into the game any way you can, put in the hours, and learn as much as you can. Then hopefully you'll "stick" and get lucky enough to parlay that into a full-time position. Also becoming a writer for a website such as Baseball Prospectus, searching www.pbeo.org, and going to the Winter Meetings are good ways to get into the industry.
How do you measure your effectiveness as an analytics professional?
Our goals are to consistently make the playoffs, progress through the playoffs, and win the World Series. If we do those objectives, great; if not, we need to self-evaluate why not and adjust accordingly.
What is the most common misconception that the public has with the use of analytics within major league ball clubs?
There is a public misperception of a rift between "old school" and "new school" that is a bit sensationalized. Everyone has the common goal of being a winning organization, of effective teamwork, and of doing what it takes to get from good to great.
How has the use of analytics evolved in the past few years?
New technology such as Sportvision's PitchFX and HitFX has changed the use of analytics dramatically. We now have significantly more data on pitch types, velocities, locations, spin, break, and more that can be used for really meaningful and actionable advice. And soon, FieldFX will help better understand and quantify defense like never before.
Any interesting “aha” moments that you have uncovered that you can share from your analysis?
These are humans, not computers playing. And humans often have subtle and repeatable habits that can be taken advantage of. A good advance scout can find these, and also reviewing millions of pitches and game events can help in that effort. Finding a strength, weakness, or habit to help win even one additional game a year is worth all the effort.
What do you think of the new stats of evaluating players, such as WAR (Wins Above Replacement), UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) or BABIP (Batting Average of Balls in Play)?
Using stats depends on what you are trying to do. Are you helping a coach relay actionable information to a player? Are you seeing how Minor Leaguers or amateur players might have an impact at the Majors? Are you forecasting and valuing a player’s contract relative to others? Each stat you list is a generalization that could be useful or not depending on the context of how it is used.
Is there a rivalry among analytics professionals in MLB?
There is a great sense of camaraderie in the analytics world – with tons of really useful free information in the public domain. New blogs and websites pop up that enable the overall analytics marketplace to vet out ideas and improve methodologies. Within ball clubs themselves there is often an advantage to keep methodologies closed and proprietary to maintain a competitive advantage. So there's a mix of both out there.
What feedback do you receive from ballplayers in regards to using analytics?
For 23 seasons, I have worked with managers, coaches, and players, including Hall of Famers, All-Stars, regulars, replacement-level players, and those that have never made it. Everyone's approach is different – some want to learn everything they can and have the ability to adjust. Some want to learn everything they can but can't physically adjust to that information. And some don't really care or focus on different approaches. There is no right answer. It all depends on the individual.
Like players or managers, do you take the wins and losses home with you?
Certainly, all of my essence is devoted to helping the Chicago Cubs succeed and rewarding generations of fans. I am passionate about the game, and passionate about winning, and take with great pride being a representative of the Cubs organization.
For additional information:
· Read more about IBM’s business analytics software and the white paper on why analytics-driven organizations outperform the competition.
· Register for the upcoming IBM Business Analytics Forum (Oct. 23-27 in Las Vegas) and see keynote speakers, Michael Lewis, author of the best-selling book, Moneyball, and Billy Beane, General Manager of the Oakland A’s.