Remember the ending of Moneyball? Owner John Henry shows Billy Beane around Fenway, offers him a lucrative contract to be the GM of the Red Sox, and even though Beane turns him down, the Red Sox implement a lot of the same strategies the A’s were using at the time to build a winner in Boston.
Baseball’s a copycat sport - the Moneyball Athletics were followed by a complete overhaul of front offices leaguewide, the bullpen-driven Kansas City Royals have become a template for most postseason rosters - and that’s only grown more true as teams use data more than ever before. Every club is carving around the margins, trying to do what their rivals are doing just a little bit better.
Enter Matt Blake. The recently hired Yankee pitching coach is something of a mad scientist, the founder of a private pitching development company and the head coordinator of another baseball consulting operation that includes among its clients Max Scherzer and Noah Syndergaard.
Much was made out of Adam Ottavino’s Harlem pitching lab last winter, but Blake’s work puts a lot of that to shame. He appeared to operate on the absolute cutting edge of pitching research, and like a lot of folks who work on the margins, was relatively unknown beyond those in the know with the Cleveland organization.
He’s not alone, either. Multiple Driveline Baseball alumni have been scooped up by MLB clubs in the past year or so, and the casual fan has become more accustomed to the idea that players often pursue private consulting to an equal or greater degree than they use team resources. Teams, in turn, have enveloped the visions and abilities of these consultants into their own.
All this is, I think, part of why David Cone never had a real chance at the Yankees’ pitching coach job. He was interviewed, sure, but now that we know who Blake is, it’s becoming clear that the Yankees are prioritizing innovation from their dugout and front office teams. Cone is a great broadcaster, and certainly one of the smartest ones around baseball, but he’s reacting to the influx of information in the game today, not helping to create more.
In fact, that actually makes him stronger on commentary; he takes in all of the new data, evaluates and understands the process, and communicates that to the viewers, all from the perspective of a former ballplayer. But he tells us what the information means, and MLB clubs are looking for producers of entirely new ideas and processes.
What’s interesting about guys like Blake, and the Driveline team, and even the college coaches interviewed and hired around baseball, is that the margins they operate on are thinner and thinner. This isn’t the same as teams understanding the value of OBP for the first time, or using shifts to cut down on balls in play. The edges gleaned by Matt Blake’s lab are thin and accrue over a major sample size - one of the reasons a particular pitching decision may blow up in your face come playoff time.
In a way, pitching science is an ever receding pocket of baseball ignorance. One team discovers something new, and the remaining 29 follow suit. Information has never been democratized like it is in today’s MLB, and failing to harness it isn’t an unconscious mistake anymore, but a conscious one. Teams prioritize innovation now, but we’re left to wonder what happens when the margins grow too thin, and there’s just nothing else to learn.