The New York Yankees are arguably the most analytically-driven organization in sports. They invest the most in personnel, their extensive video library, and high-tech measuring and calibrating equipment. This focus on the cutting edge of modern analytics has yielded success stories like Didi Gregorius, Aaron Hicks and Luke Voit, cornerstones of this group of Yankee players.
Yet there remains a disconnect between the philosophical approach of the team and their communications to the public, especially when broadcasting games and on other multimedia platforms, like Twitter and the YES-endorsed Michael Kay Show. If you go to Yankee Stadium, you see batting average, home runs and RBI on the stadium scoreboard, and if you pop a game on YES, you might get even less information:
This is just maddeningly unhelpful. I think that most fans of baseball generally understand that decisions aren’t made by batting average anymore - teams certainly don’t stick Brett Gardner in the leadoff spot because he’s hitting .221. But if you watch YES, that’s the impression you could get. The individual stats are better, but still not very enlightening:
Of course, if you were to dabble in some of the other multimedia presentations either produced or endorsed by the Yankees, you could stray even further into crazy territory:
No words. pic.twitter.com/btsaBZLrpf— Alex Seixeiro (@alexfan590) September 21, 2017
Now I know this is a two-year old clip, but first of all, I love geometry and don’t know much about football, so I think it’s cool that the square of the hypotenuse can help predict a football team’s performance. Second of all, no, Don La Greca has not changed or evolved his views on statistics in the time between this famous rant and today.
I know that not everyone analyzes baseball through a sabermetric lens, and that often some of the metrics in public domain aren’t that intuitive. Any baseball fan can tell you that a .350 OBP is good, and a .350 average is terrific, but far fewer could instinctively say whether a .350 wOBA is good. Still, as baseball research has advanced, we’ve been able to break performance down into easier to understand granules than ever before.
wRC+, for example, is essentially wOBA normalized to the league, and gives a really good indication of how a player compares to the league overall. At its most basic level, something like wRC+ basically tells all fans how good a player is in terms of overall production, and how good that production is relative to the rest of baseball.
Take that above lineup graphic, the one with all the batting averages? Now let’s imagine if YES posted wRC+ beside the names instead of batting averages:
Now, a viewer can still quibble with the lineup order, but it gives a whole lot more context to why teams are making decisions. If you accept that a team’s two best hitters should bat second and third in a lineup, you’d probably be confused as to why Voit and Gary Sanchez are in the spots they are when you just look at batting averages. When you add the context of wRC+, the logic becomes much clearer.
Now one thing that YES has done well is integrating the basics of Statcast into broadcasts. We see exit velocity, launch angle and distance for pretty much every home run the Yankees hit, and especially this season we’ve seen much better incorporation of Statcast’s spray charts for a given hitter superimposed on the field.
I think this has given casual fans at least a solid base into the advantages Statcast presents. The ability to break down any given plate appearance not only helps in analysis of the game but in the presentation of it. Yankee fans understand that decisions about playing time, pitcher deployment and player acquisitions are in no small part based off the math, so the Yankees should do a better job communicating that math to their fans.
It’s not just me that feels fans deserve more context, and a better education:
It didn't make it into the story but Voit indicated he thinks fans would be served by teams putting BABIP numbers on their scoreboards. He knows average doesn't tell the whole story but ballpark fans only get presented with a small chunk of the context. https://t.co/6Ptcj8GIWj— Lindsey Adler (@lindseyadler) May 1, 2019
Luke Voit has become Patient Zero for why an analytically-driven front office is a good idea. The Yankees saw that he produces all-world levels of contact, on the same level as guys like Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Gary Sanchez. They wagered that, if Voit could get the ball in the air more and play in more hitter-friendly stadiums, that kind of contact would yield a top-flight hitter. They were right.
Voit knows that they’re right, and in The Athletic story Lindsey Adler references, he credits the Yankees directly for molding him into such a good player. His suggestion to include BABIP sounds like a radical change, but batting average on balls in play isn’t really that advanced of a stat. What it does is give an approximate gauge of “luck”, or indicate quality of contact. A player running a high BABIP with high exit velocity is more likely to maintain production than a player running a low BABIP with high exit velocity.
If you choose not to integrate advanced stats into your baseball life, that’s your choice, and it’s a valid one - we all fan in different ways. However, that the Yankees so thoroughly utilize analytics but don’t better integrate them into their presentation of the sport means they aren’t telling the whole story. While they don’t owe us an explanation for the moves they make, better deployment of their analysis would serve as one, and deepen the viewing experience for most fans.