Analytics and Hedgehogs: Lessons from the Tampa Bay Rays

April 8, 2013
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analytics and baseballThe Tampa Bay Rays spend significantly less on payroll than some of the wealthier teams in Major League Baseball, but get results that are sometimes better than those that wildly overspend.

analytics and baseballThe Tampa Bay Rays spend significantly less on payroll than some of the wealthier teams in Major League Baseball, but get results that are sometimes better than those that wildly overspend. The Tampa Bay Rays success boils down to two things – understanding how to be a hedgehog, and continual application of statistics and analytics into daily processes.

Greek poet Archilochus once said: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Many interpretations of this phrase exist, but one characterization is the singular focus on a particular discipline, practice or vision.

According to a Sports Illustrated article “The Rays Way”, while Major League Baseball teams such as the Los Angeles Angels load up on heavy hitters such as Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, the Tampa Bay Rays instead have a hedgehog-like and almost maniacal spotlight on pitching. 

For example, SI writer Tom Verducci says “The Rays are to pitching what Google is to algorithms.” In essence, the Rays have codified methods (on how to raise up young pitchers and injury prevention techniques) and daily processes (including exclusive stretching and strengthening routines) into a holistic philosophy of “pitching first”.

But enabling that hedgehog-like approach to pitching is a culture of measurement and analysis.  To illustrate, the SI article mentions that pitchers are encouraged to have a faster delivery (no more than 1.3 seconds should elapse between a pitch and hitting the catcher’s glove). Pitchers are also instructed to throw the changeup on 15% of deliveries. And while other pitchers try and focus on getting ahead of batters, the Rays have discovered it’s the first three pitches that matter, with the third being the most important.

In terms of applying analytics, the Rays rely on a small staff of “Moneyball” statistical mavens that provide pitchers with a daily dossier of the hitters they’ll likely face, including they pitches they like and those they hate. And analytics also plays a part in how the Rays position their outfield and infielders to field balls that might otherwise go into the books as hits.

The Rays are guarded about sharing their proprietary knowledge on processes and measurement, and for good reason, as last year they had the lowest earned run average (ERA) in the American League and held batters to the lowest batting average (.228) in forty years. Even better, they’ve done this while spending ~70% less than other big market teams and winning 90+ games three years in a row. That’s nailing the hedgehog concept perfectly!

Seeing a case study like this, where a team or organization spends significantly less than competitors and gets better results, can be pretty exciting. However, an element of caution is necessary. It’s not enough to simply follow the hedgehog principle.

The strategy of a hedgehog-like “focus” can be highly beneficial, but in the case of the Tampa Bay Rays, it’s the singular focus on a critical aspect of baseball (i.e. pitching), joined with analytical processes, skilled people and the right technologies that really produce the winning combination.

(image: analytics lessons via Tampa Bay / shutterstock)

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