Cyber analysis at the plate

Orioles: Computerized scouting is changing the way information is stored, as well as the way players are evaluated.

February 16, 1999|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

In the tradition-bound world of major-league baseball, the technological revolution has been slow to take root, but the Orioles are trying to position themselves on the cutting edge of the information age.

New general manager Frank Wren made that clear when he hired Bruce Manno, former Milwaukee Brewers executive and computerized scouting consultant, to be the club's assistant GM. Now, it may be just a matter of time before the Orioles take a byte out of the competition.

Advances in computerization and statistical analysis are changing the way some teams evaluate talent and disseminate scouting information, which has created a new -- highly sophisticated -- front-office playing field. Computerized player evaluation has been in use in the NFL since the Dallas Cowboys first attempted to quantify raw skills under coach Tom Landry way back in the 1960s, but baseball is only now getting up to speed on the information superhighway.

Manno isn't just the company computer nerd -- he also performs all of the traditional duties of an assistant general manager -- but his expertise in this area could turn out to be a valuable asset at a time when top-name players are commanding up to $15 million per year.

"We're not doing this just for the sake of technology," Wren said. "We're doing it because, from an organizational standpoint, the tools are there to make you better."

Those tools range from something as simple as a more efficient way to catalog and access existing scouting information to a complex player evaluation system that bypasses many of the traditional baseball statistics.

"I'm very big on what can be done to enhance the tools we have in the industry to help us evaluate and value players," Manno said. "In terms of upgrading our computers in-house, we are being very aggressive in that area. What Frank and I are looking for is a way to extract information as quickly as possible, with software your scouts and other people know how to use so you can be as efficient as possible."

A background in evaluation

But Manno's expertise runs much deeper than that. Before accepting the job in the Orioles' front office, he spent 3 1/2 years as the baseball consultant for a company called AVM (Advanced Value Matrix) which licenses a high-tech performance evaluation system that removes many of the variables that make traditional statistical analysis such an imperfect science.

"You can look at two shortstops hitting .270," Manno explained, "and see one and say, `There's a .270 hitter,' and then look at the other and say, `I know that is not a .270 hitter.' How do you quantify that?"

The AVM system would catalog the weak hits and the poor defensive plays that weren't charged as errors and factor them into a rating that would put each player's offensive performance into a more objective context. It doesn't measure strength or skill, but aims to determine more accurately the comprehensive value of an individual player in relation to other players at his position.

"The theory behind AVM is, you look at the pitcher and the hitter," Manno said. "The pitcher's job is to fool the hitter, to make him hit the ball weakly or strike out. The hitter's job is to hit the ball hard and create value for his team.

"Look at that confrontation. If the hitter hits a line drive and you freeze the play while the ball is in the air, the pitcher failed and the batter succeeded. Now, go on with the play and an outfielder makes a great diving catch. Based on the outcome of the play -- by traditional statistics -- the batter failed and the pitcher succeeded. What AVM does is say that the hitter did his job but the center fielder gave tremendous value to his team."

Don't misunderstand. Scouting still is a largely human endeavor, but the advanced statistical analysis provided by AVM -- coupled with the firsthand observations of an experienced scout -- can provide a more complete picture of a player's capabilities and potential because it incorporates every element of every performance.

"If I go to scout Andy Pettitte and see five starts, that leaves 27 or 28 starts that I didn't see," Manno said. "That's a huge margin for error. I felt there was a real place for another tool. I think that's where the value of this system really comes into play."

Not a new idea

Enhanced statistical analysis is not new to baseball, of course. Baseball guru Bill James changed the way millions of baseball fans enjoy the game when he pushed past the traditional Triple Crown categories in the early 1980s, but baseball front-office types have been slow to adopt more than his most general statistical models.

There are a number of teams that subscribe to AVM's service, but Manno declined to say which or exactly how many. He is bound by a confidentiality agreement that doesn't even allow him to admit that the Orioles are a subscriber, but that is fair to assume.

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