Too Much Information?

The New York Times

May 6, 2010

by Doug Glanville

I get asked from time to time about how the game has changed since I played it. For me, it feels like yesterday that I was part of the inaugural season at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, and this has lulled me into believing that change, if any, would be subtle. But that is far from the truth. For one thing, something as glaringly new as instant replay for home runs cannot be ignored.

My last day on the field was almost five years ago — June 25, 2005. At that moment, I was current, I still knew the game inside out. I could tell you a lot about the Rockies bullpen. I could give you a strong scouting report on how Jamie Moyer might try to get you out. If prompted, I could even steal you a base.

Since that day, time has flown. This is hammered home when I think about what today’s 17-year-old high school baseball players with a chance at being drafted have to worry about, compared to what I had to worry about at that age. In my high school heyday there was no Internet. I had no sense of how I measured up against a player in a town three districts over, let alone one in California. The world was full of legends in their own backyards, blissfully ignorant that there was some kid in Texas who could throw 10 m.p.h. faster than the best pitcher they had ever seen.

Today, with the massive possibilities of computers, scouting a player has taken a giant leap.

Back in the day, just getting noticed was a tall order. You could not download video of your best summer league game and blast it through cyberspace to the inboxes of scouts and college coaches. It was all about driving up and down the road, literally. My brother, who was chasing his professional baseball dream and hoping to sign a free-agent contract, would attend scouting combines he learned about in the back pages of magazines. He’d send in a form and, a few weeks later, would receive a schedule of where he (and usually his baseball posse) needed to go. Then he’d cruise up and down the East Coast, attending tryouts, careful to have enough quarters to call home, or call for a tow truck should his car break down. I tagged along on a few occasions, and even went to a Mets tryout at Shea Stadium as a pitcher. My brother bent the truth about my age, so I got to pitch in the Shea Stadium bullpen (though my efforts to persuade them to let me hit were fruitless).

When I first arrived in the minor leagues, we studied our opponents by using our eyes and sharing information. When I reached the majors, the VCR was our friend — we watched hours of video in search of any pattern or tip that might give us some advantage. It took an inordinate amount of time to fast-forward or rewind to that key moment you needed to see, but at least we had a tool. Hopefully there was no rain delay that day or there would be a lot of fast-forwarding through static-filled screens. With those VCRs, patience was not only a virtue but a necessity. Then again, I am sure the generation before me would say the same thing. If it hadn’t been captured on 8mm film, it was hearsay and storytelling that supplied the information.

Today, with the massive possibilities of computers, scouting a player has taken a giant leap. There are cameras everywhere that can break down speed, swings, sequences, all at the touch of a button. (For better or worse, this also gives millions of people the ability to analyze every tidbit and then form their own opinion.) Now, not only can I tell you what Jamie Moyer will throw you, I can tell you when, and what he does to tip it off, and how he performs during day games, maybe even factor in how someone just tweeted that Jamie’s breakfast this morning didn’t agree with his stomach.

The engineer in me is excited by knowing so much. We can plug all the data into the computer and pore over the analysis, which can in turn be measured against history — performance-enhanced or not, artificial turf or grass . . . we can even look through the lens of the deadball era. A current player who wants to know something about his opponent can find it out to the nth degree. And it’s helpful to be a step ahead of your opponent.

The better players know what information to keep — and use to formulate a plan — and what to throw out.

As a hitter, you find patterns and eventually can anticipate what pitch is about to come your way. I saw that Greg Maddux liked to waste a pitch when the count was two balls and two strikes, I gathered that Randy Johnson liked to throw a get-me-over slider to start off the sequence when there was a runner in scoring position, I knew that Hideo Nomo lived off his splitter, so that when I was on base and could read that it was coming, I could steal him out of house and home. As a pitcher, you might notice that a certain player (Chase Utley, for example) takes a practice swing in the batter’s box that leaves him vulnerable to quick-pitching. As a base runner, you can use specific information to anticipate when the slow pitch is coming, giving you that extra two-tenths of a second to steal that base.

There is also an element of self-assessment: I can study myself in the same way and learn a thing or two. I recall an exchange with a teammate, the pitcher Jeff Brantley, who had noticed how I was mechanically “pulling off” the ball for a solid week or so (then again, I had made so many outs by that point, the bat boy was telling me, too). I saw the film and there it was, clear as day. Now the question was: what do I do about it? Because your opponent is doing the same thing to you: watching your feet in the batter’s box, observing how you act when you’re going to try to steal a base versus when you’re not, noting that when you set up early in the outfield, you could be tipping a pitch location.

But when all is said and done, if you don’t have instincts for what is happening, a perpetual stream of information just becomes a time-stealing vortex, and useless at best — even though you may know a lot more than you did when you started studying.


Republished from The New York Times


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