Does Alex Rodriguez know what “analytics” means? You would think he should, being a television commentator for baseball in 2021, but life is full of surprises — such as A-Rod praising the Houston Astros in Game 2 of the World Series for an “anti-analytics inning.”
Those Houston Astros. They’re the ones who tied the World Series by going “anti-analytics.”
The only logical conclusion is that Rodriguez simply does not know what he means when he says “analytics,” probably because the word has been stretched to a breaking point by people who don’t like the style of baseball that has taken hold over the last several years.
There’s a legitimate conversation to be had about the aesthetic appeal of the contemporary game, which unquestionably has been shaped by analytics on a large scale. Teams rely more than ever on home runs, infield shifts are commonplace even for light hitters, and teams build their pitching staffs around strikeout artists.
But all of those stylistic trends deriving from analytics does not mean that they are analytics, nor that a team will succeed by being one-dimensional. Ask A-Rod’s old buddies with the Yankees about that.
What does analytics-driven baseball really mean? It’s about using data to build a team that will score the most possible runs, making the best use of its 27 available outs, while allowing as few runs as possible. Hitting the ball in the air, generally, is more likely to produce a good outcome than hitting the ball on the ground. Striking out a hitter guarantees an out, while any ball in play does not.
The Astros, more than any other team, get the point. Everyone loves homers, and Houston hit the ninth-most in the majors this season. What the Astros also had was the second-lowest strikeout total in baseball this year, continuing a trend. The last time Houston didn’t have the fewest or second-fewest strikeouts in MLB was 2016, which is also the last time the Astros didn’t make the playoffs.
The concept missed by much of the baseball world is that the data change once you get to two strikes, because another strike means an out, but putting the ball in play gives you a chance to avoid an out. This season, only 37.4 percent of Astros plate appearances that went to two strikes resulted in a strikeout. The only other team in the majors even below 40 percent was the Blue Jays, at 39.9 percent. Houston’s two-strike team line of .179/.275/.309 led MLB in all three percentage categories. A batter changing his plate approach to minimize strikeouts isn’t just good, old-fashioned baseball — it’s supported by analytics, and the Astros are the best in the game at it.
During the four-run second inning A-Rod described as “anti-analytics,” the Astros had four at-bats get to two strikes. Carlos Correa and José Altuve lined out, but Yuli Gurriel had a single and Michael Brantley drove in a run with a single.
Beating the shift? Also not a defeat for analytics. Over the course of the season, players might not go out trying to beat the shift. They know that they can’t control where ground balls go, and that hitting the ball in the air is preferable to hitting it on the ground. But in the playoffs? Against a tough pitcher like Max Fried? The calculus is different. It’s not about sticking with a strategy and knowing the numbers will benefit you in the long run. It’s about this one at-bat, and what the best chance is to keep an inning going.
Atlanta might shift against a hitter because he hits 80 percent of his ground balls to the pull side of the infield. Most of the time, a hitter doesn’t care, because you don’t go up there looking for singles — you’re looking to drive the ball, get an extra-base hit, do damage. In the World Series, against a pitcher you’re unlikely to hammer, well, now that shift means there’s a 100 percent chance of a base hit if you can get the ball to the vacated side of the infield, a far better proposition to chase against a pitcher like Fried with a 51 percent ground ball rate and .353 slugging percentage against during the regular season.
What the Astros did in the second inning wasn’t anti-analytics at all. It was following the analytics to formulate a logical and ultimately successful strategy. Everyone can rightly loathe the Astros for following analytics to formulate a successful strategy by cheating in 2017, but just because they have Dusty Baker managing them now doesn’t mean that Houston is a team any less reliant on analytics. In fact, they’re using analytics much better than the teams who get hung up on one or two elements of what the analytics tell them, then stay glued to that process instead of adapting to apply their data to the real-world situations in front of them.
A-Rod isn’t the only person who doesn’t understand this, but it’s also embarrassing that he’s just one of a wide swath of MLB broadcasters who don’t grasp the basic principles of the dominant strategic basis of this era, and somehow see its success as a refutation of itself. If you catch yourself saying the Astros — the Houston Astros — had an “anti-analytics inning” to turn the World Series around, you ought to look in the mirror and ask where you went wrong.