A few weeks back I completed The MVP Machine by Ben Lindbergh & Travis Sawchik. This book provided a high level overview of the changes taking place across the game in regards to player development. In particular, it looked at currently successful organizations such as the: Astros, Dodgers, Red Sox and individual players like: J.D. Martinez, Trevor Bauer, Justin Turner and Mookie Betts.
After finishing this spectacular book, I’ve taken some time to reflect on where the White Sox organization is in relation to the rest of the industry. We all know the White Sox organization likes to keep things close to the vest as if they are the keepers of highly classified national security information, but based on what we know publicly, one can’t help but be a little concerned about where the organization currently presides.
One of the main concepts talked about in the book was the idea of having a “growth mindset”. This is a concept that is applicable to individuals in all walks of life, regardless of their profession. I know I’ve taken this to heart in recent weeks when applying it to my profession in outside sales and am evaluating a lot of the methods I’ve used that have been successful but more importantly what I need to do differently to maintain a high level of success.
The principal idea behind growth mindset is that failure is a “…heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities.” This came from Stanford psychologist, Carol Dweck, who went on to state “organizations that embody a growth mindset encourage appropriate risk-taking, knowing that some risks won’t work out.” Knowing this, can anyone say they believe the White Sox embody an organization with a growth mindset?
A month ago, Steve Stone shared an interesting tweet:
Funny you should mention the analytics in baseball these days. Read The MVP Machine. It details all the cutting edge theories in our great game. It has gotten to the right people in the organization. If what you’re doing isn’t working you try something else. Not a bad course
— Steve Stone (@stevestone) July 27, 2019
While, I’m hopeful that Stone is correct in his assessment that the information contained in this book has gotten to the highest levels of the organization, the fact that he has to come out and say it is a little concerning. Let’s be honest here, I don’t know that the Sox organization has mastered and applied the concepts of Moneyball which came out well over a decade ago, so I’m a little hesitant to believe they are up to speed with the successful organizations across the game.
Perhaps they are finally trying to adapt after years of being in the proverbial stone age. There is some evidence of this with the recent stories detailing the analytical data provided by coaches Ryan Johansen and Matt Zaleski down in the lower levels of the minor leagues. One can’t help but wonder how far behind the organization is when a player like Corey Zangari says that it wasn’t until this season that hitters were given detailed information on what the opposing pitchers would be featuring on a given night.
Previously the extent of scouting reports consisted of a pitcher’s velocity and his ERA. Now they are being given detailed information on hot and cold zones as well as pitcher tendencies. This bit of information is somewhat troubling because it wasn’t until 2019 that players were being given detailed data points. Perhaps this could be playing a factor in the slow starts that have plagued Sox prospects upon arriving in Chicago.
It isn’t just on the hitting side where the Sox are attempting to implement a more data driven approach either. Minor league pitching coach, Matt Zaleski, has played an integral role in changing the pitch arsenals of prospects like Jimmy Lambert and Jonathan Stiever. His data driven approach has helped these hurlers focus on utilizing their high spin fastballs up in the zone and complementing them with power breaking balls coming out of the same tunnel to give them a dynamic one-two punch.
I’ve been very vocal lately in stating that I believe the Sox need to make organizational overhauls in a number of areas. One such area is with their coaching staff at the Major League level. Target #1 is hitting coach, Todd Steverson. The game has evolved to the point where there is a heightened emphasis on working counts and hitting the ball in the air, particularly to the pull side. Here’s where the Sox rank offensively in a number of key categories this season:
These numbers paint a very alarming picture for this organization going forward. They simply don’t put the bat on the ball enough and when they do the quality of their contact is, well, lacking to say the least. The approach that Steverson is teaching is one that simply doesn’t work in 2019. We can talk about problems with roster construction and that there are still several players on this team that shouldn’t be here when the team is theoretically trying to contend, but no one can say that these trends aren’t troubling. I would love to see the Sox bring in a modern hitting coach that will work to implement the concepts that are driving successful teams today.
Perhaps the Sox have this guy in their organization already in Matt Lisle. Lisle joined the organization as the Hitting Analytics Instructor. Lisle spent time with the University of Missouri and you can find many clips of his hitting instruction on the interwebs. Lisle is a believer in the new age hitting theory on concepts such as swing path that will lead to more fly balls.
We need to face the fact that in order for the White Sox to contend, as has been the case for almost the last 30 years in their current home, they need to hit home runs. You can’t hit home runs when you are consistently hitting the ball on the ground. I’m hopeful that Lisle’s influence throughout the organization will help to fix this issue accompanied by better players. One has to wonder, however, how much the information Lisle is providing is being implemented.
Then there’s the pitching side of the equation. Look, Don Cooper has been here for a long time and is seemingly on the Jerry Reinsdorf “Job for life” program, but it’s time to give Coop a “Pitching Coach Emeritus” title or something to that effect. Maybe Coop is just a really good actor and puts on a front that he isn’t up to date on what’s happening in the game.
His poker face is strong if so because it seems like every time I hear him talk he’s regurgitating lines from a decade ago about “staying tall”, “establishing the fastball”, “staying in contact with rubber” and oh yea, “cutter, cutter, cutter.” I know this has been talked about excessively in 2019, but Lucas Giolito had to go outside the organization to make the changes that have led to him being an All-Star. That’s a pretty damning reality for a guy that has been a pitching coach with this team for almost two decades.
I’d love to see the Sox think outside the box and bring in a guy like Brian Bannister to serve as the Major League pitching coach. Bannister is currently an Assistant Pitching Coach for the Red Sox, but he gave a tremendous amount of insight and perspective on how he uses data to help pitchers in Boston. Bannister had some refreshing quotes:
“Careers could be saved with the right type of intervention.” I read that quote and I think about a guy like Reynaldo Lopez. Lopez is a guy who has one of the most explosive arms in the league, but his results have been very underwhelming to this point. Lopez is a guy that has low spin rates on all of his pitches and gives up quite a bit of hard contact when you look at metrics like xwOBA and overall Exit Velocities.
That makes me wonder if someone like Bannister could come in and tweak a few things with Lopez to achieve optimal results. Could someone like Bannister working with Lopez on pitch design help give him the appropriate pitch mix and pitch types to be the player we all thought Lopez could be when he was acquired close to three years ago?
Bannister has been a student and an early adapter of analytics and technology since his playing days a decade ago. He believes his main function as a coach in the game today is about “…taking that information, studying it more than anybody, and using it to help the best players in the world become even better.” This is exactly what I want to hear from a coach of my favorite team. It’s this type of mindset that the White Sox need.
Bannister also believes you have to continually be learning and adapting, this is evident when he says “I can’t beat the league long term, but if I have an idea, I can beat it in the short term and that’s all I’m looking to do. You always have to come up with the next thing…It’s a never ending cycle.” Can you imagine these words coming out of Don Cooper’s mouth?
Look, there are some positive changes happening within the Sox organization and maybe they are catching up to the rest of the industry. But can we feel confident that the Sox will be able to identify the next groundbreaking change or application of technology? I’m not optimistic on that front personally, but my hope is that some of the new minds coming into the organization can change the culture and mindset that has plagued this franchise for far too long.
Earlier I talked about growth mindset and the belief that using past failures to fuel growth and innovation are crucial for successful organizations. We all know this organization has experienced, well, too much failure in the last decade. There is no better time to be innovative and to change the way they do things than right now.
Let’s hope they are taking this opportunity to critically analyze how they operate as an organization, and bring in thoughtful, innovative minds to make this organization the best it can be as this rebuild hopefully comes to its endpoint.
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