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Analytics at heart of Cards' success, federal probe

Analytics at heart of Cards' success, federal probe

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When Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. hired Jeff Luhnow in 2003 to guide the club into the super numbers-crunching era and tap the well of data beneath baseball’s surface, there was one figure in the statistical gusher he didn’t ask to know.

The new, and at times radical, initiative did not have a fixed budget.

“There was none. What we needed is what we did,” DeWitt said Friday, recalling the early days when the Cardinals first logged into the game’s sabermetric uprising. “Today every aspect of the game is under analytical scrutiny. On the field. Off the field. Medicals. … There has been a coming around to information in the last 10 to 15 years and a lot of teams were looking for that edge. I feel good that at the beginning we were able to capitalize on it.”

What began 12 years ago as a small group of Luhnow’s analysts with salaries and hardware that cost less than $1 million has expanded into an arm of the Cardinals’ front office that impacts decisions everywhere, from the boardroom to the dugout, the training room to trade talks.

The group has, through the years, included a graduate of MIT, a Harvard man with a master’s in statistics, an MBA from the University of Chicago, multiple economics degrees and a former engineer for NASA. It has grown in size as it has grown in influence, and now is the focus of a federal investigation for alleged computer hacking.

An underlying engine for an unparalleled run of success now is the subject of an inquiry that officials all acknowledge damages the club’s fastidiously kept reputation.

TECH IN THE GAME

Events last week highlighted ways Major League Baseball is increasingly linked to and shaped by our new national pastime, technology. Voting for the starters in the All-Star Game, which now is done exclusively online, has been dominated by Kansas City fans who could elect eight Royals to the American League’s lineup.

Boston third baseman Pablo Sandoval was benched for using Instagram, a photo-sharing social media site, during a game.

And, on Tuesday, The New York Times broke the story that one of the game’s most storied franchises could be accused of cybercrime. The Cardinals are being investigated for illegally accessing the Houston Astros’ baseball operations database, one also constructed by Luhnow when he became their general manager. Welcome to the future.

Edges no longer are limited to between the lines. They can be sought online.

“All teams deserve to have their intellectual property rights protected,” wrote Patrick Rishe in an email. Rishe is the director of Washington University’s sports business program and a senior lecturer of management. “No league wants a scenario where teams are using cyber espionage as a standard means of operating.”

In his first public comments about the allegations, chairman DeWitt outlined Thursday the building and empowering of the team’s analytics department. He said it was built “ab initio” — from the beginning — and not in response to Oakland’s approach that inspired a book published in May 2003 and a movement by the same name, “Moneyball.” The accelerated growth of the Cardinals’ analytics, from the first computer to today’s Baseball Development department, is a lesson in why its data are so valuable — and maybe worth accessing.

‘A NEW FRONTIER’

The initial goal of Luhnow’s group was to strengthen the Cardinals’ ability to use advanced statistics to evaluate and assign value to players.

“There was a new frontier,” DeWitt said. “If you feel good about how you look at the metric, then you have a chance to answer the question, ‘What’s the value?’ We all want to be at the forefront of player valuation techniques.”

An early application of the Cardinals’ first sabermetrics group was the amateur draft.

In 2006, Sig Mejdal, a former NASA engineer, collected 22 months of statistics from every plate appearance for every player in four different levels of college baseball. Putting that raw data through a mathematical centrifuge allowed Mejdal to account for different ballparks, different strengths of schedule and different levels of competition.

The algorithm calculated a number for the “runs generated” that player would have at the Class A level. An average hitter at that level would score a 66. Alex Gordon, Kansas City’s second overall pick in 2005, scored 118 in the Cardinals’ formula.

Mejdal now is with Houston, as its director of decision sciences.

It was through analytical processes like this that the Cardinals successfully used to mine the later rounds of the draft. They felt their statistical alchemy could uncover and understand production at smaller colleges and a scout could confirm the talent. In the 2009 draft’s 23rd round the Cardinals found one at Slippery Rock University: Matt Adams, the cleanup hitter who now is on the disabled list.

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“I think when you look at organizations, you’re always looking for separation or a competitive advantage and when you look at how you make decisions and why you make decisions everybody does it differently,” Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said. “I’ve always been on the record that we were a very data-driven team. The success of our organization is that we remained disciplined through the process. So when I think about how the sabermetric world has changed how we think about things — it certainly has — but it’s a balance between our scouting world and our analytical world. We try to optimize both.”

As the team’s assistant general manager when Luhnow joined, Mozeliak was an early believer in the advancements being made. One of the first moves Mozeliak did when he became general manager in 2007 was to establish the Baseball Development department. Mejdal, University of Chicago grad Michael Girsch and MIT grad Jeremy Cohen were early members.

Chris Correa, who left a Ph.D. program at the University of Michigan, worked first on a contract and then joined full time. Dan Kantrovitz, a Harvard grad and St. Louis native, also contributed.

Girsch now is the assistant general manager. Correa oversees the draft as the scouting director having replaced Kantrovitz, who left to be the assistant general manager in Oakland.

The Baseball Development group has doubled in size and now includes Cohen as its manager. He’s joined by analysts Matt Bayer and Dane Sorensen and developer Patrick Casanta. The group does research, software development and innovates analysis of data. It has earned a “broader footprint” in the organization, an official said recently, as a way to support data-driven decisions.

The increased use of defensive shifts by manager Mike Matheny and his staff has been encouraged by analytics. The workload limits imposed on young pitchers such as Michael Wacha in the minors and the majors are based on studies organized and deployed by the analytics. The Cardinals’ ongoing studies of injury prevention involve analytics.

Once called “Redbird Dog,” the Cardinals now use an upgraded internal system that stews together scouting reports with analytical data to assign a value to each player. The dollar figure allows them to compare players across realms — from the majors to amateurs, Asia to Cuba.

In 2011, the Cardinals felt they didn’t have enough data to assign a true value to Cuban outfielder Yasiel Puig and as his price soared. They were comfortable pursuing a known quantity, one whose future production they felt comfortable calculating, free agent Carlos Beltran. He led the team in home runs from 2012-2013 and helped the club overcome the departure of Albert Pujols.

That same offseason Pujols left, Luhnow did — for Houston.

CHANGING TEAMS

In 2014, around the time of one of the alleged hacks the FBI is investigating, The Houston Chronicle published a story about “Ground Control,” the Astros’ internal database they built from scratch. The article detailed features similar to the Cardinals’ system, and last week Luhnow addressed the concept of intellectual property with SI.com.

He said he knows the agreements signed with the Cardinals, insisting he “didn’t take anything, any proprietary information. … A lot of my job in baseball, as it was in high tech, is to make sure intellectual property is protected.”

Mozeliak declined to “engage” in the topic when asked.

Movement throughout baseball is common, and when a scout changes teams he doesn’t have to turn over his eyes. An executive turns in his laptop but not his memory.

As they tried to understand international markets such as Cuba better, the Cardinals borrowed from an employee’s scouting reports — ones he wrote with another team. The “secret sauce” of the internal database, however, includes proprietary ways teams assess value and medical histories. Last June, some Astros’ trade discussions were leaked through a breach, and they revealed internal opinions. All of that information would be valuable for an opponent and could fit descriptions of unlawful acts as described in the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

“There is a lot of things that have developed in the last 10 years and five years that we didn’t have before,” Minnesota Twins general manager Terry Ryan said. “A lot of it is technology based. A lot. A lot. Clubs have added whole departments when it comes to analytics, and that’s prevalent in the game. We all have programs that we treasure.”

Matheny, working closely with Girsch, has sought to become more proficient using analytics in his decisions. The Baseball Development group organized weekly presentations for the major-league staff during spring training. At the touch of a button on his iPad, Matheny can access information that former pitching coach Dave Duncan used to carry in two trunks everywhere the team went.

Matheny called the trunks “the holy grail,” and this was Paleolithic analytics — but just 10 years ago. In each were Duncan’s richly detailed binders, all done by hand, and all color-coded so that the Cardinals knew the tendencies of opponent hitters based on type of pitch, pitcher and count. The binders helped influence defensive positioning and approaches.

Current Cardinals pitching coach Derek Lilliquist has 30 binders of his own, one for each team, and in it are the notes he hand writes about opposing hitters. They are kept in a red trunk, the Cardinals logo old enough that the “ls” is long gone and the “na” is in jeopardy.

The trunk is wireless.

It doesn’t need a password.

It has a latch.

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