This square, mounted atop the press box at Fifth Third Field, transmits game information for a company called TrackMan Baseball. BLADE/JETTA FRASER
It is mounted on the top of the press box at Fifth Third Field, facing the playing field. It’s a square black slab that looks somewhat like a solar panel, with each side about three feet in length.
Although many Toledo Mud Hens fans probably have not noticed it, this “black square” is proof baseball’s statistical revolution has come to Toledo — and minor league baseball in general.
The “black box” is a transmitter for a company called TrackMan Baseball.
This company works with all 30 teams in Major League Baseball, collecting the endless stream of data that has been poured out in recent seasons.
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That includes information such as pitch velocity and spin rate for pitches, as well as exit speed and launch angle of batted balls, just to name a few of the many data points.
That information used to be available to teams only at the major league level. But the past few years, that information is making its way to the minors — and affecting how the Mud Hens and other Triple-A teams play the game.
Manager Mike Rojas, who sat in the same seat 10 years ago, said the information has evolved in those 10 seasons.
“There is more detailed tracking of groundballs and flyballs than 10 years ago,” he said. “Ten years ago you knew to pull your defense over for a dead pull hitter like a David Ortiz, but it didn’t go much deeper than that.
“But now we have numbers on what pitch gets put in play, in what count it gets put in play, and where the pitch is hit. The volume of new information is unreal.”
According to the book, Big Data Baseball: Math, Miracles and the End of a 20-Year Losing Streak, in 2012 Pittsburgh’s minor league teams served as a proving grounds for the data related defensive shifting.
Indianapolis — the Pirates’ Triple-A affiliate — and the rest of Pittsburgh’s minor league teams adapted somewhat radical shifting rules, such as placing more fielders to a batter’s pull side even for players who were not known as dead pull hitters.
In fact, the Indians would play batters such as Toledo’s Jordan Lennerton — an oppositive-field batter while with the Hens — as if he was a left-handed pull hitter.
Dean Treanor, who served as Indianapolis’ pitching coach that season and later became the Indians’ manager, said the initial battle was dealing with the skepticism of his pitching staff.
“When a ball goes through a hole that was created by a shift, there’s skepticism,” said Treanor, now the Marlins’ bullpen coach. “That’s going to happen.
“It’s the same as when you have a straight-up alignment and a batter hits the ball through the hole. It’s not a good feeling for a pitcher to make a quality pitch and see it sneak through for a hit. But we were using hours and hours and hours of research on where to place our defense.”
The book said — and Treanor confirmed — the results of the shifting were so positive, the Pirates adopted the exotic shifting rules in 2013 and had success with them as well.
The key, according to Treanor, was having everyone work together to make the new rules work.
“Pitchers know we’re in a shift, and catchers know we’re in a shift,” he said. “So when you pitch differently [than the plan] and a ball goes through, why would you blame the shift?
“It all goes together: Pitching to a particular batter’s weaknesses, and aligning the defense to catch the ball where the batter normally hits it.”
Lloyd McClendon, who managed the Mud Hens last season and now is Detroit’s hitting coach, said he used shifts more when he managed in Seattle than he did in Toledo.
“The key is having pitchers with the command to put the ball where they need to,” McClendon said. “If they can’t do that, the shift doesn’t mean anything.”
As a result, McClendon said he and his Mariners staff did not just hand off the game plan to his players.
“I tried to make sure my pitchers were involved with the defensive game plan,” he said. “If they weren’t comfortable with something, then we didn’t do it.”
McClendon said the shifting can also affect hitters positively and negatively.
“When I was in Seattle one day, I called Kyle Seager into the office,” McClendon said. “I said, ‘Do you see how teams are shifting? They are telling you that you’re not good enough to hit the ball the other way.’
“And he changed and became a more complete hitter.”
Rojas said he and his coaching staff use the new data extensively.
In fact, he said it is another way for younger players to understand the type of preparation needed to play the game at the major league level.
“I’m here at 11:30 in the morning on the day we begin a new series,” Rojas said. “I’m looking at spray charts, looking at how to attack hitters.
“I handle the defense for the infielders, [coach] Basilio [Cabrera] has the outfielders. We use how we’re going to pitch to certain players, and we adjust the defense accordingly.”
While there might be a few occasions where the Mud Hens put three infielders on the same side, Rojas said he does not like to do a lot of exotic shifting.
“When you have a guy in the major leagues, many of them are the hitter they are going to be. They don’t change much,” he said.
“At this level, a lot of guys are working on adjustments to get to the big leagues, so their tendencies may change. As a result, I’ll move the defense, but not as much as in the majors.”
But the data is not simply about shifting. Rojas said 10 years ago, the scouting report on a pitcher might have come from players who had seen that hurler at a lower level of the minors.
Players would exchange what pitches they might see, then take an inning or two to watch the pitcher and gain more info.
Now that is not necessary. TrackMan provides a detailed chart on what a pitcher might throw based on the count and whether the hitter is right-handed or left-handed.
In the same way pitchers, who used to exchange a brief scouting report on a new batter, now can look at a spray chart that shows where an unfamiliar batter hits fastballs down-and-inside from right-handed pitchers when he is ahead in the count, to cite just one of many examples.
The amount and specificity of the information can be intimidating.
“I see a lot of information that I understand, but I’m not sure how to teach it,” Rojas said. “For example, we get info on pitchers’ spin ratio on their pitches. How do you teach someone to add to their spin ratio? Or subtract from it?
“It’s interesting to know, but we have to cut down some of the info. Some players are better when they are playing ‘see ball, hit ball, catch ball’ baseball.”
And even though there are times the data backfires, Rojas is glad to have it.
“There’s a lot of info, but it’s good info,” he said. “It’s how you use it.
“It’s good info to have.”
Radical shifts, like this one with three Mud Hens infielders on one side for a left-handed pull hitter, are now much more common, even for players who aren’t known as dead pull hitters. BLADE/JOHN WAGNER
The Mud Hens examine spray charts for opposing hitters based on data collected. BLADE/JOHN WAGNER