Analytics becoming increasingly important for Jays


Toronto Blue Jays' Dioner Navarro. (Tony Dejak/AP)

TORONTO – Very quietly during the off-season the Toronto Blue Jays added a second member to their analytics department, an area Alex Anthopoulos would like to invest further in if the right fits can be found.

Baseball operations analyst Jason Pare came over from the Cleveland Indians to serve as the No. 2 guy to baseball information analyst Joe Sheehan, responsible for doing “whatever comes up,” in the words of the general manager.

The job description is obviously more detailed than that, but the flourishing world of proprietary analytics and advanced metrics can be a cloak and dagger place. Sheehan and Pare, for instance, aren’t allowed to speak with media because, says Anthopoulos, “there’s no benefit, there’s more downside.”

“If everyone is doing 100 things and we all do the same 99 things, maybe (in) the one thing that’s different there’s an advantage,” he says in an interview. “We don’t know, but why take a chance? There’s no benefit to saying we’re doing this, we’re doing that. There’s no upside to disclosing any of that.”

Anthopoulos is also “leery” of appearing like “we’re doing something everyone else is not.”

“Trust me, we’re not,” he says. “Everyone is trying to be more efficient in everything they’re doing, and we’re just like everybody else in that sense.”

Regardless, like for most other teams, analytics are playing an increasingly important role in the way the Blue Jays do things, from player evaluations to defensive alignments.

Take the free agent signing of Dioner Navarro over the winter, the club’s biggest off-season transaction, as an example. Beyond an assessment of the catcher’s numbers at the plate, their internal data suggested the quality of his contact made it likely that his offensive performance in 2013 wasn’t a fluke.

So far, that appears to be bang on.

Another application is in how the Blue Jays position themselves in the field.

In the past, former third base coach Brian Butterfield “would be sitting there watching every single hard-hit ball for players versus a righty, versus a lefty, men on base, men in scoring position, two strikes – it’s time consuming,” according to Anthopoulos. “Now we automate things.”

Blue Jays players are, of course, free to adjust their positioning based on feel or how they see hitters reacting to the pitcher on a given day, but the starting point comes from what the data indicates.

Much of such work is run through The BEST (pronounced Beest, after club president Paul Beeston), a database launched in January 2013 designed to unify separate resources for scouting reports, proprietary analytics data, medical reports, contractual information and video in a single spot. The project was in development for 2½ years under former assistant GM Jay Sartori, who left at the end of last season for a position with Apple Inc., and Sheehan.

“When you ultimately can have your own database so you can put it all together?” says Anthopoulos. “Great, it’s one-stop shopping.”

The database is an ongoing project, which is why Anthopoulos says “we’re going to look at some point to add a programmer if we can. Easier said than done because the really good programmers are hired by companies and make a lot of money, and you have to get someone who’s a baseball fan.”

The Blue Jays ended up with Pare after Anthopoulos told Sheehan to compile a list of candidates and then narrow things down. Once the Blue Jays received permission to speak with Pare, a former Baseball Prospectus author before he joined the Indians, Anthopoulos met with him and Sheehan at a bar across the street from the Rogers Centre to seal the deal.

“Joe was our main employee and this gave Jason a chance to be the No. 2 guy,” says Anthopoulos. “It was maybe a better career opportunity for him here because the Indians have a much larger department.”

Asked what sold him on Pare, Anthopoulos said: “The experience, the things he had been doing with the Indians. Having been in a front office for a few years, we weren’t hiring someone who’s green. The transition is really transitioning from the red tape you might have with one organization to another, how they do things, but you can hit the ground running. You’re not trying to show them how databases work, what the baseball etiquette is, things for the draft. He’s involved like he would have been in Cleveland.”

His addition has helped free up Sheehan to take on some of the duties left behind by the departed Sartori, who was never replaced. Assistant GMs Tony LaCava and Andrew Tinnish, head of minor-league operations Charlie Wilson, travel secretary Mike Shaw, baseball operations administrator Heather Connolly and Anthopoulos have also helped to pick up the slack.

As for replacing Sartori, who specialized in contracts and the collective bargaining agreement, nothing is imminent on that front.

“If the skill-set was available, sure, but right now we’re in the season, you rarely do things in the year,” says Anthopoulos. “Maybe in the off-season you look at it.”

The same goes for additions to the analytics department since, “there’s so much information out there and only so much manpower to analyze and study things,” says Anthopoulos.

The Blue Jays also use outside consultants do such work, but “we’re always looking to grow the department and get it better,” he adds. “You just can’t do it as fast as you’d want to.”

“All we’re trying to do is improve our process and improve the speed that the work gets done. People that try to make it more than that, I don’t know that it really is. If you’re not doing it, something is wrong.”

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