Mike Trout sprang into action on the first ball put into play during his first spring-training game this year, a liner to left-center field off the bat of Oakland’s Billy Burns.
Trout took the ideal quick first step, in a burst reached peak speed, and made the catch at full sprint.
The next morning, Angels Manager Mike Scioscia used the play as evidence that advanced metrics were way off base when they rated his center fielder’s defense as average last season.
“His last five steps closing to that ball, you’re never going to see anybody faster,” Scioscia said. “It was unbelievable.”
Scioscia insists he incorporates analytics into his managing, but his complaint on Trout’s behalf is just one example of behavior that prompts suspicions that he is still an old-school baseball man at heart.
Billy Eppler, the Angels’ new general manager, is attempting to position himself in the middle of any debate over analytics. He says he has no doubts about Scioscia’s willingness and ability to evaluate all forms of data.
At a SABR Analytics Conference here on Friday, he called Scioscia an “information savant,” and said he and the manager are continually sharing ideas and challenging each other’s thoughts. There are no sides within the Angels, according to Eppler, who has an analogy for everything.
To emphasize the importance of objectivity and open-mindedness within an organization, he imagines a boardroom meeting at the Blockbuster offices in 1998 after Netflix was founded. How did they not recognize the force that was coming?
To explain how he envisions the ideal relationship between front office and field staff, he compares the manager and field staff to diners, himself and his lieutenants to nutritionists, and the Angels’ new analytics employees to chefs.
If you could know anything in the world about your opponent, what would you want to know? If we’re presented with that opportunity to create it, we will.
“They’re going to bake certain meals and certain plates,” Eppler said. “We’re going to show what those plates and what that meal can be like: ‘This is what happens if you put this in your body. This is what happens if you do this. And what do you want?’
“We’re not gonna say, ‘You’re gonna eat broccoli.’ We’re gonna say, ‘Broccoli can do this, beets can do this, almonds can do this, lean meat can do this. What do you think can help you? Why? How do you want to do this?’”
He continued, his cadence quickening.
“Even better, dream a meal up,” Eppler said. “Because there is no doubt that we have the intellectual firepower to create whatever your mind can dream up. Usually when you ask that type of question, they’re not ready to answer it. Or they answer it really quickly. And I’m like, ‘No, no, no, no, no. Answer this tomorrow. Go home, sleep on it, think about it. If you could know anything in the world about your opponent, what would you want to know?’ If we’re presented with that opportunity to create it, we will.”
On stage, Eppler, a former New York Yankees executive, discussed advice he once received from Alex Rodriguez: “Tell the players what you value, and they’ll make themselves that way.”
Later, he compared Scioscia’s approach to analytics to that of Chicago Cubs Manager Joe Maddon.
“You can’t deny numbers when they want to speak to you,” Maddon said last week when asked about defensive metrics. “But I already know who’s good. We all know who’s good.
If you can accumulate enough information about that guy and tell me why he’s going to be good in advance of him being good, that’s where I like the numbers.
“A lot of this stuff, I get it, I’m into it, but I think the eyeball test will tell you that [the Angels’ Andrelton] Simmons is a good shortstop, that [the Cubs’] Addison Russell is a good shortstop, that Jason Heyward is a good right fielder. I think those kinds of numbers are for the guy who is not so obvious, the guy who hasn’t made his mark yet.
“And if you can accumulate enough information about that guy and tell me why he’s going to be good in advance of him being good, that’s where I like the numbers.”
Eppler said he was happy with that. He agreed that the biggest impact analytics can have is on player evaluation. And he expressed hope the questions about Scioscia would cease.
“The analytics vs. scouting thing, it’s so tired,” he said. “It’s so East Coast-West Coast rap. Uncle. Uncle, you know what I mean?
“It’s almost like you have to be Republican or Democrat. Are you East Coast rap or West Coast? Are you for stats or are you for scouting? I don’t know. Can I really be in between? Because I am.
“It’s only black and white. Nobody wants gray, but gray’s the best. That’s what makes this game great. There is no absolute.”
Follow Pedro Moura on Twitter: @pedromoura