“Collaboration” is the jargon du jour in Major League Baseball. In the best and healthiest sense, collaboration means the front office and coaching staff work together, without the outdated notion of a wall between the executive suite and the clubhouse. In the most controversial sense, at least within the clubhouse, collaboration means a turf war in which the front office dictates lineups and strategy to the manager.
Analytics often serve as an impetus for collaboration. If a pitcher is slumping, a team can do more than ask the pitching coach to look at some old videos, or supervise extra work in the bullpen. Data analysts can pinpoint which pitches might be thrown too often, or not enough, or to poor locations. Biomechanics experts can detect a mechanical flaw that might be invisible to the naked eye.
Once the game starts, however, should the decisions be left solely to the manager?
This question is not limited to MLB. In 2016, the Cleveland Browns hired Paul DePodesta as chief strategy officer. DePodesta, a former general manager of the Dodgers, was the second-in-command in the Billy Beane-run Oakland Athletics front office that inspired the book “Moneyball.”
The Browns have not had a winning record in any of the four seasons since then. They are onto a third general manager since then, and fourth coach.
On Sunday, the Browns decided to hire Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski as their latest head coach, without the new general manager in place.
Stefanski “made it clear he was willing to yield to certain DePodesta standards, such as an analytics person with a head set and access to the coaching staff on game days,” the Canton (Ohio) Repository reported.
Dustin Fox, an analyst on the Browns’ broadcasts, reported on Twitter that “candidates also had to agree to turn in game plans to the owner and analytics department by Friday, and to attend an end-of-week analytics meeting to discuss their plan.”
That is not to say that plays scripted in advance cannot work. NFL Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh famously scripted his opening plays for the San Francisco 49ers, largely to see how opposing defenses would react.
But how far analytical collaboration extends into the NFL could well be determined by the success or failure of DePodesta’s Browns.