Nationals Magazine: A Numbers Game
A version of this story first appeared in the Washington Nationals’ 2014 Yearbook. Visit nationals.com/publications to find out how you can subscribe to all Nationals publications.
by Amanda Comak
The Nationals’ Baseball Research & Development department, utilizing the latest technology, statistics and advanced analysis, drives the organization to forge a new, smarter way forward.
Leaning on the dugout railing at Arizona’s Chase Field in mid-May, Phil Rizzo gazed at the Washington Nationals as they took batting practice. He talked ball with those nearest to him, sharing some of his observations about the team his son — Nationals President of Baseball Operations and General Manager Mike Rizzo — had built, and the first six weeks of their season.
At one point, Sam Mondry-Cohen, the Nationals’ Director of Baseball Research & Development, joined the small gathering.
Phil Rizzo, a baseball lifer who’s spent more of his 84 years evaluating ballplayers than he has doing pretty much anything else, lit up.
“This is the smartest guy around,” Rizzo said, smiling and reaching to throw an arm around Mondry-Cohen.
Much like his father, Mike Rizzo is a scout at his core. What his eyes tell him — what his experience tells him — will often be the trump card when he makes decisions to guide the organization, now and in the future.
But there is another side of that decision-making process and it involves more than just the eyes. The Nationals have taken a proactive approach to incorporating data analysis into their evaluations, and their three-man analyst team — led by Assistant GM & Director of Baseball Operations Adam Cromie, and filled out by Mondry-Cohen and Manager of Baseball Research & Development Michael Debartolo — plays an integral role in how the organization operates.
And as the scene between the elder Rizzo and the 26-year-old Mondry-Cohen so aptly illustrated, they’re also welcome additions at the table.
“Mike embraces what we do,” Cromie said. “He asks good questions and he puts us in a place where we’re central to a lot of the decisions (the team) makes. Other people in the organization see that and that helps lend us credibility.
“I think one of the things Mike really embraces about the way that we look at the game is that there’s a definitive line of reasoning with everything we do. We’re pointing to evidence, almost exclusively. I think there’s something, by nature, which lends credibility to that.”
Cromie studied economics at Allegheny College, while playing Division III football, before pursuing his masters in Sports Management from the University of Massachusetts. He came to the Nationals after working for Baseball Info Solutions as a video scout and analyst, spending time employed by an agent, and interning for the Washington Wild Things in the Frontier League.
When he began working for the Nationals, there wasn’t much of an analytics department to speak of.
“(When I first got here) it was just Adam,” said Mondry-Cohen, who joined the Nationals as an intern while studying English at the University of Pennsylvania. “He was the only one whose job was really dedicated to working with data, whereas now I think that’s part of all three of our jobs, and the majority of my job and Mike (DeBartolo’s).”
The son of a high school math teacher, Mondry-Cohen had two main interests as a kid: baseball and numbers. Living what he calls “a very charmed baseball life,” Mondry-Cohen worked as a batboy in the visiting clubhouse in San Francisco and he’d see the teams that would come in to play the Giants up-close-and-personal.
“The way I followed the game was the numbers of the game,” Mondry-Cohen explained. “That kind of coincided with the explosion of baseball blogs and baseball research published online. I was just a big fan and that was the way I followed the game.”
With Mondry-Cohen aboard full-time upon his graduation, Cromie’s role expanded to encompass more than data analysis. Cromie is now involved in every player personnel move the team makes.
“When I first started, I was doing analysis and research,” Cromie said. “As we started to build tools and analytical systems, it started to give me time to do other things. Then I hired Sam, Sam hired Mike, and we’ve got a lot of consultants we work with now.”
In 2012, after four years at an investment consulting firm and in the midst of completing his MBA at Columbia University, DeBartolo joined the organization as an intern.
An economics major at Tufts University, DeBartolo grew up in baseball-mad Boston following the Red Sox — and noticing as their front office personnel began to shift.
“It was around the time that some executives with non-traditional backgrounds were getting into the game,” said DeBartolo, who was hired full-time by the Nationals in November of 2013. “And that was always kind of a dream of mine.”
DeBartolo’s addition gave the group yet another mind from which to draw, and to divide up a workload that has only continued to increase.
“I think the tasks that we do as an analytics group fall into three categories,” Cromie said. “There are broad strategic issues, ad-hoc projects and general research.
“We have a lot of input on the broad strategy we adopt as a team on almost every level: how do we want to spend resources? Where do we want to spend resources? I think a lot of that falls out of how competitive we think we are, and one of our strengths is being able to analyze that.”
What separates the Nationals’ analytics team from, say, the fan who accesses advanced statistics in myriad places online, is the information they have to complement those numbers. In truth, it may actually be the other way around: the statistics complement the wealth of internal information the organization gathers.
“We’d call it a process-driven box score,” Cromie said.
Across the organization — including Minor League affiliates — the Nationals have installed tracking systems that measure everything from the traditional PITCHf/x information (utilized by live game trackers like MLB.com’s At-Bat app to plot balls and strikes) as well as a radar technology called TrackMan.
“That gives us data that’s not available in a box score,” Mondry-Cohen said. “Some of it a scout could pick up with a radar gun, like pitch velocity, but one thing they can’t get is the exit velocity of a hit ball. We know what some of the hardest-hit balls were, and whether or not they turned into hits.”
The technology goes deeper still.
At all levels of their system, including the Major Leagues, the Nationals can evaluate a pitcher’s release point in three dimensions throughout the game to note changes, like how the rotation of their pitches or velocity was affected when they altered their release point.
Used in conjunction with other internal information, like medical reports from the team’s training staff, the group can put together a far more accurate analysis of the data than someone operating off the numbers alone. That the Nationals have access to all of it exemplifies the organization’s interest in the information.
“It costs a lot to install these technologies at these affiliates,” Mondry-Cohen said. “And that’s not something we had five or six years ago. That’s something ownership has invested in. The only reason we have (a lot of these) measurements is because of the technology we’ve paid to install.”
The task then falls to Cromie, Mondry-Cohen and DeBartolo to process the information and turn it into something the entire front office can understand and absorb.
On any given game night, Cromie, Mondry-Cohen and DeBartolo will watch from one of three spots: the GM’s suite, the scout seats in the stands, or at their desks, which have televisions within view. How much they each watch varies.
“There was a time when I made an effort not to watch the games,” Cromie said. “I’ve really gotten away from that, largely because I think I’ve come around to the idea that a lot of the things we do can really inform the way you watch a game and make it more enjoyable.”
“For me, it’s very difficult to just watch the game,” DeBartolo said. “Every once in a while I find myself drifting into a fandom where I’m rooting for something to happen, but I think a lot of times we’re thinking through and watching closely the approach of a player, fielding position, all of the decision making that can happen. I think it’s less about a rooting sense and more a sense of evaluating.”
In Spring Training, the group had multiple meetings with Nationals Manager Matt Williams and his staff as they got to know one another and discuss philosophies. The exchange of ideas was another step.
“They’ve been extremely open,” Mondry-Cohen said of Williams and his staff. “They’ve wanted as much data as they can get and I think the things that they want are kind of allied with some of the things Mike (Rizzo) likes — predictive statistics, as opposed to history. They’re asking for more decision-making tools and we’re happy that they’re asking for it.”
“I think Matt views statistical analysis as a tool and as a new manager he wants every tool at his disposal that he can have,” DeBartolo added. “I have great respect for that, for being open-minded and trying to get every advantage he can have.”
The calendar dictates the more detailed work that the group does. In early May, they prepare for the MLB First-Year Player Draft. As the All-Star break approaches, they’re assessing the team’s strengths and weaknesses, and identifying potential trade partners in advance of the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline. As the calendar inches toward fall, their focus turns toward the postseason, then free agency and the rest of the offseason — working to hone their projections and convey them properly.
Regardless of the specifics, all of the data they’re gathering and digesting on a daily basis will be utilized.
And, in the process, they’re continuing to evolve an organization built on the bedrock of scouting and player development by augmenting and improving those evaluations. The Nationals are a scouting-first organization, and there is no desire to replace the boots-on-the-ground work of those trusted scouts.
The hope is the work Cromie, Mondry-Cohen and DeBartolo do will only serve to complement and support it.
“It’s not (Rizzo’s) forte, conducting data-based research,” Mondry-Cohen said. “He’s a scout — a great scout — and that’s where he came up. But even if it’s not his forte, I think it’s something he really has interest in. He definitely wants it to be a part of his process. I think we’ve grown together, but he’s always been interested. He’s such a baseball guy. We’re researching baseball.”
“It’s a two-way street,” Cromie added. “We’ve learned a lot from him, too.”