(Photo via Bryan Green, Flickr Creative Commons)
College teams are starting to implement analytical programs to get ahead of their competition. As a result, we are seeing more on field improvements coming directly from the usage of these databases. Teams are seeing an upgrade in their programs and are moving from using no analytics at all to using programs such as Right View Pro and BATS for video and TrackMan and PitchGrader for statistical analysis of pitch-by-pitch data.
Teams that are typically able to incorporate these types of programs are usually schools in bigger conferences such as the SEC, Big 12, and ACC. These schools tend to have much larger budgets for their baseball programs. This allows the coaching staff to spend more on analytical components to help develop their student-athletes. The schools with larger budgets will spend on programs that provide vital data. Some will hire analysts or video coordinators to run the programs and perform data analysis and visualization.
There has already been an increase in hiring player development and quality control staff, who are liaisons between the support staff that work with raw data and the coaching staff. These coaches are able to interpret the data, put it into clearer terms for other coaches and student-athletes.
Even with the big disparity in the difference in budgets between larger and smaller conferences, Division I teams can also only allocate a maximum of 11.7 full scholarships each year. If smaller schools are planning to offer players full rides, it will cut into their budget significantly, and thus, once again makes it more difficult for them to allocate resources to analytics.
According to DIYCollegeRankings, a website that offers data on every college’s budget, the top 25 NCAA Division I schools with the largest expenses – which including but not limited to salaries, benefits, equipment, and travel – were all from large conferences. Eleven of the schools were from the SEC, five were from the Big 12, five were from the ACC, three were from the Pac 12, and one was from Conference USA. Fourteen of those schools have jumped on the analytics bandwagon and have hired full time staff members that deal with data on a daily basis. On the other hand, zero of the schools that have D-I’s lowest 25 expenses are having anything to do with analytics. Even if a coaching staff at smaller schools are interested in data and advanced metrics, they won’t be able to dive that deep into it because of the budget limitations.
Larger schools such as LSU and Texas, for example, are able to utilize their support staff (not to mention have a support staff) in order to help with player development. With the video programs such as BATS and advanced tracking systems like TrackMan, player development staff will be able to gather information on how much an opposing hitter pulls the ball to one side of the field and make a suggestion to the coaching staff about potentially shifting infielders against him in upcoming games. Meanwhile, schools like Coppin State stick to the four-coach system – a head coach, two assistants, and a volunteer. They don’t have any support staff helping them decide which opposing players they should shift on as they prepare for each series.
Infield shifts are becoming increasingly important and are highly correlated with saving runs. According to Baseball Info Solutions, there were 26,705 shifts used by MLB teams in the 2017 season, or an average of over 10 shifts per game. These shifts directly saved 346 runs and have significantly increased since 2013. That year, teams shifted 6,882 times which led to 117 shift runs saved, which was even more than in 2010, when there were 2,463 shifts and 25 shift runs saved.
Because of the popularity of the shift in Major League Baseball and the increasing usage of analytics in college, CBBSN scouts were asked about how often coaches were using shifts. Of the 45 scouts surveyed, 80 percent responded with zero or one shift per game, and 49 percent answered that they had not seen a single shift. This means that almost half of the scouts were not witnessing any shifts or were seeing teams that were not very analytically inclined. These scouts were most likely following schools that did not have large budgets and possibly have coaches that are not interested in the new age of analytics and video. This is an issue because although it is prevalent at the MLB and minor league level, many college teams are still not allocating their resources to try and develop their student athletes using analytics.
Teams that play in smaller conferences and schools will also be at a big disadvantage when playing teams that are routinely using analytics and video advance scouting to prepare for their opponents. These teams will be collecting and disseminating data through their analytics programs in preparation for games. However, smaller schools will tend to only make educated guesses of how hitters should prepare for pitchers and how they should position themselves defensively. Because they are guessing at how their opponents are playing, teams with a more analytical background will tend to score more runs against them and ultimately have a greater chance of winning games.
Only 20 percent of the CBBSN scouts have witnessed a minimum of three shifts per game, far below the MLB average of 10. However, just under nine percent of the scouts have been seeing at least five shifts per game. While rare, infield shifts in college baseball are not completely absent.
In another poll, CBBSN scouts were asked about the pitch framing ability of catchers that they were following. Of the 40 scouts that responded, half said that the catchers they were watching were MLB average. However, another 35 percent of the scouts responded that the catchers that they watched were below average. This means even though there are some decent defensive catchers at the college level, many still require the receiving skills necessary to be an above average backstop.
Again, what would separate those other 15 percent of catchers would be the use of analytical and data visualization programs. Data from TrackMan can be used to create hot and cold zone graphs of the strike zone. This gives the catchers a good understanding of which parts of the zone that they need to improve upon, which they can practice during their early work.
Teams that have the technology and the forward thinking minds have been carefully examining how the use of shifts and catcher framing can affect game preparation and player development. Coaches now, more than ever are adapting to a new role where they need to be able to comprehend the data that comes out of programs such as BATS or TrackMan, and explain it to the student-athletes that play for their college.
One of the biggest issues regarding analytics is baseball coaches’ reluctance to change. One Patriot League coach admitted to still using phone cameras to record videos of his players for player development and of the opposition for advance scouting. He also mentioned how his coaching staff doesn’t even do it consistently, but if his team had a state of the art video system, he would use it regularly without hesitation. His main obstacle is that his team does not have the budget for it.
BATS and TrackMan are the most expensive options, but there are plenty of cheaper options as well when it comes to baseball analytics systems. Right View Pro is a full fledged video and analytics program that comes much cheaper than the top of the line systems, but will absolutely get the job done. Rapsodo is a similar version of TrackMan, except it costs around $3,000 instead of costing almost $20,000. And then there is iScore. iScore is a free service that lets someone manually chart a game and will include all data from pitch type, velocity, and batted ball type. The data can then be exported into Excel or .csv file types so that it can be analyzed.
There really is no excuse for a college baseball team to not have any analytics implemented in all parts of their program. Smaller conferences may have much smaller budgets and typically do not have any sort of advanced metrics programs. However, there are becoming many more cheaper options out there for them and soon enough, many of the smaller conferences will be integrating shifts and advanced catcher framing metrics into their everyday development of student-athletes.