By Matthew Budkofsky
Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle was answering questions about handling superstar Andrew McCutchen during the season the other day, when out of nowhere he referenced the Golden State Warriors being the inspiration for his managerial strategy and how he would approach resting his stud. Hurdle said,
“I read an interesting article a while ago on the Golden State Warriors, how they get maximum production with their players. They’re actually playing less, and they’re playing better collectively as a group.”
and that statement got some people thinking about the use of analytical studies throughout professional sports.
Analytics have become a bigger and bigger part of sports over the past few years. Technology has allowed us to track every aspect of every play. In basketball, we are now able to track where every player is on the court at every moment. From this tracking we can garner statistics like speed and distance traveled, and the number of touches each player gets while on the court. We can even dive a little deeper to see things like defensive impact, rebounding opportunities and scoring opportunities that were created by certain players. These are all things that never show up in the box score, but are now statistics that we have access to.
When taking a look at the whole ‘less is more’ strategy, nobody has done it better than Greg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs are notorious for resting their core players throughout the regular season in order to be physically ready for the playoffs. Well, now the Golden State Warriors are the best team in the Western Conference and MVP candidate Stephen Curry leads them. Warriors Head coach Steve Kerr seems to have noticed the sustained excellence of the Spurs, and implemented their winning strategy into his own gameplan. When you look at how well Steph Curry is doing this season, one thing that jumps out to me is how much time he is playing. Curry averages 33 minutes per game, which is tied for 38th in the whole league. More importantly, that means that Steph isn’t even playing a full 3 quarters on a nightly basis. Steve Kerr knows that it is in his best interest, as well as the teams best interest not to over exert his best player; because Steph Curry is the reason the Warriors are a competitor for the championship this season.
So if the strategy has worked so well in basketball, why not try it out in baseball? Every team typically uses a 5-man pitching rotation in order to allow their guys to recover after each start. If a team were to use a 4-man rotation, people would be curious as to why and I’m sure after a while of losing the extra day of rest the pitchers would be tired. Once the pitchers get tired they would most likely get shelled by big league hitters, which is why you don’t see teams using less than a 5 man rotation very often. But the point I’m trying to make here is that if pitchers are rested, and if a team uses a 5-man rotation, and a pitcher makes every scheduled start, that pitcher would only start 32 of the 162 regular season games. So, why are positional players expected to play in all 162 games?
In his career, Andrew McCutchen averages about 147 games per year. For the Pirates, that means they are getting 147 starts out of McCutchen, while getting 15 starts from a backup. From an overall production standpoint, you might be able to get more out of 140 starts by McCutchen and 22 starts from a backup. The upside to all of the extra rest is that McCutchen will feel fresh throughout the year, and if the Pirates make the playoffs, he won’t be so burnt out from the rigorous 5-month schedule.
We have seen teams like the Oakland A’s change the way baseball is played, and teams are always looking for innovative ways to achieve success. Analytics are still continuing to grow, and it’s about time people are starting to take notice. Using analytics to help create game plans could pay huge dividends to franchises that use it correctly, and Clint Hurdle could be the start of it.