Do WBC teams have analytics? How they’re navigating the tournament with data, instinct and ‘scouting from 3 days ago’

PHOENIX. Jeff McNeil thought that the last time he met with a pitcher was without first reading the scout report.

“Double five or high five,” he said, before quickly amending it. “Even back then, we didn’t have much.

In a way, this makes the World Baseball Classic an anomaly. When Team USA faced Great Britain, Mexico, Canada and (Wednesday night) Columbia in Phoenix this week, major league batters faced pitchers with no pro innings under their belts.

In this era of baseball, this can make a player feel, as the members of the Mexican national team put it, “naked.”

This is why national teams have put together makeshift “front office” headquarters to give their players some comfort and cover, and perhaps even a competitive edge. For a variety of reasons, it’s not the same as it would be in a 162-game MLB season, but the teams in this WBC do there is analytics.

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Simon Rosenbaum has been with Team Israel longer than with the Tampa Bay Rays, the only major league organization he ever worked for.

“That’s true,” he said when it was pointed out to him. “I never looked at it like that.

He first interned with the Rays in 2017, combining his degree in economics and mathematics from Pomona College with baseball experience. As these skills spread to the baseball front offices, he worked his way up to assistant director of minor league operations and baseball development. In the meantime, he played for the national team of Israel, where his father was born, starting in 2014. As you can imagine, there was little analytical information.

“It was just the players and the coaches, and sometimes it’s the same thing,” Rosenbaum said. “It was sort of a throwback to Little League or the travel ball.”

Nearly a decade later, when Israel competes in the second-ever World Baseball Championship, everything has changed.

“No one thinks about it more than the Israeli team. That’s for sure,” Rosenbaum said.

He then fired off a list of passionate baseball analysts who had contributed to the team’s preparation, including scouts and front office personnel from the Baltimore Orioles, Los Angeles Dodgers, and San Diego Padres. Since the end of last season, they have been working on scouting reports for the rest of Pool D, which includes Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Nicaragua.

For teams that boast rosters full of established MLB stars, there’s a lot of information to work with. In that sense, Israel is lucky to have faced many formidable All-Stars in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Venezuela (in another, perhaps much more important sense, it was very short-lived to be stuck in this particular sector of the pool game). But when it came to Nicaragua, the pre-work was a little more difficult.

“Just because they have so many players who don’t play affiliated baseball,” Rosenbaum said. “We just find what we can get, whether it’s watching videos or reading the results of the winter league.”

Until now, this has been a common problem for front office employees from the major leagues who have been contributing to the WBC behind the scenes. (Team USA declined to provide any information about its analytic training or the people involved.)

“Great Britain, I think some of the newcomers have never played pro ball,” said Cory Swope, who works for Mexico during the tournament. “These guys were a little more complex and we kind of go old school and rely a little more on instinct in that way.”

Swope used to be the baseball technology coordinator for the Arizona Diamondbacks, but in January he was hired by Gil Velasquez, the D-backs’ defensive coordinator and one of several D-backs coaches on the Mexican national team.

“I feel like it’s my responsibility to provide the coaching staff with as much information as they may need,” Swope said.

That is, with some minor restrictions. Both he and Rosenbaum clarified that they kept some of the information they received from their core organizations secret.

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Somewhere between collecting data and relying on intuition is trying to learn about the teams they face as the WBC unfolds. “Definitely some intelligence from three days ago,” Swope said.

Of course, in a tournament environment, everything you learn is only applicable for a short time. Instead of three or four game streaks played several times over a long season, WBC teams face each other only once, both in pool play and knockout rounds. What can analytics tell you about what to do with such a small sample?

“A new guy coming out of the bullpen that you’ll probably only see once in this whole tournament,” said Chris Adamson, a Philadelphia Phillies minor leagues coach and former Australian Baseball League player who is now on Team Australia. “So just trying to help encapsulate some information to give them a plan to attack the bat that’s coming.”

“I think the way I look at it is, whatever you’re going to do, what you think is your best over 162 games, that’s probably going to be your best four-game or one-game strategy,” Rosenbaum said.

“We have players who have moved away from professional baseball for a few years, and I think the data has definitely changed in the last half century or decade. So it’s about creating a language that they can understand and just trying to give them a nugget or two,” said Josh Spence, a pitching coach at the Milwaukee Brewers who also works with Team Australia. “You’d like to think it gives them a competitive advantage.”

After all, every inch can matter – even or especially those taken away on opening day. The WBC does not play under the new rules introduced by MLB this season, including the pitching timer, big bases, and defensive position restrictions.

“So we have to work hard,” Swope said.

With the end of the pool game on Wednesday, the Israeli team was already mathematically eliminated (despite the trust in its brain). But before his team’s fate was sealed, Rosenbaum thought that any defensive formation he might prescribe mattered only as much as the moment of the game in which it was deployed.

“Hopefully we are the last team to ever change. It means we played the last WBC game and gave ourselves a chance to win,” he said. “So that would be cool.


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