The Washington Post

The Nationals and analytics, extended cut

In today’s Post, I wrote a story about how the Nationals, a scouting-first operation under Mike Rizzo, view the role of analytics. A lot of it stemmed from a half-hour conversation I had with the two guys most responsible for the Nationals’ work with advanced stats: Director of Baseball Operations Adam Cromie, 29, and Baseball Operations Analyst Samuel Mondry-Cohen, 25.

I simply did not have the space to include everything I found worthwhile to share, especially some of their longer explanations, and so I’m going to dump a lot of interesting things they said here. This may not be for you, but I found it incredibly illuminating. They did not provide much in the way of nuts-and-bolts stats and formulas, but they did provide a fascinating window into how they look at the game and view their role.

First off, they are not two guys in a broom closet pounding away at spreadsheets. They work with people and resources internally and externally to gather information. Their effort doesn’t go into trying to figure out the right questions to ask as much as it does trying to answer questions. A lot of that is done talking with Nationals’ scouts. And a lot of it is done scouring many of the same web sites you may read.

“We are not foolish to think we’re the smartest people in the world,” Cromie said. “We certainly don’t believe that we have all the answers when it comes to analyzing baseball or understanding how the game is played. That’s the approach we try to take in everything.

“On the external part of it, we spend a lot of time monitoring what’s out there publicly. I like to kind of think of it almost as the academy. There’s a lot of peer review in what happens out there publicly. And there’s a lot of really, really smart people in the baseball research community. Those individuals have to have their ideas held up against a really, really difficult lens. When something goes through all of that rigorous examination, it’s difficult not to listen to what comes out of that. The advantages that we have are, we have often have a lot more data and a lot more information than what’s going on externally. We can oftentimes take what’s out there in the public domain and tailor it to those data sets and the things we have internally.”

Mondry-Cohen echoed Cromie in pointing out that data separates the Nationals’ operation from a very smart person working at an analytical web site. Growing up he revered public baseball research, particularly Tom Tango’s The Book, which he literally carried with him everywhere. Once inside an organization, he realized how much the public was missing in proprietary information – much of it gleaned from scouts, or medical reports, or other non-statistical methods.

“I definitely learned  a ton from when I came in,” Mondry-Cohen said. “I certainly was happy to see how things ran within the organization. That was certainly an interesting perspective. I think one of the things that was most interesting was having access to scouting data. One of the biggest gulfs between what’s out there publicly and with the team oftentimes is access to data. One of the most robust data sets we have is scouting data. It was very interesting to get to see that, to get to see how that’s used, to see some of the analytics that run on top of that. I think that was the most eye-opening and the thing I was most excited to see.”

I tried to ask Mondry-Cohen about the analytics they can run on top of scouting data – that is really an interesting notion. The answer, unfortunately, couldn’t be very detailed. “There’s a lot of information in scouting reports,” Mondry-Cohen said. “Part of it’s text. Part of it’s numeric. There’s kind of different ways to read and interpret a scouting report and to combine it with performance data.”

One of Mondry-Cohen’s first responsibilities as an intern was monitoring public baseball research and disseminating a weekly  email about what he thought were the most interesting pieces of research available. He still frequents the same websites as he did then, most of which he has read since high school – Baseball Prospects, FanGRaphs, The Book Blog, Hardball Times, Beyond The Box Score and others.

The research, though, does not always deliver what the Nationals are looking for. They want to find out how players will perform. Along with data, the Nationals’ goals often set their aims apart.

“We’re interested in predictive analytics, not so much descriptive history,” Mondry-Cohen said. “We’re not necessarily trying to decide who’s going to win the MVP. We want to know what a guy is going to do going forward. Sometimes we have different goals than what’s out there publicly. We’ll take an idea that we see out there, and kind of tailor it to our goals, to something that’s predictive.”

The information the Nationals’ analytics staff seeks is not all numeric or statistical. Crunching the numbers is part of what they do. More so, it’s taking those numbers … and scouting reports … and media reports … and organizing the information that distills clutter into useful data.

“It has much less to do with being strictly married to performance information,” Cromie said. “It’s much more about understanding the information. I would say that’s where we excel – it’s really what Sam is very good at. It’s taking any piece of information, whether it’s scouting, whether it’s Nationals Journal blog posts” – (he laughed) – “and understanding that how information can be valuable to our process internally.

“I think our role in the organization more than anything is taking the information that we’ve got and understanding where it best fits in the process, how we can best leverage it. And most importantly, how it’s going to help us get better players and win more baseball games. That’s really what it comes down to. If I had to really capsulize what front-office jobs have become in this day and age, it’s really about understanding what information is out there and how best to use it.”

All of the Nationals’ information would be much less valuable without the database infrastructure Cromie built (which is explained in the story). Cromie credited Rizzo for backing him and providing resources to expand, tweak and improve that database.

“I think this is one of the benefits of having somebody at the top of the organization who’s really supportive of what we do, but who’s also got a scouting background,” Cromie said. “He really has given us the ability to put – and it really is the holy grail of baseball information – to have everything in one place, where you can go and be able to make the decisions, to have all the information you need to have to make a decision. I think that’s how Sam and I conceptualize our jobs to begin with – for the people who are making these big decisions, that we provide to them all the information they need in one place.

“That includes scouting information, video, any analytics It includes a lot of stuff that’s out there publicly, too. We spend a lot of time also tracking what the perception of players is in the public, how the public views players, how the public views us. A lot of what we do and a lot of our job is market evaluation and being able to evaluate both sides of it. What is the perception of a player? How is the player valued in the market as a whole, and then what is his value to us contextually as a team? We spend a lot of time trying to make sure we’ve got all that information in one place to be able to then make a decision.”

Rizzo has also fostered a collaborative environment between the scouts and the analytic guys. Cromie and Mondry-Cohen spend a lot of their time during games in the scout’s section, sitting next to Rizzo or one of the Nationals’ more traditional baseball men.

“Adam and I are both under the age of 30,” Mondry-Cohen said. “What we’re really looking for is information, and we don’t have all of it. So it really is spending time with people like Bill Singer or Bob Boone, Bob Schaefer, Ron Rizzi. The number of people like that who are employed with the team, the team aspect of baseball information, was a pleasant surprise, and something I felt very fortunate and happy to be a part of. Spending time with those people, who have been in the game for 30, 40 years, enables me to do my job better.”

This winter, when the Nationals were “looking heavily at the left-handed relief market,” Cromie said, one Nationals scout came to Cromie with a question that helped drive the Nationals’ search: What is the profile of a left-handed starter who has success after moving into a relief role? Cromie and the scout went back and forth discussing the idea. Mondry-Cohen compiled data to create a target list of left-handed starters who could provide the most value in relief. The Nationals assigned their scouts to evaluate those pitchers up close, with the directive to think, “How would this player fit in a relief role?”

“That’s something that was very much driven by a scout,” Cromie said. “A scout came to us and said, ‘Look, this is kind of to me what a starter who fit into a relief role looks like. What does it look like to you? And how can we put those two things together and come up with a list of players who fit into that profile?’ It was a very interesting project, and I would say the results are very interesting, too.”


The Nationals are “scouting-first,” not scouting only.


Ramos is back, better

Romero heading north

Nats worth $631 million

Video: Nats’ baseball memories

Strasburg winds down

Harper out

Haren compares Harper, Trout


The Nationals will wrap up their Grapefruit League schedule against the Mets at Space Coast Stadium at 1:05 p.m. Gio Gonzalez will start.



Adam Kilgore covers national sports for the Washington Post. Previously he served as the Post's Washington Nationals beat writer from 2010 to 2014.



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Adam Kilgore · March 27, 2013