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The ‘new Nats’ have added more iPads and staff to make data more accessible

Comparing now to his previous stint with the club, Sean Doolittle can see a clear difference in the Nationals' focus on data. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

ATLANTA — The Washington Nationals had iPads before this season. They consulted data, too, with a full analytics department and a brainy video room. But a club built by General Manager Mike Rizzo, a scout’s scout, has been one of the slower to adapt amid the sport’s information boom.

Ask about any player who either leaves for or arrives from another organization. Then take Sean Doolittle, someone who has done both, and see if an increased focus on data and technology is noticeable.

“Yeah, it definitely is,” Doolittle, a 35-year-old reliever, said Monday at Truist Park. “Different things click with different guys, and when you have a more holistic approach like this, where you’re blending the old school and the new school, it helps guys start to see that game plan come together in their head based on their repertoire. It’s been good.”

That’s a start for the Nationals, who have lagged so far behind modern trends that some advancements this season may still feel dated. For example, as of this week, David Higgins is the first member of the Nationals’ research and development team (their analytics operation) to travel with the major league club. His official title is “manager, major league strategy.” And if there seem to be more iPads in the clubhouse and dugout, that’s because the club purchased 20 in the offseason and is being more deliberate about putting them in the players’ hands.

Doolittle, with Washington from 2017 to 2020 before returning in March, smiled while describing more detailed advance reports on hitters. “There’s xWOBA in there with all the heat charts,” Doolittle said. “One way to illustrate this is that on the bus [Tuesday], a bunch of the pitchers were talking about vertical approach angle. That’s a distinct shift.”

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The xWOBA he referenced is expected weighted on-base average, which predicts outcomes using exit velocity, launch angle and a batter’s foot speed instead of looking at the actual outcome without any context. Doolittle said it helps him figure if a hitter does real damage on a certain pitch or in a specific zone. Vertical approach angle measures the angle at which a pitch crosses home plate. Doolittle called it the “next big thing” after spin rate and induced vertical break were popularized in recent years.

Traditional numbers, he concluded, leave a ton to be desired. Same with some of the basic sabermetrics.

“It’s not something I personally live or die by,” starter Erick Fedde said of data on hitters or his own pitches. “But sometimes you want to know from them how your start looked, how a certain pitch played, that sort of stuff. And it’s really nice to have people close by who can answer those questions in a different way.”

Higgins, who has a degree in statistics from Elon University, joined the Nationals as a research and development intern in 2017. He’s not the only addition to the daily operation. Mike Triller, another former intern, was hired back this winter after spending four years as a video manager for the New York Yankees. Triller, who played at Clemson, is now an assistant on Washington’s major league video team, handling technology and sifting through advance information.

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Some new tools include TrackMan cameras in the bullpen at Nationals Park, portable TrackMan devices for the road and iPads filming players’ swings in on-field batting practice. And with Triller aiding those efforts, Kenny Diaz, coordinator of major league video and technology, can devote more attention to relaying information to players. Because Diaz is bilingual, Manager Dave Martinez wants him keying on Spanish-speaking players who have often (and unfairly) been offered less data than their teammates who speak English.

Jon Tosches, promoted to quality assurance coordinator, right on the fringe of the dugout staff, oversees the video and advance scouting department. Tosches also works directly with Jim Hickey (pitching coach) and Henry Blanco (moved from bullpen coach to catching and strategy coach) on opposing hitters and run prevention. Greg Ferguson is in charge of video and data on the Nationals’ offense and opposing pitchers, complementing hitting coach Darnell Coles.

When Coles was hired in October, he told reporters he wanted a “run production coordinator” whose sole job was a mix of what Ferguson, Tosches, Diaz, Triller and Higgins provide. The role sounded prescribed for more progressive teams such as the Tampa Bay Rays, Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants. But the Nationals answered Coles’s call, buzzy title not quite included.

“We’re handing players a lot of information based on them and what their abilities are,” Martinez said. “There is a broader spectrum to everything, but now we’re trying to home in on the individual and what they’re really good at, how they can succeed each and every game. That’s kind of nice that we’re able to get these iPads out to them and they can see what they can do against certain hitters based on information that we get. And Dave Higgins is here to help them go through that, as well.”

How does this translate to on-field strategy? Roster moves? Lineup construction? To be determined as the season takes off.

The Nationals used data in past decision-making processes, even if it was not nearly as present. But giving Higgins a seat on the team plane, and full and normalized access to the clubhouse, does seem like more than a cosmetic shift. As a whole, the research and development team is back to its pre-pandemic size of 12 staffers. Before Monday’s win over the Braves, Higgins sat in a conference room off Martinez’s office, tapping away on his MacBook. Hickey, an old-school coach who has been quietly praised for his handle on data, sat nearby.

At one point, Diaz walked with an iPad in each hand, seeking out the recipients. Steve Cishek, a veteran reliever signed in March, sat at his locker and scrolled through TruMedia, an extensive data platform. His screen lit up with heat maps of Atlanta’s hitters. Sitting a few feet away on a couch, Andres Machado, another reliever, used his iPad to watch video of a homer he allowed to Braves outfielder Adam Duvall in 2021. Then he quickly found a better result from when he pitched for the Kansas City Royals, seeking any difference in his mechanics.

“The new Nats, baby,” said a grinning team staffer in the hallway. “Look at all those devices!”

Some players, such as Doolittle, will seek out Higgins, Diaz and Tosches for a lot of information. Doolittle knows that to get the optimal vertical approach angle on his fastball he has to release the ball between 6 feet and 6 feet 1 inch off the ground. The side point of his release should be a hair over two feet from his body. The portable TrackMan spits out these numbers, keeping Doolittle from subconsciously adjusting on days his arm or body is tired.

He knows not all of his teammates want to go that in-depth. Fedde, for one, is looking to even the usage of his pitches, requiring simpler calculations. But the suggestion was made by the coaching staff, which gleaned it from those crunching data. In his solid start against the New York Mets on Sunday, Fedde unknowingly threw 25 sinkers, 25 cutters, 25 breaking balls and 12 change-ups. He was pleased with that breakdown. His mix was similar Friday night in a strong five-inning outing in Pittsburgh.

“For a long time, guys just felt like the data was out there but they weren’t getting it, and then it was maybe just being used down the road against them to make roster moves or lessen their value in arbitration cases and stuff like that,” Doolittle said. “But I think the Nats are starting to use it in a more proactive way during the season, and I can already tell it’s different. I think now we’re in a space where they’re able to break it down and meet the guy where he is.”

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