The past two July 31 trading periods saw the Texas Rangers trade two pitchers who at one time or another in their careers have been considered among the best in the game.
Yu Darvish, traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2017, and Cole Hamels, traded to the Chicago Cubs in 2018, might not have been performing at their accustomed levels when dealt, but then something happened afterward.
Darvish delivered seven scoreless innings in his first Dodgers start. Hamels was the National League Pitcher of the Month in August after dazzling with the Cubs.
The Darvish performance, until wearing out in the World Series, wasn’t much different than how he had pitched for the Rangers. The Hamels turnaround, though, caught the Rangers’ attention.
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It wasn’t all just a change of environment and being back in contention again.
The Rangers asked themselves why Hamels was pitching so well and why it didn’t happen for them.
“With Cole I definitely asked the question,” general manager Jon Daniels said. “I talked to Cole a little bit about it.”
It was part of the club’s evaluation of their analytics and their decision to upgrade in those areas this off-season. The Rangers have fallen behind.
“There’s probably five or eight clubs that are ahead of the rest of the industry in certain areas,” Daniels said Monday at the GM meetings. “We’ve been in that group before, and we are in certain areas, but on the R&D side we’re not. That’s an area we’re going to look to improve.”
R&D is research and development, which isn’t that simple. So much goes into it, such as creating computer programs to present the information and taking data from various new technologies, that there really isn’t a layman’s way to describe it.
The goal, though, is to take information, give it to the players and, hopefully, see the players and team improve.
The Dodgers and Cubs are considered leaders in the industry, and the two most significant hires made by the Rangers this off-season are manager Chris Woodward from the Dodgers and assistant general manager Shiraz Rehman from the Cubs.
Daniels has almost always hired his front-office circle from within the organization, so the addition of Rehman isn’t insignificant. That he came from the Cubs after a year of essentially troubleshooting where they could be better isn’t insignificant either.
The same goes for Woodward and his ties to the data-driven Dodgers.
The Rangers are playing catch-up and forcing themselves to evolve.
“It’s on-going,” Daniels said. “You should never stop that. You don’t want to have constant turnover, but I think you want to be in a spot where you’re constantly looking to get better both individually and as a group.
“Some of the turnover now is probably the result of having not looked to go external for a number of years. We lost some key people. We’re one of the smaller front-office groups, and we’re looking to supplement that.”
As for Hamels, the Rangers were left to wonder if he received different data from the Cubs or if it was delivered to him in a manner he could better understand.
He threw his four-seam fastball more, which started with the Rangers, but his velocity increased with the Cubs and he started pounding it inside. Hamels said a mechanical tweak accounted for the uptick in velocity, and dumping his sinker and cutter helped him get ahead more often.
There were other changes to his pitch selection after the trade.
The Rangers’ goal is find the right set of data for every player and to simplify it as much as possible. But even then, the player has to be confident that what the numbers are saying will help them improve.
That’s where Woodward’s experience with the Dodgers will come in handy.
“It’s really interesting to see how you come up with those ideas,” Woodward said. “Not only how good the information is but how to relay it to the player. How complicated is it? They need to be understanding of it and what we’ll be doing.
“They’re not going to be the ones digging on the computers and looking at video, but at least they’ll know that the people are doing it to gain this information. There will be a respect factor. It won’t be, ‘It’s just the gurus from upstairs telling us what to do.’ That’s not what happens. They’re trying to give them the best chance at being successful.”
Daniels insists that what is coming isn’t a vast departure from what the Rangers were doing with their data in the past. But he also concedes that the Rangers need to be better at it.
“It’s not that this is new to us,” Daniels said. “It’s just that we’re refining it.”