For data-driven Oakland A's, the 'IT coach' sets the defense

For eight years, A's coach Tye Waller has been collecting data on opposing players and methodically building an application that gives the team an advantage on defense and on the bases.

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A's coaches Tye Waller (left) and Curt Young laugh as they explain the 'Tye Solution,' the scouting system Waller built to help the A's gain an advantage over higher-salaried opponents. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

OAKLAND, Calif. -- There's no crying in baseball, but what about in FileMaker?

In Ron Shelton's 1988 film "Bull Durham" a minor-league manager, frustrated with his team's uninspired, "lollygagging" performance, summed up the simplicity of baseball: "You throw the ball, you hit the ball, and you catch the ball." He clearly wasn't competing with well-financed, highly tuned teams in the second decade of the 21st century.

These days, most major-league clubs employ advance scouts who travel around the country looking for clues about the subtleties of how the next teams on the schedule play: Where does the right fielder usually hit the ball when he swings at an inside fastball? How deep does the third baseman hit the ball when he takes a cut at a two-strike slider? How often does the catcher strike out on curve balls in the dirt? And so on. Even in 2014, most scouts deliver updates to the home club with paper reports and even index cards that coaches then use when preparing for their teams' future opponents.

Oakland A's: High tech meets the national pastime

But watch an Oakland A's game and notice where the fielders are positioned on each pitch, how the pitcher throws the ball to each hitter, or how big a lead an A's runner takes off first base. You're seeing the result of analysis culled from a deep and well-established one-of-a-kind database built by hand over the last eight years by first-base and outfield coach Tye Waller. It's known, for lack of an official name, as the "Tye Solution," and yes, it's a FileMaker database.

The A's, of course, have long epitomized the use of data to get the most out of their (usually) low-paid players. The team's general manager, after all, is Billy Beane, the data nerd protagonist at the heart of Michael Lewis' book "Moneyball" who was played by Brad Pitt in the subsequent film of the same name.

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In a sport where the top two highest annual payrolls belong to the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees -- $235.3 million and $203.8 million, respectively, according to the sports blog Deadspin -- it's the A's, with the sixth-lowest payroll, at $83.4 million, who not only have the best record in baseball in 2014 but also more wins since the beginning of the 2012 season than any other team.

The team's ability to get the most out of young players, or those who were castoffs from other teams -- in other words, cheaper players -- has long been at the core of its winning strategy, even as clubs like the Dodgers and Yankees build by signing the most expensive free agents.

Beane doesn't try to keep his methods a secret, at least not at a high level. In a July 7 Wall Street Journal op-ed he wrote that baseball "has always been a game of insiders, played by those who could hit, run, field and throw a certain way, and managed by those who played well enough to eventually earn the keys to the front office. The old ideas of who should play in the big leagues, and who should decide who should play, will be replaced with new ideas. Having advanced performance data at even the most junior levels will make it less likely that players get filtered out based on 60-yard-dash times or radar-gun readings, and more likely that they advance on the merits of practiced skills."

For the A's, then, winning requires every advantage the team can find. From off-season analysis that leads to signing lesser-known players who get on base a lot despite a lack of flashy home run totals, to identifying players who don't waste at-bats by swinging at bad pitches, every little thing can make the difference in winning and losing a few key games over a six-month, 162-game season.

The A's winning record even relies on positioning its defensive players and deciding what pitches to throw based on number-crunching done in a FileMaker database created by Waller, a 27-year coach who himself had just 26 hits spread over four major league seasons in the 1980s.

A's manager Bob Melvin, who played in the majors for 10 years, and who has been a big-league skipper since 2003, lauded Waller's knowledge of technology, and how it's helped the team. "It's very unique that someone as well-versed as he is in this game" knows so much about tech, Melvin said. "He's our IT coach."

For Waller, it's just about using the best tools available to win.

"I'm an old-school guy with a new-school spin," Waller said. "Some people might consider me a geek, but I just consider myself a baseball guy trying to make a difference on the field."

From sewage to the playoffs

I'm sitting in the press conference room at the O.co Coliseum, the A's outdated, creaky home since moving to California from Kansas City in 1968, waiting to speak with Waller and A's pitching coach Curt Young. The team may have won its division in 2012 and 2013 and be in first place this year, but its multiple playoff appearances and lofty win totals aren't matched by posh facilities.

Stories of sewage flooding the team's clubhouse and low attendance plague the team. The area where players and coaches meet the media after games is a dank former janitors' break room with 20 seats crammed into a narrow space underneath lots of exposed ventilation pipes. You sort of expect to see rats scurrying by, but thankfully the only small critter at the Coliseum recently has been the so-called "Rally Possum," an opossum that showed up on the field during two games earlier this month.

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Waller explains more about how his database system works. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

But when Waller, a 6-foot-tall 57-year-old former major-league player sporting a very short salt-and-pepper goatee walks into the room, you'd never know this wasn't the plush confines of Yankee Stadium. Wearing a black T-shirt that reads "Spring Training '14," white baseball pants and white and green Nikes with green laces, Waller smiles broadly, a genuine expression of his friendly and courteous demeanor.

Sitting at a table at the front of the room, Waller explains how during the latter part of his 19 years as a coach in the San Diego Padres' system, he'd started to experiment with collecting data about opposing players -- where they hit the ball, what kind of pitches they liked to hit, what counts they laid off sliders, and so forth -- in a rudimentary Windows-based Microsoft Access database.

When Waller joined the A's in 2007, he brought his data with him. He also switched to Macs, and transferred his data from Access to FileMaker. With help from Indiana database expert and baseball fanatic Kevin Hammond, Waller methodically built the Tye Solution.

Drilling into the data

Even for a lifelong baseball fan like me, who as a teenager could rattle off just about every stat about any player, the nitty-gritty of the Tye Solution was over my head. But at its core, the system lets Waller, as well as pitching coach Young, third-base coach Mike Gallego and bullpen coach Darren Bush, drill way, way down to see how any opposing player performs in any of baseball's countless situations.

The database -- which Waller accesses on his Mac, iPad or iPhone, depending on where he is when he needs to look up something -- holds data on 1,340 position players (non-pitchers) and more than 2,000 pitchers. It allows him and the other coaches to quickly look up any player on any other team, and to easily add or delete players from teams' rosters when, as often happens, they're traded or released. The same is true when a team brings up a new player from the minor leagues.

The system is built around sophisticated cross-referencing, letting Waller see, for example, how Yankees outfielder Carlos Beltran hits against right-handed pitchers, against left-handed pitchers or with runners in scoring position. When Waller clicks through on a Beltran stat, he can add a note, drop in video and see Beltran's performance in recent games. "I want to know who's hot and who's not," Waller said.

The goal is to have the best-possible idea of where the A's should position their fielders for every pitch. Waller uses the software to produce complex charts -- which he prints out and tapes in the dugout for every player to study -- that show where the fielders should be in any given situation.

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A chart produced by Waller's database system showing how the A's want to set up their defense when playing against the Miami Marlins. Tye Waller/Oakland Athletics

A chart for the Miami Marlins, for example, shows a dizzying array of positioning information for each Marlins hitter. If left-handed hitter Christian Yelich is facing an A's right-handed pitcher, Oakland's first- and second-basemen should prepare for a "straight pull," meaning they expect the ball will be hit sharply on the right side of the field. The third-baseman should play in the "5-6 hole," meaning further toward the shortstop than usual.

Another chart lists the time each opposing pitcher takes to deliver a pitch, how many bases have been stolen against him -- and how many runners have been caught stealing -- and other data that the A's can use to help their runners get the maximum edge every time they're on base.

One benefit of the Tye Solution is understanding when to put on a "shift," that is, when to significantly reposition fielders in expectation of a ball being hit to a certain area. A's manager Melvin said the team was among the top two in all of baseball last year in successfully calling shifts -- getting outs because of proper positioning. "We've been ahead of the curve [on shifts] for a while," Melvin said, "and continue to be, based on [Waller's] ideas and his configurations."

Yet while the Tye Solution no doubt puts the A's in the best position to win games given how prepared it helps the coaches and players be, Waller can't quantify how many runs the system has saved the team, or how many wins it's gotten them. "I never thought about it that way," he said. "All I know is I feel better when we're in the right place [on the field]. You get the guy out."

Ultimately, the point is that the system is designed to give the A's a data-driven advantage on every pitch. That doesn't mean the A's don't give up hits, or lose games, but over a full season every little bit of information helps. "When you play 162 games," Waller said, "you realize that over time you have to minimize the amount of guys that come to the plate against us."

No tech on the field

Despite the A's reliance on Waller's data-driven system, neither he nor the players can actually access that data on the field. That's because Major League Baseball prohibits the use of any kind of technology in the clubhouse or the dugout, and on the field, during a game -- mainly as a way of guarding against cheating.

That's why you'll see Waller standing just to the side of first base every time the A's are at bat, a thick black billfold stuffed in his back pocket. If he needs to, he can pull it out, quickly check a chart he has, and tell a runner on first what to expect from a pitcher. Similarly, the players can study the fielding charts Waller posts in the dugout before each game, and Waller will signal his fielders into the proper position before every at-bat.

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Waller (number 46) chats with A's runner Alberto Callaspo during a game against the Tampa Bay Rays. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

But he's hopeful that eventually the people who run the game will recognize that technology can be a benefit not a detraction. If that happens, he'll be ready to give the A's an even bigger advantage than they have today.

"I do believe one day baseball's going to allow this technology to be part of the dugout experience," Waller said. "Living in the past is not going to help you in the future if you're not aware of what's available to you. I don't want to become a dinosaur. I want to grow on the technology side so I can be the best coach I can be."

 

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