Thought Leadership

Empathy and Analytics: Communications Trends for the 2018 MLB Season

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In professional sports, winning often depends upon how well a team can communicate. For example, a quarterback can’t complete a pass to his wide receiver unless they both agree on where the football is going. Basketball players can’t play defense if they don’t know who they’re covering.

However, in baseball, communication doesn’t just foster strong athletic performances and team camaraderie — it drives the game itself. Unlike football, soccer and hockey, there isn’t an official clock in the MLB, meaning the pace of play is driven almost exclusively by the players themselves. Actual time may elapse during an at-bat, for instance, but until a pitcher and a catcher have decided between a slider and a fastball for the next pitch, the game stands still.

When things aren’t standing still, play is occurring at a pace that requires all the team members to be on the same instinctual wavelength. Take this iconic story from the New York Mets inaugural, and famously disastrous, 1962 season: During one game, center fielder Richie Ashburn and shortstop Elio Chacón both chased after the same fly ball.

Ashburn learned that when the Venezuelan-born Chacón called for the catch, he would yell the Spanish translation of “I got it!”— “¡Yo la tengo!” Hearing Chacón’s message, Ashburn backed off. But left fielder Frank Thomas, who didn’t speak Spanish and had allegedly missed the meeting where the team discussed making “¡Yo la tengo!” the official phrase for fly balls, chased after the ball anyway and collided with Chacón. “What the heck is a yellow tango,” Thomas asked upon getting up.

Though the “¡Yo la tengo!” sequence can be viewed as a timeless cautionary tale for the importance of team-wide togetherness in baseball, 2018’s communications predicaments transcend language barrier issues and pitch selection stare-downs between pitchers and catchers.

Here are three communications narratives that will likely persist throughout the season:

Managing with analytics

When Gabe Kapler won the job as manager of Philadelphia Phillies this offseason, he pledged to use analytics to guide his lineup-creation process and in-game decisions. In other words, he’d be willing to defy some of baseball’s more arbitrary but time-honored traditions — batting your speediest hitter leadoff, always putting your closer in if your team is winning by three runs or less — if the statistical models were telling him otherwise.

If you’ve seen the movie (or read the book) “Moneyball,” then you’d know Kapler’s emphasis on technology and analytics isn’t new; Oakland Athletics’ General Manager Billy Beane has been preaching this type of approach since the early 2000s. However, Kapler may be one of the first managers to prove he values computers as much as his own instincts.

On opening day, Kapler made several data-driven decisions that backfired. First, he chose to keep his best hitter, Odubel Herrera, out of the lineup. Then, he decided to yank his star pitcher Aaron Nola after only 5 1/3 innings and 68 pitches — with his team winning 5-0. With Nola’s early exit and Herrera unable to offer any offensive contributions, the Phillies ended up losing 8-5.

From a communications standpoint, this story is hardly unusual. The clash of cutting-edge technology against human intuition is a recurring theme in many MLB clubhouses and also in today’s business world.

At the very least, technology can help a team prepare for its upcoming matchups. Yet, an overreliance on data can be destructive for a team trying to find unity — and if Phillies players begin to feel maligned by Kapler’s hypermodern approach, then it may be a long season.

Mound visit limits

A common criticism of baseball is that it can be painfully boring to watch. Games frequently last longer than three hours and there’s a lot of waiting around — especially in the later innings when managers are changing pitchers nearly every other batter.

Since taking over as MLB commissioner in 2013, Rob Manfred has emphasized speeding up the sport, teasing special rules for extra innings base-runners and instating a new regulation limiting mound visits.

What this latter alteration means is fewer opportunities for pitching coaches and catchers to conference with their pitcher. Previously, coaches could visit once per inning to talk without making any player substitutions, and catchers could call timeout and stop by the mound as many times as they wanted. Now, clubs are only allowed six visits — both of the pitching coach and catcher/pitcher variety — throughout the entire game.

This rule change will likely affect the way teams prepare for, and communicate during, games. Pitchers probably can’t rely on emergency scouting reports for pinch-hitters anymore. Catchers won’t be able to make as many spur-of-the-moment signal changes in the middle of an inning. Managers will have to keep their bases-loaded pep talks to a minimum.

Strategizing when the game on the line is integral to winning. That probably won’t change. How such strategy gets communicated when coaches can’t visit the mound at will, though, remains to be seen.

New clubhouse cultures

The role of MLB manager in 2018 involves more than just constructing lineups and making pitching changes; managers need to know their analytics and help their club adapt to the sport’s new constraints. However, those are matters pertaining to the game itself. More frequently, teams are hiring managers based upon a particular off-the-field factor: their ability to empathize with players.

When new Mets manager Mickey Callaway gave his first spring training press conference this February, Newsday reported that he used the word “communicate” 10 different times. “The key is just to communicate with guys every single day,” he said.

One of the MLB’s most noteworthy empaths is Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona (who Callaway coached under for a few seasons), a two-time World Series champion and two-time Manager of the Year winner. In a 2017 profile in The Ringer, writer Katie Baker credits Francona’s success to his strong interpersonal skills.

She writes, “Francona arrives at the ballpark every day ‘ridiculously early,’ and not only to pore over lineup decisions until game time. Often, it’s so that he can pore over lineup decisions all morning  —  then have time to hang out and play cards with players all afternoon.”

Playing cards may seem like a frivolous way to fill the hours leading up to a game, but for Francona, it’s part of building a fun, inclusive clubhouse environment. For his players, Francona isn’t just a manager, consumed by his analytics charts and crafty lineup strategies. He’s a friend and peer.

And who wouldn’t want to win for their friend.

Dean Essner is the editorial assistant for PRSA’s publications.

About the author

Dean Essner

1 Comment

  • I really enjoyed reading this article, Dean! I liked how you shared insight from different teams to emphasize that these trends span the entire MLB. From a public relations perspective, I think that we can take all three of the points that you made and apply them to the workplace. PR is a data-driven field, but we must be wary of ignoring our intuition. Furthermore, we must anticipate changes in strategy or communication, and we must strive to build an inclusive company culture. Great job. -Halle Russo, writer/editor for Platform Magazine

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