PHOENIX — Jeff McNeil considered the last time he had faced a pitcher without having consulted a scouting report ahead of time.
“Double-A or High-A,” he said before quickly amending it. “Even then we had a little bit.”
In some ways, that makes the World Baseball Classic an anomaly. As Team USA faced off against Great Britain, Mexico, Canada and (on Wednesday night) Colombia this week in Phoenix, big-league batters found themselves standing in against pitchers without a single pro inning under their belts.
In this era of baseball, that can make a player feel, as members of Team Mexico put it, “naked.”
Which is why the national teams assembled makeshift “front office” staffs to give their players some comfort and cover and perhaps even a competitive advantage. For an assortment of reasons, it’s not the same as it would be for a 162-game MLB season, but the teams in this WBC do have analytics.
'Nobody's overthinking this more than Team Israel'
Simon Rosenbaum has been involved with Team Israel longer than he has been involved with the Tampa Bay Rays, the only major-league organization he has ever worked for.
“That is true,” he said when this was pointed out to him. “I'd never looked at it like that.”
He first interned with the Rays in 2017, blending his degree in economics and mathematics from Pomona College with his experience playing baseball. As those skills proliferated in front offices around baseball, he worked his way up to assistant director of minor-league operations and baseball development. Meanwhile, he played for Team Israel, where his father was born, starting in 2014. As you can imagine, there wasn’t much in the way of analytical information.
“It was just players and coaches, and sometimes those two are the same thing,” Rosenbaum said. “It was kind of a throwback to Little League or travel ball.”
Nearly a decade later, as Israel finds itself competing in its second ever World Baseball Classic, things are, well, different.
“Nobody's overthinking this more than Team Israel. That's for sure,” Rosenbaum said.
Then he rattled off a list of passionate baseball analysts who contributed to the team’s preparation, including scouts and front office personnel from the Baltimore Orioles, Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres. They’ve been working since last season ended to put together scouting reports on the rest of Pool D, which includes Venezuela, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Nicaragua.
For the teams that boast rosters full of established MLB stars, there is plenty of information to work with. In that sense, Israel got lucky facing the many formidable All-Stars on D.R., Puerto Rico and Venezuela (in another, perhaps far more relevant sense, being stuck in that particular sector of pool play was a real short shrift). But when it came to Nicaragua, the advance work was a little trickier.
“Just because they have so many players who are not playing affiliated baseball,” Rosenbaum said. “We just kind of find what we can get, whether that's watching video or reading box scores from winter league.”
That has been a common problem so far for the front office staff members from around the major leagues contributing behind the scenes to the WBC. (Team USA declined to make any information about their analytical preparation or the people involved available.)
“Great Britain, I think some of the starters have never even pitched in pro ball,” said Cory Swope, who is working for Team Mexico during the tournament. “Those guys have been a little bit more challenging, and we kind of go old-school and rely a little bit more on instincts in that sense.”
Normally a coordinator of baseball developmental technology for the Arizona Diamondbacks, Swope was recruited in January by Gil Velazquez, the defensive coordinator for the D-backs and one of several coaches from the organization on the Team Mexico staff.
“I feel like my responsibility is arming the coaching staff with as much information as they may need,” Swope said.
That is, with some slight limitations. Both he and Rosenbaum specified that they kept some proprietary insights from their primary organizations private.
Old-school rules at World Baseball Classic
Somewhere between mining the data and relying on instinct is trying to learn about the teams they’re facing as the WBC is unfolding. “Definitely a little bit of scouting from three days ago," Swope said.
Of course, in a tournament environment, anything you learn applies for only so long. Instead of three- or four-game series played several times over the course of a long season, WBC teams face each other only once, both in pool play and in the knockout rounds. What can analytics tell you about what to do in a sample so small?
“New guy coming out of the bullpen, which you're probably only going to see once in this entire tournament,” said Chris Adamson, a coach in the Philadelphia Phillies minor leagues and former Australian Baseball League player now working for Team Australia. “So just trying to help encapsulate some information to give them a plan of attack for that at-bat that’s coming up.”
“I think the way that I looked at it is whatever you're going to do that you think is best over 162 games, that's probably going to be your best strategy for four games or for one game,” Rosenbaum said.
“We have some players who are a few years removed from professional baseball, and I think the data has definitely evolved in the last half-decade or decade. So it’s about creating a language that they can understand and just trying to give them one or two nuggets,” said Josh Spence, a pitching coach in the Milwaukee Brewers system who also works with Team Australia. “You’d like to think it gives them a competitive edge.”
After all, every inch can make a difference — even, or especially, the ones that will be taken away come Opening Day. The WBC doesn’t play by the new rules MLB introduced this season, including the pitch timer, bigger bases and limits on defensive positioning.
“So we get to do the shift a lot,” Swope said.
With pool play wrapping up Wednesday, Team Israel has already been mathematically eliminated (despite its brain trust). But before his team’s fate was sealed, Rosenbaum thought about how any defensive alignment he could prescribe mattered only as much as the moment of the game in which it was deployed.
“Hopefully we're the last team ever to shift. That means that we were playing the last game of the WBC and gave ourselves a chance to win,” he said. “So that would be cool.”