Analytics is nothing new to baseball. Bill James started the analytics revolution in the 1970’s. The movement gained serious traction with the “Moneyball” craze in the 2000’s, modernizing Major League Baseball. But for many reasons, high school baseball has not joined the trend.
The Wildcats might change that.
Under the direction of managers Troy Hyde ’19 and Nick Schmitz ’20, Saint Ignatius baseball developed an implemented an analytics program this season. Beyond simply gathering data, the Wildcats found a way to use it in the playoffs. The analytics guided pitch selection, fielding shifts, and in-game adjustments by Head Coach Brad Ganor and his coaching staff.
How critical of a role did analytics play in the Wildcats’ 2019 Division I State Championship? Ask Ganor, and he’ll tell you the Wildcats may not have won without the analytics.
Our story, and the road to the second state championship in Saint Ignatius baseball history, began far before the start of the season. The tale starts on a beautiful Thursday evening on June 14, 2018, in Lake County at Classic Park.
Pete Carfagna ’71 welcomed the Saint Ignatius athletics community to honor legendary trainer Hank Gaughan during a Captains game. In the midst of a beautiful summer evening, Carfagna gave Ganor a tour of the Captains’ stats systems, courtesy of the Cleveland Indians. Carfagna offered the idea, ‘Why not try something similar, but scaled down, at Saint Ignatius?’ Not far removed from a tough District playoff exit, Ganor decided to go all-in on Carfagna’s idea.
In the ensuing winter, Ganor sent an email to the student body looking for students interested in helping to become baseball managers and statisticians. Ten students showed up to the meeting, where Ganor assigned a one-page paper. He tasked the applicants with looking at the team’s 2018 stats and determining trends as well as how to improve.
Troy Hyde and Nick Schmitz stood out above the rest. Hyde wrote about HitTrax and how to maximize practice. Schmitz penned his paper about lineup efficiency, “Freebies,” and working counts and drawing walks. The two came from different backgrounds: Hyde played on the freshman and JV teams, while Schmitz hasn’t played since fifth grade but was a JV manager last year. But each showcased unique smarts and creativity.
“Nick and Troy wrote two awesome papers,” Ganor said. “There were some things in there that made us say, ‘Whoa, we never thought about that.’ They took it and ran.”
From there, the new duo met with members of the Indians’ analytics team, along with assistant coach Matt Kata ’96, who manages the Indians’ youth program.
“They talked to us about the importance of on-base percentage, first pitch strikes, etc. We picked their brains to see what they’re doing,” Hyde said. “One thing we found is a lot of stats used by the MLB do not translate to high school baseball. That meeting was very beneficial and good insight and exposure to other forms of statistics. I was excited to get going after that.”
Before the start of the season, Hyde and Schmitz brainstormed on what type of approach to take and what kinds of stats to utilize. A conscious approach allowed them to hit the ground running with the opening trip to Florida in late March.
But before Hyde and Schmitz could implement a program, they first needed to become part of the team. The Wildcats’ veterans took care of that.
“The team accepted and absorbed them,” Ganor said. “Troy and Nick meshed with everybody. They became part of the team, just like anyone else on the team. They were members of the team, and even more invested than the players at times. It's easy for a kid to show up, take batting practice, and go home. Troy and Nick were doing all of the work at home on their own time, in between studying, finals, and everything else. That's a testament to them."
Accepted by the team, Schmitz and Hyde became comfortable with giving presentations to the club. The duo met with the team on a bi-weekly basis, presenting data points and how to use them.
“A lot of guys can look at GameChanger and raw data, but a big part of it is presenting the data to the team in a way they can understand it and use it,” Hyde said. “Instead of just giving them on-base percentage, we explained what happens when we walk and our success rate. This year, we did well with walks – 40% of the guys who walked ended up scoring. Walks are huge in high school baseball, especially with our speed. Ultimately that wins baseball games.”
“Diving deeper, how do we get more walks?” Schmitz said. “We did work into first-pitch strikes and how does that turn into a walk. We did work on the defensive side, what types of pitches are going for strikes. Or how do we limit freebies – catching people stealing, picking off or paying attention to the runners. We dove deeper, but it had to make sense to us, or it wouldn’t make sense to the players.”
In the analytics world, choosing which stats to act upon and how to do so without negatively impacting a player is critical.
A central big focus was “freebies.” Both Hyde and Schmitz honed in on this point with the team.
“Freebies are walks, hit by pitches, wild pitches, balks, errors, stolen bases,” Schmitz said. “Coach Ganor introduced the “Freebie War” to us at the beginning of the year – you had to give up fewer freebies than the team you’re playing. Pretty much every time we won the Freebie War, we won the game. At one point, were 16-1 when we won the Freebie War. Knowing that, how do you accomplish that? You’re not just going to go out on the field and not make an error. We couldn’t tell players how to play in that sense, but in high school, that’s a mindset you need to have for playoff baseball.”
Hyde and Schmitz aimed to avoid “paralysis by analysis.” They supplied players with stats and suggestions but did not make demands to change a swing or an approach. Hyde gave the example of how to handle 1-1 pitches since a 2-1 and 1-2 count have vastly different success rates.
“Most players on our team and on most teams have an approach when they’re heading to the plate, or should have one. All of our guys did, and most of them were great. We didn’t want to change anyone’s approach, we didn’t want to make them think too much,” Hyde explained. “But we wanted them to have it in the back of their minds and to build it into their approach, just to make sure they’re getting into good counts and not getting into bad situations.”
Throughout the season, Hyde and Schmitz gave information to the players and to the coaches, gathering plenty of data. But they did their best work in the playoffs.
Entering the postseason, Hyde and Schmitz had a decision to make. Should we continue to just do stats in GameChanger, or should we go above and beyond? You can probably guess what Schmitz and Hyde decided.
The duo ramped up the work for the playoffs. The two did research on other teams, digging deep online to find stats on opposing squads. With some teams, stats were public, but for others, not much was readily available.
“For most of the teams, we didn’t have spray charts or anything. So we went game-by-game and play-by-play,” Hyde said. “Nick and I found blank spray charts online, printed them off, and drew the lines with rulers.”
“It was funny, because all year we were doing our jobs with technology, and when it came down to it, we’re drawing lines for every player,” Schmitz said.
At first, the work was very tedious. But as Hyde and Schmitz started the job, they knew it would be worth it.
“Going through the play-by-play helped us to see if a guy is getting infield singles or to the outfield,” Schmitz explained. “We had to analyze every hit ball – is it in the ground or in the air, things like that. We tried to put these notes on the spray charts with stolen bases and how many pitches they were seeing in an at-bat. We split the work, each of us charting 5 different players. That helped the team get in the right mode.”
“It was pretty tedious work – it took a while to make them by hand, but my philosophy was, ‘These guys are working hard on their game and to win a state championship, we have to work as hard as them, just in a different part of the game,’” Hyde agreed.
Jeff Chonko ’17 also played a critical role in the process. Chonko served as an advance scout, attending opponents’ playoff games to glean as much information as possible. A former catcher and team leader for the Wildcats, Chonko charted each game and provided other information to Hyde, Schmitz, and the coaching staff.
Working as a team, Chonko, Hyde, and Schmitz created a book on each team.
To the average fan, Hyde and Schmitz might have appeared to be simply standing in the dugout and playing a passive role. But Hyde and Schmitz had as much impact on the game as a player on the field.
Ganor and his coaching staff used the data nearly every pitch. The data helped to determine pitch calls. Depending on the pitch, the defense shifted on nearly every delivery to the plate. Even some lineup and substitutions were made based on the information. The data proved to have an absolutely critical part in the team’s playoff run.
"They played a huge part in winning the state championship. It can't be said enough,” Ganor said. “Our adjustments, pitch calling, and shifts weren't 100% based on what they created for us, but they were hugely important to how we went about each game and how we attacked each hitter. The way we positioned our outfielders probably took away 6-7 hits in that last weekend. A lot of it had to do with the reports they created for us. The scouting reports were invaluable during the playoffs.”
In the State Semifinal and State Championship, one hit could have swung the game the opposite way. The Wildcats needed 13 innings to defeat Hilliard Darby in the State Semifinal in a 4-3 thriller, the longest final four game in OHSAA history. In the state final, the Baseball Cats broke through for a 4-2 victory over Mentor in a 10-inning classic.
This was no ordinary weekend of baseball. One hit, let alone 6-7 hits, could have led to a Darby or a Mentor state title. Undoubtedly, Hyde and Schmitz’s time commitment played a deciding role in the victory.
“They worked a lot with the coaches, and based on the spray charts and stats, we adjusted our pitch calls. They were a big help for the pitching staff,” said Nick Fletcher, who pitched in the State Semifinal and will be a captain this year. “It’s definitely helpful to have a different perspective that’s not on the field, watching from a different angle. Sometimes they look and pick up stuff that we’re not even thinking about. They were super helpful, not only with scouting and spray charts, but with looking at ourselves in terms of offensive numbers, approach, 2-1 counts.”
The journey and its end brought immense joy for Hyde, Schmitz and the team.
“Coach Ganor said at the end of the year that he hopes this was our best baseball experience ever. Even though I wasn’t on the team, I would say this is my best baseball experience ever,” Hyde said. “All of the things I’ve learned on the analytical side and as a team. This group, all 25 of us including managers, were a family. The analytical role was the path for me, and it was part of God’s plan for me. I couldn’t have dreamt of it any better.”
Hyde, bound for the University of Dayton next year, will miss Wildcat High. Hyde wanted to be sure to thank Cindy Reagan, who taught him AP Stats. Reagan taught him how to interpret stats and analyze what certain stats mean. Her teaching was invaluable for him.
Thanks to his amazing experience and Reagan’s help, Hyde may pursue this as a career down the road.
Schmitz isn’t yet sure of his career path yet, but he plans on returning as a manager and analytics guru next season.
To the team and managers, Ganor stressed that this season needed to be “repeatable.” Players and managers needed to create a respectful culture bonding young players with veterans. They accomplished that.
Now, the future of the analytics program sits with Schmitz.
“It’s something I want to do more and more, maybe even to start a sports analytics club, and have guys dive into other sports,” Nick said. “This is a new way to change lives through sports, as Coach Kata says. It’s crazy to think about the journey, because we have completely different views of players and stats. I’m excited to do it again next year and find someone else to do it with me, and train them like Troy tried to train me in a way. It’s exciting. I’m doing more research into how to advance the program.”
Next year, Schmitz and Ganor will look to recruit a few members to the program, at least one student to replace Hyde and another to spend a season with the JV team.
But before looking ahead to next year, Ganor is very appreciative to Hyde and Schmitz for starting the analytics program and making a state championship possible.
"They were exactly what you would imagine an Ignatius student should be or is,” Ganor said. “Their personalities were great. We had great conversations, and they had conversations with the players and coaches. They were a true part of this team."