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PLAYING HARD DRIVE

Angels Among Baseball's Best in Using Computers to Gain Edge

March 27, 1998|JOHN WEYLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TEMPE, Ariz. — Joe Maddon sits in the Tempe Diablo Stadium coaches' room, hunched over his laptop, his glasses down his nose, his concentration focused.

Next door in the clubhouse, Angel pitcher Chuck Finley tilts his head like the RCA dog and squints at the computer-generated spring-training workout schedule.

"You tried to read these charts?" he asks. "If I could figure out where I'm supposed to be, then maybe I could figure out when I'm supposed to be there."

So near, but so far.

Maddon, the Angels' bench coach, not only produces workout schedules that baffle Finley. He pumps out "spray" charts of opponents' tendencies against left-handers and right-handers in various count situations, diagrams showing to which field the ball was hit, whether it was in the air or on the ground and whether it was a hit or an out. He also generates charts that show in which areas of the strike zone a batter is most efficient and most vulnerable.

He also tracks "opposition action," a team's tendencies with certain hitters at the plate and certain runners on base, that include the inning, score and number of outs.

The information for the opposition action and spray charts is kept in the dugout on paper during the game and entered into the computer later. After each game, third-base coach Larry Bowa goes over the videotape and puts in the location of each pitch, dividing the strike zone into nine areas.

The Angels, among the most technologically advanced teams in baseball when it comes to using computers, use the information to plan defensive placement and hopefully give their players an edge.

Finley apparently doesn't see the value. In fact, he thinks all those charts and spreadsheets do more harm than good.

"I think it's all a bunch of useless overkill," he says. "I think it's a mistake to complicate this game. You start throwing a bunch of sheets of stuff in front of a guy and it just freaks him out.

"The computer can tell you this and that, but unless they figure out a way for it to know what kind of stuff I've got to work with on any given day, it don't do me a bit of good. Maybe a guy can't hit a good fastball. Maybe I don't have a good fastball that day."

Still, the computer definitely has found its niche in baseball. Some teams contract outside firms to produce their charts, but most do it themselves. But no one is ready to say a very fast processor chip is worth more than a very fast fastball.

"We don't use computers to do anything that we haven't always done," Maddon said. "It's not like we've found a way to research something new. We used to do it all manually and now we can accomplish it in a more expedient manner.

"I think some of the guys are a little computer-phobic, but it's just a machine that puts all this together. And since most people are visual learners, the charts are good way to get the information into a lot of people's minds. But a computer can't win any games for you."

Jack McDowell, who won 111 games between 1990-96 and a Cy Young Award in 1993, believes computer technology has aided teams in being in the right place at the right time, but he's not sure of the value beyond that.

"I think the art of defensive placement by computer is pretty solid, that's been proven," he said. "But if a pitcher has faced a hitter a bunch of times, I think that kind of experience is infinitely more valuable than a computer scouting report."

Angel pitching coach Marcel Lachemann admits that computer- generated reports are of more value to a young pitcher than a veteran. He points to right-hander Jason Dickson--who tied with Finley for the team lead in victories and shutouts and threw more innings than any Angel as a rookie last season--as an example of a player who made the most of the information.

"Jason wants to know everything, every bit of information we can give him," Lachemann said. "It can't hurt to be aware that a guy is a first-ball hitter, for example, or that he has one glaring weakness or another. It's our job as coaches to prepare these guys. You don't want to overload them with information, but on the other hand, it makes no sense to just go in there blind."

McDowell says he pays little attention to the computer- generated scouting reports, even if he's facing a hitter for the first time.

"They're so general and it's hard to relate them to what kind of stuff you have and how you approach hitters," he said. "Anyway, I think most pitchers are going to go after a guy with their best stuff until the guy proves he can hit it."

With owners paying millions to some players for a single season's work, the battle to get an advantage in uncharted areas is heating up. And people like Randy Istre and Jay Donchetz are profiting. In 1983, they went into business together, developing software to keep track of high school softball and baseball teams.

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