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Diamondbacks’ La Russa, Stewart seek balance between advanced metrics and intuition

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Tony La Russa chuckled when asked how he balances speaking publicly about baseball analytics without giving away his plan for the Arizona Diamondbacks.

“If you’re asked specifics, you dodge,” said La Russa, the team’s chief baseball officer. “We don’t tweet our plan, don’t put it on Facebook. You don’t want to give up your edge.”

La Russa spoke Friday at the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) Analytics Conference in downtown Phoenix. A big part of the conversation involved the Diamondbacks’ new analytics department, which was put into place this past offseason. Dr. Ed Lewis, who has been a close ally of La Russa’s for more than two decades, will head the department.

“We’re trying to enhance what we’re doing as a team with analytics,” La Russa said. “It’s critical to prepare with every bit of information you can get prior to a game.”

Years before advanced metrics became second nature to those involved with baseball, La Russa was using stats to try and gain an edge over his opponents. His Oakland A’s teams, which won three consecutive pennants from 1988 to 1990, were known for being ahead of the curve with stats they kept on players, as well as with their use of cataloging video on opponents. Although it was a far more primitive kind of analytics, it showed La Russa’s desire to use every bit of information to help his team.

“I consider myself to be fortunate to have been in the A’s organization,” said Dave Stewart, who pitched for La Russa in Oakland and now works under him as Diamondbacks general manager. “We looked at film after games, kept charts on opponents on the bench. We even used shifts back then, although not as drastic as you see today.”

Although analytics have become much more mainstream in the baseball community over the last few years, there are still arguments over how heavily to lean on stats as opposed to using what baseball men see with their eyes and intuition. For the Diamondbacks, La Russa said success will be about finding a balance between the two and about the front office trusting the manager and vice versa.

“The danger is, you take the preparation and you ignore what you see through the game,” La Russa said. “‘The information we got says this, therefore you can’t make adjustments that are different during the game.’ That’s a bad idea.”

One might expect La Russa, who spent 33 years as a manager for three big league teams, to have special sensitivity toward not interfering with the ability of a club’s skipper to do his job. This seems to be the case, as he noted several times that analytics can’t hinder a manager from doing what he feels is right during a game.

“Say your stats and preparation say this guy is predominantly a pull hitter,” La Russa said. “But maybe two games into a series, whether he’s tired or had a change in his stroke, he’s not pulling the ball. So what you have to do when you watch a game is take those stats into the game but be ready to adjust.”

For the Diamondbacks, finding the right balance will be key for their analytics department. Stewart said that the team will probably fall somewhere in the middle, trying to use advanced metrics to prepare for opponents without putting the theories of SABRmetricians over everything else.

“We probably don’t lean 90 percent analytics,” Stewart said. “We probably won’t be 30 percent. We want to combine our knowledge or the game with experience while allowing and trusting our manager to do what he thinks is best.”