Cleveland Indians’ ace Shane Bieber won’t be the only ex-UCSB Gaucho on duty today when the American League baseball playoffs begin.
While Bieber was winning this season’s triple crown of pitching statistics — No. 1 in wins (8), ERA (1.63) and strikeouts (122) — Tony Ortiz of the New York Yankees and Evan Short of the Toronto Blue Jays were playing a different kind of numbers game.
They are two of four UCSB alumni now employed as analytics experts in Major League Baseball. The others are Ryan Bobb of the San Francisco Giants and Marcus Cuellar of the Boston Red Sox.
“Our analytics guys have been a big separator for us,” UCSB coach Andrew Checketts said. “They’ve allowed us to compete when our facilities just haven’t been able to match up to the big boys.
“What we’re doing is even ahead of 70% of the teams in Major League Baseball.”
The Yankees, who will take their cuts against Bieber today in a 4 p.m. playoff opener, are actually one of the 30%. Ortiz, who graduated from UCSB in 2019, was hired by that club in February as a Quantitative Analysis Associate.
“That’s just a fancy way of saying I look at numbers all day,” he said with a laugh. “The Yankees actually have an established department and they value the idea of bringing in recent graduates and training them.
“They’ve been doing this for years — for about 15 years — and they’ve created all this information that I’d never even dreamt of. Learning that and their culture, and how they organize things, has been a big part of my development.”
Short, whose Blue Jays will visit Tampa Bay at 2 p.m. today, serves as Toronto’s Player Development and Performance Analyst.
“Evan actually gets to hang out with the players on the field while I’m just stuck in an office,” Ortiz observed.
Ortiz succeeded Short as UCSB’s Director of Analytics before the 2019 season. It’s a relatively new job which uses video cameras and computers to analyze the traits and performances of both your players and your opponents.
It started innocently enough when Short was recruited to serve as an intern for former Gaucho assistant coach Eddie Cornejo.
“I wasn’t good enough to play — I only played in a Sunday league on the side,” said Short, who graduated from UCSB in 2017 with degrees in statistics and sociology. “But I did know I wanted to be involved in the game somehow, and with the team that was on my own campus.”
At first, Cornejo had Short maintain a database for recruiting.
“Eventually, it grew into something a little bit more on the statistics side of things,” Short said. “We thought we could do a little bit more and, thankfully, I landed in a place where the head coach was amenable to exploring this kind of thing.
“Checketts was one of the first head coaches in the country to go in this direction.”
Checketts, who had coached UCSB to its first College World Series in 2016, was in the mood for something innovative after back-to-back losing seasons in 2017 and 2018.
“We had the infrastructure in place with the free labor of a lot of math and statistics majors,” he said. “For $35,000 in technology, we were able to look at replays with things like Statcast and Trackman. We were able to study spin rates and exit velocities and vertical-break numbers.
“We and Cal Poly are the leaders in this, although they’re a little more quiet about it. Even Pac-12 schools aren’t doing it at this level. We want to invest in it and stay ahead in the game.”
Short approached it at first with a program called Pitch Design, adjusting and modifying pitches to how they project against certain hitters. The Gauchos later tailored their offensive strategies and defensive positioning from the data analysis.
“When we got Trackman and Rapsodo (a radar device which measures spin while tracking the flight of a baseball), we were able to do a flood of data,” Short said. “We didn’t know what to do with it at the beginning, but eventually we were able to figure some things out — of how the traits of certain pitches play better for a pitcher than other traits.
“It gave us clues about what they do best and what they don’t do very well.”
UCSB began to weaponize all that data during the fall of 2018. By the time, Short headed off to Toronto, with his protégé Ortiz moving up into his position, the Gauchos were well-armed for a run to the 2019 Big West Conference championship.
“I really enjoyed watching the video streams of their games while I was traveling around the minors,” Short said. “It helped me get through some of those long treks.”
A turning point that season came when UCSB swept UC Irvine in a three-game series. Checketts learned through a computer analysis of the Anteaters that All-Big West third baseman Brandon Lewis, a right-handed hitter who batted .315 with 14 home runs that season, actually did better against right-handed pitching than lefthanders.
Checketts trotted out southpaws Ben Brecht, Jack Dashwood, and Rodney Boone to hold Lewis to just two hits in 10 at bats.
“He had a pretty rough weekend,” he recalled. “We were having our righthanders get him out with sliders and our lefthanders with changeups.”
Ortiz took particular pride in how the data-driven scouting report came into play while UCSB was clinging to a 3-2 lead in the ninth inning of Sunday’s series finale. Irvine had loaded the bases with two outs when it sent Mikia Filia to the plate to face Gaucho closer Chris Lincoln.
“We knew Chris Lincoln’s slider was pretty deadly against him,” Ortiz said. “He’d already thrown it to him in that at-bat, so they might think he’d be going with something else.
“It didn’t matter, though — he could know it’s coming and still not hit it. Lincoln struck him out looking with another slider to finish out the weekend. It was really fun to see that happen.”
Short has gotten some satisfaction out of the development of Toronto prospect Nate Pearson, who pitched 18 innings as a rookie this summer. His computer analysis showed Pearson that his slider got more swing-and-miss when he reduced the velocity and increased the depth of the pitch.
“It’s actually a very collaborative effort of coaches, performance analysts and video interns,” Short said. “Working with one college team is a little different than working at a player development facility with more than 150 players on the minor-league side.
“I’m honestly still tackling how to sell some of this stuff. I can’t do it without everybody around me.”
Gaucho analytics are now handled by David Tillotson, who was hired to replace Ortiz just before the start of last season. The job continues to evolve with the technology.
“It’s developed to the point where we even get reports on umpires,” Checketts said. “We’re able to study their strike zones and tendencies — where they like to call the ball in certain spots and certain scenarios.
“We hope to have a built-in advantage with that, even if it is still primarily a confrontation between hitter and pitcher.”