Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review wrote a very interesting profile of Pirates infielder Cole Figueroa on Tuesday. The 28-year-old uses baseball stats, physics, and a self-taught skill of coding to identify ways in which he can improve his skill set.
Figueroa got his appreciation for baseball analytics during his time with the Rays, as then-GM Andrew Friedman encouraged him to engage his curiosity. The Rays gave him a small portion of their proprietary data with which to play. Figueroa then taught himself how to code, which allowed him to mold the data in ways that would allow him to better answer questions he was asking.
Sawchik recounts a story in which Figueroa observed a former teammate being told by his hitting coach to try to create more backspin, which is believed to be a good result. Figueroa, however, read physics research done by Alan Nathan, who found that common baseball wisdom to be incorrect. Figueroa pulled his teammate aside and told him to swing as squarely as possible with a slight uppercut.
It’s not clear if Figueroa’s advice had any immediate impact, and if his former hitting coach ever got wind of his interference. That would be frowned upon in a lot of clubhouses — we learned recently that Robinson Cano‘s rift with Andy Van Slyke started because he gave hitting advice to Brad Miller — but results are results, and Figueroa has the science to back him up. In the end, that’s what should matter to all involved.
Figueroa taught himself how to code for free online, and one can also self-teach statistics and physics, depending on one’s motivation. It will be interesting to see if players increasingly develop an ability to analyze the wealth of baseball information that is now becoming available. Pirates GM Neal Huntington said that his club doesn’t specifically focus for players like this, but “we are looking for guys with aptitudes.”