ASU Baseball: How analytics has aided Sun Devils’ historic start

OMAHA, NE - JUNE 23: Joey Hooft
OMAHA, NE - JUNE 23: Joey Hooft /

ASU baseball is off to one of their best starts in program history sporting an 11-0 record and one of the highest scoring offenses in the country.

Once again, Arizona State’s offense exploded during its three-game sweep against Michigan State last weekend. The Devils put up 29 runs, which incredibly lowered the team’s runs per game average, which stood at 11.9 entering the series.

ASU’s 124 runs are fourth in country. It took 11 games to reach that mark, which compared to last year, seems unfathomable. In 2018, it didn’t score that many runs until March 23, 22 games into the season.

On the flip side, ASU pitching has allowed three or fewer runs in eight of its 11 outings. As a team, the Devils gave up 4.72 earned runs per game last year.

The Sun Devils were very young, so seasoning and experience could be the answer to the drastic improvement. But, one could also look at the implement of analytics used by the coaching staff.

“It’s something we instituted this year and it’s something that isn’t a secret in baseball,” head coach Tracy Smith said. “We set goals on where we want to be each game on particular numbers. It is something we talk about, players buy into and it is something we keep track of.”

ASU hitters are averaging one strikeout fewer and pitchers are walking one fewer batter per game from 2018. Contact looks stronger and that is shown through the players’ slugging percentages. Last year it was .446. This season it is .570.

More from Devils in Detail

On the hill, opponents slugged .380 in 2018. In 2019, that number has dropped to .288.

A lot of ASU’s scoring success can be accredited to hitting coach Michael Earley’s extensive preparation.

“We try to watch every guy before every game. I’ve seen every pitch before we step in,” Earley said. “I don’t want to bog the players down with too much data, I try to crunch it into my own brain, and knowing the hitter and the flow of the game I take a lot of data and make it really simple for them.”

Earley tells his players little scouting reports before they head to the box. What he tells them give them an idea of what to anticipate, which could allow them to attack certain pitches or let others go based on past habits.

“Little things about the pitcher, tendencies, pitches he likes to throw in different counts. Stuff to keep in your mind in the box,” shortstop Alika Williams said of what he gets told before grabbing a bat.

Earley also puts a lot of emphasis on personalizing approaches for various hitters based on the analytics he studies.

“If we have guys who want to be aggressive early in the count or not, it is great to have that data to show players ‘look at your batting average when you do, look at it when you don’t’,” Earley said. “It is like having another coach.”

The ASU coaching staff also looked at certain players in the offseason and tried to use the data to improve their games. They saw junior Lyle Lin’s numbers from 2018 and noticed a lot of ground balls. They worked on getting him bigger and putting the ball in the air more. His slugging has gone from .407 to .522, and he has already drove in more runs than last year in one-fifth the games.

On the pitching side, coach Mike Cather has instilled a mindset in his staff to attack the zone early in order to force weak contact. He does so in a unique way, that allows his pitchers to see for themselves the outcomes of various counts.

“We put together a chart that we call ‘making your money.’ You get points for pitching ahead in the count, you lose points for a first-pitch ball, 2-ball count, 3-ball count or a walk. We don’t use results,” Cather said. “If you give up a first-pitch home run you actually get positive points because we talk about pitching for contact and trying to get ahead in counts. When the board stacks up, the guys who are having a lot of success have very high numbers.”

Theoretically, the chart could go horribly wrong if pitchers are giving up a ton of first-pitch hits. But that has not been the case, it has proven Cather’s point beautifully this season.

Obsessing to expose one’s own strengths and to one’s opponent’s weaknesses has dominated the MLB, and now the college game is morphing into that mindset. Analytics rarely make or break a team, but they can make a real difference.

Next. ASU Baseball: Sun Devils sweep Michigan State with 13-2 win. dark

“We sit with the scouting reports and are like this is ridiculous, we have every pitch on opponents for the past three years and they have it on us,” Cather said. “It is about who analyzes the data better that can give us a tick of an advantage.”

All quotes in this article were obtained firsthand by Devils in Detail unless otherwise noted.