The Analytics Guy Failed to Compute One Thing: How to Be Accepted in Mexico

The Analytics Guy Failed to Compute One Thing: How to Be Accepted in Mexico

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HAGERSTOWN, Md. — On a wintry night in December, Anton Dahbura sat on his couch, transfixed by a baseball game 2,000 miles away in Mexico.

He winced and shuffled notes. A few times, he yelled at three computer and television screens streaming the game.

“Wait,” he exclaimed nervously as the manager of the team he was closely following trudged to the mound. “What’s he doing?”

Few baseball fans in the United States were even aware of the game he was obsessing over: Charros de Jalisco versus Venados de Mazatlán. But to Dahbura, a data analytics consultant hired by the Charros, it was like Game 7 of the World Series, and his frustration mounted as detailed scouting reports he had prepared were overlooked once again.

“It can be infuriating,” Dahbura, who also leads a research group in baseball analytics at Johns Hopkins University, said. “There are times we send down specific information and it just gets ignored.”

Dahbura, it turns out, is in the middle of a familiar clash between tradition and modernity in baseball and other sports striving to find the right balance between computer-generated strategizing and old-fashioned decision-making from experience and the gut.

In this case, the clash was particularly acute. Dahbura’s numbers-crunching became so contested that it seemed to contribute to the firing of one manager who embraced his numbers and the hiring of an old-school one — the current manager, whom Dahbura yells at on the screen, the one who seems reluctant to use his metrics.

In the United States, the tide favors data hounds, whose numbers suggest new ways to see and play the game, but south of the border, where a few consecutive losses can cost a manager a job, conventional thinking often prevails.

“It’s been a tough sled,” said the former major leaguer Edgar Gonzalez, a vice president of the Charros and a strong proponent of data analytics. “It’s completely new down here so, yeah, it’s been a bit of a culture clash.”

The Charros de Jalisco, a baseball team in Mexico, began using analytics recently. But management blamed the data, in part, for a losing streak and then opted for more traditional managing.CreditAdriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

When the Charros hired Dahbura and his wife, Marlaina R. Miller, who partners with him on consulting, in August, they were considered pioneers in introducing analytics to Mexico’s fiercely contested winter baseball league, the sport’s off-season showcase, where champions can be feted at jubilant street celebrations.

Baseball analytics, or sabermetrics, are used more in the longer, lower-pressure Mexican summer league. The stakes are higher in the winter league, which determines Mexico’s entry into the Caribbean Series, so managers tend to rely on what has proved successful in the past.

“There was an article that said, ‘Charros are trying to implement sabermetrics, but they don’t know that it doesn’t work in winter ball,’ ” Gonzalez, who played for the San Diego Padres in 2008 and 2009 and is the brother of Adrian Gonzalez, said. “Well, of course it works. But you have to understand it and be open to it.”

The manager who had devoured Dahbura’s analytics was Tony Tarasco, 47, a former major league outfielder. He was fired in November after 41 games.

It was Tarasco who had insisted that the Charros hire Dahbura as an analytics consultant in the first place, and the early results were decent. With Dahbura’s metrics filtered through Tarasco’s on-field experience, the Charros were 19-16 in the first half of the season and stood in first place.

But after a 1-5 road trip to open the second half of the season and a few controversial in-game decisions, Tarasco was dismissed. He returned to his home in Southern California.

“I guess I got him fired,” Dahbura said sheepishly, “which really stinks, you know, because he got me the job.”

It was not only analytics that did him in. A first-time manager, Tarasco was considered green. His inexperience, combined with his embrace of the newfangled metrics — not to mention a losing streak — conspired in his downfall.

José Rodríguez of the Charros de Jalisco batting in a playoff game against the Tomateros de Culiacán. The Charros, who played down data analytics this season after initially embracing them, won, 7-4.CreditAdriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times
The Charros de Jalisco no longer rely heavily on data analytics, but they have not given up prayer.CreditAdriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

“Managers don’t last very long down there,” Tarasco said in a recent interview. “It’s like duck, duck, goose.”

Still, Gonzalez and Salvador Quirarte, the Charros’ owner, retained Dahbura, finding value, for now, in his analytics.

Guadalajara, where the Charros play, will host the Caribbean Series, a contest for the champions of the Puerto Rican, Dominican, Venezuelan and Mexican leagues, in February, and the two men seem to want every possible advantage to help their team be Mexico’s representative.

Yet Dahbura’s connection to the team is entirely owed to Tarasco, who had collaborated with Dahbura for a decade.

Tarasco was the hitting instructor for the Hagerstown Suns, a minor league team, from 2008 to 2010. Dahbura, who bought a piece of the Suns in 2010, was known in baseball circles as Shag, for his penchant for shagging fly balls during batting practice to get a workout.

Dahbura and Tarasco bonded over a shared passion for the analytical threads underpinning the game, and Tarasco marveled at Dahbura’s background.

Born in the United States, Dahbura moved with his family to El Salvador when he was a young boy because his father was doing business there. His love of baseball led him to announce the 1976 World Series on national television in El Salvador — at age 16.

In college at Johns Hopkins, where he studied computer science and is now on the faculty in that field, he was an outfielder for the team.

He eventually began his own analytics consulting business with his wife, who has a baseball lineage, too. Her uncle was Bobby Hofman, an infielder for the New York Giants in the 1950s, and she and Dahbura bonded over their mutual love of the game.

When Tarasco began managing the Charros in October, Dahbura would send detailed reports from his home in Maryland and, at Tarasco’s request, three possible lineups the night before each game — one conservative, one middle-of-the-road and one radical. They spoke often.

“Sometimes we were texting in the middle of the game,” Dahbura said.

Edgar Gonzalez, right, a Charros de Jalisco executive, has been a strong proponent of using data analytics for the team.CreditAdriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

But Tarasco began to sense his job was in jeopardy when the owner, general manager and team president began coming into his office more frequently to question his decisions.

After firing Tarasco, the Charros hired Roberto Vizcarra, a popular and well-respected veteran of 23 seasons as a player in Mexican baseball, and a bit of a traditionalist.

As manager of Águilas de Mexicali, Vizcarra, known as Chapo, or Shorty, won the 2017 Mexican winter league championship. But after a slow start this season, Mexicali fired him, too. He quickly resurfaced with the Charros, whom he led to a 15-11 record and an upset of top-seeded Tomateros de Culiacán to advance to the second round of the playoffs.

Vizcarra also inherited Dahbura, who still compiled his reports and crafted multiple lineups every day, emailing them to him.

But the communication was one way. Although the pitching and hitting coaches showed interest in the reports, Dahbura said he had yet to receive feedback from Vizcarra, who did not respond to emails requesting an interview for this article.

“One can see the rub,” Dahbura said sympathetically in a recent text, “when old-school guys are confronted with new ways of thinking.”

Anton Dahbura, a data analytics consultant for a Mexican baseball team, set up a whiteboard of information while live-streaming games. Much of his information has seemed to be ignored of late in a clash between traditional managing and new thinking.CreditMatt Roth for The New York Times

Still, as the season progressed, Dahbura grew more encouraged. Even if Vizcarra never answered directly, the team seemed to be embracing his reports a bit more, and won 10 of 12 games.

Then, during the team’s third playoff game against Culiacán, on Jan. 4, Dahbura’s frustrations resurfaced.

In a critical at-bat with the score tied, 2-2, in the seventh inning, Vizcarra brought in a pitcher Dahbura had specifically instructed would not be a good choice for the batter he was facing.

Sure enough, Culiacán scored the deciding run off him, winning, 3-2. Dahbura stewed in front of his screens. “They could have made better use of the intel I gave them,” he said.

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Published at Thu, 11 Jan 2018 17:06:56 +0000

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