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First Movers and Fast Followers: Are the Pirates Falling Behind?

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The Pirates seem to be falling behind in the pitching game, but who–or what’s–at fault?
Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

For the last year'even though it feels like much longer'I've been following the happenings of MoviePass every step of the way. For those who don't know, MoviePass is a subscription service that's been around for a while, but in August of 2017, they lowered their monthly rate to $9.95, allowing movie goers to see unlimited movies in theaters for less than the cost of one ticket in many places.

I used to watch a lot of movies'until changing diapers and cleaning bottles got in the way'so I considered signing up when it started; however, from the very beginning, it felt too good to be true. All evidence seems to point towards the fact that it was. From the start, users had to wait months for their subscription cards to come, as the service couldn't keep up with the mammoth increase in business. Along the way, reports of trouble with the app, data mining, physically tracking users, select availability in certain cities and at certain theaters, and literal loss of service for a day here or a day there due to lack of funds by the company has led to the service's recent demise, as they've drastically changed the structure of their business model at increased prices, just trying to stay afloat.

At the very beginning when the price change was announced, many theater chains spoke out against MoviePass, calling the model 'unsustainable which of course it was'but it turns out they did this in large part because they were planning their own subscription services, as several chains have introduced their own versions in the last month or two, contributing to the subscription service’s precipitous fall. It turns out they should be thanking MoviePass for showing them the way.

Okay, this isn't a pop culture or business site'what does any of this have to do with the Pirates?

In business, there is a term known as 'First Mover', which is when something or someone gains advantage by being first to market with a product or service. Yes, MoviePass already existed, but their radical plan to get consumers back into theaters after the proliferation of streaming services like Netflix and Hulu that have contributed to decreased box office sales, it's easy to consider them a First Mover in their particular market. Sometimes this strategy works'as we've seen with Amazon in the home shopping and delivery business'but more often than not the First Mover is passed over by the 'Fast Follower'. These are competitors who sit back, wait and see what the First Mover is doing right'but more importantly what they're doing wrong'capitalize on their shortcomings and improve on the good or service, eventually providing a better product then the First Mover. Services such as AMC Stubs A-List appear to be much more sustainable then MoviePass ever was, because they've improved where MoviePass lacked.

Please don't stop reading, I promise I'm getting to the Pirates.

Analytics in baseball have been around for a while, dating back to Bill James and others, but their explosion really just started this millennium, and they are constantly evolving. The Pirates'having been listless for going on 20 years, started to heavily focus on and implement groundbreaking analytic strategies earlier this decade'such as increased defensive shifting and pitch framing'before many other teams did, leading to recent success and the postseason in 2013 through 2015. This was all well known, in part due to Travis Sawchick's book Big Data Baseball, which chronicled the Pirates' shift in philosophy and how it helped them get out of the proverbial gutter.

However, are the Pirates still on this cutting edge that they found themselves in not even 10 years ago? Stephen Nesbitt's recent interview with Tyler Glasnow'which was revealing and fantastic'had some comments from the recently departed pitcher that really got me thinking about this topic. One in particular about information available is potentially enlightening on the problem I'm asserting the Pirates may be facing'”Looking at spin rates and how the flight of my ball ' there's a lot of analytics and stuff here that I can look at ' it's just way, way more effective up in the zone.'

We know the Pirates obviously have analytics, but is there something the Tampa Bay Rays have that the Pirates don't? Why is Glasnow just realizing this? Sure, he put a lot of his failures on himself, but this isn't the first time we've seen similar comments:

I used to throw a four-seam and the two-seam, and I used to probably lean on the two-seam almost 50 percent of the time or more. When I’d go into the room and have a meeting with them [the Astros coaching staff], they’d show me the data on my four-seam, and then they would show me what my best four-seams looked like. Like, they have video of it, and then they have statistics on it.

So it was the first time you’ve ever seen those stats?

Yes, absolutely.

For anyone that doesn't know, these were comments made by Gerrit Cole after his trade from the Pirates to the Houston Astros. Are these just sour grapes? Anger showing through from a pitcher that was just jettisoned? Possibly, but if these comments are true, that's a problem.

Cole goes on in the interview to talk about receiving 'a heads-up' from Charlie Morton'another former Pirate who has seen increased success with the Astros'about how they do things in the organization. An organization, as anyone who follows baseball knows, that has advanced the analytics movement exponentially, going to such measures as significantly paring down their scouting staff and using new technology'such as Statcast radar and cameras'to pioneer new ideas with fantastic results.

While I've seen it asserted that Joe Musgrove has compared the Astros and Pirates regarding information available as well, I wasn't able to find any quotes; however, here are even more statements from newly acquired pitchers the Astros were able to turn around. First, Justin Verlander sheds light on where the Detroit Tigers may have been lacking:

When I got to Houston, they have all the analytics and they were able to show me how effective my four-seam [fastball] is, Verlander said. It's something I was never taught. I just always did it naturally. It made a lot of sense. If it's that good, OK, use it more.

Morton also shares where old strategies may have been a bad idea:

Looking back, just throwing sinkers to lefties was just an awful idea, he said. Just feeding them sinkers was a bad idea. I think I looked at my sinker and I was like, well, this is my best pitch, so I'm going to throw it, and I did. It worked to righties, it didn't work to lefties. That was my identity.

I want to emphasize'I have no idea how much information the Pirates have available and how they implement it. Admittedly, it's probably a lot. However, how much smoke does there have to be before we recognize fire, one that the Pirates would be responsible for putting out?

The Pirates were one of the First Movers when it came to analytics, now it seems they may have been passed up by Fast Followers. Enough digital ink has been spilt on the approaches the Pirates take to both pitching and hitting, and how they may be behind the times. However, there is also evidence that these trends may be slowly starting to reverse themselves, which even after several years, is a positive. The Pirates will have to continue this benchmarking'measuring and applying best practices in a field or of the competition'to try and continue to catch up.

Will the Pirates end up like MoviePass'fading into obscurity after a brief flash on top? That seems to be a relevant question, and one the franchise needs to consider and look to rectify if they've truly been passed over by their peers.

Ethan is a Pirates contributor to The Point of Pittsburgh. An Accountant by trade, Ethan is passionate about the business of sports and won't apologize for enjoying it more than the actual games. He's a believer in analytics, hasn't played a game since little league, and can be contacted via Twitter @EthanHullihen

3 Comments on First Movers and Fast Followers: Are the Pirates Falling Behind?

  1. So, why is Musgrove pitching better for the Bucs as a SP than he did for the Astros? Wjy has Williams improved by leaps and bounds from when he was in the Miami org? Why os Vasquez a better pitcher for the Bucs than with the. Nats?

  2. Kevin Joyce // August 25, 2018 at 9:33 AM //

    Ok, not sure you can say Williams is leaps and bounds better. He was a pretty well thought of prospect. he just needed time to develop.

    Musgrove’s career WHIP is 1.25. This year for the Pirates it is 1.20. Is that that much better?
    Vazquez career Whip’s with Washington is 1.061. With Pittsburgh , 1.097. He is a WORSE pitcher with Pittsburgh than Washington. You just follow Pittsburgh so you notice it more

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