As the 2017 World Series came to an end on Wednesday evening, a report linking the San Francisco Giants to Houston Astros’ assistant hitting coach Alonzo Powell leaked out.
In the coming days, the Giants are expected to officially announce the hire of Powell to replace Hensley Meulens as the team’s hitting coach, a clear declaration that San Francisco intends to embrace the world of analytics.
While it’s impossible to operate a modern baseball franchise without making advanced metrics a primary focus, the Giants have long been considered one of the slowest adopters of analytics around the league. The Astros, on the other hand, are baseball’s analytical mavens, an organization that completed a stunning turnaround on Wednesday night thanks in large part to pursuing an analytical edge at all costs.
That edge, of course, started at the top, with general manager Jeff Luhnow, a graduate of Northwestern and Penn and filtered all the way down to the dugout, where manager A.J. Hinch and all of his assistants including Powell incorporated an aggressive analytical philosophy on a game-by-game, series-by-series and month-by-month basis.
Though Powell was only a member of the Astros’ coaching staff for two seasons, the influence of Houston’s franchise-wide philosophy and approach undoubtedly played a role in San Francisco’s decision to pursue Powell for one of the team’s most high-profile vacancies.
This season alone, Powell and head hitting coach Dave Hudgens oversaw a lineup that led Major League Baseball in slugging percentage, and also finished with the lowest strikeout rate, which is practically paradoxical given the state of the league. In an era in which players have begun sacrificing two-strike approaches and situational hitting to launch home runs, an era where strikeouts are no longer a grave concern for the game’s best hitters, the Astros managed to hit the ball further and miss the ball less than every other team in the game.
That’s an approach that can work at AT&T Park.
While the Giants’ lineup isn’t blessed with the likes of George Springer, Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa, San Francisco does have a core group of contact hitters who might be able to unlock more gap-to-gap power without sacrificing their ability to put the ball in play. Powell doesn’t inherit an easy job, but the cupboard is not entirely bare.
How Powell’s background with the Astros will impact the Giants in 2018 remains to be seen, and how deep of a role analytics play in his own personal coaching style is impossible to gauge right now, but the fact that San Francisco pursued a coach from within Houston’s organization is a surefire sign that the Giants are determined to catch up to their peers.
Given San Francisco’s geographical orientation and the history of innovation in Silicon Valley, it’s a bit curious that the Giants were not at the forefront of baseball’s analytical revolution. The Golden State Warriors have publicly acknowledged the importance of their analytical slant, and the basketball world has been forced to react accordingly to the changes in style and pace that originated Oracle Arena’s floor.
After the Giants announced their decision to shuffle the coaching staff and hire a new pitching coach, general manager Bobby Evans indicated that Dave Righetti’s replacement would have a background steeped in analytics who could also relate to San Francisco’s young arms with the same personal touch Righetti did. And while Evans has yet to comment publicly after Meulens’ post was vacated, there’s little doubt the Giants plan to continue to load their dugout with coaches who have experience delving into advanced metrics.
An important factor to keep in mind in the Giants’ philosophical shift is that San Francisco is not turning its back on the style that helped the franchise to the top of the baseball world. Evans and manager Bruce Bochy surely want coaches with relatable qualities who bring a personal touch to the job, but they also need more personalities who have immersed themselves in an analytical world the Giants have yet to conquer.
The hire of Powell, a native of San Francisco who was drafted by the organization, can accomplish the Giants’ mission, and ultimately help set the stage for the franchise to make analytics more of a factor in the every day decisions that govern the club.