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Figueroa using analytics, physics for edge in making Pirates' roster

| Tuesday, March 15, 2016, 8:48 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates shortstop Cole Figueroa connects on a double during a spring training game against the Rays Friday, March 11, 2016, at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates third baseman Cole Figueroa takes a lead off second base during a spring training game against the Red Sox on Monday, March 14, 2016, at jetBlue Stadium in Fort Myers, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates third baseman Cole Figueroa singles during a spring training game against the Red Sox Monday, March 14, 2016, at jetBlue Stadium in Fort Myers, Fla.

BRADENTON, Fla. — With a former club, during a spring training not long ago, Cole Figueroa stood behind the cage while one of the more prominent players in the organization took batting practice.

Between swings, the hitting coach and star spoke about trying to create backspin through a chopping motion, commonly referred to as a “chopping wood” approach. It was part of traditional hitting orthodoxy: backspin is good, it propels batted balls further. Such a conversation likely has been had thousands of times around thousands of batting cages.

But after batting practice, Figueroa, a utility player, showing some courage, pulled his teammate aside. (Figueroa requested his former teammate remain nameless to protect the innocent and the less mathematically inclined.)

Figueroa said this idea of backspin was a myth, the swing plane he was using was not optimal. He explained what he really wanted to do is hit the ball as squarely as possible with a slight upper cut. He explained how upon contact with the bat, the ball briefly condenses like flattening a ball of pizza dough. He had the science to prove it: a Dec. 2014 study by University of Illinois professor, Dr. Alan Nathan, showed spin has little effect on batted ball distance.

“It's an arc and upper (cut swing) that creates the home run power and trajectory you need to hit the ball out. ... As a power hitter, it is proven that's the plane you want to swing on,” Figueroa said. “When you hear ‘level,' you think the bat is level to the ground when really that is not the case, the bat is actually level to the direction of the ball.”

Figueroa is competing for a final spot on the Pirates' bench this spring. He's a versatile defender with a good batting eye.

On Monday in Fort Myers, Fla., Figueroa made an outstanding play at third base, ranging far to his right to field a ball, then releasing an accurate throw from beyond the third-base line to first. In the following inning, he singled to center to raise his spring average to .350 (7 for 20).

But he's also perhaps the most mathematically gifted player in the Grapefruit League. In clubhouses that still have varying degrees of resistance to new-age thought, Figueroa is using analytics, coding skills — yes, he writes his own computer code — and physics to give him an edge.

Figueroa long has been interested in mathematical principles.

He found calculus and physics fascinating in high school and at the University of Florida. Earlier this spring, he recited Pi out to fifty digits to a reporter. His Twitter bio declares he is “Specializing in the process of decision making in .400 milliseconds,” or the amount of time in which a hitter has to decide whether to swing at a pitch.

But he wasn't interested in baseball analytics until he was traded to the pioneering Tampa Bay Rays in 2010, his third year in pro baseball.

“I said ‘OK, it's important to them. Why isn't it important to me?'” said Figueroa of analytics.

Figueroa said in the spring, in an auditorium setting, the Rays hold hitters' meetings. He had never been in meetings like these. For example, Rays coaches spoke about evaluating the quality of hitter not by batting average but by batted ball exit velocity.

“Depending on who you were you could sleep through (the meetings), you could take exactly what they are giving you,” Figueroa said, “or you could expand upon it.”

Figueroa expanded.

“What can I do to become the most optimal player?” Figueroa asked himself. “What are my strengths? What are my weaknesses?”

Seeing the vast amount of data pouring into the game, and thinking about how to take advantage of it, he began to teach himself code, ‘R,' or programming language.

He spent hours at Coursera.org — the Web site reassures a new visitor one can “Code Yourself!” — where there are step-by-step instructions in learning how to code and program.

With his nascent coding skills, he began to research and refine data given to him by the Rays, though the Rays kept much of their data off limits from their proprietary database.

He created models to understand how a player with his skills would age. He studied players with similar physical and statistical profiles. He studied what skills would age well, which would age poorly. In three consecutive seasons in Triple-A, he improved his on-base percentage.

“People think coding is some foreign language ... in a sense where it's only something really intelligent people can do,” Figueroa said. “And it's really totally the opposite. Anyone can code.”

Coding and research became a hobby on the road, before or after games, and continues to be this spring at his home in south Tampa, Fla. from where he commutes to Bradenton.

“My wife and I would be sitting down and watching TV, and I'd say ‘OK, I'm over watching TV' and I would go code,'” Figueroa said. “I go sit at the table ... I would put my headphones on and go to Coursera.”

He was encouraged by former Rays general manager Andrew Friedman to ask questions and be curious.

The Rays' analysts, like the Pirates', want to hear questions from players. Players have a different experience, a different perspective and knowledge of the game.

The Pirates, who also traded for another analytically-inclined player in Mark Melancon, signed Figueroa to a minor league deal in December.

Do the Pirates value this intelligence?

“It's a part of the equation, for sure. You want guys that are able to make adjustments — sometimes that's intellectually, sometimes that's physically,” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. “We're not necessarily going out and looking for guys that have perfect board scores when they go to college. They need to be able to play the game ... But we are looking for guys with aptitudes.”

A new player- and ball-tracking system, Statcast, went online in every major league stadium last season, and Figueroa is fascinated with that data. The Pirates have a virtual-reality system hitters can use this spring, where they can get a look at, say, Adam Wainwright's motion and curveball.

Figueroa's father, Bienvenido, a Dominican Republic native, spent 11 years in the minors and Mexican League. His major league career was all of 12 plate appearances with St. Louis Cardinals in 1992.

What does his dad think about coding and physics?

“My dad thinks I should just see the baseball and hit it, he's more old school,” Figueroa said. “But he understands you need to evolve.”

Figueroa believes there is a divide between many players and new-age information because so much of the data isn't “tangible.” He thinks swing- and mechanics-mapping technology, including some produced by Pittsburgh tech startup, Diamond Kinetics, can help change that. But there also is a divide, Figueroa believes, because the new-school perhaps hasn't communicated its ideas well enough.

“People in general, it's easy for them to say ‘I'm not good at math,' ” Figueroa said. “And if someone tries to feed you something you don't understand, you put up that wall. ... Tampa does a good job of ... giving players (manageable data) to consume.”

If there were more coaches like those in Tampa and Pittsburgh, who give players digestible data, more players like Figueroa in clubhouses, perhaps more players would employ the tools available to them. Figueroa is something of a Neil Degrasse Tyson of baseball, he can explain complicated scientific ideas simply.

Proof?

Days later after their encounter outside the batting cage, Figueroa's former star teammate pulled him aside, after watching video, and returned questions.

How did Figueroa know all this, he asked? Figueroa explained.

Perhaps his real skill is as a communicator. Figueroa's locker is in the highest foot-traffic area in the McKechnie Field clubhouse. He's seemingly had a conversation with just about everyone coming through the clubhouse entrance this spring.

Figueroa understands what pioneering coder Grace Hopper once said: “It was no use trying to learn math unless they could communicate it.”

Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at tsawchik@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib

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