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A spring training chat with TJ Barra, Mets data guru

Barra turns raw data into numbers that the front office, coaches, and players can use to improve.

Chris McShane

Between major and minor league camp, there are over 200 players in Port St. Lucie during spring training. For the folks who make decisions about those players—everyone from general manager Sandy Alderson to manager Terry Collins to the minor league pitching coaches—that requires a whole lot of information. And that’s where TJ Barra, manager of minor league operations and baseball information, comes into play.

With the Mets since 2007, Barra sifts through data from all levels of the Mets’ organization with Ian Levin, the Mets’ manager of analytics. And sharing information doesn’t stop with the front office and coaches. Barra will take data directly to players, some of whom—Josh Satin, Matt Bowman, and Allan Dykstra, for example—are particularly receptive to it. Generally, though, it’s all about translating numbers into baseball language.

"The goal is to maximize data as both an evaluation and coaching tool, and I think the biggest challenge in that is knowing what your audience is," Barra says. "If I’m talking to Paul [DePodesta] or talking to John Ricco, it’s different than if I’m talking to a 17-year-old who’s coming over from the academies. So you have to be able to simplify your message and always be able to get back to baseball terms. Like I can say, ‘the standard deviation of number x is 2.54,’ but what does that mean when a guy’s up at the plate?"

If you’re a player, says Barra, "you’re looking to have two or three things in the back of your head that you’re looking for and don’t overcomplicate the process. That’s what we try to do with these guys. If we say ‘we want you to perform at a 4.85 y-stat,’ it just confuses the process."

So instead of numbers, Barra says the Mets use suggestions like, "we want you to hit more line drives, use the whole field more." And players often like looking at images and graphs.

To create those suggestions in the first place, Barra starts with data that’s broken down much more than batting average or on-base percentage. "When you get into their particular selectivity sets: What’s their swing rate, what’s their chase rate? How well do they do on the breaking ball?

"It’ starting to get to the point that you’re actually measuring the skill and what actually happened and things that players actually control. I think there’s going to be more continuity in what those numbers show in the course of the year than other metrics like batting average and on-base, which have a higher level of variance."

The Mets’ coaching staff is very open to what Barra and Levin produce. Bob Geren, the team’s bench coach, calls Barra every day. "He’s always looking for different types of information that he can have handy at a moment’s notice to get to Terry and help make a decision."

Of course, it’s all about teamwork, especially when it comes to player development.

You’re never going to build a team out of an Excel workbook. -TJ Barra

"You’re never going to build a team out of an Excel workbook. The numbers tell us what happened in the past, and that’s not going to change. But you want to be able to put everything that happened in the past in proper perspective to understand what happened."

In the end, he says, it’s all about isolating the things a player controls and putting the numbers into context.

"I’m not Miss Cleo," Barra says. "But I think the more information that you have about the past and an understanding of how predictive those numbers are allows us to have an idea of what could happen."

Spring training is a busy time of year. All of the Mets’ coaches and the front office are in one place, the only time that happens each year. But things get busier for Barra once the season begins. With the major league team and at least a few affiliates playing most nights, the job involves mostly nighttime hours.

"It’s fun being down here, but the fun doesn’t start until you get to April 1 or April 5 and you have four games going on per night, and you’re keeping track if there are three games starting at 6:30, 7:00 and then Vegas starts at 10:00, it makes for a fun night until 1:00. And then do it all over again."