Drayer: Inside look at MLB’s evolving technology race from Mariners’ front office

Jan 25, 2023, 2:26 PM | Updated: 2:27 pm

Mariners general T-Mobile Park workout...

A general view of a Mariners intrasquad game at T-Mobile Park on July 10, 2020. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

(Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

A young Dave Cameron once asked his parents for a bus pass so he could go to Mariners games at the Kingdome. And that he did, guided from his South Sound home to the ballpark by a voice on the radio.

“I fell in love with baseball through Dave Niehaus talking to me about Harold Reynolds, Dave Valle, Scott Bankhead and Dave Flemming,” said Cameron, Seattle’s new director of player procurement, Tuesday on the Mariners Hot Stove.

His interest went beyond what he saw on the field. Unable to find kids his own age to talk the game, he turned to some of the earliest online baseball forums where he could debate the writings of Bill James and Rob Neyer.

“I just found these really smart, interesting baseball people that I could argue with, and I would tell them what I heard on TV and that they didn’t know what they were talking about and they would tell me I was just a kid and I should go do my homework,” he said with a laugh. “But I just found a group of older, really intense baseball fans to have baseball conversations with because I didn’t have other 12- or 13-year-old kids who wanted to talk baseball.”

These forums were the start of a path that would lead Cameron to co-founding the popular USS Mariner blog in 2002, being named managing editor and operator of Fangraphs in 2010, then becoming one of the first to make the jump from page to front office when he was hired by the Padres in 2018. If you assume this was “wildest dreams” territory, you assume wrong. Cameron had never really imagined what he was doing would lead to a career on the inside.

“The people that I saw that teams were hiring were significantly more technical,” he said. “They were the PhDs from MIT. They were the guys that could sit down at a computer and build a projection system. They were going after Nate Silver, they were going after a different kind of analyst. They were gong after the more technical kid right out of school who knew machine learning an robotics, physics. I didn’t have any of that. I was an econ major, I had an accounting background and I was running a blog because I missed my team and I lived 3,000 miles away.”

Seeing himself more as a writer than something closer to the MIT PhD, he was skeptical he would be a good fit for the Padres, who ultimately proved him wrong. Hired as a senior analyst, he was tasked with helping the team build its research and development department, and was later promoted to special assistant to the GM. After leaving the Padres following the 2021 season, Cameron took a consulting position with the Mariners for 2022 and recently was named senior director of player procurement, a position that was created for him. It is a different role than what he had in San Diego as the Mariners already have the systems he helped create with the Padres.

The idea: to come up with something that complements what already existed.

“I’m not here to build something new,” he said. “The Mariners are no longer behind. They’ve got really smart people doing really smart things and it’s one of the reasons why the team is good now.”

Player procurement is no longer a matter of just flipping through leaderboards and stat pages. The group of “really smart people” Cameron speaks of is massive and integral to keeping the Mariners on pace, and hopefully ahead of the curve, in not just finding players but improving them. It is Cameron’s job to pull this together, to have conversations and take ideas and concepts generated in these departments that could forward the organization to the next level.

“I do think that the Mariners are in a really good position to have a lot of people who are looking at players across the board, and whatever I can do to kind of surface their ideas and build collaboration, that is something early on in my Mariners career here has been pretty important to me.”

Staying on and ahead of trends is a challenge as the game is rapidly changing due to advances in technology, yielding tremendous amounts of information.

“It’s wild,” Cameron mused. “I think that when I was writing at USS Mariner, there were five or 10 guys that had an analyst. And if you had an analyst, you were ahead of the curve. Now every single team in baseball has a very large research and development department. The average team now has a R&D department, people who essentially write code, somewhere between 14 and 16 people. That’s the average. It was like eight (people) three years ago. It is growing dramatically.”

A large part of what these folks are doing is figuring out the whys. When the Mariners acquired Teoscar Hernández from the Blue Jays, one of the simplest answers given by both president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto and general manager Justin Hollander to why he was targeted was Hernández hits the ball hard. A quick look at his Baseball Savant page confirms this. His acquisition was not about the batting average, the number of home runs he hits or runs he drives in. It was about what he could do rather than the result.

Just identifying this is a huge step forward from not too long ago. Now, it is not enough. It has gone from “He hits a home run because he hit the ball hard” to “How did he hit the ball hard?”

It’s one of the many areas the Mariners and other organizations are looking to to get an advantage. In Cameron’s eyes, there will always be a “next big thing,” anything that can give one organization a leg up over the other. On the Hot Stove, he gave as a look at a current focus.

“There is a ton of emphasis on the player movement space,” he said. “High-speed cameras, skeletal breakdowns – teams are going very fast in this direction. We are scratching the surface of that; this is not a solved problem yet. There’s no organization out there that knows how to keep their pitchers 100% healthy or gives everyone an extra 10 mph velocity or to give every pitcher nine extra inches of sweep on their slider. Everyone is trying to figure out these problems. We are very early on in the player movement analysis space.”

Cameron then pointed to a success story in the Mariners’ own division: the Houston Astros, who have made the postseason in seven of the last eight years and go into 2023 the defending World Series champions.

“I think of what we have seen is Houston 10 years ago did a really good job with the ball tracking stuff. One of the reasons why they’ve had success over the last decade is they were an early mover in that space. But now the rest of the league has caught up to them and now we are pivoting towards other things. Someone will come out of the player movement space as the leader in the space and understand kinetics and kinematics better than everyone else and get some huge advantages and probably see their players stay healthier. Then people will hire their coaches, people will hire their guys that will spread across the league and you will need something else. So the investment in this space will get you the advantage in 5-10 years, but there will always be something else. Something that someone isn’t working on. I don’t think baseball is ever going to be a solved problem.”

It is a very competitive marketplace, finding the stars of the ever-growing front offices.

“These are real scientists who would work at a university who would otherwise be trying to solve cancer,” said Cameron somewhat unbelieving. “We are now trying to pull them into baseball and we are being like, ‘How can you hit the ball a little harder or put a little more spin on this curve ball?’ I think the level of expertise has changed dramatically. Every day I am confronted with some of the smartest people I have ever worked with and there are 50 of them. In every organization there are just unbelievably smart people trying to solve these really interesting problems.”

Twenty years ago, Dave Cameron was trying to solve the Mariners interesting problems of the day with suggestions through his popular blog. Part writer, part baseball nerd, always a fan, his path led to what in the early 2000s seemed a most improbable place: the Mariners’ clubhouse following their postseason-clinching game that ended two decades of playoff futility. He watched as the speeches were given, champagne was popped and bedlam ensued.

“It was surreal,” he said. “Just, really, that inner kid inside me is doing backflips. The USS Mariner guy asking (former Mariners GM) Bill Bavasi to not do all the things that he kept doing, asking the Mariners to look at players differently, to get to sit in the chair and get to sit with Jerry and Justin and these guys and get to weigh in and be part of a team building a roster that made the playoffs for the first time in 20 years, it’s just really cool.

“I’m a writer at heart and this is an awesome story I hope that someone, someday writes down some of the ridiculousness of my career path. Because I could not have possibly imagined that this would come to pass.”

You can hear much more from Cameron in the podcasts from Tuesday’s Hot Stove, including his thoughts on current projection systems, an area where the Mariners have a leg up, and the current state of hitting can be found. This week’s version of the show, which airs from 7-9 p.m. each Tuesday night on Seattle Sports 710 AM, also features interviews with Mariners manager Scott Servais, catchers Cal Raleigh and Cooper Hummel, and a look at the Astros with broadcaster Steve Sparks.

More from the Hot Stove: Mariners’ Servais on Teoscar Hernández, spring training

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