One Man Has Helped Turn U.S. Women’s Volleyball Into ‘Moneyball’
RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — In a scouting booth high above the court, his fingers flying across the keyboard a mile a minute, Joe Trinsey punches in every touch of every point in an Olympic women's volleyball match between Argentina and South Korea.
Before the night's first serve, the Americans' technical coordinator skips down a few stairs and adjusts a tiny camera that gives him the match feed on his laptop. He slaps hands with China's technical chief, Lingxi Yuan.
Trinsey can rewind the match as needed. It's not.
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"Just on the very slight possibility I miss anything — very slight," he said with a smile between points.
Do not even consider challenging this gum-chomping, knuckle-cracking number genius to a type-off. He's the smartest guy most everybody with the program has ever met.
"It's like Moneyball," setter Courtney Thompson said of the baseball book based on the Oakland Athletics' analytics-focused approach. "When Joe tells us we're going to get three, five, seven extra points a match off of this, it's so motivating to us because he's so smart. When Joe says something, we all listen."
The American women, who were chasing their first Olympic gold before Thursday's heartbreaking five-set semifinal defeat to Serbia, beat Netherlands in the bronze medal match Saturday. Coach Karch Kiraly has embraced volleyball analytics the way baseball has turned to sabermetric measurements to evaluate players.
"Joe is the man — 10 steps ahead of the rest of the world," assistant coach Tom Black said.
"Library of Congress," is how U.S. consultant Marv Dunphy, the 1988 gold-medal winning coach, refers to him.
After each tournament, Trinsey pulls all-nighters evaluating each play — there might be upward of 200 plays in a single match — and turns over that information in 48 hours so Kiraly can begin presenting the data to his players.
At the conclusion of last month's Grand Prix, Kiraly sent an individual email to each woman breaking down her serve. The basic findings: serving to space, away from an opposing passer, is far more effective than serving right at someone.
It's hardly that simple when Trinsey studies the tactic intently, yet that's how he presents such information to avoid making things too complicated.
When Kiraly took over as coach for this four-year Olympic cycle, Trinsey offered to be janitor, a volunteer, to shag balls again — any possible task needed. He had been retrieving balls during training and helping out as a volunteer assistant for the London Olympics. It took about six months once the rest of the staff was set, and Trinsey had landed a real, paying position from Kiraly.
"Karch could see I was grinding," Trinsey said, "just logging long hours in the gym and doing the grunt work."
And learning. Everywhere he possibly could.
Once, in 2011, he decided to visit the strong University of Washington women's team during spring practices, paying $50 to sleep on a college student's couch for a week.
Again much like baseball scouting, the Americans relied on radar guns during the London Olympics to track serve speeds then ultimately figured out that didn't help one bit.
Now, it's more of a three-pronged philosophy to helping players improve: studying the game as a whole and evaluating trends, while knowing the fine details of every opponent. And then there's the teaching component: The U.S. players must be able to execute the material they are receiving.
"With everything, you want to look through the lens of 'How can we teach our players better?'" Trinsey said. "We don't want the players to be mathematicians. We want to boil it down to one to three things they can work on."
Going from volunteer gigs at Pepperdine — working with Dunphy and U.S. assistant women's coach David Hunt — and Loyola Marymount with Black, Trinsey ran some camps to "keep the lights on." He moved out West from Delaware to chase this volleyball dream that mixes his coaching and playing background with his razor-sharp brain. A Division III All-American as a player, Trinsey received a degree in applied mathematics from New Jersey's Stevens Institute of Technology 2009.
"It was a risk in one sense," he said of heading to California with no guarantee of a steady job.
The U.S. players are thrilled he landed with them.
"Everything he does is absolutely worthwhile," setter Alisha Glass said. "As humans we err. We err in terms of perspective, we maybe don't have the right view. Just looking at the numbers, the numbers speak for themselves."