SABR Analytics Conference Diary - Day 2

After Tuesday's diary of Day 1 of the SABR Analytics Conference, I'm back with part two, detailing the events of the second day of the SABR Analytics Conference. The second day of the conference also happened to be the longest day, with events spanning from 8:30 in the morning to 6:00 at night, with only a single hour-and-fifteen-minute lunch break (that I skipped... oops) slotted in. I was more than getting my money's worth. Follow me after the jump into the day's events.

Day 2

I arrive at 7:40 a.m. for the first panel of the day, which is slated to begin at 8:30. Am I insanely early? Sure. But when you have the opportunity to man one of the front two rows to listen in (and sneak up for introductions afterward) on a panel of three big-league General Managers, you do it. Heck, if people camped out overnight for that immense disappointment of a "first" Star Wars film, I can arrive an hour early to make sure I'm front and center to listen to three GMs talk about the game. Unsurprisingly, some of the big-time members of SABR and/or the media a) seem to know these GMs, and b) have a lot to discuss.

While waiting for the panel to start inside the ballroom, I notice that someone across the aisle from me is reading The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, the famous sabermetric work by Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman, and Andrew Dolphin - and highly recommended by yours truly. This leads to some brief small-talk about the contents of the book and Tango's latest project, an online data course he's planning to start teaching within the next couple of months. Yep, I'm in a place where small-talk centers around Tom Tango and The Book. Only at the SABR Analytics Conference, folks.

***

Friday, 8:30 a.m.: Third Panel


This was the panel that everyone was waiting for. Moderated by Fox Sports' MLB and Twitter king, Ken Rosenthal, the panel featured Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim GM Jerry Dipoto, Milwaukee Brewers GM Doug Melvin, and Cleveland Indians Chris Antonetti. I was particularly pleased to see the mix of GM styles on the panel, as the public perception of the level of sabermetric and scouting influences of each club represented on the panel was pleasantly wide-spread.

At one end of the spectrum was Antonetti and the Indians, a club that was cited almost ad nauseam throughout the conference as a champion club of sabermetric advancement. At the other end of the spectrum was Melvin and the Brewers, the club that utilized SABR whipping boy Yuniesky Betancourt - which Melvin acknowledged, while also seeming to point out his shredding of Arizona in the playoffs - as their everyday shortstop in 2011. However, regardless of the general leanings of each club, all three members of the panel made one thing clear: everyone in the league is using analytics to some extent.

I've left out a good portion of the panel discussion, but hey, I have to give you reason to go to next year's conference, right?

The GMs were asked how they feel psychological and personal differences impact players and their ability to perform in the big leagues:

- Dipoto: Echoing a lesson he has credited to current D-backs GM Kevin Towers in the past, Dipoto said that makeup might be the most important factor when looking for players. While social media can help provide insights into players' minds, Dipoto credited scouts as the most significant source of discovery in regards to makeup.

- Melvin: In 2011, Milwaukee played 203 games in 227 days, so Melvin noted that the manager needs to be able to keep things together and the players need to be able to deal with the failure that inevitably comes with the game of baseball.

All three GMs weighed in on the hot-button topic of pitching and, in particular, pitcher health and conditioning - complete with a Trevor Bauer reference from Rosenthal!

- Dipoto: As the man who had a lot to do with drafting Bauer, Dipoto obviously had some very nice things to say about the young D-backs hurler, which he summarized nicely when he said: "There's sense to everything [Bauer] does." Different players need to condition in different ways, but there's plenty of room for conditioning to improve, and injury prevention for pitchers is a very lucrative prospect.

- Melvin: The Brewers - even with their old-school reputation - now use motion analysis to identify the pressure points on the elbows and shoulders of about 80% of their minor-league pitchers. Melvin wishes this could go even further, and that teams could get their hands on amateur pitchers to conduct this sort of analysis on them to see the physical condition of the prospects they're looking to draft (looking to avoid a Barret Loux-type situation). Melvin looks not just at raw pitch counts, but even more so at pitch counts per inning - look at the innings that take a toll on pitchers physically and lead to things such as arm slots dipping, which can lead to very bad things.

Additionally, here are a few miscellaneous extra bits and some stuff from the Q&A session at the end of the panel:

- Antonetti: Despite the blogosphere's (guilty!) tendency to do so, moves simply can't be looked at in a vacuum.

- Dipoto: "There's a day when trading Dan Haren for young left-handed pitching prospects is a good thing. There's also a day when having Dan Haren on your staff is a good thing."

- During the panel discussion, Rosenthal - Twitter king he is - broke the news of Andy Pettitte's latest one-year deal with the Yankees to those in the ballroom.

- Melvin: Trades are getting harder to make because teams are more weary of medical information than they used to be, yet also aren't divulging their deep, dark medical secrets to one another.

***

Friday, 10:00 a.m.: Featured Speaker: Tom Ricketts

Next on the agenda was an interview of Chicago Cubs owner Tom Ricketts, moderated by SABR President Vince Gennaro. Naturally, Ricketts has a different perspective on the game than many of the presenters at the conference - his job isn't to develop and analyze models, it's to hire people who do and let them do their jobs while simultaneously trying to understand the way they go about their work so as to appreciate their efforts.

Nonetheless, Ricketts provided two phenomenal points from an ownership perspective that should provide optimism for Cubs fans - and heaven knows they need it (there, I've satisfied my quota of cruel, unnecessary jabs at Cubs fans... I'm done now). First, he acknowledged that patience is necessary for teams in need of full-scale rebuilds in order to not just achieve success, but to sustain it. That mentality certainly fits the mindset of Theo Epstein, and it seems that Ricketts won't be the type to overreact and fire Theo after a couple of underwhelming years, which can only be seen as good news.

Second, he noted that the new CBA provides an opportunity for a change in what attracts talent to your club, particularly in Latin America. With signing bonuses strictly capped, the surrounding inputs become all the more important - scouting to find elite talent, top-notch facilities to sway prospects to sign with you, etc. Teams are no longer able to blow a prospect away with a huge bonus, so teams are going to have to convince prospects to join them for reasons other than dollar amounts, and things like top-notch facilities could have an enormous impact.

***

Friday, 11:00 a.m.: Third Presentation

While Greg Rybarczyk of HitTrackerOnline.com was presenting a lecture called "Integral Baseball: Comprehensive Player Evaluation via Player Tracking" in a different room, I attended the lecture entitled "Bridging the Gap Between Sabermetrics and Formal Statistical Inference: Toward a Unified Approach to Baseball Research". Sadly, the intended presenter of the slides, Patrick Kilgo, had come down with the flu and was unable to present, leaving a research partner of his - Hillary Superak - to interpret his slides.

The presentation had a simple premise: statistical inferentialists don't think sabermetricians have any idea how to run a formal study, and sabermetricians don't think that statistical inferentialists have any idea how the dynamics of the game work. Then, of course, there are people like me who don't have any clue in either regard (self-deprecating humor!!!).

The most interesting - and humorous - portion of this presentation, at least to me, was actually the results of a separate study cited within the presentation. Like many other interesting and humorous baseball-related things, it began with a Tim McCarver quote and proceeded to show how blatantly wrong Tim McCarver was in that quote. McCarver's quote was vaguely along the lines of "as games wear on, catchers perform generally worse in their later plate-appearances because their hands are sore from catching." Naturally, the study showed that - adjusting for lineup position - catcher performance diminished the least from early plate appearances to late plate appearances than the performance of players at any other position. Good one, Tim McCarver.

***

It was at this point where I took my first break from the regularly-scheduled conference events. As someone who has never played fantasy baseball, I figured that the 2:15 p.m. Fantasy Baseball Panel was worth passing over, though I also unfortunately bypassed the "Retrospective Look At Baseball Analysis" panel that featured some heavy-hitters of the SABR community - Dick Cramer, Gary Gillette, and John Thorn.

Nevertheless, the conference's case competition presentations were beginning, and this would be the best opportunity for me to catch some of the early-round presentations. As briefly covered before, the competition featured teams of 4-5 students from business schools - undergrad or graduate-level - around the country, tasked with solving a hypothetical baseball operations decision that they received the Monday before the conference. Using some of the financial principles found in SABR President Vince Gennaro's book, Diamond Dollars: The Economics of Winning In Baseball, the teams were tasked with figuring out the financial ramifications of a series of options presented to them.

There was some truly insightful work done by some of the presenters, and I was particularly impressed by the team that eventually won the competition, from The University of Chicago's Booth School, regarding strength-of-schedule. There were some oddities in the case - for instance, prospects were remarkably overvalued by the parameters presented, leading to C-grade prospects receiving $30MM valuations - but the eventual decision meshed with what I would have expected the outcome to be after knowing only the basic details.

I would go into those details, but it'd take another three paragraphs to do so, and there's already a perfectly-good explanation on the SABR website. Needless to say, I really wanted to have learned of the competition sooner than I did, because it would have been a blast to participate. Sadly, trying to get Notre Dame's Business School to spread the word about something non-big-business-related is like trying to convince a dentist that you don't need to spent last month's paycheck on fillings.

***

Friday, 3:30 p.m.: Fourth Presentation

After my first perusal through the case competition presentations, I popped in on a presentation from Graham Goldbeck of Sportvision - the company behind Pitch f/x, Hit f/x, and the hopefully-forthcoming Field f/x. The presentation, entitled "Pitch f/x and Hit f/x Component Aging Curves", essentially was a series of aging curve graphs for various individual aspects of the detailed data taken by these systems, i.e. vertical movement, spray charts, etc. Here are two of the highlights:

- Fastball velocity peaks at around age-26 for starters and at around age-27/28 for relievers before going into steady decline.

- As pitchers age, they throw lower in the strike zone, though this might also be a product of selection bias - pitchers who work higher in the zone lose effectiveness as they lose velocity, and thus find themselves weeded out of the sample, leaving the pitchers who already worked lower in the zone as a larger percentage of the overall sample.

- Goldbeck mentioned that one area into which further study could prove insightful is in looking at the aging curves of the platoon effect. In other words, do platoon splits become more or less dramatic as a hitter ages? As a pitcher ages?

***

Friday, 4:30 p.m.: Fourth Panel

The final scheduled event of the day was the Clubhouse Confidential Panel - named for the MLB Network program on which the panelists regularly appear - featuring Dave Cameron of FanGraphs, Jay Jaffe of Baseball Prospectus, Vince Gennaro of SABR, and Rob Neyer of Baseball Nation. While this panel may not have the name recognition of the GM panel, it made up for it with great insight and candid answers that come with the removal of a conflict of interest.

Who do you think is the most underrated player in baseball?

- Cameron: Will Venable - left-handed pull power outfielder in a park that destroys left-handed pull power hitters. In a more neutral park in center field, he could provide a dirt-cheap regular player.

- Jaffe: Yovani Gallardo - aside from being a good pitcher, Gallardo can hit, which gets mostly unnoticed. (Also known as the Daniel Hudson Corollary.)

- Neyer: Great baserunners and solid defenders who aren't quite of Gold Glove-caliber. After poring over the question for a few more seconds, Neyer came up with Tyler Greene.

- Gennaro: James Shields - Aside from being a great pitcher, Shields goes deep into games in the AL East. (Personally, I absolutely loved this pick.)

What is the biggest in-game strategic flaw you see?

- Cameron: Intentional walks. Also known as The Ron Washington Suicide. Yes, I just made that up, but I think it should spread.

- Jaffe: Keeping an extra bullpen specialist rather than an additional bat, pinch runner, or defensive replacement off the bench. Not necessarily a bad thing for every team, but with every team in the league shrinking their bench and expanding their bullpen, someone has to be killing value, right?

- Neyer: Over-aggression on RBI singles in advancing to second base on throws home, and subsequently getting run down. More often than not, the runner would have scored anyways, and you're simply costing your team a baserunner.

- Gennaro: Pulling a starter too soon for a specialist reliever.

Are ground-ball pitchers overrated or underrated?

- Cameron: Underrated, particularly in minor-league translations - people are strikeout-obsessed when looking at prospects.

- Jaffe: Ground balls a good thing, all else being equal, but "ground-ball pitcher" too often means someone who can only get ground-balls, which usually is a recipe for a lot of runs scored against you.

What metrics are overrated?

- Jaffe: Defensive metrics in small sample sizes.

- Cameron: ERA+. Cameron claimed that ERA is something of an out-dated metric when looking at player value.

- Neyer: OPS+. (AMEN!!!)

***

Another day, another ten hours at the Hilton Phoenix East/Mesa. For those who want another indicator of how jam-packed this conference was with material, I'm now through two days of the conference and have right around 6,000 words of recap. However, with all of the action and interesting information being thrown my way, I can't possibly describe how quickly the hours went by at the conference. I've said it before, but it bears repeating: SABR Analytics Conference 2013, book your calendars.

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