I attended the 4th annual SABR Analytics Conference recently in Phoenix, and it was an interesting combination of fan convention and job fair/trade show for MLB analytics departments. The convention agenda bordered on overwhelming with over thirty interviews, panels, presentations, and awards crammed into two and a half days, and 450 (!) attended. You can visit the SABR website for highlights, commentary and links here.  Here’s a few of the things I learned from my immersion into the world of analytics during the conference.

The acceptance of analytics within MLB has grown substantially the last two years. This was the theme of Brian Kenney’s keynote address. He saw the success of the Pirates as the tipping point “one could explain away the A’s and Rays as long as they didn’t win a World Series, but when the Pirates started winning that was different.” In addition, conference attendees from a couple years ago were now employed by major league teams. Despite the opinion of certain announcers, the trend toward more analytic usage will continue – it was pointed out at the baseball operations panel that today’s players are generally comfortable with computers and data, and they will soon be coaches and managers.

Teams are very focused on granular analytics that help prepare for the game that night. Video scouting, hitter/pitcher tendencies, and defensive shifting are the major focus in the constant search for an edge over the opposition. B Sports (formerly Bloomberg Sports) demonstrated an intuitive iPad system that would automatically load video and data for every pitch for every matchup for an upcoming series, which could be filtered by pitch type, outcome, or count. It included email functionality that would allow a coach to email selected pitches to individual hitters to help inform their approach. While use of this type of tactical information is growing it is certainly not universal – there were several comments to the effect of “some players are stubborn/not that smart/don’t make adjustments easily.” Despite increasing usage, many teams don’t like to talk about their usage of analytics, at least in part to empower their players. It was noted that any proprietary advantage a team might have tends to disappear fast. Baseball teams copy what works, and front office personnel tend to move around from team to team; new knowledge and approaches spreads quickly.

It is very difficult to integrate advanced analytics into TV broadcasts.  Steve Berthiaume, Joe Block, Doug Glanville and Josh Suchon discussed the usage of analytics in broadcasts. There was general agreement that is difficult to use them properly, particularly during a game. To introduce advanced stats, one has to explain it, provide context, and hope it fits the storyline of the game (a lot of pre-game preparation never makes the broadcast). It is also crucial to have executive buy in from network executives. It won’t be surprise to anyone reading this, but it was noted that advanced stats can be polarizing, and feedback is frequently negative. Berthiaume noted that in general, the TV audience is not a big fan of different. However, at one time RBI was different.

In the early days, Sabermetrics was not accepted by SABR. One of the most interesting panels was on the Origin of Analytics, which featured sabermetric pioneers Pete Palmer, John Dewan, Dick Cramer, and John Thorn. In its fledgling days, SABR was primarily focused on baseball history. When Palmer and Cramer proposed starting a Statistical Analysis committee in the early 70’s, the head of the organization limited them to one paper every two years in the SABR journal. For a long time, they were the Statistical Analysis committee. It is remarkable what they accomplished in the pre PC days (to name a few, inventing OPS, debunking clutch hitting as a skill, understanding the importance of pitch counts). Cramer noted that as late as 1987, he had to wait until December to find out leaders in batter walks. We have made some progress since then.

There is no shortage of innovative new research. Jason Wilson of Biola University presented a new method to quantify pitch effectiveness. Their new metric (we need more acronyms) QOP calculates pitch effectiveness based on velocity, trajectory, location, horizontal break – allowing them to get beyond velocity and help remove subjectivity from the evaluation of breaking pitches. The have six years of data (over 5 million pitches) scored with the metric and hope to sell current season data to MLB teams. Another study quantified command by measuring where the catcher’s mitt was at release. Understand DIPS? Ben Jedlovec of Baseball Info Solutions presented DIBS – Defense Independent Batting Statistics. By tracking velocity for ground balls, and hang time and distance for flyballs, found that trajectory based batting stats were a better predictor of future performance than batting runs, and had the potential to also provide better park effect adjustments. Baseball Info Solutions also carefully studied who was responsible for called strikes (the pitcher, batter, catcher, or mpire) and found that elite pitch framing catchers could be worth up to 15 runs a year. It was fascinating to see the ways that the torrent of new data was being applied to provide better insights. Speaking of innovation, I don’t want to forget the back of a Bowman Chrome card:

Bowman+Chrome+back

Who needs stats, now we have baseball cards with spray charts and hot zones!

The Reds don’t hate sabermetrics. While the analytic inclined among us have occasionally (frequently?) questioned a Reds move, it was clear from the conference that Reds are active even if they don’t talk about it much. Sam Grossman, the Reds Director of Baseball Research and Analysis was on a Baseball Operations panel. He talked about the biggest challenge of his job (presenting data in useful forms), the split between analytics and scouting in the office (there wasn’t one), and that park effects were a consideration when filling out the back end of the roster. He also touched on the decision process behind the Latos acquisition (his high K and swing and miss rate would trump his flyball tendency) and acquiring Simon (the higher competition level of the AL East and stuff made him an attractive target despite mediocre results with Baltimore). In addition, the Reds were one of eight teams to sponsor the conference. Take that Marty!

Overall, it was an informative three days and I would recommend the conference if you have an interest in baseball analytics (the Sloan MIT Conference covers multiple sports and has 3000 attendees). Brian Kenney’s summary did a good job of capturing the  conference.  See you in Phoenix in 2016.

23 Responses

  1. zaglamir

    I didn’t know this conference was a thing, but you have piqued my interest. Thanks!

  2. Steve Mancuso

    The conference sounds interesting, thanks for the report Greg.

    I’m glad to hear of the Reds involvement. But I’m skeptical. Seems like there is a huge gap between the research/input and actually affecting change. That will be the case as long as Walt Jocketty is the GM, for better or worse.

    Even when the Reds KNOW they need on-base percentage — Jocketty himself mentioned it several times this offseason as the #1 priority — they can’t bring themselves to pay the price for it. Other than the Choo anomaly, the Reds have been dreadful in leadoff OBP. Locked in old-school thinking that speed, not OBP is the key at the top of the order.

    • earmbrister

      I’m sorry, but I guess I’m old school also. I’d rather have Billy Hamilton batting lead off, in front of Votto, than in front of the pitcher. A double by Votto with BH on first is a guaranteed run.

      As for a Walt KNOWING he needs OBP, but not paying for it … I know I need a new SUV, but I’m not in a real rush to pay $ 45k for a new one. Maybe Walt knows he has a high OBP prospect (Baseball America’s #4 rated OFr) a year or so away in Winker.

      I seem to remember you not wanting the Reds to sign Aoki for LF, despite his career .350 OBP. Are you an old school thinker in that LFrs need to have some pop in their bats? Or like Walt do you base your decisions on more than one factor?

      Just cause Walt is older doesn’t mean he’s stuck in the past. Do you make the same choices you made 20 years ago?

      • Steve Mancuso

        I wouldn’t call it old school to think that leadoff hitters should have pop in their bat, which I do. Old-school brought us Willy Taveras and Billy Hamilton in the leadoff spot. Choo was a great leadoff hitter. I was against Aoki in part because he didn’t hit for power. But I was also concerned that at his age, his past OBP wouldn’t be a reliable indicator of his next few years. There were also significant concerns about his base running and fielding. Here, you can read for yourself: https://redlegnation.com/2014/11/10/no-to-nori/

        Most hitters on first base score on a double. And if they get to third with no outs, they still have a big chance to score. I’d rather my leadoff hitter get on base a lot more often so he’s there when Votto hits that double. Speed, which Hamilton possesses, is most valuable batting in front of singles hitters. He’d be fine at #7 or maybe #9.

        Your SUV example doesn’t quite fit. Jocketty wasn’t saying “in a world where I could have anything I want, we need OBP, but that’s not realistic” he was saying that he was out looking for higher OBP. He said the Reds needed to do that and find a hitter with fewer strikeouts. Marlon Byrd will be an upgrade over LF from last year, to be sure. But he doesn’t fit the profile of what Jocketty said the Reds needed.

        Is Jesse Winker going to lead off for the Reds? I hadn’t read that. I see a team committed to Billy Hamilton leading off, regardless of his OBP, as long as he plays for the Reds.

        Just look at the Reds roster. If, for some reason, Billy Hamilton isn’t available to play CF over a length of time, say a month or two, who is the next leadoff hitter? That’s the issue Jocketty should have addressed with the LF spot this year. Yes, it would have cost more than Byrd. But that’s my point. It’s one thing to say your organization needs something. It’s another thing to fully appreciate what that will cost and be willing to spend what it takes to get it.

      • earmbrister

        I don’t have alot of time for this, cause it’s tax season, so in brief (lol):

        Yes, you were concerned about “Aoki in part because he didn’t hit for power. But (you were) also concerned that at his age, his past OBP wouldn’t be a reliable indicator of his next few years.”

        As per your link:

        “Report are circulating this morning (Jon Heyman, CBS Sports) that Aoki will seek a three-year deal and that the Reds are among teams interested. Experts in these things (Charlie WIlmouth, MLBTR) estimate that the left-handed hitter may earn $16 million on a two-year deal.

        Should the Reds sign Aoki to a three-year deal, in the neighborhood of $20 million?”

        You were concerned about his age and whether his past OBP wouldn’t be a reliable indicator of his next few years. Well the Giants must have agreed with you, cause they only signed him for 1 yr/ $ 4.75 M (with a team option for a 2nd yr.). Guess Walt agreed with you too, cause he went elsewhere: if he had signed Aoki for even one year (like the Giants) would you have criticized him?

        Your statement that “most” runners from first base score on a double is tenuous. I read an article recently that Joe Maddon, who I wouldn’t call conservative or old school, held more runners at third (from 1st base) than sending them home, cause runners would get gassed trying to score from first and would get thrown out. No need to worry about Billy Hamilton getting gassed. When Hamilton gets on base, he’s a real threat to score, no matter the circumstance. I’d say that whatever discount he gives up in OBP he makes up in ability to score the run. The pressure he puts on an opposing pitcher is palpable.

        And Hamilton is only going to get better. He’s only been playing CF for two seasons, and he is already one of the best CF’rs in all of baseball. Now that he has his rookie year behind him, and has proven himself in the field, his energies and concentration will be at the plate. I’m expecting marked improvement at the plate and in his base stealing,

        My SUV example is on point. Knowing you need something, and paying for it are two different things. How many times has a friend of yours stated the obvious in giving you advice. The typical response is No SHERLOCK. Jocketty can know he needs more OBP, but be constrained in his budget in going out right away and paying for it. He could have paid for a high OBP LFr at top dollar (like he has a NYY or LAD budget), or he can make do for a year (Marlon Byrd) to get to his low cost, team controlled for six years, high OBP LF Jesse Winker.

        I HADN’T READ THAT Jocketty said that he was only interested in getting a higher OBP in his leadoff spot. He said he was looking for higher OBP period. Knowing he needs more OBP has NOTHING to do with being willing to pay whatever it costs to get it, unless your George Steinbrenner.

        As for fully appreciating what it will cost (whatever that means), I’m guessing Walt and Bob have a better sense of that then their critics …

      • Steve Mancuso

        And I should say on a positive note, that Bryan Price’s apparent decision to bat Votto second goes a long way to mitigating the problems in the lead-off spot.

      • Kevin J. Brown

        It goes a long way to reducing the effectiveness of our best hitter.

        Players batting 3rd in the NL have a 48% chance of batting with men on base, players batting 2nd 44%. JV is a much better hitter win men on base over his career; his OPS is 95 points higher. This compares with the average 38 point bump that an NL hitter gets from batting with MOB.

        Lessening the strength of our best hitter in order to conform with a general, non-specific personnel recommendation of a certain segment of the sabremetric community seems a odd thing to do for me.

        The Reds believe Billy will develop his on base skills and want to utilize his speed effectively. I think he should bat lead off.

  3. jdx19

    I’m not sure if this is your first article or not; it’s the first I’ve noticed. If so, it was a great one!

    I’m definitely interested in attending at some point in the future.

    I find it very interesting how the announcers were saying it is difficult to integrate advanced metrics into broadcasts. I like watching different feeds to see how other channels/orgs do it. For example, some channels still only put AVG/HR/RBI on the splash screen when a player comes to bat, while ESPN national broadcasts usually do AVG/OBP/OPS with HR and RBI below them. The propensity for the announcers to verbalize such things seems to vary greatly, as well.

    Thanks again!

  4. Greg Gajus

    For those interested, I believe SABR has already scheduled the 2016 conference for the same location and time frame – March 10-12 at the Hyatt Regency in Phoenix. Thanks for the kind words on my first RN article.

  5. VaRedsFan

    “elite pitch framing catchers could be worth up to 15 runs a year.”

    I’ve always thought this was very important. Hannigan was a master at it. While Mez is just OK (below average IMO), I think he can improve exponentially in his pitch receiving skills.

    • lwblogger2

      Will be interesting to see how the Pirates’ pitchers do this year. Martin is an excellent pitch framer and he’s moved on. I’m not sure what kind of pitch framer that Cervelli is. I’m assuming the Pirates looked at the numbers but who knows?

      • WVRedlegs

        I heard Bowden & Stern talking to Clint Hurdle about just this a couple of weeks ago. While Cervelli is no Martin, they said he was pretty decent. My take away was that Cervelli might not be that big of a downgrade, it won’t be a night and day type of difference. That he is probably a tad better than Mesoraco at it, but Mes is improving in that area.

  6. Greg Dafler

    Thanks for the article, Greg. Interesting stuff! I enjoyed reading it.

    With respect to incorporating advanced analytics into broadcasts. A good first step for some teams would be to not alienate or degrade those fans who do already use them. It won’t catch on if the team’s in-game voice to fans is strongly negative against it.

    With respect to Sam Grossman “He talked about the biggest challenge of his job (presenting data in useful forms)”. Did that include explaining advanced numerical/statistical analysis to a non-statistical audience?

  7. WVRedlegs

    Very interesting Greg. Good stuff. Each year since 2012 I have taken a couple of new stat categories, or acronyms, tried to learn more about each one and understand how they are calculated and used. It is too overwhelming to try and understand them all at once.
    How much is the registration fee for this conference?

  8. WVRedlegs

    DatDude BP is leading off today. Cozart batting second. Now there is a SABR nightmare. Good thing it is a spring training game.

    • jdx19

      I thought the same thing at first, but it is following Price’s batting order algorithm so far. He’s putting minor leaguers and/or bench players near the back and starters up front, presumably to get them more ABs. I doubt his spring lineups are any indicator of where a player will bat during the season, except for maybe Votto at #2.

  9. WVRedlegs

    Two excellent articles to pass along.
    One at Forbes Magazine on MLB franchise’s worths and operating numbers. The Reds are ranked at #20 in franchises at $885M. They had operating revenues of $227M and were last in teams that made a profit at $2.2M. Might be why there was so little action this winter.
    Five teams had operating losses; the Dodgers, Phillies, Tigers, Blue Jays, and D-backs were in the negatives. Mindboggling.

    http://www.forbes.com/mlb-valuations/

    Another one is from Doug Gray at his redsminorleagues.com site on AA reliever Ben Klimesh.

    • Eric Sullvan

      I think you are right. That very small profit is the reason for the lack of moves this off season.

    • charlottencredsfan

      For many companies a < 1% GP, will have heads a-rolling. If I'm invested in the Reds, I'm rolling back my number of shares as the immediate future doesn't look to be exactly bright either.

      Good info, WV.

      • earmbrister

        Gotta wonder if those numbers reflect the old TV deal, or future rights. Would be a big change to revenues and worth.

      • Michael Smith

        I would guess it reflects the current financial situation. Once the new tv contract is negotiated you should see a bump in value.

    • jdx19

      I wonder how teams handle depreciation of the stadium. Since it is publically-funded, do the Reds still get that benefit? Does it even apply since a book value for a stadium makes no sense since it is unlikely to be resold? Interesting questions! I bet there is a lot more behind that $2.2M oerating income than meets the eye!