Editor’s note: The Diamond Report is a series of monthly messages, written by SABR President Vince Gennaro and Executive Director Marc Appleman, to keep SABR members better informed about the Society’s direction and progress. The Diamond Report archives are collected at SABR.org/diamondreport. To learn more about becoming a SABR member, visit SABR.org/join.
April 1, 2013
By Vince Gennaro
One of the best things about the SABR Analytics Conference is its focus on the “R” in SABR — research.
True to SABR’s heritage, in two short years we have established the Conference as the premier forum for the exchange of research and ideas on quantitative analysis in baseball. How do I know that to be the case? The 30 MLB teams spend billions of dollars annually on players’ salaries, so they are constantly seeking insights on how to evaluate players, assess their true talent level and quantify the riskiness of a player’s expected performance. To that end, they hire analysts and spend millions of dollars annually on data and technology infrastructure to analyze information in the hopes of making better decisions. These are the right people to validate the quality of the content at the SABR Analytics Conference. Twenty-five MLB teams were represented at the 2013 Analytics Conference and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive from the people who have the most at stake from interpreting, discussing and debating the content we showcased there.
The Analytics Conference is not about getting lost in higher level math, it’s about discussing issues from an analytical, data-oriented perspective. One of the more engaging presentations was by Geoff Miller, the mental skills coach of the Atlanta Braves and the author of Intangibles: Big-League Stories and Strategies for Winning the Mental Game – in Baseball and in Life. Miller presented data from his research about personality types and the responses different types of players are likely to exhibit in high stress situations, demonstrating how his work impacts scouting and player development within a big league organization. Ben Jedlovec of Baseball Info Solutions — John Dewan’s company and a provider of data and analysis to teams — presented a study on the “Anatomy of a Batted Ball”. Using his new batted ball timer dataset, Jedlovec examined the likelihood of success on groundballs, based on ball speed, with a special examination of Ichiro Suzuki’s groundball data.
Two presentations focused on game theory, applied to the mental battle between pitcher and hitter. Matt Swartz presented his research about the strategic decisions pitchers and hitters make to optimize pitch selection or in the case of the hitter — the response to pitch selection. Kevin Tenenbaum, a junior at Middlebury College, presented his work (done in collaboration with Dave Allen) focusing specifically on fastball locations in two-strike counts.
Physicist Alan Nathan discussed a variety of topics that draw on PITCHf/x, Doppler radar-based data and other new data sources. His findings covered the impact of temperature and elevation on batted ball distances, the effect of spin on batted ball trajectory and the effect of Coors Field’s humidor on home run production. Graham Goldbeck of Sportvision shared his study on the success of batted balls based on where contact was made (i.e., out in front of the plate vs. at the back of home plate).
Andy Andres presented his work on merging weather data into PITCHf/x and HITf/x to provide context for pitch movement and batted ball performance. Andres, who teaches a sabermetrics course at Tufts University, used historical weather data from weather stations nearest to ballparks to measure its effect on each pitch. My research presentation focused on using graph analytics on detailed PITCHf/x data to cluster pitchers by similarity. By grouping pitchers by factors such as their pitch repertoire, velocity, release point, and pitch sequences we can identify “like” pitchers and place them into clusters, with the goal of augmenting individual batter-pitcher matchup data, with a hitter’s performance against a cluster of pitchers.
Adding to the research climate of the Analytics Conference was the Diamond Dollars Case Competition. Fifty students from 11 colleges and universities came together to present their analyses of what the future holds for the Angels’ Mike Trout. Applying a wide range of statistical tools, aging curves and performance forecasts, the students presented their work to a panel of judges, including baseball operations executives of MLB teams, making for an energetic dialog and a unique window into teams talent evaluation criteria. Student teams from Pepperdine University and the NYU-Tisch School won the graduate and undergraduate competitions, respectively.
Beyond the research presentations, panels such as the Player Development Panel discussed strategies and tools teams use to build the skill set of their minor league talent, while the General Managers Panel shared views among three current GMs — Jed Hoyer (Cubs), Jon Daniels (Rangers) and Rick Hahn (White Sox) — on topics ranging from the role of analytics in a front office to the challenges of finding talent. The Analytics Super Panel with Brian Kenny, Bill James and Joe Posnanski shared perspectives on topics ranging from last season’s AL MVP race to the upcoming Hall of Fame candidates.
It was also exciting to observe the organic flow of ideas from attendees between the Conference sessions. Dave Cameron of Fangraphs and Sean Forman of Baseball-Reference.com came together to decide that the definition of replacement level — an important component of the WAR (wins-above-replacement) stat — should be unified with one common definition. In late March, the two parties subsequently released their new “common ground” definition of replacement level.
The idea for the SABR Analytics Conference was simple: bring the thought leaders of the baseball analytics community together to discuss, debate and share thinking about the pressing issues in baseball. We always believed this could become an important annual baseball event that provides an opportunity to share research and incubate ideas about the game of baseball — an all-you-can-digest research buffet. We hope to build on our foundation as we plan next year’s event.
Vince Gennaro was elected as SABR’s President in 2011. He is also the author of “Diamond Dollars: The Economics of Winning in Baseball”, a consultant to Major League teams, and appears regularly on MLB Network. Read his blog, “Diamond Dollars”, at vincegennaro.mlblogs.com.
Originally published: April 1, 2013. Last Updated: April 1, 2013.