This past weekend, I was lucky enough to be in sunny, pre apocalyptic hail storm, Arizona for the inaugural SABR Analytics Conference. I had a great time, but like most work related conferences, my personal highlights had little to do with the actual information sessions, and a whole lot more to do with the networking and mingling that occurred outside of the official program.

If anything, the majority of the panels and information sessions had an air about them that too closely resembled that of an intellectual circle jerk. The speaker relayed information that the majority of the audience already knew, and their words only served to reassure everyone’s individual awareness of their own intelligence. It was the type of setting in which laughter during the talks wasn’t involuntary, but rather a conscious decision by audience members meant to show other audience members that they understand the joke.

That probably reads harsher than it’s meant to be. Organizing this type of conference certainly represents a tedious balancing act. Those in charge had to make things appealing for a wide array of attendees. My hope in attending the conference was to learn about evaluations that depend on information that I might not have considered before. Unfortunately, between guarded answers from individuals wanting to protect their proprietary information and my own high expectations leading into the sessions, I was left somewhat unsatisfied.

Despite my criticisms, I did manage to walk away with some fresh perspectives and lessons learned. Here are my top ten:

10. Ken Rosenthal can break news in any setting.

Perhaps the highlight of the conference for me occurred on Friday morning when Ken Rosenthal, while moderating a discussion among three different MLB general managers, interrupted a question from the audience to inform us that Andy Pettitte had just signed a contract to play baseball with the New York Yankees.

Bonus cool thing: the members of the panel appeared to be just as surprised as the rest of us.

9. Defensive metrics are improving, but not quite there yet. 

There was a lot of reoccurring opinions presented about defensive metrics in baseball, but I think John Dewan summed up everyone’s thoughts better than anyone else:

I feel like we’re getting about 60 or 70 per cent of the picture with current defensive metrics versus 80 or 90 per cent on offense.

If I knew how to find the other 40 percent, I’d be doing it!

Cleveland Indians President Mark Shapiro went a step further:

Where we feel we’re at as far as objective measurement of defense today is somewhat around the equivalent of using batting average for offense. It has some value, certainly very limited value … but we factor it in.

Somewhere, Mitchel Lichtman is spinning in his grave without even being dead.

8. Organizations that don’t depend on software from Bloomberg Sports are probably missing out.

During a particular session that came across as more of an infomericial for Bloomberg Sports than anything else, it was mentioned that there were only six teams in all of baseball that weren’t using the company’s software for analytics. After seeing a demonstration of what it can do, those teams are almost certainly missing out.

Players and front office staff members are able to input and manipulate data to not only answer pretty much any question that could possibly arise, but also see visual evidence of the given answer with a video library that is second to none incorporated into the software. Most impressive to me was the ability to see a pitcher’s sequencing depending on the count and what type of pitches were previously thrown.

It was all very impressive.

7. The new CBA might make investments in player development more worthwhile.

With the money restrictions placed on international free agents and draft picks, it’s very possible that the appeal of a strong player development system, that not only includes better instruction and premium facilities, but also a willingness from the organization to properly take care of its hopefully future stars, will be the new market inefficiency.

Think about it in these terms: Who would a player from the Dominican Republic receiving similar offers be more likely to sign with: the organization that has an instructional academy in his hometown or the club with which he’s completely unfamiliar?

6. Doug Melvin could make a Milwaukee Brewers fan out of just about anyone.

The general manager of the Milwaukee Brewers was by far the most entertaining member of any panel or talk of the whole conference. He was sort of like a good Simpson’s reference in that you remember laughing at almost everything he said without actually remembering a tenth of what he was talking about.

In terms of what I believe the hockey bloggists at our beloved sports network would refer to as beerability, Doug Melvin ranks quite highly.

However, he’s not all snake oil charm. One of the most revealing things told by any of the baseball professionals speaking was Melvin’s admission that his team had shoddy defense last year. He said that one way in which they overcame this reality was to take risks and field exaggerated defenses for both right handed and left handed batters.

5. Trevor Bauer is thought of rather fondly by everyone.

Of all the words uttered and the differing opinions offered over the course of a three day conference, absolutely nothing negative was said about Trevor Bauer. The Arizona Diamondbacks’ prospect was said to have the rare combination of perfect form and the type of attitude that’s constantly looking to improve.

His long toss efforts have already become the stuff of legend, and in many ways he’s become representative of the shift in pitcher development theory that’s now favouring long toss over weight training.

4. Jay Jaffe and Geoff Young from Baseball Prospectus are pretty rad.

I met a ton of people over my three days in Mesa, all with encyclopedic minds for baseball and a type of passion for the sport that regular people are likely incapable of possessing for anything. It was certainly impressive and somewhat mesmerizing.

However, I quickly learned that the ones with whom I got along best were the type of people who might be better described as complete humans. A lot of the baseball discussions around the bar during the hours after the sessions consisted of six dudes, the very stereotype of bloggers, agreeing with each other on every suggestion made.

On Friday night I went out to a taco joint with a few of the friends I made at the conference, and refreshingly, the conversation involved only a minimal amount of baseball. Talking beer, road trips, cities and girlfriends with Jay Jaffe and Geoff Young was every bit as edifying as any of the panels in the conference.

3. Intangibles remain important, even for smart general managers.

One of the most surprising parts of the analytic conference for me was the amount of time that the general managers panel spent on discussing intangibles. Despite all the advancements in metrics that were paraded around during the three day event, Chris Antonetti, Jerry DiPoto and Doug Melvin all agreed that makeup still often outweighs what the scouts say and the metrics might suggest about a player.

DiPoto specifically mentioned the importance of a player’s “will to.” He described the term as the willingness of a player to essentially work toward improving not only himself but his teammates as well.

As much as bloggers and independent analysts might think we have it all figured out, there’s an entire world of information that we’re not privy to, that leads to a ton of personnel decisions that are otherwise left inexplicable with numbers alone.

2. Roy Halladay is the model for everyone.

Time and time again it seemed to come up that the very best in terms of both intangible and metric approaches to understanding the game was Roy Halladay. The pitcher inspired glowing descriptions from everyone who spoke of numbers and work ethic.

One of the most interesting mentions of Halladay came from Brandon McCarthy who candidly admitted to mimicking the pitcher’s approach with his use of cutters and sinkers. His Halladay imitation directly led to something of a career resurgence for the pitcher as he continues to adapt his game to be more Doc-like. McCarthy’s latest alteration involves throwing two strike cutters up in the zone in search of swing and misses.

Everyone, from players to fans to analysts, absolutely loves Roy Halladay.

1. Dale Murphy would do well to go to a baseball game with Wendy Thurm.

On Saturday afternoon, back here at Getting Blanked headquarters, Travis Reitsma wrote about an unfortunate exchange that occurred in the broadcast booth of an Atlanta Braves game, in which one of the game analysts mocked the comments of a female fan, suggesting that her opinion of a pitcher likely had more to do with how she saw him as a potential boyfriend rather than a baseball player.

It was demeaning and insulting.

The previous afternoon, I had the distinct pleasure of going to a Chicago Cubs/San Francisco Giants exhibition game with Wendy Thurm of FanGraphs and Baseball Nation. Man, woman or alien, you are unlikely to ever attend a game with a more passionate, knowledgeable and fun baseball fan.

The proximity in time of Dale Murphy’s comments to my experiences cheering on the Giants with Wendy made his words all the more ridiculous, and lead me to believe that as advanced metrics continue to become an everyday part of the game, the inherent sexism in baseball should be the more evolved fan’s next target.

Hopefully, at the next SABR conference we see some evidence of progress with a few more female attendees scattered among the pasty basement dwellers who helped deliver a very positive time, even if the conference itself failed to meet some of my high, perhaps unrealistic, expectations.

Comments (16)

  1. Sounds like a great conference. Your point about intangibles still playing an important role in decision making made me think about a point made in Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. Some of his research suggests that algorithms (using statistics) often do just as well or better than “gut instinct” or more subjective forms of evaluation (intangibles) when evaluating talent. However, algorithms can only take you so far. He argues that algorithms combined with evaluators’ “best guesses” (which are heavily influenced by intangibles) is superior to relying solely on algorithms.

    • I agree absolutely with that conclusion. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that “intangeables” still play a huge role in management assessments, particularly when it comes to trying to determine the makeup of a person and their will to succeed, to grow, to listen, etc.

      Anyone who has ever hired and fired people knows that you do your best to objectively evaluate an employee’s or candidate’s performance, quantifying it if possible, and to project out potential future performance. But in the absence of overwhelming factors, and even then really, you balance all that with your best assessment of them as a person, where you think their head is at, their level of effort, etc, and you go with your gut call.

      In the end you never get it right all the time of course,but you realize that going in and it’s par for the course.

  2. Great summary. I would love if there was a concerted effort towards ending sexism in baseball. Some comment sections (not naming names) makes that world seems very far away. I love that at Getting Blanked that’s not the case.

  3. Wendy’s kinda luminous, so jealous you got to hang with her at a Giants game and talk Bums’n'Belts.

    @hangingsliders is one of my fav Twitter accounts, thanks for the rec! #FF works people!!!

  4. Awesomely written. Vintage Parkes.

  5. Nice summary of the conference. Sucks that the nerd to woman ratio was like 50 to 1 though.

    For those of you who want to listen to some of the sabremetric conference, Fangraphs posted links to some of the panel discussions. Some interesting stuff for your listening pleasure:

    http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/index.php/sabr-analytics-conference-links/

  6. “That probably reads harsher than its meant to be.”

    Can you add the apostrophe, please?

  7. I am still weighing whether I actuallly believe you went! Bah haha.

  8. So did they mention which 6 teams weren’t using the Bloomberg tool? The OriLoLes?

  9. “the inherent sexism in baseball should be the more evolved fan’s next target.”

    This is a pretty bold claim that you fail to unpack. Just because Dale Murphy said something ridiculous doesn’t mean that there is sexism, let alone “inherent” (?!) sexism, in baseball. Also, why should fans even have “target(s)”? I find the pervasive fawning over Wendy Thurm to be ridiculous; I absolutely agree that there should be more female analysts and baseball writers, but her work really isn’t very substantive. It’s sad to me that people who discuss Thurm (yourself included) always invoke her gender, which is sort of sexist/patronizing in and of itself.

    • Dale Muphy never said that. It was the other commentator, Joe Simpson. Check your facts people!

      • I agree. Baseball’s sexism should be fans next target.

        So for all of you baseball fans who see being a baseball fan as having a bunch of targets of what’s wrong with the game and needs fixing, have at it.

        But, you know, no nerds allowed.

  10. I didn’t know that such a conference existed, and now I’m planning my next vacation around it, which will probably end in my wife leaving me.

  11. The “intangibles” are why I think JPA will still be a Blue Jay after the arrival of Travis d’Arnaud. Not sure how the Jays will accommodate both; but they will find a way.

  12. I was glad to hear that the conference addressed ” intangibles. It seems to me that a lot of time is spent agonizing over GMs decisions and condeming them for decisions they make when only using sabermetrics as the tool of judgement. GMs work in the real world and don’t have the luxury of basing their decisions on just metrics. That being said only an idiot would not consider metrics when making decisions and coversely only an idiot would condem a decision based solely on metrics.

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