As you probably know, when Bill James was looking for a name for the new pseudo-discipline he was helping to create, he decided to pay homage to and help publicize the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). It was a very nice gesture. Unfortunately, as the term “sabermetrics” has become increasingly popular and/or notorious, it seems to have colored most people’s view of SABR itself in an understandable, but almost entirely incorrect, way. The assumption seems to be that SABR itself is heavily stat-centered, all Moneyball and WAR and xFIP and suspenders and pocket protectors. But really, “sabermetrics” shares nothing with “SABR” save those two syllables. While there certainly are new-agey, BPro-BRef-and-FanGraphs types among its membership (hi!), SABR’s focus has always been, and remains, historical baseball research; we statheads are a very small, though growing, part of the whole. I’d say 80% or so of the organization consists of people, mostly men and mostly in their sixties or later,  who may well think RBI and pitcher wins are just great, but who are interested in the history of the sport (or any number of specific pieces thereof), with the remaining 20% consisting mostly of the analytical crowd, almost all 35 and under. No overlap, and with very little falling in between. It’s a bit weird.

But they’re all baseball geeks (in the non-disparaging, “person with an intense, out-of-the-mainstream devotion to something” sense), and if you’re a baseball geek, too, they’re pretty much all good people to be around, talk to, and learn from. Last week — as they do every year at about this time — some 500-600 of them gathered for the annual SABR convention. This year’s convention, the 42nd annual, was in Minneapolis, and was the first opportunity I’d ever had to attend.

If you yourself are a baseball geek of any stripe (and if you’re reading this, there’s approximately a 100.0% chance you are), you should join SABR, and if you can make it to a conference (around this time next year in Philadelphia, followed by 2014′s in Houston), definitely do so. The conference is a unique opportunity to be surrounded by a whole bunch of people who love baseball at least as much as you do, and to spend four days immersed (to whatever degree you choose) in the history, current state and analysis of the sport. The days are filled with research presentations by SABR members and panel discussions with current or former players, executives and other baseball insiders. The presentations are a bit hit-and-miss, but if you looked closely enough, you could get a pretty good idea of the likely quality from reading the detailed description of each in the provided convention program, and the good ones were truly fascinating. And there are organized things at night, too — including a ballgame, naturally, and I ended up heading to two of those — but also plenty of interesting people who are perfectly happy to hang out at a bar and chat.  It’s just an all-around good time.

Here, by way of further illustration, are the five most important things I learned at SABR 42:

  • There’s no evidence that Moe Berg was both a catcher and a spy at the same time. One of my favorite research presentations at the conference was called “Murderers, Spies and Ballplayers: The Untold Story of the 1934 All American Tour of Asia” by Robert Fitts, who has published a book on the same subject called Banzai Babe Ruth that I hope to read sometime soon. The presentation gave a lot of interesting details about the tour, but the most interesting was the attack on the myth suggested by the (excellent but highly speculative) Nicholas Dawidoff book The Catcher Was a Spy: Berg was a catcher, of course, and we know he later became a spy (during Wold War II), but there’s no reason to believe he was serving as a spy when he went over to Japan in 1934. He took a lot of pictures, some surreptitiously, but  Fitts believes (and convincingly argues) that Berg was just amusing himself, and while he believes that Berg’s having taken those pictures paved the way to his eventual second career, he doesn’t believe they were requested by or of any use to the U.S. As to the question of why a terrible third-string catcher would make a trip consisting mostly of big-league superstars, Berg was multilingual with a Princeton and Columbia Law School education, and had visited Japan two years earlier. It’s pretty easy to see how his presence would have been beneficial to the team, if not to the military.
  • The bat handle and player’s grip on a bat have almost zero effect on a swing’s effectiveness. Physics professor Alan Nathan is a brilliant and very nice guy who has done a lot of work exploring the “physics of baseball,” and he gave a presentation called “What Have We Learned from a Decade of Bat Research?” that managed to explain how aluminum and wood bats work in different ways clearly enough that this English major could understand it. Though much of the focus was on NCAA baseball, something I’ve never had an interest in, there was all kinds of more general baseball-bat-related information that made it one of the most worthwhile presentations of the conference. My favorite takeaway point in in bold above; because (as he demonstrated with video) the impact of bat hitting ball doesn’t reach the handle until well after the ball has left the bat, nothing about the way a hitter grips the ball, the thickness of the handle, the knob, or anything in that region has any effect on the swing. Of course it’s important for the hitter to be comfortable and to be able to guide the bat to the ball, but beyond that, the specifics don’t matter. This was finally and perfectly illustrated by Todd Frazier’s no-handed home run that made an appearance here a month ago (the lower GIF was used in the presentation).
  • Official scorers are a lot more interesting than you ever thought they were. The biggest, most pleasant surprise of the convention to me was the “official scorers’ panel,” an event I very nearly skipped; I don’t really believe that things like errors should exist, so I didn’t really see the point in going to hear the people empowered to dole them out. But I was very glad I did. The three scorers on the panel — Stew Thornley and Gregg Wong from the Twins, David Vincent from the Nationals — were all funny and engaging, with a lot of good stories. These are people who take their responsibilities very seriously, and who have meetings and training and discussions about how to do their jobs better — something I can appreciate, even when I kind of think most of their responsibilities should be unnecessary. They generally avoided the audience’s many attempts to get them to opine on the advisability of any rules, since it’s their place to enforce the rules, not create them (I suppose some people might make a sort of political point out of that), but one exception did lead to what was probably the line of the entire event: asked (by Getting Blanked’s own Wendy Thurm) a question involving the save rule, one of them — I believe it was Thornley, but could be wrong — said, “my opinion is the ‘save rule’ should be called the ‘didn’t totally shit the bed rule.’”
  • Terry Ryan is very in touch with reality. The Twins’ GM gave a talk on Friday morning. He was startlingly blunt and honest about all the things that had gone wrong with the team over the last two years, took the blame for a lot of it (probably more than he should have), and answered people’s questions directly and unflinchingly. He said a few things I wish he hadn’t (or more accurately, that I wish weren’t true) — Rob Neyer quoted him on Twitter as saying “I don’t have the education, I don’t have the intellect, I don’t have the computer skills,” which is selective (as Twitter necessarily is) and was accompanied by the explanation that he came from a scouting background and had other people he relied on for the statistical analysis, and he praised the team’s medical staff while lauding some player or other for his willingness to play through pain, which is much more concerning and encompasses basically all the Twins’ problems — but overall, it was a refreshing and very rare bit of frankness from an MLB executive. At the end of the talk, Roland Hemond announced that SABR’s lifetime achievement award for executives — the Roland Hemond award, fittingly enough — would be given to Ryan at the conference next year, in Philadelphia. Ryan thanked him profusely, thought about it for a minute as though he were checking it against his schedule, and said, “yeah, I may be out of a job by then.”
  • I can now confirm that several internet baseball people (a) also exist as real people in real life, and (b) are good people to spend time with. I’m not going to bother to mention anybody by name, because I’m sure for each one I mentioned I’d forget another. It’s a very cool thing to meet in person (and chat with, and usually drink with) people that you’ve been interacting with through Twitter, or people you’ve been reading for five or ten years, or people who created tools that you use every day. I don’t know if my experience is typical, but the stereotype that we’re all socially awkward and antisocial seemed…exaggerated. Everyone was very nice and willing to chat — we were all there for more or less the same reason(s), after all. And as much as I enjoyed some of the events at the conference, that — the ability to connect with other weirdos who like this game as much as you do — was really the whole essence of the thing.
So this isn’t anything like a full recap, and I don’t know who’d be interested in one anyway. But there’s a lot more fun I’m leaving out here: the surprisingly fun players’ panel; great presentations on topics ranging from the history of AstroTurf to DNA testing in Latin America to the Giants’ sign-stealing scandal of 1951; a screening of the excellent documentary Knuckleball!; a keynote speech by John Thorn that I missed, but that looks like it was brilliant.
The SABR convention is any baseball geek’s paradise, basically. And if that’s you — which, let’s face it, it is — maybe I’ll see you in Philadelphia a year or so from now.

Comments (3)

  1. Butcher always looks a bit of a prick..what was he mouthing off at?

  2. Thank you so much for writing this – I’ve been really interested in what SABR (the conference specifically) has to offer and was kind of nervous about planning to attend a future event, because I’m not a well-established writer or anything. This looks really awesome, though. Thanks for the facts and the info – and glad the experience was so worth it!

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