March 14, 2013
15 Questions I've Been Asking Myself Since the SABR Conference
There were, by my count, 25 talks, panels, or presentations at last week’s SABR Analytics Conference in Phoenix. I couldn’t attend all of them, since some overlapped, but I made it to as many as possible. I’ve already written about the most interesting thing I heard, but the Indians’ sabermetric approach to marketing was just one of many intriguing topics that made me start scribbling notes during the three days I spent listening to smart people talk about baseball. (Many of those topics were brought up by Bill James, which probably isn’t surprising.)
Below I’ve listed some of the questions asked (either explicitly or indirectly) at SABR that are still on my mind a week after the conference began. I don’t have the answers to all of them, but that’s okay, because, as James said, “The key is to find the questions.” (Note: Only a few of the events are available online, there was no convenient place to put a computer, and I scribble only so fast, so I may have mixed up a detail or two.)
Should teams pamper their players?
It’s not as if most major leaguers have it hard, but it’s reasonable to suggest that a team could distinguish itself by offering players more and more off-the-field perks, simultaneously optimizing its current players’ performance and making itself more attractive to potential acquisitions.
Bill James wasn’t buying it. Speaking the next day, James admitted that he’d had the same thought himself, and that what Kenny had proposed was literally true: “If you do more to make sure your employees are comfortable, you’ll get better results.” But according to James, any advantage derived would be short-lived. James believes that happiness adheres to the “Law of Competitive Balance” he formulated in the 1983 Abstract, which states that certain forces tend to conspire against strong teams and in favor of weak teams in ways that reduce the difference between the two. He cited the findings from this study, which were summarized in a Forbes piece last November:
James concluded, “The same happens in a baseball team. If you try to make players happy all the time, what you wind up with is spoiled players who can’t do anything for themselves, and they’re not any happier than they would be. You just move the standards.”
In other words, pampering a player might make him feel more at ease in the short term, but it wouldn’t make him happier down the road. And it would mean more time and expense for the team.
Will the knuckleball ever be banned?
Of course, if the knuckleball has the potential to be effective enough to upset baseball’s competitive balance, why hasn’t some team made more of an effort to develop knuckleball pitchers already? Kenny believes it’s just a case of bias without basis. “There’s a conditioning, a bias against valuing these guys, for no reason except it’s, what, unmanly? It’s a gimmick pitch?” he asked at SABR. “It’s nonsense. What does it actually do? It gets guys out.”
If you’d asked me why the knuckleball hasn’t become more common, I probably would’ve said “because it’s a hard pitch to throw.” Perhaps there’s something to that. But Bill James revealed another, equally persuasive reason I’d never considered. And he was speaking from experience:
Those barriers to knuckleballer development are simple, but significant: there’s no one to coach them and no one to catch them. Since there are so few former knuckleballers, there are few coaches with specialized knowledge of the pitch who can nurture the next generation of knucklers. And since there are so few people who throw the pitch, there are just as few who can catch it. As a result, it’s hard for a knuckleballer to throw a side session unless he wants to retrieve the ball himself. And he can’t be brought in with runners on base, because those runners will score on passed balls. As James concluded, “It’s just very, very hard to develop knuckleballers for reasons that are not really apparent until you try it.” You can see some of that subtext in Jonathan Zeller's recent BP profile of Red Sox minor-league knuckleballer Steven Wright.
A knuckleball academy might solve some of those problems by being equipped with capable coaching and catching staffs, but eventually the knuckleballers would still have to face professional hitters, who probably wouldn’t be willing to enroll in the academy and take BP against knuckleball cadets when they could be advancing their own careers. And when the time to face real hitters in actual games arrived, the same catching problems could crop up. There’s also the possibility that hitters could become accustomed to the knuckleball if they saw it more often, which would make the pitch less effective.
Are high draft picks less likely to sign early extensions?
Of course, Evan Longoria, the patron saint of players who sign team-friendly extensions, was a third overall pick who got a $3 million bonus from Tampa Bay. To put that into perspective, Bloomberg Businessweek reported late last year that the average American with a bachelor’s degree makes $2.4 million in his lifetime. So before Longoria had played a professional inning, he’d already earned more than the average college-educated American ever will. That's financial security for you. And he never even got his degree!
Could the minor leagues be better structured?
On what planet(s) did Ichiro Suzuki and Mariano Rivera originate?
HITf/x tracks the precise points in space at which batters make contact, and Goldbeck had data on over 600,000 balls in play since 2008 to examine (which, again, he probably got paid for). He found that batters who make contact with pitches well in front of the plate (intuitively) tend to pull the ball and hit for more power, while those who wait (or react more slowly) and hit the ball when it’s closer to the catcher tend to go the other way and hit for less power. The average point of contact is about four inches in front of home plate, but max ISO on contact comes about eight inches earlier.
Goldbeck also found that contact points tend to stabilize quickly—according to Eddy, after about 25 balls in play. Except for Ichiro’s. Ichiro’s contact point was the least stable of any batter’s: he hits pitches in front of the plate, deep in the zone, and everywhere in between. We already knew Ichiro had crazy bat control, but it’s nice to see Sportvision’s newfangled stats confirm it. I’ve been skeptical of claims that Ichiro could hit for much more power if he simply decided to try, but I’m a little less skeptical now.
And then there’s Rivera. Goldbeck found that pitchers who induce contact deep in the zone tend to be hard throwers (which makes sense, since it’s harder to catch up to their pitches). There were three notable exceptions to this general rule—relatively slow throwers who still induce deep contact. Two of them were Brad Ziegler and Randy Choate, specialist relievers with weird arm angles whom hitters can’t get a good read on. The third was Mariano Rivera, who throws the same damn pitch every time.
When the two went head to head (which, sadly, we’ll almost certainly never see again), Ichiro’s weirdness won out: he hit .400/.438/.667 in 16 plate appearances against Rivera.
How big is baseball data going to get?
Gennaro stressed that we need both new methods and new hardware to process data on that scale. He mentioned that YarcData, a division of Cray (“the supercomputer company”) that constructs and runs complex queries like the ones that produced the “pitcher clusters” he presented, uses computers with eight terabytes of RAM. The maximum amount of RAM the little laptop I’m using to type this can handle, assuming I’m willing to void the warranty, is eight gigabytes. It freezes for five minutes when I click on long email threads. Cray’s computers can run a query in a couple of days that might take a year for most companies to complete, or calculate the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything while Deep Thought is still stuck at the sign-in screen. That’s the kind of processing power that some baseball teams might be about to have at their disposal.
One other tidbit from Gennaro’s talk: when he analyzed pitcher clusters based on a whole host of process characteristics, he noticed that pitchers from the same organization were grouped together more often than he expected, which suggests that we might be underrating the extent to which coaching and organizational philosophies affect pitchers’ approaches.
Do situational relievers make sense?
Someone asked James why the Red Sox still use what he believes to be a counterproductive strategy, and he explained that change isn’t as simple as voicing an unsupported assertion and expecting John Farrell to adopt it immediately. A couple factors James might not be taking into account: first, the deterrent value of situational relievers. If a team knows its opponent has no southpaw in the pen, it can stack its lineup with lefties whenever a righty starts or a lefty starter leaves the game. And then there’s the effect of forcing one’s remaining bullpen guys to pitch in longer bursts, which would likely make them all a little less effective without the right mix of relievers. Some helplessness at the hands of a big lefty bat in the late innings wouldn’t be the only downside to doing away with LOOGYs.
Are we smarter about baseball than we used to be?
Is the public “ahead,” or are front offices?
I see his point. But still: all those scouts, and all those proprietary stats.
What weight should we assign to “scouts” and “stats”?
Dodgers President and part-owner Stan Kasten said he favors scouts 60-40, in a general sense. When it comes to in-game tactics, he’s fully in favor of stats, since a run expectancy table can tell you what happened in thousands of identical situations that arose in the past. But he believes that while stats are great at telling us what has happened—in that respect, in fact, he acknowledges they can be close to perfect—they’re not as useful in predicting the future. Kasten said that prospects aren’t like base-out situations, since no two of them are exactly alike, so you can’t make player development decisions like you make in-game moves.
One of Kasten’s biggest laugh lines was something a respected rival GM told him: that he really likes analytics when they agree with what the scouts say. According to Kasten, that’s the case 80 to 90 percent of the time.
What is clubhouse chemistry worth?
It’s difficult to quantify team chemistry—we’ve tried—but it probably doesn’t get us any closer to the answer when either “side” of the issue exaggerates its estimate of the impact for effect. It seems safe to say that it’s not worth 20 wins—if teams believed that it were, Inge and Gomes would be making much more money—and it’s not worth nothing. Can’t we all agree that the true effect is somewhere between the extremes? If so, we can stop squabbling and start figuring out how to make our estimates more precise.
Are steroids still a problem?
How much does a pitcher’s extension matter?
Naturally, taller pitchers tend to get more extension, but size isn’t all that matters—so does stride length, among other things, which explains how David Robertson, who stands 5’11”, can have better extension (and thus a “sneakier” fastball) than much more physically imposing pitchers. Teams are paying attention to pitcher extension, and so should we, to the extent that we can without access to the data.
Should front offices play a larger role in dictating in-game moves?
After the hiring of Walt Weiss and Mike Redmond, Colin Wyers wrote that teams might be moving toward inexperienced managers because it’s easier for them to exert control over a skipper who isn’t established. According to Hoyer, though, the trend toward younger managers might have an economic explanation: players make too much money now to be willing to ride buses in the bush leagues after they retire. If teams want former players to manage, they’ll have to be willing to put up with some amount of on-the-job training.
What’s the role of stats in the clubhouse?
Lopez said something interesting: he doesn’t think that teams are really even trying to persuade players to alter their approaches with stats, or find players who’d be receptive to statistical persuasion. Instead, they’re just targeting players who already do things that the stats say are good. Eventually, he believes that players will realize what approaches teams prefer in their players, and they’ll try to do those things of their own accord, without any nudging from numbers guys.
On the GM panel, Rich Hahn emphasized how easy it is to lose a player’s trust when citing statistics. Even if a statistical approach is sound 99 times out of 100, if it happens to backfire for a player the one time he tries it, he’ll be much less inclined to listen the next time. So when you cite a stat, you have to be sure.
One other tidbit that I’ll add here because it doesn’t fit anywhere else in the article: McCarthy mentioned that he hates facing hitters who confuse him by doing things he doesn’t expect. Among the most confusing hitters to face: Jeff Francoeur, because he swings when no one else would.