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March 23, 2012

Prospectus Hit and Run

Rattling SABRs in the Desert, Part I

by Jay Jaffe

I can't do full justice to my trip to Arizona to participate in the inaugural SABR Analytics Conference, which took place from March 15-17 in Mesa, Arizona. Five days in all, part work, part working vacation—and rarely just vacation—the trip was pure sensory overload, a full immersion in a corner of the baseball universe with which I am quite familiar, but one whose size and scope have grown larger than I ever imagined. I couldn't possibly absorb it all, but what follows here and in the second installment is my best attempt to capture some of what I experienced.

To preface this, prior to this trip, I had not been to any spring training since 2003, when I made the rounds in Florida and visited both Dodger and Yankee spring headquarters. I hadn't been to spring training in Arizona since 1986, when my father took my brother and me back when I was a high school sophomore. Since moving into the ranks of professional writing, my Marches have become crowded with East Coast trips to promote the Baseball Prospectus annuals as well as an exhaustive series of weekly spring updates for Fantasy Baseball Index (8,000-plus words a week on position battles and injuries, with depth chart and projection tweaking along the lines of what we do here at BP) to help pay the bills, so finding time to get to spring training has been well-nigh impossible.

The call of the Cactus League became stronger once the Dodgers moved from Vero Beach, Florida to Glendale, Arizona in 2009, but on principle, I've been loath to spend my tourist dollars in Arizona due to the odiousness of their anti-immigration movement. Even so, it didn't take me more than a few minutes to accept when Joe Hamrahi offered me the opportunity to represent BP by participating in a “Clubhouse Confidential”-related panel.

Vince Gennaro, current SABR president, frequent “Clubhouse” guest, and one of the game’s foremost economics experts put together that panel, and the conference itself. As Vince explained to me on the phone a few weeks later, SABR moved its headquarters from Cleveland to Phoenix this spring with an eye toward creating more alliances within the industry. With 15 teams training in Arizona, the timing and location of the conference was a natural fit, allowing industry professionals, team executives, and media to participate, and creating an incentive for conference-goers to catch a ballgame or two.

I flew in on Wednesday, March 14, arriving at the Hilton Phoenix/East Mesa just after noon; my plane had landed nearly an hour early, the rare good omen for a trip. With some of the week's fantasy business still to wrap up, as well as a scheduled radio hit, I was confined to my hotel for the afternoon, but as the tweets rolled in from followers and conference attendees at Cactus League games, I was instantly jealous. No sooner had I expressed this sentiment via Twitter than a pair of Dodger fan followers (Madeleine Clark and Gary Scott) offered to take me to an evening game, schlepping halfway across the desert to transport me to and fro, with a brief stop for some suds. I had never met either of them, but had conversed with both on Twitter, and while others who heard my tale afterward would joke of body parts in garbage bags strewn across the desert, I simply proved that I will get in the car with strangers who promise me baseball.

Not just any baseball, either: Dodgers versus Reds at the latter's spring facility in Goodyear, with NL Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw on the hill for the boys in blue, my first time seeing the 24-year-old southpaw pitch in person. Seeing him up close, too. Madeleine and Gary had seats in the front row behind home plate, while I was able to walk up to the ticket office and buy one for row H in the same section, right behind the backstop. Kershaw was accompanied by a B-list Dodger lineup: A.J. Ellis catching, Adam Kennedy at first base, Mark Ellis at second, Juan Uribe at third, Justin Sellers at short, Trent Oeltjen, Tony Gwynn Jr., and Jerry Sands in the outfield; no Matt Kemp, no Andre Ethier, no bane of my existence, James Loney. The Reds, despite fielding a split squad, featured a fuller assortment of regulars: Drew Stubbs, Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, and Ryan Ludwick, plus top prospect Devin Mesoraco, with the absence of second baseman Brandon Phillips and the presence of Corky Miller (.188/.270/.300 career) as DH the biggest clues to the game's timing.

Homer Bailey started for the Reds, and the Dodgers abused him from the get-go, piling up three runs in the first inning, with Mark Ellis poking a double and Oeltjen hitting a two-run triple that should have been an inside-the-park homer, save for Mesoraco blocking the plate while dropping the ball, then picking it up as time seemed to stand still. Bailey's fastball was straight as an arrow, so the Dodgers pounded him for six runs in 2 1/3 innings, with A.J. Ellis and Kennedy—a duo that combined for nine homers in 512 PA last year—both going yard. Uribe, on the other hand, demonstrated his midseason form by grounding out to the left side twice.

Meanwhile, Kershaw abused the Reds, notching six strikeouts—five against Votto, Ludwick, and Bruce—in four innings while allowing just two balls out of the infield, including the lone hit by second baseman Henry Rodriguez. Up close, the hitch in Kershaw's delivery is quite distracting; one can see why Sandy Koufax himself told Kershaw not to change it.

I snapped several photos on both my iPhone and a Lumix camera that had trouble focusing past the netting behind the plate. This one, of Kershaw getting Mesoraco to ground to second base, was among the best:

Once Kershaw had done his business, I got a chance to mingle not only with Madeleine and Gary but also True Blue LA editor Eric Stephen, who's been covering the entirety of spring training, and TBLA contributor Craig Minami. After the game, we schlepped back to Mesa in search of a watering hole, ending up at a ghastly strip mall-based joint called Septembers, where the bartender boasted nothing on tap, but all kinds of beer: Bud, Bud Light, Coors, Coors Light, Miller, Miller Light, Miller 64… for a beer snob like myself, this was nails on a blackboard, though they did at least feature one craft brew, Fat Tire. We were joined by Wendy Thurm, founder of Hanging Sliders, contributor to both SB Nation and FanGraphs, and die-hard Giants fan. Though our Dodger fan continent outnumbered her, we all got along famously thanks to the special camaraderie that exists between fans of NL West teams with wheezing offenses (more on this later).

Thursday marked the beginning of the conference proper, with a keynote panel called "The Changing Face of Baseball Data," moderated by Baseball-Reference.com creator Sean Forman and featuring MLB.com VP of Stats Cory Schwartz, Baseball Info Solutions owner John Dewan, and FanGraphs Editor-in-Chief Dave Cameron. The state of fielding metrics was a common topic of discussion, given the scant nature of FIELDf/x data offered to the general public relative to PITCHf/x data, and Dewan's recent publication of The Fielding Bible III. "I feel like we're getting about 60 or 70 percent of the picture with current defensive metrics versus 80 or 90 percent on offense," said Dewan. "If I knew how to find the other 40 percent, I'd be doing it! ... (But) what advantage do teams have if you release the data? They're trying to gain a competitive advantage and it's hard to do that if everyone has access to it."

As to which teams are more sabermetrically inclined, both Dewan and Schwartz were understandably coy about the identities of those using specific services, but the general consensus was that nearly every team is doing something or other with regards to advanced metrics—"If you can spend a million on your weakest player, why not spend as much on analytics?" asked Dewan rhetorically—but that scouting was still incredibly important as a necessary component to blend with that data. You can read more quotes and listen to audio of the entire panel here.

After that, Gennaro gave a well-organized presentation called "The Top 10 Value Plays for Building a Roster." He broke his strategies into four main areas: exploiting data biases (such as capturing the secondary effects of starting pitchers who go deep into games and save wear and tear on bullpens, or using higher-order quality of opponent adjustments to get a truer sense of value), inefficient pricing of wins (on a per-win basis, defensive value is perhaps 25-50 percent cheaper to buy, at least according to some of the examples he gave using FanGraphs WAR; in another example, lefty-mashing hitters generally come at a discount), optimizing timing of transactions (signing free agents early in November—a Ned Colletti gambit, not a favorite of this particular author—or in February, once the choices of landing spots and players are both limited), and buying risk at the right price (understanding risk preference and the range of outcomes for signing a high-risk injury player or a Manny Ramirez '12).

One of the most interesting slides he explained attempted to illustrate when a team has enough information to know whether it is a contender. According to his studies, that point is reached right around the All-Star break. Thus, teams should be dealing earlier so as to capture the additional gains by upgrading via trade (CC Sabathia to the Brewers on July 7, 2008 being a fine example).

In keeping with the predominant theme of defensive metrics, former Prospectus Idol finalist and current Hardball Times contributor Brian Cartwright gave a presentation called "Counting Defense: Extending Defensive Efficiency Rating to the Player Level.” Cartwright's play-by-play based system assigns responsibility for the potential fielding of every ball in play and shows the different extent to which individual players get to the ball in their field of responsibility, rating both their range and their hands. I must admit, as I'm not an expert on this particular end of things, I didn't quite gather how this differed from the old Zone Rating.

The presentation included an avalanche of data, some of it fairly illuminating—a base-out matrix showing defensive efficiencies for each game state, for example—and some of it simply dumped onscreen in the form of illegible full spreadsheets instead of easy-to-read leaderboards. Not to pick on Brian, who's a very smart and talented analyst, but the presentation served to remind that presentation is important if one wants to get one's ideas across effectively. Later in the weekend, there would be other panels I skipped out of when it became clear they had even less idea of how to achieve that goal.

Work duties called, so I missed a presentation from Bloomberg Sports on "The Next Generation of Team Analytics," but I returned in time to watch SB Nation's Rob Neyer interview A's pitcher Brandon McCarthy for nearly 40 minutes. A former top prospect in the White Sox chain, McCarthy saw major-league action every season with the Sox and Rangers from 2005-2009, but he couldn't avoid the injury bug. From 2007-2010, he spent at least 60 days on the disabled list in every season—much of that time due to a recurrent stress fracture in his scapula—and never topped the 101 2/3 innings he managed in Texas in 2007. In 2008, he stumbled across FireJoeMorgan.com, and in addition to being entertained—"It was the funniest thing I'd ever read," he said—his discovered sabermetrics. "When I first got into it, it had nothing to do with me—I just liked to argue about baseball, it was just purely for argumentative purposes," he said. "It wasn't for another year or two that I began to apply it to myself. But at first, I just wanted to yell at people on the Internet."

Image courtesy SABR.org

Cued by a growing understanding of sabermetrics, McCarthy—to that point, an extreme fly-baller who was prone to the long ball—realized that in order to succeed in the majors, he needed to generate more ground balls:

I had known for years that I'd given up too many home runs, that wasn't an advanced principle, and I also knew I just never got groundballs. It was all fly balls for me. So as I started to make that realization, it was getting too hard for me, even to have an OK game I was working much too hard… I watched guys who got groundballs all the time and just worked inside the strike zone, and it always looked easy, they didn't ever seem as tired. Roy Halladay was a big part of that, it just looked easy, easy, easy. The more I looked at the stats, the more I realized that groundballs are good, not walking people is good, and then hopefully along with that is keeping my home runs down, too.

Originally, I wanted to become Roy Halladay… he doesn't throw super-hard, so that was within my realm of physical possibility. About a year later is when I made the full physical transformation to dropping my arm down, which facilitated a little bit more sink, a little bit more cut.

The combination of altered mechanics, a ground-ball-centric arsenal and an improved rehab regimen (he suffered yet another scapular stress fracture last year, his fourth) helped McCarthy toss a career high 170 2/3 innings last year for Oakland and led the AL in Fielding Independent Pitching at 2.90. His 0.6 HR/9 was less than half his previous major league rate, as was his 1.3 BB/9. In all, it was a fascinatingly frank interview about one pitcher's evolution. I can actually take a modicum of credit for making this happen, because when Gennaro called to bend my ear about our panel, he had mentioned that his first choice for a player participant had backed out. I barely paused before recommending McCarthy, and it all worked out swimmingly. You can hear the complete interview here.

Following the interview, I had the pleasure of trekking to Scottsdale with Rob to meet up with a handful of baseball writers not involved in the conference—ESPN Magazine's Molly Knight and Stacey Pressman, the Los Angeles Times' Bill Shaikin, SI.com's Joe Lemire—to hear war stories of covering spring training, discovering new ways to gamble on baseball (theoretically, of course) and—particularly with both Bill and Molly in tow—handicap the Dodgers' ownership endgame. Alas, our evening ran so late that I didn't return to the hotel in time for the conference's evening mixer; for some god-awful reason, the hotel bar's last call was at 11 p.m. Monsters!

Then again, I was no one to be talking about late nights when I couldn't make it out of bed in time for Friday morning's 8:30 a.m. general managers panel, featuring the Indians' Chris Antonetti, the Angels' Jerry DiPoto, and the Brewers' Doug Melvin (whom you can hear here, or check out this write-up by MLB.com's Corey Brock). I was still working on proper caffeination levels to take in the whole of Gennaro's interview with Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts, but by the time of the afternoon's "Retrospective Look at Baseball Analysis" with MLB's official historian John Thorn, sabermetric pioneer Dick Cramer, and SABR's Gary Gillette, moderated by Forman, I was at full attention. This was like listening to a stathead Mount Rushmore discussing the birth of modern baseball analysis, as well as a history of statistics dating back to Henry Chadwick. While Bill James came up as a topic of conversation several times, the panel served to remind that the field was far bigger than just one man.

Thorn discussed working on The Hidden Game of Baseball and the encyclopedic Total Baseball with co-author Pete Palmer, not in attendance but certainly worthy of a seat alongside this trio. "OPS is the Masonic handshake," said Thorn of the gateway to moving beyond the old-guard stats such as batting average and RBI; the stat was first introduced in Hidden Game (on his blog, Thorn republished Palmer's landmark 1973 Baseball Research Journal article, "On Base Average for Players"). He shone a light on Cramer, whose 1980 Journal article, "Average Batting Skill Through Major League History," represented a milestone in terms of an attempt to measure league strength, and how it improved over time. He posted that article as well, along with David Shoebotham's 1976 Journal article "Relative Batting Average," a pioneering effort to normalize batting statistics. Cramer discussed his EDGE 1.000 software, the first baseball analytics program to be used inside front offices (future GMs Doug Melvin and Dan Evans were among those on the cutting, um, edge). Gillette spoke of Thorn's efforts to debunk the myth of baseball's origins: "Abner Doubleday is the father of baseball like Santa Claus is the father of Christmas," and of importance of bringing the spirit of sabermetrics—honest intellectual inquiry—to pursuits beyond the numbers. I could have listened to this trio talk about this stuff for another hour, easily. The audio for the piece isn't up yet, but when it is, it's well worth your time.

Next came a fantasy panel with our own Derek Carty, Bloomberg's Craig Glaser, and FanGraphs' Eno Sarris. All three spoke of the parallels between the analytic tools used in front offices and those available to the enterprising fantasy player—Bloomberg's offerings are a particular milestone in that department—and the importance of integrating scouting information where possible. With the guidance of moderator Schwartz, they managed to steer clear of the banal "my second-best pick at second base in the NL is…" formula that I privately feared would overtake the discussion.

Later that afternoon came my own moment in the spotlight… but as this piece approaches 3,000 words, with so much more to tell, I'll save that for a second installment on Monday. In the meantime, in the spirit of giving the people what they want, I leave you with a picture of me accepting a gift I received from the aforementioned Craig Minami, who works for NBC and knows that I enjoy this comparison:

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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