March 18, 2014
The Big Questions from the 2014 SABR Analytics Conference
When I got back from last year’s SABR Analytics Conference in Phoenix, I had a bunch of questions bouncing around in my brain. So I wrote 15 of them down in a piece for BP, as much to sort through them myself as to relay what I’d heard from the many presenters, panelists, and team employees who attended the three-day event. A year later, most of those questions are still stuck in my head. But the more I think about baseball, the more questions I collect, so those 15 have since been joined by many other mysteries.
The third annual SABR Analytics Conference wrapped up in Arizona on Saturday, and I’m back with a fresh batch of questions inspired by what I saw. (Because some presentations were scheduled opposite each other, I couldn’t attend them all, but I’ve at least seen the slides from the ones that I missed. You can listen to audio and/or view the PowerPoint from many of the panels and presentations at the SABR Analytics site.)
Are players healthier now than they used to be?
The truth is, we don’t really know whether the evolution of pitcher usage has made pitchers more or less safe, because we don’t have a baseline injury rate to compare to today’s. Until 2010, MLB didn’t have any sophisticated injury tracking system; teams kept track of injuries on sheets of paper they kept in filing cabinets, and the thoroughness of those records varied depending on the doctor and training staff. As Dodgers trainer Stan Conte said on SABR’s “Medical Analysis and Injury Prevention” panel, pre-2010 teams couldn’t even tell whether they’d reduced their rate of hamstring strains from what it had been a few years before, let alone whether pitchers were suffering fewer serious injuries than they had in the 1970s. It doesn’t help that the terminology used to describe injuries has changed over time. As Conte discovered when he looked into the recent meteoric rise of oblique injuries in baseball, it’s not that players of the past never strained their obliques, it’s that the same injury used to be referred to as a “ribcage” problem.
BP’s Corey Dawkins has gone to great efforts to collect historical DL data for pitchers, but what we have isn’t comprehensive. Even if it were, it might be misleading, since injured pitchers of the past weren’t always placed on the disabled list—sometimes they just went home. And while we could compare innings totals or career lengths, it’s tough to account for the fact that the same number of innings might mean many more pitches today, or that those innings might be more stressful because of increased competition. (Conte disclosed that the Dodgers had done a study on “stressful innings,” looking for a connection between injury rates and high-pitch-count innings. That study didn’t turn up any correlation, but they’re redoing it right now with leverage index substituted for pitch count.)
I’m not saying there’s no way we can establish whether modern methods of protecting pitchers have helped, but building a narrative based on cherry-picked injuries from different eras doesn’t get us any closer to a conclusion. I say Score, you say Santana, let’s call the whole thing off.
What are the truths about Tommy John surgery?
In a large-scale, long-term survey of pitchers who underwent ligament replacement surgery, Conte said, 85 percent got back to their pre-injury performance level. Most returned to play in 12 months, though their statistics (and their velo) didn’t completely recover for 18 months. Among major-league pitchers, though, only 74 percent returned, and it tended to take closer to 16 months.
Conte mentioned that roughly 40 percent of parents and coaches of amateur players think that it’s okay for a young pitcher to undergo Tommy John surgery before presenting any symptoms, believing that it will make him throw harder. However, that's mostly a myth. Some guys do throw harder after the surgery, but only because A) they were pitching hurt before the surgery, B) they had to take time off from throwing, which gave their body time to recover, or C) they got into better shape and/or cleaned up their mechanics during the rehab process.) Even for pitchers who return to the same performance level after the surgery, the first graft doesn't last forever. Sometimes it fails within a year or two (as it did for Daniel Hudson) if the surgery is sloppy, but even if everything goes well, it often fails in 8-9 years. Because pitchers have had TJ at earlier ages in recent years, we’re seeing more and more two-time TJ’ers, Medlen and Parker among them. The sample is still small enough that we can’t be sure of the recovery rate, but early signs are encouraging, though it tends to take two-timers longer to return.
How could bullpens become more flexible?
Both pitchers on the panel agreed that bullpens would benefit from more fluid roles, but they warned that the way things work now is too deeply ingrained for an open-minded manager to make a change on his own. According to McCarthy, a team that wanted to take advantage of an inefficiency in reliever usage would have to adjust its philosophy at every level of the organization. As it is, relievers are assigned to specific roles even at the lower levels of the minors, before it’s clear who has closer potential and whose ceiling is a setup role. If a team taught bullpen flexibility from the start, there would be no culture shock at the major-league level, except for players imported from more traditional organizations. And those players, at least, would know exactly what to expect.
So would it work? To hear McCarthy tell it, this is a clear case of “like it or lump it.” Players might not be pleased, but they’d adapt and move on. The reason why it might fly, he said, is that it wouldn’t present a clear threat to any current player’s career. To use McCarthy’s comparison, telling relievers that they might pitch at any time from the sixth to the ninth isn’t like telling Billy Hamilton that he has to stop stealing. No pitcher would be out of a job because a team decided to label its relievers less clearly. Given time to get used to the idea (and to see how well it worked), most players would accept leverage-based bullpen usage as the new normal.
Has the standardized strike zone made plate discipline more valuable?
This is a good thing, from a fan perspective, but we rarely consider the possible implications for players, a subject that surfaced (briefly) during the injury prevention panel. For instance, does the standardization of the strike zone make plate discipline a more valuable skill? Now that the zone is less prone to fluctuations from one day to the next, maybe the ability to distinguish a ball from a strike is worth more to teams. (We could check to see whether they’re paying more for it, perhaps.) And maybe we can assess plate discipline skill more quickly, now that it’s less subject to umpire influence. Does plate discipline stabilize more quickly in 2014 than it did a decade ago? That, too, could be checked.
It’s also possible that hitters who excel at picking up on each umpire’s personal strike zone—and veterans who gain the same insight from experience—might be less valuable today, due to the decreased variation between umps.
Is team chemistry more important in baseball than in other sports?
Maybe we’re thinking about this the wrong way. In his talk about team chemistry on Friday, SABR President Vince Gennaro made the case that chemistry is more important in baseball because of the length of the season and the grind of 162 games (plus spring training and, perhaps, the playoffs). In Vince’s view, baseball players are more interdependent—if not during games, then during all the time between games. The players Vince interviewed told him that they see their teammates more than they see their families, so it makes sense that they’d benefit from a tighter-knit traveling support system.
Is team chemistry in baseball more important than it used to be?
As Gennaro argued, though, good chemistry can create highly motivated players who work longer hours and prepare more thoroughly for their opponents. That might be a bigger deal than it once was. At one time, the difference between a driven player and one who was just playing for the paycheck might have meant the difference between getting a good night’s sleep and playing hung over. But as Gennaro put it, we’re living in an “age of empowerment” in which motivated players have more ways to separate themselves from the pack. By adhering strictly to a diet/nutrition or strength/flexibility program, or by studying PITCHf/x and HITf/x info and advance scouting reports, players who internalize an obligation to their organization and their teammates can get more out of their natural talent than was possible for players of earlier eras.
As Bannister said, “[Studying stats] was my steroids.” It’s in clubs’ best interest to encourage any performance-enhancing process that can’t result in a suspension, so we might start to see more teams trying to instill a thirst for knowledge during the development process. On the last day of the conference, Kyle Evans, the Cubs’ Director of Video and Advance Scouting, said that his organization—which recently dismissed its uniformed psychologist—is trying to produce players who always look for an edge and exploit all advantages in addition to their talent. That may not what we typically think of when we talk about chemistry, but it probably should be.
What’s the future of automated tracking technology?
BIOf/x captures the position of the bat or selected body parts at a moment in time: for pitchers, the location of the plant foot, shoulder at release, elbow at release, and hand at release, and for batters, the hands at the point of contact (or the point at which the bat and ball are on the same plane, in the case of a swing-and-miss), the tip of the bat at point of contact (or the point at which the bat and ball are on the same plane, in the case of a swing-and-miss), and the location of the back and front foot.
Goldbeck wouldn’t say how exactly the data was captured (though presumably it’s through some application of Sportvision’s camera technology), or when the system would be finished. It’s still in the prototyping stage, with data only from the O.Co Coliseum last September and October AFL action in Mesa, and it can’t yet capture multiple points along the same plane, which would enable Sportvision to measure acceleration and mechanics from first movement to follow-through. The greatest limitation of Trackman and PITCHf/x is that they don’t tell us how a pitcher got to the point at which he released the ball. And the greatest limitation of the current methods of measuring mechanics is that they require the pitcher to wear cumbersome equipment and can’t be used in game, which means that they might not be capturing a completely natural motion. If it works, BIOf/x would address both issues.
The possibilities are enticing: the ability to measure stride length and extension, arm slot and arm and shoulder angles, the consistency of a pitcher’s landing spot, the length of his release time, a batter’s bat path and speed, and so on. One of the cooler applications is the ability to determine where the bat struck the ball—or if it didn’t, why it missed. Think about that: Right now, we know how often a hitter whiffs when he swings. But we don’t know whether he has timing issues or problems with seeing the ball. Does he tend to be early or late, or does he tend to swing under or over the ball (or both)? One of those causes might be more coachable/correctable than the other.
BIOf/x has its limitations, but it could complement MLBAM’s system, which can’t currently track a player’s extremities. Until one system can see it all, the two could work in concert to cover everything important that takes place on the field.
What’s the future of manual data collection?
But for how long? It was hard to watch that talk a few hours after getting another glimpse of a maturing motion-tracking technology and not wonder whether the painstaking process of pulling information from video is on the way out. There’s still a several-company cottage industry that sells manually collected data to teams, but which would you rather have: a video scout with a stopwatch embedded in his proprietary video-viewing software, or an automated camera- and/or radar-based system that promises near-perfect precision? Probably both, until it’s clear that the latter will work (which could take a while). But if MLBAM’s and Sportvision’s technology comes to fruition, it will be interesting to see whether the human alternatives find a new niche—analyzing the automated info?—or go the way of the Playograph.
Are front-office executives about to be rich?
Pollis supplied some of that evidence at SABR by comparing team performance in completed trades and free-agent signings since 1996. By regressing that performance and attributing it to the general managers who made the moves, Pollis came up with an estimate of the standard deviation in GM ability (when it comes to trades and signings, specifically):
Combine those two figures, and one standard deviation comes to 7.6 wins—over $53 million, by Pollis’ calculation of what teams paid for free-agent wins last winter. By contrast, Theo Epstein (the highest-paid GM, according to Pollis’ presentation) makes $3.7 million per year.
Although that estimate gives the GM credit for any input from his subordinates, Pollis also included a breakdown of what those underlings might be worth if the SD in GM ability is accurate:
In other words, even an intern who’s worth 0.1 wins more than a replacement-level alternative might be worth seven figures.
The size of some of these numbers might strain credulity, but Pollis’ thesis—that teams would get more bang for their buck in the front office than they would in free agency—seems sound. The room in which Pollis presented was full of front-office employees who would be happy to be better paid. What we don’t know is whether any owners can be persuaded to see things the same way. If one could, the short-term advantage could be considerable.
Are front offices about to be bigger?
So what kind of front-office employee is about to be in vogue? According to Chris Marinak, MLB’s Senior VP of League Economics & Strategy, it could be the “medical analyst.” On the injury prevention panel, Marinak mentioned that some baseball ops departments—particularly ones on clubs without a research-oriented trainer like Conte—now contain medical analysts who report to the GM. Before and just after Moneyball, the hot new thing was to have a statistical analyst. Now that even the Phillies have started a stat department, teams have moved on to the next innovation. Investing in injury prevention seems like the perfect place to do it, since a medical analyst who could save a star a single DL stint would be worth a Pollis-approved amount of money. Conte noted that medical information tends to be “dirty data,” but the league’s new injury database makes better analysis possible. It’s no coincidence that this is happening now.
Will we ever eliminate (or significantly reduce) injuries?
Well, not necessarily. Another injury panel participant, Dr. Glen Fleisig of the American Sports Medicine Institute, pointed out that ligaments and tendons will always be the weak links in the pitcher’s delivery. We can make muscles stronger, and we can make mechanics cleaner, but we can’t make those weak links much more robust. It may be, then, that no matter what we do—short of enhancing our bodies with mechanical parts—we’ll never make a major dent in the kind of injuries that shorten pitchers’ careers. That tension between the frailties of the flesh and the sophistication of the science and technology that we’re increasingly bringing to bear will be at the heart of the battle to make the repetitive pitching motion something players can survive.
Is pitcher consistency a skill?
So VOL seems to do a good job of pinpointing the pitchers who have been volatile over a particular period of time. The question is whether those pitchers are any more likely than others to continue to be volatile in the future. Is there anything about certain pitchers that makes them inherently inconsistent?
Petti tried, but he couldn’t find any year-to-year consistency in his measures of volatility:
As Petti noted, this could be because the metric takes more time to stabilize, or it could be because of something he hasn’t accounted for. It could also be that individual pitchers are actually more or less volatile, but that those tendencies wash out for the pitcher population as a whole. For now, though, we have no evidence that some pitchers’ performances fluctuate more than others relative to their average outing.
How much does scouting information improve player projections?
That shouldn’t come as a shock: Scouts, after all, have access to stats, but the stats don’t draw on the scouting grades. Not surprisingly, the method that makes use of more information wins. Still, it’s nice to see that outcome confirmed. Teams, of course, have much more granular scouting grades than KG’s old star system at their disposal, so they can probably build much more accurate projections.
What’s the next hotbed of baseball talent?
Leonte Landino of ESPN Deportes said that he expects Colombia—which has produced young players such as Julio Teheran and Jose Quintana—to continue to be one of the fastest-growing sources of baseball talent over the next decade, thanks in part to Edgar Renteria’s role in funding a fully operational league that sent a team to the most recent WBC qualifiers. Colombia’s proximity to Venezuela makes it fairly easy for teams to scout, and Colombian players will often travel to Venezuela for tryouts.
Brazil was the third country mentioned. Brooks mentioned that the Pirates had just sent a scout to a showcase in Brazil for the first time and noted that the Andre Rienzo became the first major leaguer developed in Brazil when he debuted with the White Sox last year. (Yan Gomes was born in Brazil but drafted and developed in the US.) The center of Brazil’s baseball development is Sao Paolo, which also houses the largest Japanese community outside of Japan (/Wikipedia), so Brazilian baseballers tend to adhere to a Japanese style of play.
How granular is baseball data going to get?
My guess? We have a long way to go before we run out of discoveries to make and drilling down to do.