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August 21, 2014

Skewed Left

Saber Seminar One Year From Now

by Zachary Levine

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My favorite question of the entire 2014 Saber Seminar came in extra innings.

The two-day 9-to-5 event had blown past 5 p.m. on getaway day, but everyone seemed to be having fun. So Effectively Wild co-host and Grantland writer Ben Lindbergh and FanGraphs’ Dave Cameron continued on with their valedictory Q&A. One of the final questions came from an attendee named Phil DiPirro, who asked a natural going-away question. What did the two writers think would be the big topics when everybody reconvenes in Boston for the 2015 edition of the seminar on “Sabermetrics, Scouting, and the Science of Baseball?”

Ben talked about the collective bargaining agreement. We’ll be one year closer to the 2016 expiration of the current CBA, and with new commissioner Rob Manfred on everyone’s mind this weekend, we’ll have a better sense in a year of what his biggest priorities will be and what Tony Clark’s will be for the Players Association.

Dave went a different direction. He figured on a 48-hour vigil to solve the Tommy John crisis before anyone is allowed to leave the room. Or something to that effect. Especially if Clayton Kershaw or Felix Hernandez is the next to hit the operating table.

Both issues are likely to come up in large doses either as featured topics or as a backdrop for the 2015 seminar, much like the broader theme of this year’s event was implementation of sabermetric ideals in a world of resistance and unquantifiable factors. But barring an all-TJ-all-the-time speculation-fest, even with these topics (plus lunch), we’re not at 16 hours yet.

Short of planning the whole thing, and given a few extra days to think, here are some other issues that may permeate multiple presentations or become big topics of their own in the coming year.

(Note: Despite this being a piece predicting future topics of conversation in baseball, there will be no casual references to a World Series–winning team playing in Las Vegas or Mexico City or Mars or Chicago. Please excuse the oversight.)

1. Statcast
The catch-all f/x system was already a trending topic, if you will, at the seminar this year, but it was mostly prompted. Emcee Mike Ferrin asked many of the panelists about its impact, but there wasn’t a lot of certainty in any of the answers. Over the next 12 months, what happens with MLB Advanced Media’s camera tracking system will be one of the biggest topics anywhere in baseball.

Hopes were unbelievably high after their spectacular launch of the technology in March, but there’s been some frustration since. Executives I talked to from multiple teams over the weekend said there has been little communication about what they’d be getting, and the public has yet to hear anything definitive on what their access will be.

It’s safe to assume that this will all be sorted out by the time the cameras go from three ballparks (Miller Park, Citi Field, Target Field) to 30 next year. But either way, there will be much to discuss.

If it is open to the public like PITCHf/x data, you could do a month’s worth of seminars on what we'll have already learned given the potency of the tracking. If not, the discussion becomes more macro level: the widening gap between teams’ and outsiders’ capabilities and what the world could do if it had every frame of every inch of every baseball field.

2. Pace of the game
When next August rolls around, we’ll be seven months into Manfred’s tenure as commissioner, and unless Bud Selig wants one more piece of his legacy on the record, addressing pace of game will fall to the new guy. Something will happen. We’ve already reached the point where this won’t go away without action.

So at next year’s seminar, we’ll see some of the math. We have timestamps on PITCHf/x data. We have thinkers who can see what changes make a real impact and what changes would just be for the sake of doing something. And, more importantly, what changes are actually feasible, both because of the collective bargaining relationship and in a world with vitally important television contracts.

We didn’t hear much this year about Rule 7.13 or instant replay, the latter of which is a big element of pace of game, but this will go from the biggest hot take topic to the biggest smart take topic when the time comes to take actual action.

3. Protective equipment
One of the coolest parts of the 2014 seminar was the emphasis on health, with a lobby that could have been mistaken for an AMA convention. Aaron Seitz, a neuroscientist from UC Riverside, shared his work on training the connections between the eye and the brain that he showed to have improved the strikeout rates for the Highlanders’ hitters. Robert Stern of the Boston University School of Medicine talked about his work on concussions. Chris Geary of the Tufts Medical Center’s orthopedic group talked about Lisfranc injuries and microfractures. And our own Russell Carleton presented his research on human development into adults that he states so well in his “Becoming an Adult f/x” piece at BP.

It’s information you won’t find much in the analytics work we tend to read, but many front office executives will tell you that the next frontier of analytics is in the area of keeping players healthy. The advantages to be reaped could be valued in the millions.

Every spring somebody will ask me casual questions in line with this exercise. “Hey, what do you think will be the big stories in baseball this year?” And I always throw one in about how I think this is the year that someone will get really, really badly hurt on the field to the point where something has to be done about the dangers of 60 and 6. Maybe it’s that I have such a history of bad predictions that I’m trying to do my part to keep everyone safe. Or I’m just a pessimist.

So I hope that isn’t what prompts these conversations, but with the poor reaction to some of the first efforts at protective gear and the fact that this is a threat that never goes away, I would expect it to be a major topic even without a traumatic event in the next season’s worth of games.

Others: Television contracts and the threat of a la carte TV plans. How teams would handle the possibility of an international draft.

Off the list for now: Tanking. I expected this to be a big topic in the coming years given the Astros’ race to the bottom the last few years, but with the worst teams being accidentally bad this year and legitimately in need of the help, I could see a decrease in the proposals for change like the NBA is trying to institute.

Saber Seminar was organized in part by Dan Brooks of Baseball Prospectus and benefits the Jimmy Fund, a Boston-based cancer research charity associated with the Dana Farber Cancer Center. For more information, click here.

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

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