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March 5, 2013

Skewed Left

Life on the Inside

by Zachary Levine

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At the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, where an overwhelming majority of the attendees come out on the same side of the more typical intellectual divides, a less apparent divide took shape over the course of two days.

Just how much could these people loaded with ideas share?

For many, the divide was difficult to navigate. To some raised in front offices or relishing a relatively new life on the inside, it was tossing aside past transparency in favor of a secrecy-filled present. To others, it was a blurrier line, as the rapidly growing group of part-time consultants to teams had to distinguish between the parts of their rapidly expanding knowledge base that could be shared and the parts that could not.

To a writer, a (borderline) professional who makes a (borderline) living on information exchange, it was frustrating but completely understandable. At a conference that celebrates the new ideas in sports, new ideas could be really hard to come by if you didn’t know where to look.

This isn’t a knock on the Sloan Conference, which remains an invaluable setting for breeding culture within front offices. It’s an explanation of perhaps the greatest challenge facing the conference and others like it, including next weekend’s SABR Analytics in Phoenix. The Sloan conference just happened to be the setting where it became apparent that the idea exchange isn’t so free in the current system of hoarding analytical talent in-house.

This was expressed best on the baseball panel, which featured one-time public analyst-turned-insider, Voros McCracken, Grantland’s Jonah Keri, NBC’s Joe Posnanski, Oakland Athletics director of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi, and Ben Jedlovec of Baseball Info Solutions. The panel described the state of baseball knowledge as a race among teams to snap up the best baseball minds on the internet. Our site has recently lost Mike Fast, Kevin Goldstein, and Dan Turkenkopf, three top minds in analytics and talent evaluation, to baseball teams in a process not unique to BP.

Once those voices are off the Internet, they are largely silenced from a public perspective. But that silencing is also strange for the analysts themselves.

Sig Mejdal, who presented on Sloan’s panel on how to get analytical voices heard within companies, used to be a scientist at NASA studying with mathematical models and sharing his findings on sleep science. So he was used to the setting of peer review and public collaboration for enhancement of everybody’s work.

“It’s definitely unusual coming from the research world where the information is shared and you imagine the exponential growth that could come about from that,” Mejdal said after stepping off the stage in Boston. “I’m not in that world anymore. I’m in a competitive industry where information is only useful as long as you’re the only one doing it. In some ways it’s the opposite, and it takes a little getting used to.”

So the conference’s biggest sessions, the ones that drew the largest crowds to the headline names both in baseball and the lesser sports (sorry), were mostly focused wider. And that’s fine. You didn’t go to the panels to hear the latest findings on pitchers’ mechanics or optimized lineup construction. You heard the bigger picture. Not scouts vs. stats, because that’s clichéd in those rooms—Moneyball author Michael Lewis was on the “Revenge of the Nerds” panel on the current state of analytics in front offices—but the importance of evaluating the process rather than the results was probably the biggest theme I picked up on in the sessions.

Most who had something to lose from sharing tip-toed through their answers. Bob Voulgaris did not. The successful and increasingly famous NBA bettor, who was on a contentious gambling panel with Cantor Gaming honcho Matthew Holt, was brusque in many of his non-answers, asking rhetorically why he’d take food off his table by volunteering information.

That was the exception. What we saw more at Sloan, in this raiding of the media for front office talent, was the kind of lines that exist for individuals. Our own director of data analysis, Harry Pavlidis, said on his visual tracking data panel that he had to be careful to share only what came to him as a member of the literate public and not what he learned through his roles as a consultant to teams that pay for access to Sportvision’s HITf/x and FIELDf/x data.

So while the Sloan Conference drew the biggest names in the business, from ownership to general managers on down, the best part was the research papers. Houston Rockets general manager and conference founder Daryl Morey said so himself.

It is in that setting where we’re still going to get unfiltered dissemination of knowledge as long as the academic community remains serious about sports.

The lone baseball paper to make the list of 10 finalists at Sloan was Douglas Fearing and Timothy Chan’s work on the impact of roster flexibility in the major leagues. You can and should read the paper here (.pdf). Fearing, whose work is in operations research, felt there is still a very good future for serious sports-based research in the academy.

“I’ve seen very well received work in behavioral economics and very well received work in neuroscience that is cutting edge and uses sports,” Fearing said after the second of his two presentations of the paper and ensuing public cross-examinations. “There’s a very long history of sports papers in operations research but more recently there hasn’t been a lot. This paper is actually somewhat of a test case.”

A test case because Fearing was conscious of marketing the paper to two different audiences. He had to make it profound within the sports community by creating some data that teams can act on, but he also had to make it an example of good optimization research for those interested in applying the process to other fields.

As long as projects like theirs can get off the ground and find a setting like Sloan, then the ideas marketplace will never really stagnate in the face of teams’ hiring binges. Still, even Fearing said he had to be careful. He’s drawn a paycheck from the Tampa Bay Rays as a consultant.

“It’s been a challenging line for me to walk because I have to put a hard line between what I do with the team and what I do as part of my research as an academic,” Fearing said.

Morey recognizes the challenge presented by having so many front office guests speak at the conference but added, correctly, that they are part of the appeal.

“It's a challenge, so that's why we often prefer media guys on panels or outside analysts or people from Baseball Prospectus because then they can talk more,” Morey said. “But at the same time, we do want to balance it with people in the industry because they're tackling it for real.”

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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