Most public sabermetric debate and discussion happens over the network we call the worldwide web. Media organizations such as Hardball Times, Fangraphs, Baseball Prospectus, Baseball America, us here at Batting Leadoff, and more, populate the internet with outstanding research and analysis, as we all try to further understand the game. This past weekend, the SABR Analytics Conference in Phoenix offered baseball enthusiasts a forum to move these discussions and debates to an in-person setting.
The three-day event consisted of high-powered panels featuring decision-making front office officials, former and current players, the web’s most popular writers, and even an owner. Additionally, there were presentations on new and engaging baseball research and the Diamond Dollars Case Competition for aspiring baseball operations professionals such as myself.
I had the opportunity to participate in the Case Competition and along with my peers (many of which contribute to Batting Leadoff) we pulled out a victory for the Big Red. However, I’d like this article to focus more on what I learned from the panels themselves rather than the case.
Without further run-on, here are some key takeaways from the three days at the Hyatt Regency:
Injury analysis is the next application point for baseball analytics
This couldn’t be more timely considering the amount of arm injuries that have been piling up in Spring Training. With Patrick Corbin, Kris Medlen, Jarrod Parker and others headed towards the knife or long-term DL stints, teams have placed their foremost prerogative on further understanding why injuries happen in order to prevent them moving forward. What’s amazing about this though is there was no electronic recording of league-wide injury data before 2010, limiting the ability of credible study by teams or the league into why injuries occur. Luckily we do have that data now, and with it the blossoming of many new studies on injury analysis.
In the opening panel of the event, Dr. Glenn Fleisig of the American Sports Medicine Institute, Stan Conte of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Chris Marinak of Major League Baseball had a lively conversation regarding the challenges and future opportunities associated with injury analysis. Dr. Fleisig focused on the need for additional biomechanical data, to prove what arm actions and body movements placed the most stress on joints and tendons involved in the throwing process; Conte discussed the benefits the Dodgers have already seen using Pitch F/X data to better predict injuries; and Marinak outlined the challenges the league faces in regulating injury information (given that it’s a personal issue for the player) and in running their own studies.
The following day, Graham Goldbeck of Sportvision showed the steps being taken towards obtaining the biomechanical data Dr. Fleisig thought was badly needed to address major injury issues. Goldbeck’s presentation showed just how the potential of obtaining such data is invaluable, not just in injury prevention but in measuring power output and consistency of pitching motions. However, while Sportvision is making great strides towards having the technology available, it’s still months away from fruition.
Lastly, Jeff Zimmerman of FanGraphs put together an awesome presentation on how injuries could be predicted by looking at significant variations in pitcher’s release points and velocity levels. Yet, as Zimmerman discussed, this line of thinking can be limited in several ways, notably what information the public actually knows about pitcher injuries (or the team if the player decides not to tell anyone at the time), and the natural fluctuations of pitcher velocity throughout a season (pitchers actually throw harder in the summer than they do early on).
While, all of these early studies are promising leads, I’m looking forward to what can be done as we accumulate more data on injuries themselves, and the biomechanical tracking systems improve. Based on the amount of injuries occurring this spring, the importance of this matter is undeniable.
The relationship between ownership, front office, coaching staff, and players is different in every organization
The clarity of this issue was noted Friday morning during both the “Decision Making in the Front Office Panel” and the “One-on-One with Mark Attanasio.” For those who are unaware, Mark Attanasio is the Chairman and Principal Owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, and on a side-note, if I was a Brewers fan I’d be thrilled to have him leading my team. The “Decision Making in the Front Office Panel” consisted of Jack Zduriencik, the Executive VP/General Manager of the Mariners, Bill Geivett, the Senior VP/Assistant General Manager of the Rockies, and Bobby Evans, the Vice President and Assistant General Manager of the Giants.
I’ll start by discussing Geivett and the situation with the Rockies and how he actually has an office in the team’s clubhouse. This is different than almost any other team in baseball and allows the Rockies front office to have better communication across their entire organization. The Mariners and the Giants didn’t take action to this extent but also stressed the importance of having a clear organizational philosophy.
Attanasio brought an owner’s perspective to the conference and mentioned how while teams must be conscious of a budget, it’s important to always put a credible product on the field from both a baseball and business perspective. Attanasio also discussed just how often he’s in contact with their GM Doug Melvin and the positive impact strong communication can have across an organization.
Being that I’ve never worked on the inside of a MLB front office before, I can’t have a strong opinion on which method of communication works best. However, I do believe having a consistent organizational philosophy and strong communication links can help a team overcome many of the challenges of implementing baseball analytics today. Understanding analytics is one thing, but in order to maximize their value in all facets from player evaluation to player development, strong links between ownership, the front office, coaching staff, and players must be there to convey information in useful ways on a level-to-level basis.
Defensive efficiency and the proper use of shifts was stressed as more important than range when concerning infield defense
This shouldn’t come as a surprise but it was pretty clear throughout the conference that no one trusts the current advanced defensive metrics. Eduardo Perez in the panel “Which Numbers Athletes Love, Which Numbers Athletes Hate” described a situation where Matt Dominguez came up to him, and to paraphrase, sarcastically bragged that he was leading the league in the “defensive metrics” (probably referring to UZR or DRS). Dominguez went on to laugh about how the metrics hadn’t figured out he constantly plays in the 5/6 hole (between third base and shortstop) and the metrics were crediting him with having outstanding range to his left.
However, instead of harping about flaws in current fielding metrics, I’d rather point to a common theme that panelists insisted on defensive efficiency with their infielders, as being more important than range (Manny Acta and Aaron Boone both supported Perez’ sentiments). The basis for this is that the use of proper shifting could account for whatever differences in range there could be. When looking at outfield defense, however, this theory didn’t hold true, because the differences in outfielders’ range were too big to make-up for with basic shifts. I had never really thought much about this before the weekend, but intuitively it makes sense. If we put our infielders in the right position to make plays, we need to make sure their sure-handed enough to make every play. In a way it’s combining older theories about defensive success associated with efficiency, with new data associated with shifts, to produce a promising result.
Featured image courtesy of sabr.org