Cornucopia of Baseball Knowledge : A SABR 47 Recap

 

Recently, I traveled to New York City and attended the SABR (Society for America Baseball) National Convention. It was my first time in attendance at this event, despite being a SABR member for the past 5 years. I have attended both the SABR Analytics Conference, and Arizona Fall League Experience. They both take place around Phoenix each March and November respectfully.
The 2017 Convention marked the 47th time since SABR was founded in 1971. The original 16 members met in Cooperstown, NY. The host site has moved all over North America and you can find a compete list and summary of each year here. This year’s edition saw a record number of attendees.  Over 800 baseball enthusiasts gathered to share their passion for the game. Topics included baseball cards, art work, Latin baseball, and historical research.
The festivities kicked off at the welcome reception where old friends reconnected. Many have become regulars over the years with some members making the trip for more than 20 summers. The average age of current SABR members is 57. With some in attendance vividly recalling watching the likes of Stan Musial, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, and Willie Mays. They grew up playing baseball board games such as Strat-O-Matic and APBA. A gentleman from Harrisburg, PA asked me which of the two was my preference as he explained that he played APBA as another man wearing a Strat-O-Matic T-shirt walked past. Baseball attire was plentiful throughout the room with both current and past teams represented. The teams included the Yankees, Mets, Red Sox, Montreal Expos, and Team Israel, among others. It felt like I had walked through a time machine as many conversations involved details about games that occurred over 50 years ago. Despite the price of beer being $19 everyone appeared to be enjoying themselves.
Current Yankees Assistant General Manager Jean Afterman sat down with award winning journalist Claire Smith. They discussed her baseball journey. That started as a kid growing up in San Francisco, where she would watch Giant’s games at Candlestick Park. Afterman went on to work at Paramount Pictures as an assistant to the head of feature film production, before becoming a lawyer. Afterman ended up meeting future agent Don Nomura and played a key role in players from Japan coming to play in the Major Leagues. Her clients included Hideo Nomo, Hideki Irabu, and Alfonso Soriano. A full story of Afterman’s life can be found here.
A series of panels looked back on the lives and legacies of New York and American icons Casey Stengel, Yogi Berra, and Jackie Robinson. Stengel managed the Brooklyn Dodgers, Yankees, and Mets and you can find his story in author Marty Appel’s newest book “Casey Stengel: Baseball’s Greatest Characters.  Berra won 10 World Series Titles as a member of the Yankees, but may have been know best for his unique and colorful personality. The book “Driving Mr. Yogi: Yogi Berra, Ron Guidry, and Baseball’s Greatest Gift” by author Harvey Araton describes some of the qualities that made Berra so special. One of the neat moments at this years convention was when the granddaughters of both Berra and Whitey Ford came on stage. They received a standing ovation from the crowd.  The legacy of Jackie Robinson is well documented and one that can not be understated as he broke the color barrier in 1947 as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
SABR member Anthony Salazar discussed the integration of baseball cards and Chicano Pop Art. The artist took inspiration from baseball cards and created Muerto Pop. The example below is of Barry Bones, based on 1987 Barry Bonds Topps Rookie Card. You can find a few of the other artworks here. They include works inspired by Fernando Valenzuela, Eric Chavez, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Miguel Tejada.

barryBonesBonds

Cuban filmmakers Yasel Porto and Reynaldo Cruz previewed their newest film “Unidos por una Pasion”. It compares New York City and Havana as the baseball capitals of each nation, showing the impact that both cities have had on the game in their respective countries. You can find the 30 minute documentary below.
Television commentator Keith Olbermann talked about his personal affinity for baseball cards, which he has collected since he was a 10 year old and how his love of cards and collecting led to his career path in sports. Olbermann described the baseball card culture and industry. The highlights of Olbermann’s talk are here.
Former Major Leaguer and author Jim Bouton and his wife were on a panel which discussed Jim’s life and the impact his book “Ball Four” has had on the baseball as he told things as they were at the time, much to the dismay of then Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Kuhn called the book detrimental to the sport.  The highlights of this panel can be found here.
In total the convention featured a total of 25 research committee meetings, 32 research presentations, 10 panels, and a baseball game. It was a jam packed 4 days of activities. More highlights of the convention are here.
The main thing that I took away from the convention was not a particular presentation but rather the people. There is no question about the passion that most in attendance have for baseball, it seemed like many have been life long fans and intimately follow the game in one form or anotherAs I have discussed before, although baseball is a game, it connects people and has a larger reflection on society and culture.
The role of SABR has clearly changed over the years, as it was founded primarily to collect the statistical records and stories around the game. Now, it can be argued the role is to insure that the history of the game remains intact. One of the main challenges currently facing SABR is in finding equilibrium between the past and the future. This reflects the larger societal questions around big data and living in the information age. It will be interesting to see what SABR looks like 15-20 years from now, as it continues to grow and evolve. Yet, for these 4 days each summer the remnants of a past era come to life, and that’s something to behold. It might be a bit quirky and odd, but that’s what also makes it unique and intriguing.

Be sure you leave your comments, I look forward to hearing from you.

You can follow me on twitter here 

Thanks,

Drew

Ahead of the Curve: A Short Review

Recently I read “Ahead of the Curve: Inside the Baseball Revolution” written by Brian Kenny. For those of you unfamiliar with Kenny, he is currently a studio host on Major League Baseball (MLB) Network and has been covering baseball on a national level for over 20 years when he started working at ESPN where he was an anchor on SportsCenter and Baseball Tonight. Kenny is no stranger to questioning conventional thinking when it comes to the way in which MLB players and teams go about their business. This is evident on a regular basis when watching MLB Now, a show in which Kenny and a round table of baseball experts (former players & media members) debate current trends and topics such as pitcher usage, statistical evaluation, and player contracts. Kenny’s book is no different as he examines the way in which the game is currently played and asks if it is the best way, while providing a series of historical facts and evidence along the way.

As I have discussed in previous posts, obtaining information and how one makes decisions is a process that takes both time and a certain level of conviction, to stay the course when outside pressures begin to mount. Kenny points this out by explaining how group think or what he refers to as “The Herd Mentality” has a strong influence on the culture that is created in many organizations and industries. It takes a rare breed of person to act independently and go against the traditional ways of thinking and problem solving. Still, throughout the history of baseball there have been teams and managers that have attempted to innovate in the way they use the players at their disposal, over the course of an individual game and season. Some areas in which baseball has changed over the years include the use of defensive shifts, pitcher usage, and some of the statistics used to more accurately determine an individual players contribution to his team.

When reading through each chapter it becomes clear that certain metrics are outdated such as the emphasis on awarding an individual “pitcher win”. As Kenny points out the pitcher win was first rewarded in the 1870’s when the starting pitchers finished over 96% of the games, thus it was understandable to accredit the individual pitchers with a win or loss. The way in which pitchers are deployed has changed drastically over the past 150 years and starting pitchers currently finish around 2% of games. It is not uncommon for a team to use 4 or 5 pitchers daily, as teams attempt to optimize player matchups to gain a competitive advantage. Some teams will carry 12 or 13 pitchers on their 25-man rosters at various times throughout the season. Starting pitchers average just over 5 innings per outing in the game today or roughly 60% of the total innings required each season.

There are five events that need to happen for the starting pitcher to be awarded the win. 1)He must pitch effectively, getting outs. 2)His offense must score enough runs. 3)The defense must make the necessary plays behind him. 4)The bullpen must hold the lead. 5)The manager must keep him in the game for the required 5 innings, and when he is removed his team must lead at the time. The pitcher himself only has individual control of one of these five factors, that being how effectively he is throwing the ball on that given day. Therefore, the idea of handing out an individual pitcher win and more importantly placing much value on it is rather rudimentary in this day and age.

In order to find the best or at the very least improve upon current practices one must ask him or herself if this is the only way and more importantly “why” are they doing it. Ultimately what are they hoping to achieve? One way of posing these questions is the use of iteration, which Kenny points to throughout the book. Iteration is the process in which repetition is used in order to obtain, evaluate and fine tune each aspect of the operation. Baseball is not the only place in which conventional wisdom about change runs deep. There are many situations and organizations that do not incorporate any form of iteration when facing modern challenges.

I did enjoying reading Brian Kenny’s book. It’s thought provoking, and although I follow the game at an in-depth level, at points in the book I was thinking about various parts of the game in a different light. Kenny does an excellent job of showing how certain ideologies have evolved over time, such as the amount and type of defensive shifts that have become commonplace. He also pays homage to some of the pioneers of Sabermetrics such as Dick Cramer, John Thorn, Pete Palmer, and of course the godfather himself, Bill James.

Overall it is an entertaining read, regardless of one’s baseball knowledge or background. If you are a baseball fan, business person, or just someone who wants to learn more about innovation and forward thinking make sure you pick up a copy. You won’t regret doing so.

 

Be sure you leave your comments, I look forward to hearing from you.

You can follow me on twitter here 

Thanks,

Drew

Connecting the Dots

Everyday people make a series of decisions, most of them routine and do not require much thought in the moment. These choices include what to have for breakfast, what route to take on the daily commute, and which show to watch on Netflix at the end of your day. Although there are a variety of options to pick from the choices have become regular (since we make them so frequently) and the consequences for making the wrong choice are relatively small.

When it comes to bigger decisions such as what kind of lifestyle or career that someone has it is really a series of smaller choices which have been chained together over a course of time. Regardless of one’s individual profession be it a doctor, lawyer, pilot, stock broker, teacher or information technology expert there is a process of one kind or another which ultimately shapes the larger direction of both the individual and the organization that they are a part of. The baseball industry is no different when it comes to making decisions as several people are involved at various levels in the process from scouts, coaches, managers and front office personnel.

How much of any decision is based on some form of empirical data, such as eye test, statistical information and how much is intuition or what I like to call the “Gut Factor”?

As I have mentioned in the past, numbers and empirical data does not give you 100% certainty of the desired outcome occurring at that exact time. It is important to look at the information that was known at the time of the decision and not factor in the luxury of hindsight. Decisions are made in the moment. Let’s look at some player moves that worked out better then anyone could have expected at the time.

How in the world does Mike Trout get passed over by twenty-one teams in the 2009 MLB Draft? Trout played high school baseball in New Jersey, and although he showed a great deal of athleticism he did not have as much polish as other players in his draft class. It was also rumored that he was looking for a $3.5 Million signing bonus which scared some teams away at the time. The combination of coming from the Northeast region and having a high level of uncertainty around him lead to him getting drafted 24th overall. Baseball America compared Trout to outfielder Aaron Rowand prior to the draft. His career thus far has been so phenomenal that historically it compares closely to Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle. On Baseball Reference, Trout has accumulated 32 more WAR (Wins Above Replacement) then anyone else from the 2009 Draft. He has finished 1st or 2nd in American League MVP voting each of his 5 full seasons, and is a front runner for the award once again this season. It’s no question that if the draft was redone today Trout would be the top pick overall.

After the 2002 season, the Minnesota Twins released DH/1B David Ortiz who shortly after signed with the Boston Red Sox. Ortiz went on to play 14 season with the Red Sox in which he became a fan favorite as he helped them win three World Series Titles. At the time of his release Ortiz was coming off a 20-home run, 75 RBI, .272 AVG, .339 On-Base, .500 Slugging, 120 OPS+, and had a BREF War of 1.3. A solid year season but the Twins felt that they had other options who would provide more roster flexibility moving forward. The player who replaced Ortiz in the DH spot the following year was in house option Matt LeCroy who had a very similar 2003 season when compared with Ortiz’s 2002 season. LeCroy ended up hitting 17 HR, 64 RBI, .287 AVG, .342 OBP, .490 Slugging, 116 OPS+, and had a BREF War of 1.2 over 92 less plate appearances. Both Ortiz and LeCroy were born in 1975 so age thus was not factor into the decision to move on from Ortiz. The Twins did not necessarily make the wrong choice as the career paths of both players up until that point were very similar. It’s difficult to envision Ortiz having the kind of breakout and impact that he did once he joined the Red Sox. He took his game to another level upon his arrival in Boston. I’m not sure why exactly, but perhaps it was the fact he felt comfortable in his surroundings, or maybe it was the impact of learning from and watching a professional hitter like Manny Ramirez daily, or perhaps it was a result of playing half of his games at Fenway Park. The point is Ortiz likely would not have become the same player if he had remained in Minnesota.

You can look at several moves over the years and second guess them easily when re-examining them. Two that immediately come to my mind include the Jose Bautista trade to the Toronto Blue Jays and Jake Arrieta to the Chicago Cubs, both players had breakout seasons with their new clubs and at the end of the day the trades appear to be fairly one sided. The Pittsburgh Pirates received catching prospect Robinzon Diaz  in exchange for Bautista, while the Baltimore Orioles ended up with catcher Steve Clevenger and pitcher Scott Feldman (the Cubs also got reliever Pedro Strop in the deal). I was at a Society of American Baseball Research event in which Cubs General Manager Jed Hoyer mentioned that the whole trade may not have happened without the inclusion of Strop, a player he was adamant be included. Hoyer also acknowledged that they never imagined Arrieta being as effective as he was, which led to him winning the 2015 National League Cy Young award.

It’s important to make the best choice that you can, with the information that is available. The numbers and statistical analysis should help you feel more confident with the decision-making process, however, you will never know with 100% certainty or be fully guaranteed of what the future holds. This is no different for Major League Baseball teams as they make roster choices that will have an effect on both the current and future direction of each organization.

As Apple co-founder and former CEO Steve Jobs once said “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”

 

Be sure you leave your comments, I look forward to hearing from you.

You can follow me on twitter here 

Thanks,

Drew

Information is Power

We live in an information age in which the flow of information is faster and the volume is higher now then at any other time in human history. There is a twenty-four-hour news cycle, social media makes it easier to access the newest trends and almost anything can become viral now. The internet makes research on any topic much more accessible then before. The question is how much of it is accurate and reliable? What is the information really telling us, what can one decipher and thus apply moving forward? These are all questions that one must factor in when making choices. To put it in laymen’s terms why did someone decide to do what they did, and was the outcome optimal.

The first thing to keep in mind when watching a baseball game (or even in daily life) is that absolutes are few and far between. What I mean by that is that numbers and data typically show us what has happened in the past and not necessarily what will continue moving forward. Although if you have seen something enough for a pattern to develop then a probability exists that such an event might occur again. An example of this would be looking at player statistics over the course of their career. The variance from year to year can differ greatly when examining any category.

Let’s take Minnesota Twins player Joe Mauer, in his 14 years in the majors he has 132 home runs, That works out to a 162 game average of 13 per year. His year to year production is not uniform as the totals vary as is the case with most players. His single season career best came during his 2009 MVP campaign, a year in which he hit 28 home runs. Mauer also would lead the American League in a number of other offensive categories such as Batting Average, On-Base Percentage, OPS (on-base plus slugging) & OPS+.  However, his next closest single season home run total is 13 (2006 season).

So what happened in 2009, in what can be viewed as a statistical outlier. A couple of things come to mind right away. The ballpark changed as 2009 was the last season that the Twins played in the Metrodome before moving to Target Field and thus playing their home game outside, so although Mauer was always on the Twins the hitting environment was obviously different. It more so depends on how one actually views Mauer as a player, what they see in his approach/skill set and what is expected from him. Is he a home run hitter or someone who has a high contact rate? It is likely that home runs are not the best statistic with which to evaluate a player such as Mauer. It is better to judge him on his slash line Batting Average/On-Base/Slugging, which currently sits at a 162 game average of .307/.390/.444. The reason for this is because Mauer is a player who hits doubles and tends to hit for a high average. Although Mauer was a player who hit a higher then average number of home runs in 2009 (relative to the rest of his career), he has profiled more as a contact hitter then a prototypical power hitter over the course of his career.

Mauer was the 1st overall pick from the 2001 Draft and considered the top prospect in the game by Baseball America after the 2003 & 2004 seasons. Although not a big power hitter in the minors (9 home runs over three seasons), some Twins scouts felt at the time that he would develop into a 35 plus home run if he changed his swing  plane (adding more loft) and matured. In hindsight, this was not the case however as his natural swing was and is more line drive and gap to gap. When examining a player, one has to look at the information that is most relevant to that individual player as not all players and skill sets are created equally.

It is important when watching a game or examining an individual team/player that one asks themselves the simply question of why did that outcome occur and attempt to put themselves in the shoes of the current situation. There is a reason that teams/managers and players do what they do. The outcome may not be ideal (such as giving away an out or failing to drive in a key run late in the ballgame), but you have to sometimes step back to determine if the process was sound. Just because the outcome was poor it doesn’t necessarily mean that the decision was sub optimal. Information is a wonderful thing but it’s important that one can determine which pieces of information are most valid and beneficial.

After all information is power when used properly.

 

Be sure you leave your comments, I look forward to hearing from you.

You can follow me on twitter here 

Thanks,

Drew

The Nuance of Baseball & Life

When there is a game on chances are you can find me watching in some form or another. Most of the time I am sitting in my home office going between games following the various story lines that happen daily. It occurred to me baseball is a strange game full of nuance, for example why do we call it a home run when the player is more likely jogging. Why do we call it a walk when the pitcher throws four balls outside of the zone to any one hitter? Even just the fact we call them balls and strikes is a little odd, why don’t we call them ins and outs or something along those lines. I don’t know exactly why we use the nomenclature that we do, most likely for historical reason (Where is John Thorn when you need him).

I’m sure if you examine many things in our lives at a molecular level, similar peculiarities can be found. In many ways, it is the oddities that give things meaning or at least make that subject stand out in one fashion or another.

The popular, now classic television show Seinfeld branded itself as being about nothing. It still can be viewed on cable almost anytime of any day or so it seems.  It even had several baseball references throughout the series, with the likes of Keith Hernandez, Paul O’Neill, Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Danny Tartabull, Roger McDowell, and Buck Showalter making cameos. Some of the most memorable scenes involved Larry David playing long time Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. One of the main characters George Costanza ended up working for the Yankees (over the course of three seasons that the show aired) as the Assistant to the Traveling Secretary which provided a unique workplace environment to say the least. Here you can find a recap of some of the baseball moments which appeared on Seinfeld.

Some people ask me how can I watch as many games as I do and the simple answer is because each game has it’s own unique essence it’s own DNA. It’s like the number of people that one comes across at different junctures of their lives. We all might look and too a certain extent even act the same from a birds eye view, but when one zooms down and puts in the time and effort to get to know someone you realize that we all have our own distinct characteristics which makes us who we are. Each game is a form of art work such as a painting or dance which unfolds before ones very eyes, each stroke of the brush or flick of the toes moving towards a more complex piece of work once it is completed. In many ways it is like a puzzle, each piece has to be found and then carefully connected until you can truly appreciate what is in front of you.

It is those strange oddities of the things we enjoy that gives it purpose and meaning. Many times the things we enjoy about something don’t make sense at first or we might not be able to truly understand how much we enjoy it in the moment but deep down we just know that we do. It is those small nuances that add up over time and when we look back it just seems to click.  Maybe the game of baseball is simply a good metaphor for our lives. We have 27 outs, the bases are loaded, it’s a full count, the runners are in motion, here comes the windup and the the pitch…….

 

Be sure you leave your comments, I hope you are enjoying reading as much as I am enjoying writing.

You can follow me on twitter here 

Thanks,

Drew

 

Welcome to Balen Ball

I just want to welcome everyone to the site. The goal at Balen Ball is to provide a diverse baseball experience which will examine and discuss a variety of topics such as statistical analysis, historical trends, player evaluations, fantasy baseball, etc.  The motto here is, “The day you have all of the answers, it’s time to go and do something else”.

So I guess many of you are wondering who exactly I am. While my name is Drew and for more then 20 years I’ve been studying the game and business of baseball. It started like most kids collecting baseball cards, watching games on television, and reading any book that I was lucky enough to get my hands on in a search to determine why clubs and players do the things they do, both on the field and in the front office.

A few quick personal anecdotes, I remember around the age of 10 making player contracts, depth charts and trying to figure out who the best team would be in the upcoming season. My parents would take me to the local Triple-A team where I watched future Major League Players such as David Ortiz, Grant Balfour, Johan Santana, Eric Chavez, and Ramon Ortiz.  We even went to Seattle in 2000 on a family vacation to watch the Mariners play the Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees (Edgar Martinez hit a grand slam off of Jeff Nelson) . However, my most memorable moment might be when we went to Missoula, Montana and watch the Pioneer League and saw an young shortstop in Sergio Santos and current Chicago Cubs catcher Miguel Montero. The great thing about watching a game is that you never really know what you might see and the stories that you might come across on any given day.

I have been lucky enough to experience the game at many different levels and attend numerous events such as Futures Games, Spring Training, International Tournaments, Fall Ball, in addition to the thousands of televised games I have watched over the years. I have been able to meet a number of interesting people from many different walks of life along my travels.

My passion for the game has also given me the opportunity to work on a number of different projects that have focused on areas such as scouting, player development, player compensation, which has had an impact on how teams, players, agents, and media organizations operate.

I look forward to having creative discussion here around the game and business moving forward.

If you have any questions or inquires, let me know.

You can follow me on twitter here 

Thanks,

Drew Balen, Founder of balenball.com