SSAc 2014: Baseball Analytics: The Next Frontier

I chose to attend this because it featured Nate Silver.  I am anxiously awaiting the new fivethiryeight.com, and hoped that some spoilers/ previews would leak out form the conversation: No dice.

This was one of the only sports panels I attended this year: not enough interesting information gets shared. It’s interesting to see high-profile people on the same stage together. It’s also cool to hear top players answer the same question from different viewpoints. But the content is rich on sound bytes and light on substance for my taste.

Here’s my rough account:

Moderator:   Brian Kenny, ESPN
Vince Gennaro, President, SABR
Jeff Luhnow, GM, Houston Astros
Rob Nyer, FoxSports.com
Bill Squadron, Bloomberg Sports,
Nate Silver, Statistician, Author, Founder of  fivethiryeight.com,

BK:  Vince, There seems to be a disconnect in the amount of info out there, and how much gets transferred into the field. Where are we?

VG;  There’s work to do.  Translating to the field has to do with the lack of organizational alignment, that is, the analysts are not considering all of the stakeholders. One opportunity:  vertical alignment for a team, getting all the parts working, is key.

BS:  Every club has embraced to some degree.  Consider the Bloomberg System, some are big on using it, others pieces, but a long way to go. Many are simply using Lotus Notes or Excel spreadsheets to gat answers.

BK:  It’s football lagging, according to you. Where is baseball?

NS:  There’s new types of data… so “who’s ahead” is a moving target.  I am more of an optimist: Pitch f/x data, visual tracking, etc. There’s  lots there to use and grow from.

RN:  The Pirates are a good example: They saved a lot of runs b/c of buy-in from coaching staff and maganers. The coaches and managers had to be convinced. That’s one example of what we’re talking about. People don’t realize that what we are sharing makes sense. It’s a matter of time when almost all of the teams are using analytics more.

JL:  Baseball is in great shape.  The analysts don’t recognize all the factors going into decisions on the field.  Even a well aligned club, in the best of situations runs into implementation challenges. sometimes the outcome is not what you want when the outcome is right. But you’re not playing 10,000 times. You’re dealing with humans. Sometimes analysts don’t consider all the factors that truly matter. It’s a challenge, but we’ve progressed.  TLV DATA, radar data, etc. There’s so much out there. It shows what we don’t know…

BK: Jeff, has your organizational structure changed?

JL: No;  we have a well intergrated structure. Our five analysts are in the clubhouse all the time.

BK:  what’s a competitive advantage out there to grab onto?

RN:  The batters hadn’t tried to take advantage of defensive shifting.  The game has become a power game (more HRs). On the pitching side for sure.  Can the hitters adjust? Can hitters do anything?  Maybe they could make adjustments, bunt against the defensive shifts?

BS:  If so, it’s about focus. Not a silver bullet.  We have more data coming in (defensive, biometric, etc.). You need a way to filter out the noise. If you don’t you’ll miss opportunities. I would say that really the advantages come form having the right focus and the people having fast efficient processes.

NS: I think that player health from game to game is an opportunity.  A healthy team is probably a wild card contender on that basis alone.  The reward for a healthy team is very high.  The notion of positional versatility is underdeveloped.  More ability to shift around  when people get hurt. The Indians and the A’s are great at this.

VG: Nate is right: health is the next frontier.  We know so little about helping players perform at maximum capacity.  Not just injury prevention, but simple stuff like sleep and nutrition. How do we encourage players to get the rest they need while traveling?  Also, how do you take this and turn in into teaching tools for 16 year old in the Dominican Republic?  We evaluate to rank and forecast who will do well, but how do we turn a person around?   We’re seeing an increasing interest in data collection at all levels.  We’re trying to get into our system data from all levels, to help find potential.

Big Picture:  What’s next?

JL:   10 years ago, we had only 2% of the amount of data we have today.  Radar, video, hundreds of thousands of pitches thrown a year, 15 measures on each pitch. It’s so critical to ask the right strategic questions.

BS:  Best tools are always important.  With any new technology, it takes time to develop. Good decisions about structuring organization. More info coming out of tracking systems to analyze a player’s defensive skills.  So two big ares: HEALTH, and DEFENSE metrics.

BK:  Jeff: The Cardinals have a roster with a bunch of line-drive hitters…  not an accident?  Is that where we’re at?

BS:  We’re not putting run expectancies on vectors of hits. Player evaluation components are pretty advanced. Doppler Radar to measure the spin axis of a ball.  Going into DivI and Minors probably pitch f/x in every NCAA-D1 place in the country.

JL  We can now develop an individual park factor for every player in baseball.  The way they play can be customized.

NS:  Pitching has caught up to hitting. As an observer, it seems now that the clubs have pulled pretty far ahead and recruited lots of the stat geeks. I think that outsiders still needed to help all teams grow and improve.

RN:  Reaction data to balls now has objective measurements. That’s new.  There’s still a long way to go.

BK:  Is it now very proprietary?  Who is able to use this and not tell anyone?

JL:  you bet. we want a proprietary edge, but we rely on the outsiders that write/ analyze for all 30 clubs.  Some club not so much because hiring them and integrating the analysts in takes time and work.

BS:  You can build an entire system within, but the moving targets  – best to work with those who do this professionally. 27 of 30 MLB teams use our system.

BK:  Red Sox:  trying to find guys with good chemistry.

??: no clear correlation between being nice and being a good teammate.  Porter’s synergistic chemistry lab. “you know it when you see it.”  Creating it is hard.  Leaders must evolve , followers must follow.  Leadership is organic. To engineer chemistry? That’s difficult.

JL : It’s palpable and tangible and understanding it:  It’s a huge thing to study.

RN:  I remember how volatile chemistry is: so dependent on winning and losing.  The A’s and Yankees were constantly fighting in the clubhouse, but winning pennants. Putting a finger on it is tough. “sure it’s important.” But dying to pick guys based on that?  The Red Sox has great chemistry, but will they win 97 games?

BS:  Yep, important and difficult to put a finger on.  If we create a workflow to finish tasks more quickly,  that’s a good thing for chemistry.

NS:  Sure yeah.  I think less in baseball than in football, but hard to measure.  a randomized controlled trial?  But chemistry can also excuse some shitty decisions, poor ways to analyze the value of a player in my view.

BK:  A rise in 3-2 outcomes. More strikeouts. Boring. A problem?

RN:  SO’s exciting when a star is on the plate. For a more humdrum starter, I’m not sure it’s interesting.  Trying to separate my aesthetic reaction. The variety of experiences is what makes it outcomes. But runs and walk not changing. SO’s are rising steadily. Ruled would need to be changed, this means players need to be consulted – they are conservative.  There is a feeling that the pace should quicken.

JL:   Pitching today is extraordinary.  5-6 guys throwing 95 MPH.  People love pitchers’ duels.

BS:  Something about place of play:  I do think that fans are digging deeper into the game, getting into the data/ analytics side more. we’re able to project in real time  how P(on-base) in THIS situation is changing ptch by pitch.  I’d hesitate to change some of those core things. More to bring out via visualization.  Rule change,s not so much.

NS;  Yeah-  tings revert to the mean.  Lots of power pitching. Maybe some hitters can exploit this?  Innovation can probably lead to a change.  It’s a tangibly duller pace of play than, say, football.

BK:  You are incentivized to moves that lead to the 3-2 outcome.

JL:  There will be someone who breaks out on the hitting side with a very low SO rate.

BK: Player projections:  Where are we?  Nate?

NS:  PECOTA, 11 years ago. Now, I’d start from scratch with all the new data and enough years to see what is predictive. Now we can more directly measure skills, not proxies of skills.  A half year to innovate well to use everything we have now.  Projections are improving, but smart quants getting hired by teams.  Not as much on the public side.

BS:  We see the fantasy side increase – our predictive formulas are great.  It’s a lot of fun, the fun part of what we do.

VG:  More focus on batted ball performance,  incorporating the ball park.

RN: I haven’t seen anyone to consistently beat the over/unders.

JL:  We’re trying to win games. We have a great projection system.  They are giving us really valuable info and blending it in with out projection system to improve the system.  Using the scouts helps, The fundamentals there, but with the new data, a whole new ballgame.

About roughlynormal

I have been a math/statistics teacher for 20 years. I currently teach at a college prep school in southern California. I also coach teaching fellows for Math for America - Los Angeles chapter. I love my career, my colleagues, and my friends & family.
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