The Saberseminar (aka Sabermetrics, Scouting, and the Science of Baseball) is an annual conference held over a weekend in Boston featuring a full two-slate of sabermetric and analytic presentations. It draws analysts, teams, former players, writers, and fans interested in the science of the sport, with all proceeds going to charity. This is the third year I’ve attended the Saberseminar. Rather than give you a review of every presentation–there were 32 of them!–I’m going to list the highlights from my perspective. If you want to see the highlights from somebody else’s perspective, read this from FanGraphs’ Paul Swydan or this from our own Ryan Sullivan, both of whom posted before I did and, I’m inferring, did not have to deal with a delayed, hours-long Greyhound home today.
- My favorite presenter at Saberseminar is Dr. Chris Geary, Chief of Sports Medicine at Tufts Medical Center. He gives a fast-paced discussion of sports injuries. He’s my favorite because I’m interested in his area and he’s really, really funny. This year, he talked about the shoulder labrum (Pablo Sandoval‘s injury) and knee meniscus (Craig Kimbrel‘s). Short answer: Athletes generally fully recover from a torn meniscus, quickly. The recovery from a torn labrum is much slower and much more problematic: Many players never return to their previous level.
- Another favorite of mine is Alan Nathan, professor emeritus of physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and proprietor of the Physics of Baseball site. This year, he addressed the question of whether the baseball is juiced, accounting for the post-2015 All-Star break spike in home runs. His conclusion was that it’s inconclusive. He noted that the exit speed for batted balls hit at typical home run launch angles are higher, and that’s consistent with a ball that’s more resilient. However, the exit speed for line drives is largely unchanged, suggesting no change to the ball. I discussed this with Rob Arthur, the FiveThirtyEight author who delved deeply into this topic with Effectively Wild co-host Ben Lindbergh last month, and when I asked him, “Doesn’t Occam’s Razor imply that it’s the ball?” he agreed.
- Baseball Prospectus researchers/writers Harry Pavlidis and Jonathan Judge presented their latest research on catching. Having already tackled framing, pitch blocking, and steal prevention, they introduced their findings about game calling. Their research found that pitchers have three to four times the influence on pitch selection as catchers, and that pitch selection has the greatest impact on home run, strikeout, and unintentional walk rates. Their somewhat surprising findings: Some of the best pitch callers are catchers not necessarily known for other skills behind the plate, and vice-versa. The best pitch callers of 2015, in terms of rate of runs added, were Wilson Ramos, JT Realmuto, Jason Castro, and Kurt Suzuki. The worst were Nick Hundley, Derek Norris, Welington Castillo, and Yasmani Grandal.
- Nick Piecoro, Diamondbacks beat writer for the Arizona Republic, noted a difference between East Coast and West Coast journalists. In the West Coast, reporters ask their questions and leave. In the East, they stay in the clubhouse as long as it’s open. Boston Globe writer Peter Abraham noted that once he was hanging out in the Yankees clubhouse, as Piecoro had observed, just waiting for something to happen. A fight broke out between two players, and the reporter from one of the New York tabloids, who’d left the inactive clubhouse earlier, missed it. That reporter never covered the team again.
- Brian Mills, assistant professor of Sport Management at the University of Florida, noted that umpires are calling more strikes up in the zone and fewer strikes low and away. Batters are making more contact and swings inside, less contact and springs outside. Could this be driving the increase in homers? Probably not–Mills calculated the net result as an increase in only .055 mph in exit velocity.
- Another physicist, David Kagan, professor emeritus at California State University Chico, noted that hitters swing with about a 9% uppercut. Perhaps the combination of the uppercuts noted by Kagan and the higher strikes noted by Mills is resulting in less direct contact on line drives, causing the flat liner exit velocity noted by Nathan.
- Did you get tired of all the tweets leading up to the All Star Game, urging fans to vote for certain players? Allison Levin’s research noted no impact from tweet volume on All Star voting except by teams right before the voting deadline.
- Glenn Healey, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of California Irvine, presented a method for classifying all batted balls by launch angle, exit velocity, and horizontal angle (i.e., their direction on the field, foul pole to foul pole). He found that calculating expected wOBA based on these parameters was a better predictor of batter performance than outcomes-based statistics like batting average and slugging percentage. This is the third time I’ve heard a presentation suggesting that batted ball-based hitting metrics outperform traditional measures. (Rob Arthur of FiveThirtyEight and the Baseball Info Solutions research team have done similar work.) I think this a very promising research topic, potentially changing our understanding of batter performance the way that Deserved Run Average has moved pitcher performance forward.
- Another perennially entertaining presenter, Red Sox senior baseball analyst Tom Tippett, provided a detailed look at Boston’s 2011 season (you remember–the last day of the season, beer and chicken) and how the team fell off its division-leading pace. He also noted some parallels between the 2011 squad and this year’s edition–shaky rotation, unsustainably good early-season batting–that must’ve been disquieting to Red Sox fans in the audience.
- I really liked this candid admission from Diamondbacks assistant GM Bryan Minniti: When asked whether trades like the team’s disastrous-to-date Shelby Miller for Ender Inciarte, Dansby Swanson, and Aaron Blair swap make executives gun-shy in seeking to do other deals: “You can’t help but think about it.”
- My favorite moment in the conference was a story from Red Sox GM Dave Dombroski. He was GM for the expansion Florida Marlins at its inception. In 1992, there was an expansion draft. Each major league team could protect 15 players from their 40-man roster. The expansion Marlins and Rockies drafted players in three rounds. No team could lose more than one player per round, and at the conclusion of each round, each NL team could protect three more teams and each AL team four more. To start the third round, the Rockies drafted Yankees catcher Brad Ausmus. That meant no more Yankees could be drafted. That thwarted the Marlins’s plans, according to Dombrowski, because the next name on their board was an unpredicted Yankee pitcher who, because Ausmus had been taken, was no longer available. The Yankee pitcher on whom the Marlins missed out was a 21-year-old who’d pitched at Class A in 1991, with a 2.75 ERA and 123 strikeouts in 114 2/3 innings: Mariano Rivera.
- And, of course, Effectively Wild recorded a live show.
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