The Society for American Baseball Research (“SABR”) recently announced the finalists for its 2016 Analytics Conference Research Awards, which “recognize baseball researchers who have completed the best work of original analysis or commentary during the preceding calendar year.” As I did last year, in the interest of drawing attention to good baseball research, the following highlights each of the fifteen selected articles, which are organized into three categories, including an emphasized takeaway line for each.

Contemporary Baseball Analysis

  • Benjamin S. Baumer, Shane T. Jensen, Gregory J. Matthews, “OpenWAR: An Open Source System for Evaluating Overall Player Performance in Major League Baseball,” Journal of Quantitative Analysis, Vol. 11, Issue 2, June 2015. You may recall this paper from Michael Wenz’s recent review of it at Baseball Prospectus. The paper is styled as a reaction to the proprietary nature of the leading wins-above-replacement metrics (i.e., FanGraphs’ fWAR, Baseball-Reference’s bWAR, and BP’s WARP). Thus, the authors’ goal, which is evident from the paper’s title, is to create an open-sourced player-evaluation metric. For an introduction to the guts of openWAR and a discussion of some of its strengths and weaknesses, I recommend Wenz’s review, linked above, and Matthews’ response to that review. As Wenz noted and Matthews agreed, “Context-neutral models like WARP are generally interested in constructing an estimate of a player’s underlying skill level or true talent, while openWAR is attempting to describe what impact a player actually had in a given season. There are reasons to prefer one approach over the other, but the differences in philosophy are important to keep in mind when making comparisons.”
  • Jonathan Judge, Harry Pavlidis, and Dan Turkenkopf. “Introducing Deserved Runs Average — And All Its Friends,” Baseball Prospectus, April 29, 2015. If Pavlidis’ work with Dan Brooks on pitch framing was the dominant piece of baseball research in 2014, then Pavlidis, along with Jonathan Judge and Dan Turkenkopf, has done it again. All they aim to do with DRA is provide the definitive replacement for ERA, along with FIP and other DIPS. DRA digs deep in order to “declare how many runs a pitcher truly deserved to give up, and to say so with more confidence than ever before.” In doing so, they build on the pitch-framing work to look not only to what occurred in each individual plate appearance, but also how well the pitcher controls the running game once batters reach base. DRA is as impressive as it is thorough, and while it undoubtedly will, like any new baseball statistic, undergo refinement in the future, it’s a development that seems like it really has the ability to change the landscape of baseball analysis. Broadcasters and analysts might never mention xFIP, UZR, or CSAA, but if anything’s going to follow OBP/OPS into the mainstream, DRA is as good a candidate as we’ve seen.
  • Ben Lindbergh, “Among the Power Pitchers: Does Kansas City’s Contact-Heavy Approach Give the Royals a Postseason Edge?” Grantland, October 20, 2015. Long live Grantland! In this article, the only one nominated this year from the now-defunct website, the former BP editor and current Effectively Wild cohost studied postseason pitcher behavior, with a focus on velocity, and evaluated postseason hitters’ responses. Lindbergh noticed a “startling” uptick in postseason pitch velocity in 2015, above and beyond that ordinarily expected in the playoffs, and he also found that contact-style hitters had better results against power pitching than non-contact, power hitters. The 2015 Royals, of course, were an excellent contact-hitting team, and although Lindbergh wrote that he’d prefer to have Toronto’s power bats over those of the contact-hitting Royals, he recognized that Kansas City might’ve been onto something with their less-expensive lineup: “Because contact is less prized by modern teams than patience and power, it’s also less expensive. And given the physical skills of the players who tend to possess it, it might also be easier to pair with good defense, another commodity that the free-agent market has historically undervalued. In the most generous interpretation of their roster construction, the Royals’ old-school approach is actually innovation in disguise.” The 2015 World Series outcome certainly doesn’t do anything to detract from that theory.
  • Jeff Sullivan, “So You Want An Edge Against Mike Trout,” FanGraphs, August 27, 2015. Surprise! There’s no simple way for pitchers to gain an advantage over Mike Trout. Sullivan shows that, in reality, something that, at first, looks like an easy edge is not what it seems and actually makes things worse. In short, the availability of an almost-guaranteed 0-1 count– by virtue of the fact that Trout essentially always takes on first-pitch curveballs– is mitigated by the fact that Trout’s wOBA in plate appearances beginning with a first-pitch curve, as well as those beginning with a first-pitch curve for a (called) strike, is even higher than his career wOBA. Good luck, pitchers.
  • Jeff Zimmerman, “Velocity’s Relationship with Pitcher Arm Injuries,” The Hardball Times, April 22, 2015. Zimmerman’s article asks whether there is a relationship between changes in pitch velocity and the frequency of pitcher arm injuries. Velocity is up, and so are Tommy John surgeries, but the story here isn’t one of such simple correlation. Elbow injuries have increased as pitch velocity has increased, but, overall, days lost to pitcher arm injuries have held constant. Drilling down on the general trends, Zimmerman found what most of us have come to expect: pitchers who throw harder spend more time on the DL than those who operate at lower velocities. He debunks the notion that pitchers who show upward velocity spikes are more likely to be DL-bound than their peers; the opposite appears to be true. Finally, Zimmerman confirmed that injured pitchers tend not to show a bounceback in velocity in the season following the season of their injury.

Contemporary Baseball Commentary

  • Alexis Brudnicki, “I’m Different. I’m the Same.” The Hardball Times, November 18, 2015. Brudnicki’s article examines the intersection of sports and gender by sharing her own experiences growing up as a sports fan and athlete in a male-dominated environment. Brudnicki eventually transitioned into professional opportunities in sports journalism, where she continued to exist as one of the only women in her field. Her deep knowledge of sports, and baseball in particular, initially made it easy for her to fit in with her (almost exclusively male) colleagues, but she began to realize that there were gender-related issues in the sports world she needed to confront. She feared that doing so might rock the boat and cost her the professional progress she had made. As she matured, Brudnicki came to more fully realize the difficulties women who work in baseball face, and that made her wonder if she could go on. Financially, the work is an unsustainable grind, but, Brudnicki realized, “It’s worth it all because I love baseball. Baseball is my passion, and it has become my life.” In that, she concludes, she really isn’t different from her peers of both genders.
  • Nathaniel Grow, “The MLBPA Has A Problem,” FanGraphs, March 30, 2015. In one of his many posts previewing the coming collective bargaining negotiations between MLB and the MLBPA, this article by Grow highlights what’s likely to be the central issue in those negotiations: the players’ decreasing share of MLB revenues. Grow explains: “After peaking at a little more than 56% in 2002, today MLB player salaries account for less than 40% of league revenues, a decline of nearly 33% in just 12 years. As a result, player payroll today accounts for just over 38% of MLB’s total revenues.” In order to reverse this trend, Grow suggests the players seek a salary floor tied to the league’s expected overall revenues, theoretically ensuring that the players will receive a consistent percentage of the sport’s growing profits.
  • Dan Rosenheck, “Spring Forward,” The Economist, March 4, 2015. Rosenheck’s article summarizes a study the author presented at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference on how to find useful data among spring training statistics. Rosenheck discovered that incorporating spring training data into player projections based on past (in-season) performance improved the projections: “In every peripheral category, forecasts that included a finely calibrated dose of spring-training numbers outperformed ZiPS by itself.” While Rosenheck acknowledges that this isn’t a revolutionary finding, the competitive margins in baseball are slim, so every little bit of improved projectability helps.
  • Meg Rowley, “Post-Moneyball’s Clubability,” Baseball Prospectus, November 4, 2015. Like many people in the business world, the folks running baseball teams tend to hire people they know, people who “speak[] the same language” they do. Rowley finds that last phrase “nearly as troubling in the figurative meaning as if it were literal,” noting that, “at the heart of the push for front office and managerial diversity is the desire to expand the range of common language.” In fact, Rowley points out, preferring baseball’s incumbent “language” could mean missing out on finding the uncommon edge that allows a team to advance to the World Series. The rise of those who view baseball with analytical eyes, and speak of it with similar tongues, threatens to create a new uniformity that is just as bad for the sport (and ripe for exploitation) as the general ignorance of analytics that preceded the present period. Front-office intellectual homogeneity, Rowley asserts, breeds homogeneity of other varieties: “after a decade of painful progress to advance women and minorities to positions of authority, a generation of Ivy Leaguers are falling into the exact same traps: showing a predilection for “Clubability,” as Michael Lewis called it, over something new, something innovative, or even something marginally uncomfortable.” To put a finer point on it, Rowley believes that, “by ignoring intellectual diversity and a broad pool of potentially qualified candidates,” teams are sacrificing wins. To remedy this, Rowley proposes two practical reforms: 1) mandate entry-level fellowship positions for women and people of color that include mentorship components and pay “a living wage,” and 2) enhance the Selig Rule, which currently directs teams to “consider” minority candidates when hiring for all general manager, assistant general manager, field manager, director of player development and director of scouting positions, by requiring actual interviews of such candidates, rather than mere consideration of them.
  • Eno Sarris, “Joey Votto on Aging,” FanGraphs, September 22, 2015. Joey Votto doesn’t care about home runs, as we know, and he has a lot of thoughts on how to be a successful hitter. In particular, Votto has expressed an interest in “improving all of the facets of my game that can be repeatable and that age well.” Has he, in fact, done that? Sarris walks through a series of Votto’s detailed statements on hitting in particular and his approach to baseball in general and tests them against Votto’s actual hitting outcomes to find out whether Votto’s walk (or hit) matches his talk. Votto is concerned with swing rate, feel, and results, the latter particularly in terms of direction. Unsurprisingly, Votto expresses and demonstrates a willingness to sacrifice power if it means he can put more balls in play. While all baseball-playing skills decline with age, and the risk of injury increases, Votto took steps in the last offseason to lose weight and improve his fitness in order to push his aging curve out further. As is his style, Sarris largely allows his subject to take the wheel with this piece, which, especially for fans of Votto and the Reds, provides a detailed look inside the mind of one of Cincinnati’s best hitters.

Historical Analysis/Commentary

  • Adam Darowski, “The Standards of Today Would Create a Very Different Hall of Fame,” The Hardball Times, December 18, 2015. The Baseball Hall of Fame is not as exclusive as we tend to think, and, as we are more likely to realize, its membership is not comprised strictly of those with the best statistical achievements. Darowski highlights some of the Hall’s lesser-known odd inclusions and exclusions before spending more time evaluating the candidacies of then-current occupants of the HOF ballot by contextualizing them with already-inducted players, including Larry Walker (“absolutely should be a Hall of Famer”), Jeff Bagwell (“a Hall of Fame without Bagwell doesn’t represent our generation”), Curt Schilling (“has first ballot Hall of Fame numbers”), Mike Mussina (the Hall would be “very incomplete” without him), and, of course, Alan Trammell (“should have been inducted right away”). Once the Hall of Fame began opening its doors to generational stars, as opposed to only true all-time greats, Darowski contends, each generation ought to have its say.
  • Jason Foster, “How One Pitch Might Have Sent John Smoltz on a Path to the Hall of Fame,” The Sporting News, July 24, 2015. In 1991, John Smoltz was a twenty-four-year-old former All-Star pitcher for the Atlanta Braves, and, as of that season’s all-star break, neither he nor his team were doing too well. Smoltz appeared to be in a tailspin, and his 2-11 record and 5.16 ERA reflected that. The second half of the ’91 season would be different for the young pitcher, and, at least as Foster sees it, the turnaround in his year and his career can be pinpointed to a single pitch Smoltz threw in his first start of the season’s second half. The pitch in question? A 3-1 fastball in the first inning that induced an easy flyball out and stemmed what looked to be an early rally by the visiting Cardinals. Smoltz ended up giving up two runs on seven hits in 6 1/3 innings, good enough for his third win of the season, which he finished by going 11-2 with a 2.62 ERA. The Braves even made the World Series. As Foster acknowledges, referring to the highlighted pitch and plate appearance, “it’s possible Smoltz could’ve failed to retire Perry and still gone on to a Hall of Fame career. But it’s also possible, perhaps probable, it would’ve caused his ugly season to continue and prompted a demotion to the bullpen or the minors.”
  • Bryan Grosnick, “Jason Giambi, Patron Saint of the ’00s,” Beyond the Box Score, February 17, 2015. Grosnick argues that Jason Giambi is the baseball player who best represents the first decade of the present millennium: “When I think about the two biggest stories of the previous decade in baseball, I think about the PED scandals and the rise of sabermetrics, and Giambi had a spectacular relationship with both.” On the first count, Giambi had ties to BALCO, admitted using steroids and HGH, and the slugger’s image to match. On the second, he had ties to the Moneyball-era Athletics. Grosnick finishes by recounting some of Giambi’s career statistical achievements: 193 wRC+ in 2001! 440 career home runs! 15.3% career walk rate! 20 career stolen bases!
  • John McMurray, “Examining Stolen Base Trends by Decade from the Deadball Era through the 1970s,” SABR Baseball Research Journal, Fall 2015. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, which included the Deadball Era, there was a point at which stolen bases outpaced home runs ten to one. By 1919, however, stolen bases had fallen by almost forty percent, with home runs rising fast. The 1920s provided a contrast to the previous twenty years of baseball in these respects, but contemporary observers didn’t care for the development in the same way they would adore the power blasts of the 1990s, attributing a loss of unpredictability to the decrease in base stealing, the “most thrilling of baseball plays,” and “the most perfect example in baseball of the unexpected.” The falloff in base stealing became even more pronounced and ensconced during the 1930s and 40s, when the ratio of home runs to stolen bases settled in at about 1.5 to one. By the late 40s, observers were openly wondering whether base stealing had become “a lost art,” and there was more decline in store. McMurray refers to the 1950s as “the nadir of stolen bases,” and the HR-SB ratio had climbed to three to one. The trend would reverse itself again, though, beginning in the 1960s, led by base-stealers such as Luis Aparicio and Willie Mays. Stolen bases continued to climb through the 1970s toward modern-era peaks in the 1980s. McMurray identifies four reasons for the changes seen in the 1970s: 1) players began ignoring unwritten rules that had tamped down aggressive baserunning, and, in the process, developed a more efficient sliding technique; 2) the shift in strategy incentivized the promotion of more athletic players who could both hit for power and steal bases; 3) base-stealing success benefited from an increased attention to the “science” of base stealing, including measuring runner takeoff time and studying pitcher tendencies; and 4) the combination of falling batting averages and the opening of new, larger stadiums, which cut down on the effectiveness of scoring runs through power hitting.
  • Alex Remington, “Anniversary of a Myth: The Knickerbockers’ Most Famous Game,” The Hardball Times, June 19, 2015. Oftentimes, when something that has been shown to be a myth, in the modern sense, is, again in modern parlance, busted, the busting process severely obscures or effectively eradicates whatever truth existed as a part of the now-busted myth. Remington seeks to correct that consequential effect with respect to the June 19, 1846 game between the New York Knickerbockers and the New York Nine at the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, N.J., a game for many years heralded as the first-ever organized baseball game, with the first written rule book, a box score recorded, and so forth. Little of those landmarks were real, but, as Remington shows, the New York Knickerbockers nevertheless played an important role in the development of modern baseball. For example, the team was “obsess[ed]” with documentation, keeping records of lineups, outs made, and runs scored. Their games were recognizable as baseball, although there were some differences, such as the absence of a shortstop (the position not yet having been invented) and the inclusion of a mercy rule, which, fortunately for the Knickerbockers at that June 19 game, halted the proceedings after the fourth inning, at which point they lost 23-1. Not only was attempting to steal first on a dropped third strike possible, it was mandatory, and the umpire “enforced a six-cent fine, payable on the spot, for swearing.”

Which are your favorites? Any notable snubs? Chime in by adding your comment below, and click here to cast your official vote for each category.

Here’s my ballot:

  • Contemporary Baseball Analysis: Judge, Pavlidis and Turkenkopf on DRA
  • Contemporary Baseball Commentary: Rowley on diversity and winning
  • Historical Analysis/Commentary: Remington on the true influence of the New York Knickerbockers

Voting ends on Monday, February 15.

More of AD’s work may be found at ALDLAND.

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4 Responses to “The Best Baseball Research of the Past Year”

  1. Barry Gilpin

    I voted for Judge/Pavlidis, Eno’s piece with Votto, and Darowski’s HOF piece, although I hadn’t read that Smoltz piece until after I voted, and I really liked that one too.

    Reply

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