The Society for American Baseball Research (“SABR”) recently announced the finalists for its 2017 Analytics Conference Research Awards, which “recognize baseball researchers who have completed the best work of original analysis or commentary during the preceding calendar year.” In the interest of drawing attention to good baseball research–as I did last year and the year before–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

  • August Fagerstrom, “The Game Plan: How the Indians Almost Won It All,” FanGraphs, November 4, 2016. In his final post at FanGraphs, August retraced Cleveland’s near-championship path, from the first day of the 2016 season to the final out of Game Seven of the World Series. Through interviews with the relevant personnel, he describes how the team distilled detailed advance-scouting reports generated days before a series into one-to-two-sentence guidelines to pitchers and catchers (e.g., pitch Jose Bautista away and Anthony Rizzo in on the hands), which then were reinforced with in-game coaching and video review. “It all comes down to the pitchers executing, and the pitchers executed, but it’s important to remember that the plan that gets played out on the field by two men is a collaborative effort, the work of dozens men over the week prior.” Fans of The Only Rule will appreciate this behind-the-scenes look at Cleveland’s process.
  • Ben Lindbergh and Rob Arthur, “Are Juiced Balls the New Steroids?” FiveThirtyEight, July 20, 2016. In surely one of the most-read baseball articles of 2016, former BP’ers Lindbergh and Arthur rounded out a too-short partnership at FiveThirtyEight by making a robust, if circumstantial, case that MLB has been using juiced baseballs since the second half of the 2015 season. Like baseball Mythbusters, the authors walk through seemingly every conceivable explanation for a major uptick in home-run rate and batted-ball speed, dismissing chance, strike-zone changes, temperature, PEDs, and other possible factors, before concluding that there must have been some change in the ball itself. They also tested some baseballs, with inconclusive results. Ultimately, their most significant pieces of supporting evidence came from a comparative analysis using minor-league data, which is relevant because the different levels use baseballs made in different facilities in different countries. While there was a “solid” correlation between MLB and MiLB home-run rates over the last quarter-century, those rates sharply diverged beginning in 2015. Furthermore, by focusing on hitters who bounced between the majors and Triple-A since the 2015 All-Star break, and even on specific batter-pitcher matchups at both levels, they found that the same batters hit thirty percent more home runs in the majors than expected. (This piece, along with others addressing the subject, generated a number of responses, some of which seemed to support the “juiced-ball” theory, and some of which seemed to undercut it. This Hardball Times article highlights those responses before setting out a granular strike-zone analysis showing that an upward movement in the zone over the relevant period could have contributed to part of the increased home-run rate.)
  • Kate Morrison and Russell A. Carleton, “The Perils of MLB’s Sorting System,” Baseball Prospectus, June 20-23, 2016. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4. A number of last year’s SABR award finalists addressed, from different angles, the subject of diversity in baseball. One of those was Meg Rowley’s “Post-Moneyball’s Clubability”: “[B]y ignoring intellectual diversity and a broad pool of potentially qualified candidates” for front-office jobs, teams are sacrificing wins. In 2016, Morrison and Carleton returned to the subject of front-office staffing with a four-part series that detailed current hiring practices (Part 1, on the importance of the internship); potential selection biases in the current hiring paradigm (Part 2, on the difficulty, both in terms of selectivity and lifestyle requirements, of securing an internship); current demographics (Part 3, on the predominance of Ivy-League pedigrees); and a proposal for increasing front-office diversity (Part 4, on rethinking the internship model). The first three Parts will be familiar to anyone who read Rowley’s article or has a general grasp of the current public discussions surrounding front-office staffing: white males with Ivy-League degrees in business and finance whose wealthy upbringings allowed them to survive an intern’s meager lifestyle predominate among baseball front-office personnel. In Part 4, the authors noted employment data points to at least one part of a possible reform proposal, deemphasizing technical skills as a gatekeeping prerequisite. The authors also continued to ask probing questions and offered a forward-looking observation: “Maybe the new operational inefficiency is to take a look at the people in the front office itself and to re-think how they get there.” While some may see Morrison and Carleton as re-plowing soil already tilled by Rowley a year earlier, there’s no doubt that soil is fertile and worthy of their thorough return to a subject that appears to have the attention of Commissioner Rob Manfred.
  • Eno Sarris with Bill Petti, “Are Veterans Better at Slump Busting?” FanGraphs, May 25, 2016. Inspired by a statement by Brad Ausmus that veteran players, by virtue of their experience in the game, were better equipped to pull out of slumps, Sarris asked players how they coped, emotionally, mechanically, and otherwise, when they found themselves in a baseball rut. His preliminary conclusion: “The thread that runs through these different answers is probably confidence.” Then, with the help of Petti’s research on offensive volatility (the degree of day-to-day stability in a player’s offensive performance, defined by wOBA), Sarris was able to confirm Ausmus’ assertion. The evidence shows that batters become less volatile (or, more consistent) with age: “when it comes to emotional regulation or play on the field, the evidence says that older people are better at evening it all out. Of course, the peaks are lower… but the valleys are more shallow.”
  • Jeff Sullivan, “Pitch Framing Was Doomed From the Start,” The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2017. “As analytics arguably doomed analytics, pitch framing seems likely to doom pitch framing,” Sullivan begins. The well-known, general notion that the spread of analytics across baseball decreased the competitive value of them also applies to the pitch-framing subset of analytics. Sullivan thus is not surprised to find, in terms of BP’s framing runs above average and other metrics, a narrowing of the gap between the best and worst framing catchers in recent seasons. So long as we have human umpires behind home plate calling balls and strikes, pitch framing won’t diminish in importance, but its relative value will. “When everyone is a good receiver, no one is a good receiver.”

Contemporary Baseball Commentary

  • R.J. Anderson, “MLB Analytics Guru Who Could Be The Next Nate Silver Has A Revolutionary New Stat,” CBS Sports, December 1, 2016. Jonathan Judge, Harry Pavlidis, and Dan Turkenkopf introduced Deserved Run Average (DRA) in an article that was one of last year’s SABR award finalists. Now, Anderson has provided a personal profile of one of DRA’s creators, Judge, described as “the stathead lawyer.” Judge, Anderson reports, spends his days as a products liability litigator for a large Chicago law firm and his nights conducting baseball research. Anderson notes that Judge “is possibly, kinda sorta, almost certainly a genius.” His basis for that claim? While Judge is highly trained in law and music (he’s a pianist), he’s self-taught when it comes to statistics and baseball analytics, and it only took him “a few years” in that arena before he was able to help develop a complex, influential metric in DRA. Anderson quotes Rob Arthur, who co-wrote the “juiced baseball” article highlighted above, on the significance of DRA: “I think it’s the most sophisticated and probably the most accurate measure of pitcher quality that’s publicly available right now. The mixed models that make up the core of DRA allow you to adjust for a lot of the factors that we’ve known to affect pitching, but haven’t been able to measure or integrate into our pitching metrics. . . . That level of statistical rigor hasn’t been in the mainstream of sabermetrics until now.” An unnamed front-office source also praised the public (if not open-source) metric: “We try to do the same exact thing with more sophisticated data. I think it’s tremendous work that Judge has done in this realm. It gets a lot closer to what we’re trying to accomplish than what has previously existed.” While Judge now consults with the Tampa Bay Rays, he apparently remains free to publish statistical research for public consumption, unlike other quantitative baseball analysts snapped up by teams.
  • Henry Druschel, “There’s no such thing as a small-market team,” Beyond the Box Score, December 13, 2016. Following up on the new CBA’s revenue-sharing realignment and the Oakland A’s shift out of the revenue-receiving group of teams, Druschel probes the question of what it means for an MLB franchise to be a “small-market team.” His study reveals that the so-called “small-market” is a myth: “Being a small-market team is not a badge of inferiority that certain teams have to carry throughout life like a scarlet letter; it’s the product of choices, usually made by the owner, to scrimp and save, to not sign free agents, and to not try as hard as possible to win. That’s what makes a small-market team, not where they happen to play.” Whether it’s the A’s or the Rays, the primary driver of a team’s budget is its owner’s willingness to spend, not the size of the local media market.
  • Rany Jazayerli, “The Curious Have Won,” The Ringer, November 3, 2016. In The Ringer’s first SABR award nomination, Jazayerli declares The Great Analytics War over, naming as the winners “Theo Epstein, the analytics movement, and the game of baseball.” In the Chicago Cubs’ World Series victory, he sees the triumph of “an objective, data-driven view” of the sport, vanquishing the last vestiges of the conventional view in Ruben Amaro Jr.’s Phillies, Terry Ryan’s Twins, and the Diamondbacks of Tony La Russa and Dave Stewart. Jazayerli traces the Cubs’s rebuilding process under Epstein, highlighting the Ben Zobrist acquisition as someone whose well-roundedness might previously have rendered him underappreciated, but whose talents find recognition in the Analytics Era: “From 2009 to 2012 Zobrist had the most bWAR of any hitter in baseball, a fact that will never not surprise, and he ranks sixth among all hitters in that metric over the last eight years.” The point of baseball analytics isn’t numbers, he explains. It’s questioning conventional wisdom and being able to provide a reason for decisions that doesn’t boil down to “tradition.” “The battle was never between the quants and the gut-instinct types, it was between the curious and the incurious. The curious have won.”
  • Sam Miller, “Cubs win! Cubs won. Now what do we stay alive for?” ESPN.com, November 5, 2016. November 2016 found the baseball world awash in Cubs retrospectives. Miller, like Jazayerli, whose contribution is linked above, does what others do but with a breadth and depth few in this community can approach. Never afraid of The Void, or at least not scared of it enough not to peer in its general direction from time to time, Miller contemplates the meaning of the ending of the Cubs’ championship drought relative to morality and eternity and wonders, with reference to the growth of the Cubs’ drought over the years into a Thing, and asks what, in our lifetimes, might replace it. Miller is skeptical that the nation would embrace any team–such as Cleveland, the new owner of baseball’s longest stretch without a championship–the way it did Chicago’s Northsiders. He’s similarly skeptical that we’ll see any meaningful individual records fall. Without the likelihood of a team or individual baseball achievement of such historical magnitude within our remaining life years, why press on? There is, he suggests, one thing left that could happen: “It’s not hard to imagine a future some decades from now when we make a cultural decision that spending our billions on a field where women are entirely absent — even by the influence of biology — is unacceptable. . . . This is entirely speculative, but a half-century gives us plenty of time to speculate with. If baseball’s maleness does become an economic, political or cultural liability, I don’t know how it will get handled. . . . But there couldn’t be a cooler story in baseball right now than seeing a woman play in and succeed in the major leagues. It’s worth staying alive for.”
  • Meg Rowley, “Let Ballparks Get Old,” Baseball Prospectus, May 26, 2016. It hasn’t stopped politicians and businesses from proposing them, but it seems like nearly everybody agrees that publicly funded sports venues are not, from the public’s perspective, great investments. Rowley attacks this trodden ground not from a policy perspective, however, but with an appeal to a deeper concept of “place.” She contends that abandoning relatively young parks, as is becoming common practice, constitutes “a betrayal of place.” Important to baseball, as to life, Rowley discusses place as a vital concept: “Place isn’t the only trigger for creating a connection to a team or a community, but it is a big and important one. It infects our senses with sights and smells and energy. It’s alive.” In an interesting twist, though, there are times–such as the concession to an owner’s demand for a new stadium–when we surrender one component of place in order to secure an even more fundamental one: “The sad bit is that we abandon the familiar haunts we know so that we might avoid an even more permanent loss of place: relocation. We entertain it for fear the Oakland Athletics will become the San Jose Athletics. We do it to preserve community, and lose a bit of community along the way. We haven’t lost our only connection to the game and our teams, but we’ve damaged an important one. We’ve lost some sense of our past. We’ve disposed of our place, and declared our common places disposable, even as the debts of those common places prove harder to shake. We’ve taken our place, and made it just some place. And we didn’t even get new recycling bins.”

Historical Analysis/ Commentary

  • Patrick Dubuque, “Byron McLaughlin Avoids the Tag,” The Hardball Times, June 22, 2016. Dubuque begins this epic with a survey of eBay offerings and sales of items autographed by Byron McLaughlin. There aren’t many, the signatures themselves vary widely in style, and the items all sell for at least $100. McLaughlin’s career began unceremoniously enough as a pitching prospect drafted out of high school who made his major-league debut at age twenty-one for the Seattle Mariners in that team’s inaugural season. He lacked the pitching consistency or maturity to stick in the big leagues, though, spending the balance of his time in the minors and independent ball in Mexico. A would-be redemption in 1983 with the California Angles had a bright beginning, but that too faded, the only memorable contribution being McLaughlin’s blowup in the press in which he blamed the team for damaging his arm. As Dubuque crafts the transition, “Now an indisputable clubhouse cancer, [McLaughlin] found no invitations to 1984 spring training. Instead, he returned to Mexico, to his old team in Nuevo Laredo, waiting for another break to go his way. It didn’t, on the mound. But as one career was reaching its end, his second one was just underway.” This time, professional life would be much more fruitful for McLaughlin; it’s just that it would no longer have much to do with baseball. The rest, which I’ll let you read yourself, is expertly related and enhanced by new interviews Dubuque conducted on the subject with key participants. The World Series aside, this is the closest thing we had to a baseball thriller in 2016.
  • Tim Healey, “The Doug Mirabelli Trade: An Oral History,” The Hardball Times, April 29, 2016. Healey takes readers on an entertaining, quirky journey, as told by those involved, through May 1, 2006, the day backup catcher Doug Mirabelli returned to the Boston Red Sox. Quoted sources include Theo Epstein, Tim Wakefield, Brian Cashman, an unidentified Massachusetts State Police source, and Mirabelli himself. One need not be a Red Sox fan to enjoy this retelling of one odd day in baseball history.
  • Wade Kapszukiewicz, “Golden Pitches: The Ultimate Last-at-Bat, Game Seven Scenario,” SABR Baseball Research Journal, Spring 2016. The most memorable and debated moment of Game Seven of the 2014 World Series between Kansas City and San Francisco was when the Royals, down one with two out in the bottom of the ninth, held Alex Gordon at third when the Giants misplayed his hit in the outfield. Kapszukiewicz points out, however, that, with Gordon held at third, the real excitement was yet to come, because Madison Bumgarner, out in relief, was throwing Golden Pitches: “The six pitches Bumgarner threw to Perez had the ability to win the World Series for either team. That is, each of those six pitches could have produced a World Series championship for the Royals (had Perez hit a home run) or the Giants (had Perez grounded out to shortstop, flown out to right field, or, as he did, fouled out to the third baseman).” Unsurprisingly, Golden Pitches are rare.  “By definition, under the current best-of-seven World Series format, a Golden Pitch can only be thrown in game seven of the World Series and only in the bottom of the ninth inning when the road team has the lead (or in the bottom of an extra inning, if the road team scores in the top . . . ). Indeed, in no other situation could either team win the World Series on a given pitch.” Beginning with the first modern World Series in 1903, Kapszukiewicz found that Golden Pitches have been thrown in only seven World Series games, and just around forty Golden Pitches ever have been thrown. Kapszukiewicz mentions some other memorably dramatic World Series moments that did not involve Golden Pitches, as well as some near misses, before focusing on the circumstances surrounding each of the actual Golden Pitches thrown.
  • Mina Kimes, “The Art of Letting Go,” ESPN The Magazine, October 4, 2016. The premise of Kimes’s story is simple: while ballplayers in America, generally speaking, despise bat flips, players in South Korea, generally speaking, embrace the display. Understanding the Korean art of bat flipping isn’t quite as simple, though. In a nicely illustrated online version of a print article, Kimes relates stories from her travels across the peninsula in search of the essence of bat flipping in Korea. The basics are that bat flipping there isn’t merely permissible but prevalent; sometimes occurs even on non-homers; and occurs without opposing retribution. Of course, the entire baseball experience is different in South Korea, where fans engage in elaborate chants, songs, and dances during games. In short, “the entertainment is relentless.” Despite that environment, Kimes found players reluctant to discuss their bat flipping, and some of the most prolific flippers hardly acknowledged they even engaged in the practice at all–at least to an American reporter. Eventually, a youth coach provided some clues on the bat flip’s origin, pointing to the Japanese influence on the sport there. Korean baseball culture originally had been strict and rigid until a rookie, Yang Jun-hyuk, refused to conform and began flipping his bat as a celebration. That, the youth coach explained “broke the shell.” Kimes continues her enjoyably recounted journey from there, tracking down a now-retired Yang and a number of other featured players in the Korean baseball world, all of whom help Kimes meaningfully place the sport’s culture, bat flips and all, within the broader Korean culture, history, and national identity.
  • Gerald Schifman, “How Much Hope and Faith Is in Major League Baseball?” The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2017. In this retrospective on the legacy of Bud Selig, Schifman begins with the mission statement Selig announced for his MLB administration: “every fan has to have hope and faith. If you remove hope and faith from the mind of a fan, you destroy the fabric of the sport. It’s my job to restore it.” Seeking to reverse the then-existent climate in which a few wealthy teams dominated the competitive landscape while the remainders floundered and languished, Selig executed a series of institutional and infrastructural changes that allowed him to leave the sport wealthier and, at least by general perception, more competitive than he found it. In order to evaluate the success of the execution of Selig’s “hope and faith” mission, Schifman introduces the “Hope and Faith Index (HFI), [which measures] the average number of wins separating teams from playoff spots.” Selig’s idea was that, the longer into a given season a team’s fans have hope and faith in a playoff berth, the more engaged with the game they’ll be. First, he divided each league into three divisions rather than two, offering teams a shorter path to a division championship, and he added a wild card slot for each league. Schifman’s HFI measured an immediate and dramatic response. It responded similarly, in 2012, when MLB added the second wild card to each league. In addition to increasing the breadth of competitiveness on a year-to-year basis, Selig’s changes also caused measurable in-season improvements: “With each passing era, major league teams have gone less gently into the night of their seasons.” These changes suggest the need for others, like pushing the trade deadline later in the season, since more teams than ever still look like contenders on July 31. Even though Selig’s structural reforms were not wholly original (the other professional sports leagues already had experimented with playoff format changes, including wild cards), Schifman argues that it is not “fair to say this unoriginality diminishes Selig’s achievement” due to its success. (That success, of course, has not gone unquestioned, and readers of this site likely recall Sam Miller’s investigation of the value of clinching a wild card spot in the two-wild-card era in Effectively Wild episodes in the last year.)

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.

Having done this for three years now, I have two observations for this year: 1) I think this is the best slate of nominees I’ve seen in the Historical Analysis/Commentary category, but 2) I still think that section is deficient for its exclusion of Darius Austin‘s piece for this site entitled “The Brooklyn Dodgers’ Incredible Platoon Split,” so don’t miss that one either.

Here’s my ballot:

  • Contemporary Baseball Analysis: Lindbergh and Arthur on juiced balls
  • Contemporary Baseball Commentary: Druschel on small-market teams
  • Historical Analysis/Commentary: Dubuque on Byron McLaughlin

Voting ends on Monday, February 13.

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

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