For reasons having nothing to do with baseball and everything to do with local politics in a county adjacent to the one in which I reside, this annual feature is appearing far too late to serve its original purpose, which was to educate the public about the SABR research award nominees prior to the close of the voting period for those awards, which occurred on February 12. Because baseball fans are, if nothing else, creatures of habit, I went ahead and completed my usual summary of the finalists, which appears below. Even if you no longer have the opportunity to help decide which articles win, you still have the opportunity to read them, and, if you’re hunting for some text to whet your baseball appetite before the regular season starts, you could do worse than to begin with these selections from last year. The announcement of the winners will occur at the SABR Analytics Conference, which begins today in Phoenix.
The Society for American Baseball Research (“SABR”) recently announced the finalists for its 2018 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 continuing interest of drawing attention to good baseball research, the following highlights each of the fifteen selected articles, which are organized into three categories, and includes an emphasized takeaway line for each nominee.
Contemporary Baseball Analysis
- Glenn Healey, “The New Moneyball: How Ballpark Sensors Are Changing Baseball,” Proceedings of the IEEE (Vol. 105, No. 11), November 2017. This recap of the StatCast system’s technical features and analytical applications serves as a thorough introduction to MLB’s new analytical toy. While much of this will be familiar to those who have been neck-deep in baseball’s analytical community for the past few years, it is a very helpful primer for those feeling like they missed the initial wave of StatCast information and aren’t sure where to begin to orient themselves to the sport’s new electronic, sensor-driven reality. Professor Healy also hints at, but does not discuss at length, the related player-evaluation applications biometric-monitoring technologies offer. The article’s applications section may have benefited from a discussion of some of the more controversial issues surrounding StatCast, including restrictions on access to the informational outputs and the underlying data. The universality of team-side access to StatCast information also undermines, to some extent, the article’s references to Moneyball and team-to-team competitive ineffiencies. The author reasonably may have concluded that these topics exist beyond the general, introductory scope of the article, which does well in serving that aim.
- Ben Lindbergh and Mitchel Lichtman, “The Juiced Ball is Back,” The Ringer, June 14, 2017. Former BP’ers Lindbergh and Rob Arthur were nominated in this category last year for an influential article at FiveThirtyEight that launched the sport’s recent “juiced ball” conversation. Lindbergh, now in the employ of The Ringer, returned to the topic in 2017, this time with the assistance of Mitchel Lichtman (a/k/a “MGL”). Together, they provide an update on the state of research and analysis in this area, which now includes MLB’s public denial of any connection between changes in the ball and changes in on-field outcomes (e.g., the recent home-run increase), and offer their new thesis: there is, in fact, evidence “that much of the rise in home runs can be explained by the ball.” The primary focus here is on the inverse relationship between seam height and batted-ball distance. Overall size and coefficient of restitution (“COR,” basically bounciness) also are factors. Independent laboratory testing Lichtman commissioned “revealed significant differences in balls used after the 2015 All-Star break [, the point Lindbergh and Arthur previously identified as the introduction of the new ball,] in each of the components that could affect the flight of the ball, in the directions we would have expected based on the massive hike in home run rate. While none of these attributes in isolation could explain the increase in home runs that we saw in the summer of 2015, in combination, they can.” Together, the testing showed, the effects of the new balls’ lower seams, smaller sizes, and larger CORs serve as an adequate culprit for the homer spike, although the authors also acknowledge the contemporaneous change many hitters have undertaken toward a fly-ball-oriented approach (something they note has been much more rewarding in light of the changes to the ball).
- Harry Pavlidis, Jonathan Judge, and Jeff Long, “Introducing Pitch Tunnels,” Baseball Prospectus, January 24, 2017. Pitch tunnels are an extension of the familiar concept of pitcher release points. A pitcher benefits from throwing different pitches from the same release point because doing so makes it more difficult for batters to detect his different pitches. Pitch tunnels extend that concept to the flight path of the pitched ball. Just as different pitches look similar to a batter if the pitcher releases them in the same fashion, they continue to appear similar if they move along the same trajectory before finally behaving differently, hopefully, if you’re the pitcher, too late for the batter to adjust. Here are two of my favorite GIFs, which do a better job than my words of illustrating the release point and pitch tunnel concepts:
— Driveline Baseball (@DrivelineBB) January 20, 2017
Contrary to what you might assume from the article’s title, the pitch tunnel idea isn’t new. What is new is the authors’ attempt to measure it. They do so by focusing on the hitter’s swing decision point, what they refer to as the “point of no return” or the “tunnel point.” At some point on the pitched ball’s path toward home plate, it becomes too late for the batter to decide whether to swing and still have a chance to hit the ball. By measuring differences between consecutive pitches at the release, tunnel, and final (or plate) points, the authors propose that we can gain deeper insights into pitch sequencing strategies. While it’s somewhat intuitive to envision how those applications might operate, the introductory article was short on specific examples using the new data, and I don’t recall much additional writing on the subject until a earlier this year, when Long and Pavlidis, along with Martin Alonso, returned to the subject in an article that’s likely to receive a SABR nomination for 2018.
- Travis Sawchik, “Dictating the Action with Joey Votto,” FanGraphs, May 31, 2017. Sawchik’s profile on the famously patient Votto begins with a quotation from the subject in which he describes his plate approach by reference to a counter-punching boxer’s approach in the ring: “It’s like a boxer who is always trying to lead the guy into his straight. You have to manipulate him with your footwork. Same type of thing in baseball. You have to figure out a way to funnel [the pitcher] into your hot zone . . . .” In discussing his self-directed batting education as he came up through the minors, which included studying the approaches of Barry Bonds and Todd Helton, Votto confessed, “I have not been passionate about anything except” hitting. Tracking Votto’s swing heatmaps from 2015-17, Sawchik seeks continued improvement from the already-exemplary Votto, who continued to channel and focus his swings– “funnel[ling],” in Votto’s earlier-quoted terminology– with greater precision in each successive season. And, in the then-young 2017 season, Sawchik detected evidence of Votto’s response to challenges from pitchers. In total, it’s a snapshot of an excellent, veteran hitter’s continuing evolution.
- Stephanie Springer, “Get a Grip,” The Hardball Times, October 25, 2017. Springer returns to a well-worn, if underexplored, baseball subject when she looks at the rubbing mud champ, Lena Blackburne Original, and some of its modern challengers. All pitchers need grip, and new baseballs are insufficiently tacky (aesthetics aside) to allow pitchers to grip and control them, so they require some form of treatment before in-game use. In light of reports that MLB and Rawlings have been conducting research for the purpose of developing a league-sanctioned grip substance, Springer takes the opportunity to explain, in gritty detail, how the currently available ball treatments work. The author, “an organic chemist turned patent examiner,” explains the operation of these substances in terms of the interaction between various sediments (e.g., clay, sand) and moisture sources (e.g., spit, sweat). Springer also explains why, as many close observes have noted, Bullfrog brand sunscreen is popular with some pitchers. Drilling down near the molecular level, the author identifies certain polymers among the sunscreen’s ingredients (not for oral consumption!) that, when combined with rosin, create a usefully tacky substance for pitchers. The Japanese, meanwhile, have taken a more direct route by developing a baseball that, in its new state, already is tacky and requires no additional “doctoring.” Closer to home, the company that makes the leather for NFL footballs utilizes a proprietary technique to yield a similar result, which Springer believes could be applied to MLB baseballs. Still, she believes that while there may be some benefit to the relative uniformity of pretreated balls, pretreatment alone may not be enough.
Contemporary Baseball Commentary
- R.J. Anderson, “The Year of Catcher Concussions and MLB’s Battle to Do Better With Head Trauma,” CBS Sports, September 28, 2017. After opening with a fire emoji clip of concussion magnet Alex Avila taking a spark-generating foul ball to the face back in 2011, Anderson declares 2017 “the year of the concussed catcher.” While 2013’s Buster Posey Rule may be playing some role in reducing catcher concussions, foul tips remain a violent force on these human backstops, leading to disabled-list trips for roughly a dozen catchers last season. As has been more widely documented in football players, self-reporting is a central issue when it comes to baseball concussions, and that reporting has increased as knowledge of the danger has spread. The availability of the seven-day DL for concussions also has increased reporting of these brain injuries. Others believe that newer equipment– for example, the hockey goalie-style mask, which is less robust than conventional masks and may do less to dissipate the force of a tipped ball– may be contributing to actual increases in catcher-concussion rates. Pitch-velocity increases could be a similar contributor. In an attempt to combat the problem, some catchers, like Tyler Flowers, have turned to technological innovation. Flowers uses a mask made by a company called Force3. It looks like a traditional mask, but it has built-in shock absorbers around the edges. Still, Anderson observes, much uncertainty regarding baseball head injuries remains, and subconcussive trauma and recovery times still are not well-understood, leading to questions about whether things like the seven-day DL are sufficient to protect players.
- Emma Baccellieri, “Major League Baseball’s Statcast Can Break Sabermetrics,” Deadspin, December 18, 2017. As quickly as Statcast integrated itself into baseball, it integrated itself into baseball discourse with even more immediate speed. Fans therefore can be forgiven if, a few years into “the Statcast Era,” they feel as though they missed the first week of class and still are playing catchup. Luckily, Baccellieri has provided a Statcast primer for everyone, covering technological underpinnings, public applications, and some of the individuals involved in the ongoing rollout. She notes the meteoric rise of the route efficiency metric, the pivot from that to catch probability, and the controversy in certain corners of the baseball world (like this one) over the closed-source nature of the project. Baccellieri quotes Mike Petriello, formerly of FanGraphs and ESPN and current host of MLB’s Statcast Podcast, who explains how the Statcast team decides to introduce new information to a broad and varied public audience: “I try to think of it in a way of, How can I write this in a way that my dad might like it?” In other words, Statcast isn’t just for those reading Banished to the Pen, for example; it’s for everyone. Petriello continues: “You can’t see a weighted run created plus. You can’t say, I saw that. But you can say, I saw Jake Marisnick or whoever throw the hardest ball from the outfield all season long, or, I saw the fastest inside-the-park home run that’s ever been tracked. So I think in that sense, you don’t have to overcomplicate it. You can say the fastest, the best. You’re just putting numbers to it.” Statcast is for everyone, Baccellieri concludes, and while baseball analysts and BttP readers who want to do their own research might have some gripes about the inaccessibility of its guts, the real purpose of Statcast is to spark and elevate conversations about and understanding of the sport across the fan base as a whole. If you’re going to read only one of the two Statcast-oriented nominees, this is the one you should choose.
- Sam Miller, “Forget the Ninth Inning — Andrew Miller is Here to Save the Game,” ESPN The Magazine, March 30, 2017. As anticipated, Miller on Miller is a treat. Sam situates Andrew within the broad history of relief pitching, which, if Bill James is to be believed, dates to nineteenth century Napoleonic military strategy. Andrew, as we all know, is both an elite relief pitcher and a multi-inning guy. Historically, once they arrived on the scene, the best relievers were multi-inning guys, known in the parlance of the time as “firemen.” Following the codification of the save statistic as requiring the saving pitcher to earn the final out of the game, the best relief pitchers, incentivized to accumulate saves, became “closers.” Cleveland’s use of Andrew thus is a callback to an earlier era. Andrew, Sam explains, always has been a flexible, accommodating guy. Whether it was sleeping on an air mattress in a closet during his rookie spring training or, when he became a free agent, telling the Yankees he didn’t care whether they made him their closer, Andrew seems like a go-with-the-flow type. That personality made him amenable to contributing, for both New York and then Cleveland, in a way that maximized his strengths even when his skills would have permitted him, in the context of the modern game, to demand to fill a more conventional closer role. If other teams are to follow the retro path Cleveland and Andrew are cutting, Sam concludes, changes in incentives (the save) and expectations (players’ ingrained desire to be closers) are needed.
- Jeff Passan, “The Home Run is the King of Baseball. Is That a Good Thing?” Yahoo! Sports, September 19, 2017. The year 2017. Big homer year. Good? Bad? Well homers always are good, of course. The author calls them “the apex of sporting plays.” Rephrase. Home-run domination? Good? Bad? Note: it isn’t just a few hitting all the bombs like it was during the so-called steroid era. Everybody’s doing the good thing now. “The paradox of baseball in 2017 is that even though hitters who hit lots of home runs can be bad, the mere act of hitting a home run remains the single best thing a baseball player can do. How, then, when everyone is taught to hit home runs, when everyone wants to hit home runs, can teams differentiate between a hitter whose underlying performance may transcend whatever is causing the spike vs. [sic] those direct beneficiaries of it?” An extreme version of baseball might be bad.
- Eno Sarris, “Matt Cain: The Giants’ Horse That Changed Baseball Stats … Twice,” The Athletic, September 27, 2017. With The Athletic’s first SABR research award nomination, Sarris, now late of FanGraphs, writes about the end of Matt Cain’s able career. You may remember Cain as the guy who twice struck out alleged switch-hitting pitcher Dylan Bundy back in 2016. Sarris, it turns out, remembers Cain for a couple different reasons. The author of the Giants’ first perfect game, Cain left the sport as the team’s post-free-agency leader in wins, but, despite his clear talent, he earned more losses than wins. Defense-independent pitching statistics (e.g., FIP) thus did a better job of capturing Cain’s contributions and, indeed, Cain is the franchise’s “modern” leader in (FIP-based) fWAR. On the other hand, Cain often posted better ERAs than FIPs, something Sarris credits to Cain’s ability to run low BABIPs by inducing plenty of popups, foreshadowing the more recent focus on exit velocity, something believed to some extent to be within a pitcher’s control. Thus, Sarris observes, a quality player generally disinterested in new baseball metrics drove analysts and fans to those new metrics in a search to appreciate his qualities.
- Grant Brisbee, “Why Baseball Games Are So Damned Long,” SB Nation, March 28, 2017. In an effort to frame the so-called “pace-of-play” issue, Brisbee presents an investigation of the causes for the expansion in the average time it takes to complete a baseball game by comparing individual games from 1984 and 2014 with similar scorekeeping features (number of pitches thrown, plate appearances, and mid-inning pitching changes) but significantly different duration. Brisbee’s conclusions are that commercial time is not the main culprit. Neither are pitching changes (though he concedes in passing that these are a factor in modern games that, unlike the one he selected for his study, do feature multiple in-frame changes in relief pitching) nor replay review. Instead, he fingers the growth in time between pitches as the guilty party. “[T]he biggest problem with the pace of play is, well, the pace of play. Pitchers don’t get rid of the ball like they used to. Hitters aren’t expecting them to get rid of the ball like they used to. It adds a couple minutes to every half-inning, which adds close to a half-hour.”
- Jay Jaffe, “Analyzing the ‘Giant’ Controversy Surrounding the Indians’ 22-Game Winning Streak,” Sports Illustrated, September 15, 2017. Last season, between August 24 and September 14, Cleveland won all of the twenty-two games it played during that period, a streak initially thought to be a major-league record, besting Oakland’s AL-leading twenty consecutive wins in 2002 and the Cubs’ twenty-one straight in 1935. When baseball’s official statistician, the Elias Bureau, weighed in by citing a twenty-six-game streak by the 1916 New York Giants, however, it introduced controversy. The source of the controversy was a mid-streak game that was suspended due to darkness, no baseball parks being outfitted with lights at that time, and later replayed, according to the custom of the time: “Games were commonly suspended due to darkness, and in those days, if one ended when the score was tied, the game was replayed, though the stats counted. Such was the case with the nightcap of the Giants’ September 18 doubleheader against the Pirates at the Polo Grounds.” Following a rain delay after the eighth inning, when the score was tied at one, the umpire ruled it too dark to continue and suspended the game. Instead of resuming the game at a later date, as might be done under modern rules, the game was replayed— as in, started all over again from the beginning– the following day, with the Giants winning 9-2. While the statistics measuring the players’ performance in the suspended game counted toward their career numbers, the game itself did not count at all, not even as a tie. At least, that’s the position of Elias executive vice president Steve Hirdt, who said, in essence, that there are neither tears nor ties in baseball. MLB’s official historian, John Thorn, agreed, supporting the 1916 Giants as the true win-streak record holders. Jaffe, while yielding to the higher authorities as a formal matter, takes the opposite position, not just because he believes the game played (so far as it was played) to a draw should count as such, but also because of a number of other factors, such as: the Giants streak came in the midst of a thirty-one-game homestand, while Cleveland’s was evenly apportioned between home and away games; various features of modern baseball (Jaffe cites nutrition, medical and training advancements, and racial-integration and salary-driven increases in the available talent pool) made the game more competitive in 2017 than it was in 1916; and the comparative dominance of Cleveland’s 2017 squad relative to its opponents. Those Giants still hold the win-streak record, Jaffe concedes in concluding, but, for the reasons he cites, he finds Cleveland’s performance more impressive.
- John LaRue, “The Homogenization of Ballparks,” The Hardball Times, February 13, 2017. No two baseball parks are identical, but more extreme outliers like Manhattan’s parabolic Polo Grounds probably are a thing of the past. By tracking shifts in outfield wall distances and heights; the foul territory behind home plate; and seating capacity over time, LaRue demonstrates baseball’s playing fields’ collective march toward homogeneity. The only aspect he tracked that did not follow this trend was outfield wall heights, which have shown increased variance in recent decades.
- Rob Mains, “One Entire Season of Baseball from the 1960s”, Baseball Prospectus, September 11-14, 2017, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4. Our very own Rob Mains! Rob also writes a regular column at Baseball Prospectus, where the first annual reprise of his “One Entire Season of Baseball” feature caught the attention of SABR. In this edition, the author details and contextualizes the full 1965 MLB season in a four-part snapshot series that serves as a reminder that individual baseball seasons contain near-multitudes. Would you believe 1965 saw the Watts Riots in Los Angeles, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” go to number one on the music charts, and the debut of the Houston Astrodome? What about Ernie Banks playing 162 (or 163) games at first base for the Chicago Cubs, or Philadelphia’s Dick Allen setting the batting season strikeout record (150 Ks, a number surpassed by twenty-four hitters in 2017 alone)? Would you believe 1965 was the first year of MLB’s amateur draft, that team payrolls that year averaged roughly $325,ooo, and found Hank Aaron (.939 OPS) and Joe Torre (.861 OPS) hitting the suds out of the ball as the right fielder and catcher, respectively, for the Milwaukee Braves? What about Willie Mays with his best-ever season by TAv (.377; also, fifty-two home runs), Sandy Koufax with his best season ever by WARP (11.8, then the best of any pitcher by that measure in fifteen years, in the process breaking a pitcher season strikeout record that had stood for six decades, Koufax’s mark (382) having been bested only once since), and fifty-eight-year-old Satchel Paige with three innings pitched in a single start for the Kansas City Athletics to end his major-league career? Would you believe the California Angels executed an in-season name change (abandoning “Los Angeles”), the Yankees posted their first losing record (77-85) in forty years, and Ed White became the first American to complete a spacewalk? It’s all true, and if you really want to get smart about baseball in 1965, this is the way to do it.
- Stew Thornley and Bob Tholkes, “From Recorder to Judge: The Evolution of the Scorer in the Nineteenth Century,” SABR Baseball Research Journal, Fall 2017. In tracking the development of baseball scorekeeping, beginning with the sport’s earliest days in 1845, the authors show particular concern for the notion that the scorekeeper’s role evolved from that of passive recorder to adjudicator. Thornley and Tholkes quote Henry Chadwick, one of the baseball’s earliest and most influential organizers, on the distinction between the simple task of recording a game and the demanding burden of scoring one, which requires attention to the relative degree of skill with which the players perform. By 1871, game summaries included notations for fielding errors, and “[t]he concept of an official scorer with the power to influence statistics was becoming entrenched.” Scorekeepers had become judges, but they weren’t exactly impartial, at least in appearance, since they typically were employees of the home team, and box scores for the same game published in different newspapers sometimes differed. The evaluative component of scorekeeping did not sit well with some fielders at the time, however. An 1880 press report referred to “over sensitive players” who appreciated a more balanced approach to the reporting of both good and bad fielding “evidently adopted to soothe the[ir] feelings.” Of note, Thornley serves as the official scorer at Minnesota Twins home games, a role he has filled since 2007, and Minnesota Timberwolves home games.
Although the public voting period has closed and the announcement of the winners is scheduled for Sunday, March 11. I’d still like to read about your favorites among the nominees and any notable snubs in the comment section below.
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