Writing about the dark winter of baseball’s offseason, Bob Dylan explained:
Too much of nothing
can make a man feel ill at ease.
One man’s temper might rise
while another man’s temper might freeze.
In the day of confession
we cannot mock a soul.
Oh, when there’s too much of nothing
no one has control.
And so it was for me this year, and thus this annual feature again 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. 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 with which 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”) announced the finalists for its 2019 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
- Wayne Boyle, Sean O’Rourke, Jeff Long, and Harry Pavlidis, “Robo Strike Zone: It’s Not as Simple as You Think,” Baseball Prospectus, January 29, 2018. It’s a good guess that anyone reading this site recalls the time he or she first encountered PITCHf/x or Statcast and realized it offered, in addition to many off-field-analysis opportunities, the potential for baseball’s in-game administrative Holy Grail: a perfect or, at least, uniform strike zone. This collaborative article, which bears bylines from some names very familiar to those who follow the granular-level analytical developments in which Baseball Prospectus trafficks, unabashedly aims to be a wet blanket for this shared dream of so many amateur sabermetricians (present company included). It outlines many of the imperfections, accuracy concerns, and shortcomings in modern pitch-tracking technology that could impair gameplay were that technology to supplant traditional human umpires, most of which are known to or readily intuitable for committed baseball fans, and none of which persuaded this reader — far from a die-hard in this respect — that a mechanically administered strike zone is something MLB should seriously consider.
- Jonathan Judge, “The Performance Case for DRC+,” Baseball Prospectus, December 3, 2018. More than three years after debuting Deserved Run Average, Baseball Prospectus’ ERA replacement, Judge and BP are back with what they acknowledge is “essentially the flipside of” DRA in Deserved Runs Created, a hitting metric designed to parse out more accurately than any other batters’ expected individual contributions — separate from all other player and environmental factors — to their teams’ offensive production. While Judge doesn’t reveal too much about how his model (which he recently updated) ticks, he isn’t shy about arguing that DRC+ is superior to the metric it replaced, True Average, as well as its would-be competitors (wRC+, OPS+, and xwOBA). One of the ways in which DRC+ apparently achieves this is by being responsive to the detected changes in the baseball itself, which, he writes, have “wreaked havoc on traditional park-adjusted metrics. Thus, if you wish to use wRC+ or OPS+, particularly to study the last several baseball seasons, we recommend that you do so only with extreme caution.” Baseball Prospectus’ version of wins above replacement, WARP, now is based on DRC+ instead of TAv, and the transition has been reshaping some players’ stat pages, something I’ve tried to monitor on a small scale and from a distance, both here and elsewhere.
- Travis Sawchik, “Baseball Positions Are Starting to Lose Their Meaning,” FiveThirtyEight, August 28, 2018. For years, ESPN’s Jalen Rose has argued that basketball’s supposed player positions, often referenced by individual numbers running from one to five, don’t reflect the sport’s actual flow and play, at least at the professional level, and instead persist as mere shorthand for outsiders attempting to gain an elementary understanding of the game. Sawchik, one of Rose’s newer colleagues and a SABR nominee last year, contends that positional labels also are becoming irrelevant in baseball, though not because of defensive shifts so much as offensive ones. The more teams try to maximize offensive output by filling their defensive slots with bat-first guys not typically suited for a variety of positions the game’s basic rules demand be filled by some warm body, the more what they’re charged with defending leans toward strikeouts and fly balls, which demand less of their gloves. In other words, as ball-in-play rates continue to trend downward, it would seem to matter less and less how well the folks out standing in their respective fields can handle balls in play, symbiotically allowing teams to continue to trade off defensive ability for hitting power. Sawchik does touch on alternative defensive alignments and super-utility players like Ben Zobrist as well, but he notes that such skills are more rare than one might expect, citing recent research from now-former Baseball Prospectus writer Russell Carleton on the conventional defensive spectrum and difficulties of transitioning between fielding positions.
- Jeff Sullivan, “Banning the Shift Is a Solution in Search of a Problem,” FanGraphs, December 5, 2018. Many people who reacted negatively to Commissioner Rob Manfred’s reported consideration of a ban of defensive shifting did so for what we might describe as a blend of historical and aesthetic reasons; after all, such shifts aren’t new, even if their frequency in recent seasons has spiked, and there’s never been a rule regulating fielder alignment. Others who’ve questioned the critics of modern shifting, like the recently mentioned Russell Carleton, have taken a sabermetric tack and noted that defensive shifts don’t really suppress offense the way we might assume they do. Sullivan, in his familiar, I’m-not-saying-I’m-just-saying fashion, surveys baseball’s offensive environment in the Age of The Shift and, at least on an aggregate level, sees nothing unusual. Returning to the context of Manfred’s proposal, Sullivan observes that a shift ban isn’t likely to do anything to address broader concerns about game pace and action; instead, he fingers widespread pitching dominance oriented around strikeout-generation as the real culprit and suggests that, if the Commissioner is going to make any changes, he should focus on reducing the advantages pitchers enjoy over hitters.
- Meredith Wills, “How One Tiny Change to the Baseball May Have Led to Both the Home Run Surge and the Rise in Pitcher Blisters,” The Athletic, June 6, 2018. In The Athletic’s second-ever SABR Research-Award nomination, Wills, who has a Ph.D. and a background in astrophysics, revisited a subject popular among prior years’ nominees: the changing baseball. Following an examination of twenty-six balls, Wills believes she had identified the source of both the well-publicized reduction in drag and the less-publicized increase in pitcher blisters: lace thickness. Her process involved the disassembly of balls used in different seasons with an eye toward careful preservation of the components, sixteen of which she compared for variances across the twenty-six-ball sample. Only one of those components, the laces, was significantly different, with more-recent balls having laces that were nine-percent thicker than those in the older balls. How exactly an increase in lace thickness would correspond with a decrease in drag isn’t perfectly clear, but Wills suggests it might result in a smaller ball that remains more spherical even after contact. Thicker laces also would create bumpier seams that introduce more blisters on pitcher fingers. Wills concludes her article with a call for expanded sampling, and her own testing presents a compelling case that any additional testing needs to examine lace thickness as one of its elements.
Contemporary Baseball Commentary
- Patrick Dubuque, “A Hymn for the Index Stat,” Baseball Prospectus, December 3, 2018. Part of the batch of articles Baseball Prospectus published in connection with its introduction of DRC+ (see Jonathan Judge’s nominated article, above), Dubuque’s entry serves to remind us that baseball has changed over time and, if we really want to understand and account for those changes, we probably should permit machines like Judge’s computer to help us with the heavy lifting. In particular, he counsels that fans should embrace modern “index stats,” which abandon the charade of trying to mimic visually traditional stats (RIP True Average) in exchange for a simpler, 100-centric scale that facilitates cross-era comparisons between players along the given metric. Just because modern index stats are less familiar to the traditionally oriented eye doesn’t mean they’re complicated or unuseful — quite the opposite, in fact.
- Jeff Passan, “Here’s Why Baseball’s Economic System Might Be Broken,” Yahoo! Sports, January 16, 2018. Passan, again nominated in this category, takes up the ongoing conversation about potential collusion by team ownership and management: “In the minds of those who see every other rationalization for the frozen market as little more than an excuse, the notion of teams working with one another to suppress free-agent prices had crept from paranoid delusion to entirely possible.” Passan acknowledges that there isn’t hard proof of collusion, the present existence of which MLB unsurprisingly denies, but he leaves that question and even bigger ones open, finding, in his view, “a game asking itself questions far more important than whether collusion exists: Is the foundation of the sport, a structure in place since the advent of free agency in the 1970s, still viable? Or is baseball’s economic system, its underpinning, broken?” The only conclusion he’s ready to draw at this stage is that the combination of shifting labor-management power dynamics, emerging player analytics, and growing homogeneity in front offices “pose[s] the greatest threat to a quarter century of labor peace and ha[s] people at the highest level of the sport asking whether a game-changing overhaul in how baseball operates isn’t just necessary but inevitable.” (Should you wish to read your chronicler’s thoughts on the same topic, logged the same day as Passan’s, they’re available here.)
- Sheryl Ring, “The Human Side of the Cubs’ Addison Russell Decision,” FanGraphs, December 6, 2018. Ring, an attorney, typically writes about stories with legal angles for FanGraphs. In this article, however, she reveals deeply personal, difficult episodes from her youth, when she suffered abuse at the hands of her parents after she told them she is transsexual and came to find some modicum of refuge in becoming a baseball fan. That, she writes, is why it “felt . . . like a personal betrayal” when the Yankees– her favorite team– signed Aroldis Chapman after his suspension under MLB’s domestic violence policy. “I felt unwelcome. The Yankees had gone from an escape from my pain to a reminder of the same. It felt as if the Yankees didn’t care about that pain, or the pain of other survivors.” The Cubs’ decision to offer a contract to Addison Russell after his suspension under the same policy generated similar feelings: “Baseball doesn’t owe Addison Russell a job. But it does owe us, the fans, a game that takes us away from our pain and into a better world, one where everything is possible, even 100-mile per hour fastballs and frisbee sliders. Keeping Addison Russell elevates the push to create the perfect baseball team over the perfect baseball experience. When I was a little girl, baseball loved me when no one else did. For that, I will forever love baseball back. But I wonder sometimes if baseball still loves me.”
- Eno Sarris, “The Next ‘Moneyball’ is Already Happening All Around Us, in the Wild West of Player Development,” The Athletic, December 7, 2018. With incentives in place to tamp down team spending on player payroll, Sarris discovered that the new competitive inefficiency is in the relatively unregulated area of “player development,” which covers everything from statistical analysts, biometric equipment, and coaches to serve as conduits between research departments and players. Free to spend as much as they want, some — but not all — teams appear to be running with the opportunity, investing in a wide range of facilities, technical hardware, and personnel. Regarding the latter, Sarris observes a growing openness to hire people outside of traditional baseball pipelines in the pursuit of new ideas. Not addressed is the degree to which the story Sarris revealed — significant amounts of spending by many teams for the purpose of improving on-field performance — runs counter to a currently popular narrative stemming from perceived trends in free-agent signing that teams no longer are spending to win.
- Neil Weinberg, “Building Better Statistical Incentives,” The Hardball Times Annual 2018, January 25, 2018. As sabermetricians continue to ratchet up their all-encompassing pitcher and batter metrics in the ongoing search for “the holy grail of the Single Best Metric,” Weinberg asks us to take a moment to remember the purpose of baseball statistics. For him, that purpose involves making it practicably possible to tell a story about a complex sport that involves a multitude of measured and recorded details. In the rush to develop the new and complex, Weinberg worries about neglect for more elemental work, including verifying existing conclusions; elucidating plain-language descriptions of current work; and developing “statistics that are simple because sometimes we have simple questions.” Because statistics are the vocabulary of the baseball storyteller, Weinberg contends they ought to be both useful for telling baseball stories and intelligible to the broad audience for baseball stories. Yet some seem to have deviated from that core mission, and Weinberg suggests two reasons for that deviation. The first is that the availability of PITCHf/x and Statcast caused the research to follow the data, such that writers began to limit their collective focus to answering questions that available data allowed them to answer. The second is an evolution of the community of baseball writers from pockets of dedicated hobbyists to an established corps of professionals with business incentives to produce new, exclusive products developed behind closed doors. One might detect in his article a trace of a barb directed at Baseball Prospectus and its DRA and DRC metrics, but Weinberg’s gentle chide reasonably directs the broader baseball community to ask baseball questions for the sake of baseball enjoyment and convey the answers to and conversations around those questions in a manner permitting broad engagement.
- Britni de la Cretaz, “The Hidden Queer History Behind ‘A League of Their Own,’” Narratively, May 30, 2018. In what appears to be the first SABR Research Award nomination for Narratively, de la Cretaz digs into the aesthetic strictures enforced against the players in the World War II-era All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (“AAGPBL”), which were detailed to an extent in the popular motion picture A League of Their Own. While the movie documented the league rules requiring the players to maintain a feminine appearance, it did not examine the reason for those regulations: “historians and players alike say the rules were in place, in part, to prevent the women from being perceived as lesbians.” In fact, de la Cretaz states, many of the players actually were lesbians, and the film’s omission of this fact and failure to include an openly gay character served to “erase lesbians from the [AAGPBL] narrative.” Then-extant societal pressures — which, de la Cretaz points out, still persist in some form today — functionally prevented players from being open about their homosexuality and supported AAGPBL restrictions that went beyond aesthetics. For example, players were not allowed to socialize with players on different teams, ostensibly to encourage feelings of competition and rivalry, though “the real reason . . . was the fear of lesbianism.” Not only were these league rules an affront to the AAGPBL’s players, but they also kept some would-be players from participating altogether. For example, lauded softball player Dot Wilkinson, a lesbian, rejected an offered contract to join the AAGPBL in part because she refused to indulge the league’s anti-homosexual policies. Often referencing allusions in obituaries, de la Cretaz shares profiles of a number of lesbians who nevertheless competed in the AAGPBL, often illuminating long lives filled with love for baseball and their personal partners who also happen to be women.
- Steven Goldman, “Placeboball: When Baseball Proves Itself Nonessential,” The Hardball Times, June 7, 2018. Goldman carries us one-hundred years into the past when, in the first part of 1918, the United States was preparing a substantial ramp-up of its efforts in the global conflict that would come to be known as World War I by conscripting men into its armed forces pursuant to the recently enacted Selective Service Act. In administering the draft, the federal government sought to balance overseas deployment goals with the need to maintain a functioning domestic economy to support the war effort. Theater and movie producers successfully lobbied for an exemption for their draft-eligible performers, but the relatively unorganized leadership of professional baseball was unable to accomplish the same feat; indeed, views within the sport regarding whether to play on or cease operations were mixed. For example, the president of the National League, John Tener, supported an exemption: “Baseball shouldn’t be termed non-essential, ‘simply because what it produces is intangible.’ (It was also, he added . . . not quite a sport but rather, ‘a business in which there is a great investment of money,’ an argument that had proved persuasive when it came to other entertainment industries.)” By contrast, the American League president, Ban Johnson, was ready to cease play immediately in consideration of the weight of the worldwide crisis. Secretary of War Newton Baker subsequently ruled that baseball players were subject to the draft but established a special rule for them: “You can do anything for the war effort but play baseball.” For Goldman, this is evidence that, when the chips were down, baseball did not, in fact, hold a special, hallowed civic role as a common ground for widespread public union during or near challenging times; in fact, he sees quite the opposite potential for the sport: “Baseball can sow discord as effectively as it distributes bobblehead souvenirs.” In Goldman’s aspirational search for true national unity, baseball at best can offer the illusion of such, and illusory unity might ultimately be more harmful than helpful.
- Ben Lindbergh, “The Sabermetric Movement’s Forgotten Foremother,” The Ringer, February 20, 2018. Lindbergh, now a perennial nominee for these awards, used this article to shine a spotlight on an underappreciated, influential contributor to the nascent sabermetric movement, Sherri Nichols, who also happened to be one of its few female voices. Nichols, then a graduate student in Carnegie Melon’s computer science program, was one of the only women — today, she doesn’t recall any others — to mix it up in the sabermetric incubator that was rec.sports.baseball, yet her ideas and tone showed that she fit right in with a collection of people who would go on to be some of the most prominent and important writers in the field. While Nichols says she “was used to being an outlier,” Gary Huckabay, who would create Baseball Prospectus with a few other r.s.b. participants, didn’t really seem to remember her that way: “She was actually kind of a queen-bee, authoritarian voice. People didn’t mess with Sherri too often, simply because she was usually right. And she was really influential on me personally. I can’t speak for others, but I got the impression that she was a real opinion and thought leader.” Others, like Rany Jazayerli, also part of the initial BP group, credits Nichols’ participation for changing his assumptions about who belonged in that community. Along with Pete DeCoursey, Nichols developed Defensive Average, “the first publicly available, zone-based defensive metric, a revolutionary precursor to stats such as Total Zone and Ultimate Zone Rating that are still widely used today.” Nichols later helped guide Retrosheet, an essential play-by-play compilation that supports many modern baseball research applications, and is credited with pushing it to a free, publicly accessible model.
- Rachael McDaniel, “Doug Ault and the Triumph of Joy,” Baseball Prospectus, January 11, 2018. In what I believe to be the first nomination for a BP Toronto article, McDaniel takes us back to the Blue Jays’ very first days, during their inaugural season in 1977 and the story of Doug Ault, the team’s first first baseman who hit a home run in the franchise’s third-ever plate appearance. Despite a successful amateur resume, Ault went undrafted after college and signed as a free agent with the Texas Rangers, for which he made his major-league debut in 1976, appearing in nine games before the team left him unprotected in the expansion draft and Toronto chose him. After a strong April in ’77 made him famous among Jays fans, Ault struggled, particularly on defense, and he was hard on himself, believing he should have been able to continue to live up to the high standard he set for himself and achieved as a younger player. An outwardly cheery presentation masked internal depression. Things didn’t get better for him when, in 1978, Toronto sent him down to Triple-A Syracuse, where his softening bat and weak defense relegated him to an outfield corner. Ault revealed to reporters that there were difficulties in his personal life as well: he and his new wife wanted a baby, “but I’m finding that’s harder than I thought it would be, too.” Before the 1980 season, Ault played well in a Venezuelan winter league, but he left early due to serious illnesses in his family, including his sister, who raised him and fostered his early love of baseball. He did make it back to Toronto that season thanks to a variety of injuries to players above him, but he played very poorly and the club released him. Ault played in Japan and Mexico before Toronto brought him back as a minor-league manager, but his coaching results at a variety of levels within the organization again were mixed, and he and his wife divorced. Amazingly, none of this seemed to damage Ault’s love for baseball and the Blue Jays franchise, and he continued his happy involvement with the team however he could: alumni games, minor-league event appearances, and spring training. Yet, in 2004, Ault committed suicide. McDaniel, who seasons this story with her own experiences with depression and suicidal thoughts, addresses the public’s difficulty in comprehending depression and suicide: “People don’t realize that the tragedy of suicide is not a tragedy of descent. The ending is tragic, but the life is not: the life, however long it was, is a shining document of victory. Every day lived a marvelous, impossible transcendence of hope over despair. . . . Doug Ault knew the darkness, and he lived to age 54. He had become one of the best people in the world at his chosen skill. He had helped hundreds of others master it. He was a kind, easy-going person. He loved his family, and he loved baseball. [His] life was not a tragedy. It was not a rise and fall. It was a life in which joy triumphed, day after day after day, until the one day that it didn’t.”
- Dayn Perry, “The White Sox Ballpark in Chicago That Never Was and Could Have Changed History,” CBS Sports, April 10, 2018. History could have been different if past events happened differently, Perry, contributor to CBS Sports’ Eye on Baseball, reminds. We also generally recognize that modern baseball stadiums tend to be built to meet the “needs” of ownership and therefore tend toward sprawl, architecturally, while historic ballparks were constructed within the (sometimes friendly) confines and constraints their urban surroundings afforded. Philip Bess, a Chicagoland native raised in Southern California, was sensitive to that developing developmental dichotomy, believing that “it’s possible to do a new ballpark in the way the older ballparks were done but with the revenue-generating amenities that were the reason for the new generation of parks.” And so it was that when, in the mid-1980s, the Chicago White Sox initiated the process of procuring a replacement for Comiskey Park, Bess, by then a Harvard-trained architect, began preparing his own proposal for the new facility that would incorporate modern features while adhering to traditional standards. Perry presents Bess’ plan in detail, both in terms of its architectural features and its siting within a Chicago neighborhood immediately adjacent to the Old Comiskey parcel: “Heed how snugly Armour Field fits within this particular slice of the Bridgeport neighborhood, as it’s surrounded on three sides by commercial and residential development, all in six-story buildings. This is an essential element of Bess’ design and a key plank in his philosophical platform. It’s also good for the urban environment surrounding the neighborhood, which distinguishes Bess’ vision from the reality of Guaranteed Rate Field.” Bess’ plan never received serious consideration, however, and the team’s preference for an expansive construct “necessitated, in essence, the destruction of the South Armour Square neighborhood” into which Bess had planned to sympathetically integrate his envisioned ballpark. Perry concludes with a set of questions, wondering, in essence, whether and to what extent a team’s home park shapes the identity of the team and its fan community.
Although the public voting period has closed and the announcement of the winners is scheduled for Sunday, March 10, I’d still like to read about your favorites among the nominees and any notable snubs in the comment section below.
More of AD’s work may be found at ALDLAND.Next post: Not Your Typical Bebé
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