Every summer in Boston, some of baseball’s brightest minds gather to discuss the game and its most recent analytical trends. While at $140 dollars for non-students, tickets don’t come cheap, 100% of the proceeds do go to charity (the recipient in 2017 was The Angioma Alliance). Charitable donations aside, 2017 was my first time attending, and I can confirm the experience was well-worth the price of admission – especially for those looking to learn more about the numbers behind the game.
SaberSeminar takes place over the course of a weekend, and is structured to fit as much information as possible into the two days. On August 4 & 5 of this year, speakers presented from roughly 9 a.m. to 5 p.m with minimal breaks. Most presentations were roughly only 15 minutes, but some of the most prestigious speakers were granted a full hour. Notable speakers included Rick Hahn (GM, White Sox), Ben Cherington (VP of Baseball Operations, Blue Jays), Jean Afterman (Assistant GM, Yankees), Tom Tippett (former Senior Baseball Analyst, Red Sox), and Dr. Alan Nathan (Baseball Physicist, University of Illinois).
So, what were some of the biggest things I learned over the weekend?
Lesson #1: R and SQL are baseball’s second and third languages.
As someone who spent his college days learning how to write instead of coding or running statistical programs, this theme was more apparent than just about anything else over the weekend. All but a select-few presentations referred to or outright relied upon databases and statistical models. Projecting future performance is perhaps the most valuable thing for a front office, and using the numbers is the best way to project accurately. This ranged from broader tasks, like projecting game-by-game or season-by-season statistical performance, to more detailed ones, like understanding which players stand to gain/lose the most from the shifting strike zone. Though many different aspects of the game were being studied, it was clear the people driving the new wave of baseball aren’t just looking at Fangraphs to get their information.
Lesson #2: There’s room for soft-skills, too!
While the weekend was largely dominated by the aforementioned math and coding skills, another theme of the weekend was player wellness. Ben Cherington’s biggest emphasis stemmed from the book Give and Take by Adam Grant. Cherington explained that Grant classified people by their frequency to give/take with others, and that the best teammates he had been around had always been classic examples of “givers.” The idea of a more concrete way to identify a player’s makeup had been one of Cherington’s priorities, and he stated that once teams have all leveled from an analytical perspective, managing chemistry, travel, and health could be the next frontier for teams.
Rick Hahn also spoke a little towards the importance of soft-skills behind the scenes. According to Hahn, building trust and maintaining honesty during trade negotiations are a large part of what’s allowed him to succeed in Chicago’s recent rebuild. Hahn pointed to the Jose Quintana deal with his cross-town rivals, the Cubs. Initially, Hahn was nearing a deal with another team, but before he committed to the deal, he informed Theo Epstein (the Cubs GM), who was then able to top the other team’s offer. If Hahn had a history of deceit in those situations, he likely wouldn’t have been able to get a better offer.
Lesson #3: Elbow injuries are a problem, but velocity isn’t the main culprit.
The recent uptick in elbow injuries were also discussed at length over the weekend. Dr. Glenn Fleisig gave a presentation explaining the relationship between velocity and UCL injuries. Through his research, Dr. Fleisig found that velocity was just one of many factors that lead to damage of a pitcher’s elbow. If two pitchers have the exact same mechanics, with the exact same workload, and pitch with the same effort, the pitcher with the higher velocity would be more at risk to suffer an elbow injury. So, Dr. Fleisig explained that with so many variables in play, it is a mistake to attribute the growing number of professional pitchers who are getting Tommy John surgery to pitchers throwing harder than before.
Lesson #4: Yes, the ball is probably causing the home run spike – but how?
Just like the recent spike in elbow injuries among pitchers, the recent increase in home run totals was discussed frequently over the weekend. At this point, most of the data does point towards the ball as a leading cause of the power surge across baseball. It hasn’t been decisively concluded that it’s the only factor, but it does seem it is perhaps the most significant one. But what about the ball has changed?
While many look at the “bounciness” of the ball coming off the bat, Dr. Alan Nathan presented and spoke on how the ball carries. Dr. Nathan compared various samples of baseballs (NCAA, MiLB, and MLB) and compared them in a controlled (dome) environment. He did find that of all the samples, the MLB balls had the greatest carry, due to the height of the seams. As such, he concluded that the seams, and their affect on the drag of the baseballs, were a significant component to the home run increase.
Lesson #5: WAR per dollar math doesn’t always add up
Baseball analysts like everything to be logical. Frequently, we see efforts to put a market price on 1 WAR in free agency, as it is the most logical way to assign monetary value to player performance. Tom Tippett, former Senior Analyst for the Red Sox confirmed that teams operate in this way, but he also confirmed it is anything but a hard science. Essentially, Tippett explained that there are often other non-measurable factors at play when it comes to assessing how much money a player is worth. When considering re-signing veterans like Jason Varitek and Dustin Pedroia, Tippett had to consider how much value the player would add to other teammates, how the signing would affect organization morale, the ability to sign the player to another contract, and whether the player might contribute to a World Series team. As such, Tippett often found himself in scenarios where he would willingly overpay, by strict WAR per dollar standards. Sometimes, “efficient” spending isn’t the best spending.
Bonus lesson: It’s worth getting to know people in the Saber community.
Although I learned a lot in my weekend at Saber Seminar, I wouldn’t encourage you to go just because you’ll leave with added baseball wisdom. On top of that, it was a fun weekend, due to the people at the event. Dan Brooks was an energetic host, Jason Benetti was a hilarious emcee, and Chuck Korb was passionate about the weekend and its purpose. The bottom-line? In a world that usually is limited to numbers and words on computer screens, the people and personalities of the weekend are what make SaberSeminar worth your while.