Bob Davids SABR Chapter’s Annual Meeting
The SABR members of the Mid-Atlantic gathered together yesterday to test the proposition that one Washington area chapter, so conceived, could long endure without its Baltimore contingent. No shots were fired and more than 125 persons attended the very excellent and entertaining session, including many first timers. It was altogether fitting that new officers having been elected, the speakers that provide the highlight of every meeting began their speaking.
Sam Mondry-Cohen is a paid member of the SABR-metrics fraternity, working as the Director of Research and Baseball Analytics for the Washington Nationals. It was his second time addressing the local SABR crowd, but every word, every data point was new and fresh. He described the data sets that only Major League teams can deploy, such as the reports from the more than 30 scouts employed by the Nationals. As interesting an array of data as that might be, it was the new emerging data in support of defensive metrics that were the most fascinating part of his presentation.
Daren Willman was profiled in Rolling Stone Magazine as the “Savant of Spray Charts,” in July of last season. Follow him on Twitter, Cohen offered, to see his latest offerings and Cohen led the SABR gathering in Ballston, Virginia through some of Willman’s most recent posts. We compared the spray chart data for Jason Heyward and Nelson Cruz; Lucas Cain and Kevin Kiermaier. It was easy to see how FanGraphs and other sites are so much more confident about who the game’s best defensive players are currently. Increasingly sophisticated data makes it possible for front office staff to know exactly what various players can and cannot do. For example the Nationals got Ben Revere as a trade piece for Drew Storen just weeks before the Rockies were willing to trade Cory Dickerson for Jake McGee. Remarkably similar trades of top tier relievers for outfielders. Rockies center fielder Charlie Blackmon was rumored at times as a target for the Nationals and hopefully the analytics department was not the reason Washington focused in on Revere.
Umpiring tendencies and pitch framing were discussed as well. Major League Baseball has complete data sets on exactly where the ball crossed home plate for each pitch thrown and how the umpire treated the pitch. MLB can, one assumes, determine which umpires call the best games, but teams use the data for their own purposes, Cohen asserted. For example, it is invaluable to provide PITCHF/x data to help pitchers see how each umpire’s strike zone varies and what they can expect to see as a strike zone on a given day.
Cohen ended his presentation with a bold prediction, namely that more batters will be bunting to confound the shift in 2016. Smart players in general will deploy more counter moves against the shift this season as teams continue to deploy defensive shifts more aggressively. The use of the shift is on the rise and players will begin to react accordingly.
Local baseball luminary Bruce Adams spoke in the morning as well. He is most notably the founder of Big Train baseball and the wood bat team that plays at Shirley Povich Field every summer. Bruce also has written numerous baseball travelogues and spoke to the meeting about his trip to the College World Series in 2015. It is far more entertaining to listen to a baseball vacation than any other. The highlight for me was seeing the Drag Squad at the St. Paul Saints ball park who repair the infield with chains and brooms wearing knee length white dresses, red bows and powdered wigs. Knowing that Gary Gaetti was the manager for the Sugarland Skeeters was another high point.
Each year one of the highlights of the meeting is the presentation by Dave Smith of Retrosheet. As a local resource there are few better, although Dave admitted that teams are getting their own data more commonly and asking for his input less frequently. It is therefore more difficult each year for him to find plums to confound SABR members. That said, the information this year will be difficult to top.
After showcasing his change up and out pitch, Smith presented a fascinating argument. No off-field change like tracking “Saves” has made such a remarkable difference in how the game is played, he asserted. He presented a chart that indicated the point at which Major League teams began to increasingly deploy a new pitcher to start the ninth inning when holding a lead. As expected there was a modest increase until the 1970’s and then a huge spike after 1980–the beginning of Tony LaRussa’s career as a manager, according to Smith.
The next line added to the graph was the historic tendency of teams who held the lead by three runs after nine innings to win the game. The line was flat as a board at just over 90 percent. So despite the belief that Craig Kimbrel and Kenley Jansen are essential to a winning team, any team ahead in the ninth inning is equally likely to win the game regardless whether the team uses a closer–as has been the case for thirty plus years–or not. The tendency to win if the team when the team is ahead by a single run is roughly 85 percent. The data is rough at this point and David Smith hopes to present a more complete analysis on the subject at this year’s SABR Convention in Miami.
One of the final presentations was made by Chelsea Janes, one of two beat writers employed by the Washington Post to track the Nationals. In contrast to many women sports writers, Janes played the game for many years, switching from baseball to softball late in her high school career and ending as a member of the Yale softball team whose lifetime batting average was well below the Mendoza Line. Having heard former Washington Post sports writer Jane Leavey describe her travails as a young reporter in the clubhouse in the 1980’s, it was refreshing to learn that much as changed in the deportment of players towards women members of the press corps. Everyone present will no doubt join me in wishing Ms. Janes as successful a career as Jane Leavey has had.
On a personal note, congratulations are due to Pete Cottrell who was elected Vice President of Bob Davids Chapter by acclamation. Pete briefly was the co-host during the last gasps of the “Outta the Parkway” Seamheads podcast and he bears little if any responsibility for its demise. Long may he reign!!