Saturday, March 16, 2013

My experience at the 2013 SABR Analytics conference (part 1)

From March 7, 2013 to March 10, 2013 I visited Arizona in order to attend the 2nd annual SABR Analytics Conference and to watch a few Dodger spring training games with my parents. SABR, which stands for the “Society of American Baseball Research,” put on the conference in Arizona for the second straight year and featured speakers and panelists of researchers, front office members, baseball writers, and others involved in baseball in some way or another. They also had a case competition for among different colleges where college students are given a real-life front office situation and must come up with the best way to resolve it as present their reasoning to baseball insiders. This was my 5th time visiting Arizona for spring training and my second time visiting the conference. The following posts discuss my experiences both at the conference and in Arizona.

I got up for the trip around 4:30 after getting only an hour of sleep due to a restless night. I showered, packed up, and got into the rental car my parents got (because both me and my dad’s car didn’t have air conditioning and my mom’s car only seats two). Before last year’s analytics conference, me and my parents would usually just travel out to Arizona to watch Dodger spring training games, and so when I went last year and this year to the conference we simply combined the trips. We left Corona around 6:45 AM but had to stop at my dad’s office in Mira Loma so he could finish some work. We then got some Starbucks and left Mira Loma around 8:15 AM. Since the conference started at 2:15 PM, and there was a 4+ hour drive and a 1 hour time difference, I was worried that I wasn’t going to make it in time. Luckily, however, there was very little traffic. The weather was cloudy and drizzling in California, however the weather cleared up and was sunny for the most part when we got Arizona.
We arrived at the Renaissance Hotel at around 1:35 PM. The events of the first day of the conference were at the Cronkite School of Journalism on the ASU Phoenix. Since the campus was only two blocks from the Renaissance Hotel, my parents dropped me off at an adjacent parking lot. I went to get my laptop out of the trunk, but it wouldn’t the trunk wouldn’t open. After trying to open the trunk for about ten minutes (remember it’s a rental), I gave up and hurried to the conference (my parents were able to open it a few minutes later). I got to the conference at around 2 PM. Since the conference badges were being handed out at the Sheraton Hotel (where the conference was going to be held on Friday and Saturday), I was unable to pick mine up, but luckily since the event organizer recognized me from past conferences and conventions she let me in anyway. As I sat down and waited for the first event to start I looked around and noticed that I stood out like a sore thumb. Everyone was dressed in either dress or polo shirts and dress pants, essentially business-casual, whereas I was dressed like I was at a cool-weather baseball game, wearing jeans, a RC Quakes baseball cap, and a jacket over an American Eagle T-shirt. However, since there wasn’t a much of a break to go to the hotel room to change for 5 hours, so I simply shrugged.
The first speaker was Brian Kenny. Kenny was a former long-time anchor on ESPN and left to start a sabermetric-friendly show on the MLB Network called “Clubhouse Confidential”. He showed a funny clip of his MLB network cohorts, Harold Reyolds and Matt Vassgersian, imagining the analytics conference as sabermetric version of the “Love Boat”, the highlight of which was seeing Dave Cameron of superimposed as a blackjack dealer. Brian Kenny discussed how baseball and many other professions are reticent to change even when the benefits are clear and obvious. He talked about how general and field managers are afraid of making radical changes if it doesn’t lead to immediate results, and even if they do lead to immediate results, the innovators tend to either revert back to their old ways or apologize for doing so out of fear of being called a “genius” (it’s apparently a bad word in baseball). He then listed some things he’d like to see such as pitchers being pulled before going a third time through the lineup as well as a knuckleball academy, but he also said that if both were allowed, the MLB would likely make a rule change to prevent both to keep game from going on too long.
After Brian Kenny spoke, Vince Gennaro and Mark Appelman presented an award for historical analysis to writer Dave Studeman, and then took a 15 minute break. I decided to use the time to pick up my conference badge, so I walked a few blocks over to the Sheraton picked up my badge and walked back. When I got to the Cronkite, I rode the elevator up with an ASU journalism student and another woman from the conference. The student mentioned how he never saw this many people at the school before. The woman told him that we were all here for the analytics convention. When he asked what it was all about I turned and asked him, “Have you seen the movie Moneyball?” He replied, “Yeah.” I said, “That’s what we’re all about.” “Oh wow, cool!” I cannot thank that movie enough for making it easier for me to describe to friend and the average random stranger what my hobby/career aspirations are…
Anyway, I arrived about 15 minutes late to Graham Goldbeck’s research presentation. Even though I was 15 minutes late and groggy from the lack of sleep I got, I was able to get the gist of Goldbeck’s presentation. His presentation was about the effects of whether of where a batter swings in the strike-zone. If a batter waits till the ball is deep into the strike-zone to make contact he will hit for a higher batting average but also less power, whereas if he gets out in front of the pitch, the batter tends to hit more home runs. This seems goes against the main theory on home runs, where it is thought that home run hitters usually wait until the ball is deep in the zone to swing. He also showed that pitchers that throw really hard often force batter to swing and make contact deep in the zone. The result is not only more strikeouts but also fewer home runs.
After the research presentation, I watched Joe Posnanski speak. I follow Joe Posnanski on twitter but aside from a few articles and his unfortunate statements on the Penn State scandal, I didn’t really know much about him. However, when he spoke, I found him to be very entertaining, funny, and even humble. He mentioned that when he was in college he was initially studying accounting, but one day he rode in a bus past a group of businessmen in 3-piece suits and decided that accounting wasn’t for him and instead decided to become a journalist (it was also coincidentally the  same day he failed out of the program (his words)). Still, despite not being a “numbers person”, he said that he appreciates the numbers behind sabermetrics and as a baseball writer, he tries to incorporate and explain the ideas behind them with the help of his friend, Bill James. He, also being a columnist in the Kansas City area, talked about the “interesting” ideas that the Royals have had over the years. He mentioned how, in the mid-90’s the Royals were scouting a world champion male softball player to be a pitcher for the team. All of the scouts marveled at the movement the softball pitcher was able to bring to his pitches. An executive for the Royals asked then-assistant GM Allard Baird, who was also in attendance, if he thought the Royals should sign the pitcher based on the stuff the pitcher was showing. Baird turned to the executive in attendance and muttered “it’s a balk!” and began to walk away. The executive mentioned the movement the pitcher showed, to which Baird replied “it’s a balk!” The executive then told Baird that he was thinking about having an artist paint a picture of each of their pitchers while they were delivering the ball to the plate in order to help each pitcher visualize their approach. Baird asked, “Why not just take a photograph?” The executive replied, “Because, it’s not art.”
After Posnanski spoke it was time for the player panel. The two players involved were the D’Backs’ starting pitcher, Brandon McCarthy and the Giants’ lefty reliever Javier Lopez, and the panel was moderated by D’Backs broadcaster Steve Berthiume. Having been to the previous analytics conference where McCarthy also spoke I knew his story. He was a top pitching prospect who had struggled with both injuries and performance his first six years. Then one day he read Fire Joe Morgan, a blog written by “Parks and Recreation” creator Mike Schur that ripped and lampooned lazy sports writers, and learned about sabermetrics from the site. After reading about various metrics, McCarthy decided to change his pitching approach. He emulated Roy Halladay and became more of groundball pitcher. As a result, he managed to resurrect his career, averaging over 3 fWAR in the last two seasons with Oakland, and earning a multi-year this offseason with Arizona in the process.
Anyway, Berthuime and McCarthy spent the first couple of minutes going over this back story. During the course panel, being the D’Backs broadcaster, I felt like Berthiume asked McCarthy a lot more questions and gave him a lot more time to talk than he did to Javier Lopez (of course it could have just been me). When he did get a chance to talk, Lopez, despite playing for the most objectively evil organization in baseball, came across as being very intelligent and well-spoken. Lopez is a lefty, side-arming, reliever who first came up with Rockies, had played for the Red Sox when they won it all in 2007, and has been playing for the Giants since 2010, supposedly winning two more rings in the process. Lopez talked about how he used numbers to gain a competitive advantage over hitters. He also ranted and raved about his former catcher when he was with the Red Sox, Jason Varitek, such as Varitek’s abilities to look through the numbers and translate it to each pitcher he caught in order to work through their strengths and weakenesses, which was a sentiment that McCarthy, though despite never playing for Varitek, concurred with. McCarthy and Lopez also talked about how much they hated pitcher wins and ERA, since neither stat accurately reflects actual pitching performance, but are still used as barometers for performance during arbitration hearings for pay raises.
The last main presentation of the night was made by Bloomberg Sports’ Bill Squadron and Angels’ GM Jerry DiPoto. Squadron made a presentation which showcased the data services Bloomberg Sports provides to various MLB front offices. Having gone last year, I saw the same presentation at the previous conference as well. Bloomberg offers an online system that not only keeps track of every pitch in every pitcher-batter matchup in order to spot trends in pitch-sequences and contact points, but each pitch was also linked to video to give a real-time visualization as well. Since the entire room was filled with tech-savvy, baseball-obsessed, geeks that lacked and craved access to such information, the response in the room was similar to that of a group of hungry orphans pressing their faces against a restaurant window and getting a glimpse of someone eating a prime-rib dinner. “Oohs” and “ahhs” filled the room throughout Squadron’s presentation.
When Squadron finished, Jerry DiPoto then got up after the presentation and spoke a bit. DiPoto told the audience that he extensively used both statistics and scouting to make baseball decisions, though he, of course, remained vague as to how and to what extent he used both in order to keep whatever competitive advantage he might have had over other teams. He too also ranted and raved about Jason Varitek’s abilities to translate numbers to pitchers as the player panel did, and thus I would not be the least bit shocked if Varitek winds up in a minor league or major league clubhouse as either a coach or a manager in the near future. DiPoto also managed to have the quote of the day, describing his job as being able to constantly “manage risk.”
After that, the day’s and the conference’s activities at the Cronkite School ended, but there was a welcome reception for the conference back at the Sheraton, so I went back to the Renaissance to change into something more appropriate for the night. My parents had gone to a Thai food restaurant near the hotel, and brought me some Beef Drunken Noodles. Having gone to last year’s welcome reception I knew the presence of food was a strong possibility, but since I hadn’t eaten anything since I had a cinnamon roll when we went to Starbucks, and since I was planning drinking that night, my mom convinced me into eating the food that they had gotten me. I ate the Thai food, changed, brushed my teeth, and walked out to the Sheraton.
When I got to the Sheraton I took the elevator up to the second floor and entered the “Valley of the Sun” conference room. Since the conference room was full of people with neck badges that were similar to mine I assumed that I was in the right place. As I walked around the room, I saw a bunch of people playing a car-racing video game on a large screen, and saw multiple food bars scattered throughout the room. “Damn,” I thought, “SABR really went all out this time.” On the program, we were told that all alcohol beverages would be sold at a cash bar. I saw a man behind a bar in the corner of the room, so I walked over and ordered a bottle of “Four Peaks” beer (which I assume is a local brand since I’ve never seen it in CA), and the bartender popped off the top and handed me the bottle. I pulled out my wallet, and the bartender stopped me, indicating that it was free. “That’s odd,” I thought to myself, “I could’ve sworn that they said it was a cash bar.” I took a closer look of the room, and didn’t see anyone in the room who I would’ve recognized from the Cronkite School. I looked even closer at their neck badges and noticed that they were, in fact, different than mine. I was in the wrong conference room! As I was walking out I considered throwing away the beer I had technically “stolen” for the party that was going on. But then I thought about all the poor and sober kids in Isla Vista (which I had learned about when I was in school at UC Santa Barbara) who could only afford “Natty Ices” on the weekends, and started sipping my beer as I searched for the right conference room.
I took the elevator up to the fourth elevator and walked over to the “Valley Overlook” room (note to hotel managers, don’t give two different conference rooms similar names). Outside the room, a lady who worked for SABR greeted me and handed me a ticket for a free beer. Since I was already drinking a “free beer” that I got from the conference room two floors below, I decided to “even things out” as baseball players like to say and not use the ticket. The Valley Overlook room was basically an outdoor patio with two cash bars on one side and another in the corner. There were several high tables with umbrellas attached to them; allowing patrons to stand and drink in the shade, though, at 8 PM, the umbrellas were pretty much useless. In addition to the tables, there were three food bars and a group of waiters who walked around offering appetizers to anyone who wanted them.
I walked around a bit, trying to see who was at the reception. I ran into Craig Minami and decided to chat with him for a bit. Craig is a blogger at the Dodger-centric, SB Nation site, “True Blue LA”, and was at the covering both the conference and the Dodgers. Me and Craig had met at a Rancho Cucamonga Quakes game (I had season tickets to the Quakes, and he and two “True Blue LA” commenters were sitting right behind me watching Rubby De La Rosa rehab) and had also ran into each at a “Baseball Prospectus” event at Dodger Stadium last September. We discussed the Dodgers a bit, talking about Yasiel Puig’s great spring, the Dodgers shortstop situation and whether or not Dee Gordon would ever eventually make it as an every infielder. After talking with Craig, I went to the bar, and paid cash for another. I spotted Meredith Willis and chatted with her for a bit. Willis has a Ph.D in Physics and currently lives in LA. I followed Meredith on twitter and knew that she liked both swing and salsa dance. Being an avid salsa dancer myself for the past two years and having been part of the swing club when I was in college we talked about where and how often we danced, how long we’ve been dancing, and where to get salsa lessons in LA.
 After talking with Meredith I threw my empty beer bottle away and got in line for one of the food bars. As I approached the table I noticed that it was a “mashed potato” bar. They had a large bowl of mashed potatoes out in front and gave you a margarita glass to scoop and eat the mashed potatoes out of and gave you a spoon as well. After the mashed potato bowl they gave you an assortment of traditional and non-traditional mashed potato condiments, such as: garlic butter, sour cream, bacon bits, chives, cheddar cheese, and shredded chicken. As I was walking through the bar I and another attendee shared a surprised glance and both commented on how weird this current assortment was. I have been to a salad bar, an ice cream bar, a taco bar, a nacho bar, a sushi bar, a hamburger bar, a waffle bar, and even a make-your-own pizza bar (like in Seinfeld) not to mention buffet-style establishments such as Shakey’s and Golden Corral, but I had never, in my life, ever been to a mashed potato bar. I wasn’t complaining (I like my mash potatoes, and these were delicious), it was just weird.
I stood in a corner, finished my mashed potatoes, and walked around to look for more people to talk to. The main benefit to the analytics conference is that you get to see both insiders and outsiders in the game come and talk, kind of like TED conference for baseball. But the other benefit is that you also get the chance to interact with other attendees as well as writers from such websites as Fangraphs, Baseball Prospectus, and Baseball America, as well as representatives of several different ballclubs. Last year, I got to meet David Fung of Beyond the Boxscore (a site geared toward sabermetrics on SB Nation), Eno Sarris of Fangraphs, and many other attendees. This year, however, I wasn’t as lucky. The year before there was maybe about 30-40 people at the reception and aside from some of the writers, most of the attendees didn’t really know each other. Therefore it was much easier for me, as someone who has difficulty at times in social situations (especially with total strangers), to walk up to just about anyone and start a conversation. This year, there was about 80-90 people, and half of them were college students who were competing for their respective schools involved in the case competition, and thus knew each other. Last year, SABR also had a case competition among college students at the conference; however last year the competition lasted throughout the conference, meaning that instead of attending the reception, most of the students spent the night preparing for the competition. This year, however, the case competition had already concluded before the first main activity for the day had begun, therefore allowing the participating college students to not only see all of the speakers and panels, but the welcome reception. This, all-in-all, was a good thing as a my main complaint from the year was that the main beneficiaries of this conference, college student who wanted to break into the sports industry, weren’t able to get the full benefit. Still, as a result of this, there were clusters of  5-8 friends and known strangers throughout the reception constantly engaged in conversation whereas I, having come on my own, had to either stand by myself or break into one of the clusters as best as I could. After trying for about 30 minutes trying and failing to break into the various clusters, I gave up, and walked back to the Renaissance. If I go next time, I’ll have to remind myself to bring along a friend or two.

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