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SABR conference explores new frontiers

PHOENIX -- Spring training is already just about any fans’ definition of heaven: A break from winter, a gear-up for the season ahead, a chance to crease your bean thinking about the better things to come. But if you’re a stathead, what could possibly make it better? The annual SABR Analytics Conference in Phoenix, of course. Three days of panels featuring analysts and ballplayers, front office personnel and SABR members alike, all talking about their work, and all of it baseball-flavored? Well, yes, some definitions of heaven did just get better.

Day One started with the evaluation of the different graduate and undergraduate teams of students presenting their evaluations answering a sabermetric problem posed to them. This year’s challenge involved identifying the best three pitchers for value over the next five years. Needless to say, a lot of substantive evaluations of Jose Fernandez, Chris Sale, Madison Bumgarner and Yu Darvish came up, with the Marlins’ young ace coming out on top time and again as a function of his being under team control into his arbitration years during the period under evaluation. Different teams studied different injury risks, but nevertheless accepted the virtues of Sale’s new deal with the White Sox. In the end, Duke’s graduate team barely bested University of Chicago-Booth in the graduate division, while Cornell and Loras College won the undergraduate divisions.

Injury prevention

From there, the schedule moved quickly into a quick, busy slate of panels evaluating different aspects of the game. Leading off was “Medical Analysis and Injury Prevention,” featuring Dr. Stan Conte of the Dodgers, Dr. Glenn Fleisig of the American Sports Medicine Institute and Chris Marinak of MLB, and was moderated by ESPN's Buster Olney.

Perhaps the biggest takeaways came from Marinak, looking at where the game has been and where it’s going. When he joined MLB in 2008, he was shocked to learn that baseball didn’t have a central database of injury information, but by 2010 the industry, working with the MLBPA, rolled out a database of player injury information easily transferred from team to team. The awareness of the stakes and managing the risks involved with player injuries is reflected by the fact that, as he said, “Teams today are employing a medical guy on their baseball operations staff in the same way that they started hiring statistical analysts a decade ago.”

The extent to which this is more important than ever was reflected by Conte’s observation that, “The number of injuries is going up, and the last two years are the highest in recorded history. But why is that? Diagnoses have improved, plus the improved success rates of surgeries have had an impact on players' willingness to be treated."

Conte and Fleisig both had a lot to say on the subject of Tommy John surgeries on pitcher elbows, especially second surgeries in light of Kris Medlen’s injury.

“The number of Tommy John surgeries has been fairly stable (20-22 per year among major league pitchers), with the unusual exception of 2012, when there were seven guys having their second TJ surgeries. Up to that point there had been only 17 revisions, going back to 1991, and we’re coming to realize that it takes longer to come back the second time around, perhaps 16-18 months,” Conte said.

But the most sobering realization? While the rate of successful outcomes on Tommy John surgeries is down around 75 percent, Fleisig said that he’s found nearly 40 percent of parents and coaches think it might help their baseball-playing kids in high school and college to have elective Tommy John surgery, thinking that it might reliably add a couple ticks to their fastball. He suggested that the phenomenon of added velocity in big-league pitchers who’ve had the surgery is a reflection of professional athletes being uniquely equipped in terms of carefully managed rehab and recovery.

Chemistry class

Next up was the reliably controversial topic of team chemistry. SABR’s Vince Gennaro presented his findings from a wide-ranging project on trying to measure team chemistry by talking to players and recently retired players. In defining team chemistry, Gennaro notes that players believe in it and that support from their teammates is integral, and that front office and coaching staff can play key roles. A salient feature of positive clubhouses was that there was a positive teaching environment, which contributed to the goals of fostering accountability, proactive teammate support, trust and group identification. Gennaro suggests this isn’t different from high-functioning teams in the corporate world, or even some military examples.

Why is this important? In part, it’s a reflection of the nature of the job players have to do. The length and grind of baseball’s eight-month season means that players spend a huge amount of time around each other, commenting that they end up seeing their teammates more than they see their families. The payoffs can take forms that involve winning: Good team chemistry can lead to something as mundane as players coming to work earlier, but that kind of investment in positive behaviors can narrow the gap between performance and potential, perhaps even expanding your potential.

The payoffs are bigger than ever today: A motivated player can exercise right, eat right, study data and video to improve his game; as Gennaro points out, players today ask "why?" and can be more self-empowered than ever before to act on the answers.

After that, we moved into a panel discussing what numbers players love or hate. With John Walsh moderating a conversation between Baseball Tonight’s Eduardo Perez, Aaron Boone and Manny Acta, along with Grantland’s Kirk Goldsberry. In a discussion by turns frank and funny, Boone owned up to his own beginning to learn in the early Aughties, citing Barry Bonds' OBP. Acta got into sabermetrics because of a clubhouse kid asking about run expectancy when he was coaching with the Mets, which served as his gateway to Baseball Prospectus and the like. His experience? "People don't want to get pigeon-holed with a bunch of geeks, but I do!"

But what about numbers the panel hated? Acta quipped that the reason why players hate a number boils down to whether it has a minus or a zero in front of it, but brought up his own skepticism about numbers like UZR, where the numbers jump around year by year. Boone shares that skepticism about defensive metrics. But what numbers did they like? Boone "I like WAR when I'm comparing positions. I like FIP, for predicting what a pitcher might do going forward. And I like BABIP, because it tells me a lot about whether a guy is for real. And I'm really interested in these new stuff on catcher framing. I think we make too much about throwing, and we need to see whether a guy receives strikes, that's the most important thing about catching."

Perez touted, "BABIP-plus from the Astros, because it’s looking at what velocity the ball has coming off the bat."

Acta? "I started with Baseball Prospectus' Value Over Replacement Player, but I've moved on WAR and what it tells us about who's the best player. And WHIP -- traffic on the bases equals runs. And BABIP, I like it, on the hitters' side but also on the pitchers' side.”

The first day ended with the Diamondbacks’ Brandon McCarthy and former Royals hurler Brian Bannister making their own observations on the value of analytics for the men on the mound. Moderated by Baseball Tonight’s Jon Sciambi, both men reflected on the importance of sabermetrics -- “Sabermetrics were my steroids,” Bannister stated -- as well as the uses and misuses of closers, PitchF/X as a diagnostic and educational tool for pitchers, or the value of the recent studies on catcher framing. Even as articulate believers in the value of this kind of information, both men also believed that a critical component for the successful introduction of this kind of information to pitchers is the way that it’s presented to them as a teaching tool. Throwing a spreadsheet or a scatter plot at a player? Probably not going to work. But show him what an effective changeup looks like, where it hits the zone, and what hitters do with it, and you’ve applied the data in a way that helps a hurler think through his gameplan at-bat by at-bat that much more effectively.

For a first day, I don’t think you could do much better for a pure baseball experience, and I say that as someone who’ll sit in any ballpark for any game, as well as someone who digs dropping in on SABR’s annual convention. What I do know is that with two more days of discovery and debate to look forward to, it can’t get much better than this.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.