SABR Analytics Day 2: Braun, GMs and fun

Day 2 of the SABR Analytics Conference moved around a bit topically, but perhaps the most compelling moment had nothing to do with performance metrics and everything to do with the issue of performance enhancement. That’s because when Ken Rosenthal interviewed Brewers owner Mark Attanasio, perhaps inevitably the subject of Ryan Braun and last season’s suspension for performing-enhancing drugs came up.

Referring to Braun’s bold assertions of innocence two years ago at the Brewers’ camp in Maryvale, Ariz., Rosenthal observed that Attanasio had undoubtedly had similar conversations with Braun like that only to find out that the slugger he’ll have to pay at least $117 million through 2020 had lied to him about using PEDs.

“I was stunned that he had done it,” Attanasio said. “But then it sunk in. Forget that he had lied about it and had the press conference, I was just stunned that he had done it. So I had him over to my apartment in Milwaukee and we talked privately for an hour, and I let him know what I felt about it. Once I did that, he committed to me that he was going to do everything he could to win back my trust, the trust of the fans and the community. A baseball team is a public trust, but the right thing I felt was to give him the opportunity to win back everyone’s trust. Also, the guy is a really good player. He’s done a lot of great things in the community, and he’s working through having made a big mistake at the age of 28. But America is great for giving folks a second chance, but he needs to make the most of his second chance, and he knows that.”

Attanasio was also very forthcoming about the challenges of owning a smaller-market team with a local TV deal that isn’t especially lucrative.

Asked how the Brewers make it work, Attanasio quipped, “It’s Wisconsin against the world here, between Minnesota and Chicago and Detroit, so it’s all about Wisconsin for us. So we’re very concerned with competitive balance. We’ve had to address disparity in revenue in the CBA. Yet we calculate that 17 teams have their highest payrolls ever, so we remain concerned. ... We can be plus- or minus-$30 million in any one year, and that’s where teams can get in trouble. When I bought the team, I think something like 40 percent of our revenues came from a shared-revenue source. It was almost as much investment in Major League Baseball as it was in the Milwaukee Brewers. We’ve moved out of the game’s bottom quartile thanks to a lot of great work from some of the team’s people. I can’t speak for other owners, but the sport is healthy so that you can make a profit in baseball if you want to make a profit. I can’t say that about other sports, but I can say that about baseball.”

That said, Attanasio was very blunt about what he felt was his obligation to try to field a competitive team. “Those of us who receive the money [via revenue sharing] need to spend it on what’s on the field, not put it in our pockets.”

The day started out with the General Mangers Panel, with GM Jack Zduriencik of the Mariners, AGM Bill Geivett of the Rockies and AGM Bobby Evans of the Giants. Talking about the changing nature of their jobs, it was interesting to hear from Geivett about how close he came to consummating a trade by text -- he resisted the temptation -- and about the Rockies’ home-cooked internal brand of WAR adjusted to the franchise’s unique challenge of playing the game at altitude. That isn’t very dissimilar to what Dan O’Dowd did with projecting performance in Denver when he was first named general manager, as the franchise continues to study the issue, but WAR is the statistical flavor of the decade, so you could understand the team’s decision to keep up with the times.

Zduriencik noted some of the unique challenges of constructing a three-way trade (and avoiding the risk of discounting other people’s players going to the other party in the deal), while warming to his happiest subject: signing Robinson Cano this winter.

“For the third meeting, they brought the whole Roc Nation group -- Jay-Z came, Robinson Cano came. ... It was Jay-Z's birthday the day before, so we had a birthday cake for him, we sang "Happy Birthday." ... I told him I was the original JZ. We tried to make it really light, and we did a really good presentation for them. They were really engaged. ... Robinson had great questions; he's a very astute baseball guy. He knew our club inside-out.”

And he nevertheless chose to be a Mariner, but it's suspectable the money helped.

Later in the day, the Defensive Metrics Panel, moderated by Jon Sciambi of "Baseball Tonight" looked at how dynamic the field has become, not simply because of the impact of the SABR Defensive Index -- combining five different defensive metrics -- in helping inform and create better outcomes for the Gold Gloves, to create a stronger-than-ever relationship between the Gold Gloves and Baseball Info Solutions’ Fielding Bible Awards. That isn’t to say there aren’t outstanding issues, such as sorting out how effectively any metric treats positioning versus range, or whether or not Rawlings might create a separate team-wide defensive award. (Outlook? Not so good.) But talking about positioning has become a particularly lively question when we get into talking about what MLBAM’s new defensive measurement system will mean for sharpening results.

The last big panel featured Rob Neyer (now at Fox), Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus and Dave Cameron of FanGraphs doing a bit of a jam session doing nothing more complicated than talking about baseball. As an informed conversation between second- or third-generation statheads, it was the sort of spring chatter none of us could get enough of as they flitted from topic to topic. Ben led off by observing he really liked the Royals’ moves, citing their upgrades at second base and right field, while Cameron noted his frustration with the Tigers’ trading Doug Fister away for “a bag of balls for the second time” as the worst move of the winter. Nevertheless, they all thought that the Tigers were the easy favorite in the AL Central -- and for winning the World Series because of that. There was also a lot of love for the Braves’ stack of extensions to their young core of talent and the potential impact that will have on player and organization behavior when it comes to players signing contracts that valuation models suggest are relative bargains.

And with that kind of happy prompt, the attendees scattered to indulge themselves their own conversations of that very kind, the kind of shared entertainment and good company the game reliably supplies.

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