‘Seamheads’ gather to analyze analytics
March 16, 2012
MESA, Ariz. – No sport loves statistics more than baseball.
From ERAs, to OBPs and RBIs, numbers have flooded the game for ages. Now, the analysis has reached another, mind-boggling level, as evidenced by the 300 or so “seamheads” gathered for the inaugural SABR Analytics Conference.
As anyone who has seen the movie “Moneyball” knows, number-crunching is no mere fan obsession, not anymore. Statistical analysis is used by every major league club to make personnel decisions, and the amount of information they are gathering is ever-expanding.
For instance, there’s the use of Doppler radar to record and measure events on the field. Tracking the speed and trajectory of the ball as it leaves the bat is considered a big innovation.
And, talk about Big Brother, cameras will track every player on every play.
The conference began Thursday and runs through Saturday, with speakers and panel members including Chicago Cubs owner Tom Ricketts, Arizona Diamondbacks President Derrick Hall and general managers Chris Antonetti of the Cleveland Indians, Jerry Dipoto of the Los Angeles Angels and Doug Melvin of the Milwaukee Brewers. In all, 19 teams are represented at the conference.
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The Society of American Baseball Research was founded 40 years ago and boasts a membership of 6,000. The organization, which moved its headquarters from Cleveland to Phoenix a year ago, has 60 chapters around the country. The idea of the analytical conference was to provide a single forum for those who gather statistics, baseball teams and fans who are just interested in the issue, according to Marc Appleman, SABR’s executive director.
He believes the movie “Moneyball” has added to the interest in the analytical side of the game.
“Because of the way the movie was done,” Appleman said, “because it was a big movie with Brad Pitt and everything like that, suddenly a lot of people were like ‘Oh, so that is part of baseball as well. We didn’t quite realize that.”‘
Sean Forman, president and founder of Baseball-Reference.com, moderated a Thursday panel that included top officials of FanGraphs, Baseball Info Solutions and the statistics arm of MLB.com.
Forman, whose site draws hundreds of thousands of hits daily, founded Baseball-Reference.com 12 years ago. The site has expanded considerably since then to include many more statistics. He plans to add the Negro Leagues to his database soon.
Forman’s panel talked about, among other things, major league baseball’s installation of cameras in every park to track the move of all nine players on every play. The information gathered will be able to develop all kinds of analysis, including a player’s defensive range or whether a player is out of position.
Vince Gennaro is president of the SABR board of directors, a voluntary position.
The author of “Diamond Dollars, the Economics of Winning in Baseball,” and former PepsiCo executive said the use of statistical analysis by major league teams has “accelerated in the last handful of years.”
“I think you’re going to see more and more teams do more of it,” Gennaro said. “I think it makes tremendous sense with the stakes as high as they are in some of these decisions that are made. You really need to think through some of the decision process you go through, because you’re making a multi-million dollar, and in some cases a hundred-million-dollar, decision.
“I would never position the analytics as the answer sheet but I do think it can be a valuable input into a complex decision.”
As an example of the kinds of things at the cutting-edge of information gathering, Gennaro mentioned measuring the speed of the ball off the bat. Does it leave at 90 mph or a meek 65 mph? Then there is the video study of a player’s defensive range.
“You can match up Derek Jeter with Jose Reyes and see on balls hit at about the same speed to the same part of the field and players play the same position, who’s making the play and who’s not making the play,” he said. “Out of 100 plays, is Jeter making it 70 or Reyes making it 80? How does that work? To the left, to the right, coming in, going back on balls.”
While Friday’s general managers’ panel has the straightforward theme “how major league front offices are using analytics to develop a competitive edge and stay ahead of the competition,” some of the other presenters will dive into the deep end of this statistical pool.