Saturday, March 25, 2017

Baseball Analytics: The Vision Thing

For the second consecutive year, I attended the Society for American Baseball Research Analytics Conference in Phoenix on March 9-11 (you can find my account on last year's meeting here).  I ended up missing several sessions but these are my personal highlights.  To start off with, there was only one passing mention of Joey Votto this year, compared to last year's obsessional focus on the Reds star.  According to panelists, now that every team has an analytics group, the best teams have "translators" on staff to talk with players to convey usable information to them and take back comments and questions to the analysts.  Reportedly more and more managers are also becoming comfortable with analytics and some players are concentrating on things like improving launch angles.

Attendance seemed larger than last year with about half or more of the attendees being youngsters seeking jobs with team analytics departments or those already employed in such roles. 

I'm using this as the theme of the conference (last year's was SKYNET is Activated), because it came up in so many ways as you'll see.  With apologies to President George HW Bush.

The Godfather Speaks of His Vision

The highlight of the conference for me was Bill James and his provocative talk "Are We Doing The Best Work We Are Capable Of Doing?"  This was the first time I'd seen Bill in person after reading his work over the past 35 years. It must have been an omen because a few days after returning from the conference, I reached behind some boxes stored away and found my copy of the 1982 Bill James Baseball Abstract (the first one officially published), which, for many years, I thought lost.  He started by saying he'd come to the conference because he had something to say, particularly to the younger folks.  He was there to lament the field's focus on what he termed "microsabremetrics" which are useful to field managers and players and the short shrift being given to "macrosabremetrics" which deal with the bigger questions about baseball and issues like "should we sign a player?" or "what makes a player good?"

He is not enamored of analysis that starts with reams of data and tries to find something significant.  Analysis starts with questions, not data, and the value and impact of your works depends on the size of the question.  Furthermore, if you start with questions you will see what you don't, and you will find the things we don't know are everywhere.  If you start with data you miss what you don't know.  He acknowledged the challenge is that the work that will pay your rent is often not the best we are capable of doing.

Two other observations of interest:
He was wrong years ago to ridicule the importance, or even existence, of team chemistry.  At Bill James Online, he's written of how watching closeup the September 2011 collapse of the Red Sox provided ample evidence of the reality of chemistry.

"Humility is more important to understanding than intelligence", but you also occasionally need to "be arrogant enough to think you have figured it out".
At the conclusion of his talk, Vince Gennaro of SABR presented James with the organization's first Lifetime Achievement Award, a well-deserved honor.

One night during the event, one of my fellow attendees was out for a walk and saw Bill James, John Thorn, Dick Cramer, John Dewan and one of the other Founders having dinner together.  It's like walking the streets of Philadelphia and coming across George Washington, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison eating together.

Seeing With Fresh Eyes

We were treated to a player panel featuring Hall of Famer and former D'back, Randy Johnson and former D'back, Luis (Gonzo) Gonzalez, expertly interviewed by Mike Ferrin.  Randy and Gonzo were both very funny, with some good back and forth between a hitter and a pitcher.  Responding to a question on their views on analytics, Gonzo remarked that the best hitting advice he'd gotten was from a trainer, "stay stupid when you get in the box", and added "players aren't that smart".  Randy's response, "hitters aren't smart, but they are smart enough".

They are skeptical of analytics as just too much information that is not useful to them.  At one point, Randy started asking questions of audience members, particularly about "tunneling", the ability to disguise a pitch until it is well on the way to the plate.  Randy didn't feel it was anything new, it's what he referred to as "arm slot" but, more importantly, he told us that in many circumstances a batter knew he'd be throwing a slider and the real issue was whether he (Randy) could execute the pitch.  If he could it simply didn't matter if the batter knew what was coming.

Both of their careers were affected by fellow players seeing things others had not.  When Gonzo was traded to Detroit in 1998, he was a 30 year old player with an opposite field stroke, who'd never hit more than 15 homers in a season and had only 84 in his career.  His new teammates convinced him to become a pull hitter and he whacked 23 taters that season, followed by seasons of 26, 31, 57, 28 and 26, retiring at 40 with 354 homers and more than 1,000 extra base hits, along with, to my eternal delight, beating the Yankees and Mariano Rivera in the 2001 World Series with a clutch single.

Randy Johnson had an even more dramatic experience.  By the end of the 1992 season, he'd completed three full years as a starter for the Mariners.  That year he'd walked 144 in 210 innings with a 12-14 record, going 39-35 since 1990; a pitcher with a lot of promise but wild and inconsistent.  His turnaround was due to Nolan Ryan and Tom House (Rangers pitching coach) talking to him late in the 1992 season.  They told Randy he was landing on the heel of his foot, rather than driving off the ball which resulted in his body not facing the plate and arm in different positions giving him less control.  In doing further research, I found out the encounter with Ryan and House took place on August 8, 1992 and he spent a week in the off season with Ryan.  The difference could be seen in 1993 when Johnson walked 99 in 255 innings, his strikeout rate went up, going 19-8, beginning a ten year run when The Big Unit won 175 and lost only 58.   Randy was polite in referring to his earlier pitching coaches and managers but pointed out none of them had identified this flaw in his delivery.
                                      (The Big Unit is a tall guy)

More from Gonzo & The Big Unit:
Gonzo - Curt Schilling was the first guy he ever saw show up in the clubhouse with a computer (used it to analyze hitters).

TBU - Doesn't like pitch counts because it prevents pitcher development.

TBU - On why he loved pitching in the Astrodome (10-1 with 0.42 home ERA in less than a half season with Astros in 1998); "It's like putting a dome over the Grand Canyon".

TBU - He asked Warren Spahn how he managed pitching when his shoulder was sore, and Spahn told him he had a shot of whiskey before going out to the mound. 
Long Distance Vision

Another panel featured Jed Hoyer, GM Chicago Cubs, and Scott Harris, VP Baseball Operations for the Cubs, interviewed by Dan Migala, on their five year plan which culminated in the Cubs World Series victory.  When Jed and Theo Epstein joined the Cubs after the 2011 season, they decided the team needed a complete rebuild, including front office staff.  Hoyer said that during their first year they felt like a Human Resources department because of the constant interviewing and hiring.  He also told us that the new CBA, negotiated during the 2011-12 off season upset their initial plans.  With the Red Sox and then Padres, Hoyer had spend more on the draft and internationally and less on salaries but the new agreement placed limits on the former.

Hoyer and Harris both spoke of how discouraging the lack of progress was at times and how hard to resist the attempt to do a dramatic, but premature, acquisition but they always had the support of their owner.  The 2013 season was particularly discouraging when the Cubs lost 96 games, but the fall instructional league went well which was their first positive sign the young players were developing.  Nonetheless, "progress is not linear" and Hoyer quoted Andy McPhail; "rebuilding is a shitty way to spend a summer".

They believe that trades are a more difficult way to build a team than free agency or the draft because it is more difficult to determine who will fit in with a team culture.  Culture is one of the reasons they became active in the free agent market after the 2014 season.  They went after John Lester because the team was on the verge of becoming competitive and Lester (as well as David Ross) would help instill a winning culture.  They loved Ross' rallying cry, "try not to suck", which he used when a teammate pinch hit, and was adopted as the team motto last year.

And you need some luck.  They acquired Kyle Hendrix from Texas at the trading deadline after a deal with the deal with the Braves for their preferred candidate fell apart.  The Cubs obtained Jake Arrieta because he was a good "buy-low" guy, but they never thought he'd get a Cy Young or become JAKE ARRIETA!

They spoke of the difficult transition from Rick Renteria, whom they liked, to Joe Maddon, but felt when Maddon became available he was the perfect fit.  As a manager Maddon deflected attention and pressure from the young players.  He doesn't "manage" the players as much as "support" them.  He's also the same guy privately as he is publicly.

We also heard about the agony of Game 7 last year when the Cubs blew the lead.  Both of them said the rain delay was critical in helping the players gather themselves.

Differing Visions

The GM Panel:
Jerry DiPoto - GM, Seattle Mariners, former GM, California Angels
Mike Hazen - GM, Arizona Diamondbacks, formerly with Boston Red Sox
Moderator: Brian Kenny

DiPoto is dynamic, wired and entertaining (and looks a lot younger than he is).  Hazen seems uncertain of himself, maybe nervous and tentative  because he's in the first year of his first GM role.  The two did one of the big trades of the off season, Juan Segura to the Mariners for Taijuan Walker.  That's old hat for DiPoto, who's made at least a dozen trades in each of the past two off seasons but it was the first for Hazen as a GM.

DiPoto, who used a sports psychologist as a player, spoke of his commitment to "science and mental skills aspects" of the game.  He was a mental skills expert running the Mariners farm system and each minor league team has one on staff.  Focus is on mental preparation and they are building team first goals for every minor league player.  For instance, moving runners from 1st to 2nd and then promoting players based on that.
At the major league level, JD is looking for "marginal gains" in non-field areas for improvement, such as sleep and travel strategy (the Mariners travel more miles than any other team).  They are leaving a day earlier than usual for road trips.  He also revealed that many GMs read the baseball websites run by fans and eleven years ago he hired Carlos Gomez as a scout after reading an analysis he wrote on the draft in Hardball Times.

The Mariners are building upon a solid core with Hernandez, Cano, Iwakuma and Seager.  They are trying to enhance outfield defense because they've got a big ballpark and a fly ball staff.  The Diamondbacks are in complete rebuild mode.  They have a long way to go.

Other DiPoto observations:

"When you buy a player in free agency you are buying decline; the only question is when".

"The first time you get a consensus run the other way".

On what he's learned - not to be overbearing and listen more.  Years ago he didn't listen to his scouts and passed on drafting Chris Sale.

Real Vision

Technology Panel:
Jordan Muraskin, de Cervo, Ph.D in Biomedical Engineering
Dr. Daniel Laby, Opthomologist, State University of New York College of Optometry, and consultant to several major league teams
Brian Murphy, STRIVR Labs

A panel on optimizing batters ability to recognize and hit pitching.  Dr Laby has been consulting with major league teams since 1992.  Threshold vision for hitters is 20/15, with average 20/12, and some testing at 20/8.  Conventional eye charts are no longer used.  Instead, low-contrast targets are shown for 100 milliseconds and then must be identified.  Reason is average major league pitch takes 400 milliseconds to get to plate and batter has about 100 milliseconds to recognize and make decision.  If Aroldis Chapman is pitching you've only got 320 milliseconds but still need 100 to react.

Laby thinks batting practice is the worst thing a hitter can do.  Virtual reality training with game speed repetition is much better.  He was also a consultant to the 2004 Red Sox and developed this intricate hand-eye coordination exercise for Manny Ramirez which is described in Terry Francona's book.  And Manny also used to like to play hide and seek with Dr Laby in the clubhouse.  I am not surprised.

Muraskin is working with brain imaging technology to improve hitter cognition and his company has developed training program to simulate baseball pitches which also allows them to measure neural signals and see how and when players make decisions.  Focus on measuring decision making process and getting away from "having a good eye" and "having good plate discipline".

Murphy and STRIVR Labs create virtual reality environments to help players improve decision making.  Began in football and several quarterbacks are using.  Baseball is harder to break into than football.  Football is very collaborative with the GMs, coaches and QBs making decisions together about technology.  In baseball everything is hierarchical and conservative.

Seeing In A Tunnel

The big new concept for me was "tunneling"; the ability of a pitcher to disguise his pitches by making them look similar for as long as possible on their way to the plate.  Apparently John Lester is a master tunneler whose curve, fastball and cutter all look the same for the first half of their journey, though Clayton Kershaw (no surprise) is also considered top-rate.

Even with good tunneling ability, if pitch sequencing is predictable you are going to get hit.  Jessica Mendoza of ESPN (who was very impressive on her panel) told of watching games with David Ortiz last year when he predicted pitches very accurately.  According to Mendoza he would also, while in the on deck circle, signal pitches to the Sox batter at the plate.  Big Papi was not reading analysis, he was watching hours of pitcher video every day.

How It Looks To The Batter

Perry Husband gave a fascinating presentation on "effective velocity (EV)".  According to Husband the EV of a pitch from the hitter's perspective depends on its location.  The higher and more inside the faster it will appear, gaining about 2.5 mph for every six inch change in location.  Smart pitchers are beginning to take advantage of this.  Rick Porcello elevated his fastball last year, changing its EV from 89 to 96 mph.   Kyle Hendrix also became more effective by elevating fast balls.

This means that even if you are good at tunneling a fastball down and away is not a fastball to a batter.  As a result, hard hit balls happen non-randomly and are more frequent at the bottom of the strike zone.  If baseball changes the strike zone by eliminating the low strike it will decrease home runs and hard hit balls.

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