My Weekend At Saber Seminar


Last weekend, I attended the second annual Saber Seminar at Boston University’s Metcalf Science Center. The Seminar, run by Chuck Korb and Dan Brooks, was a fantastic event, bringing together some of the highest-level baseball intelligence anyone outside a front office or clubhouse has ever seen in one room.

The event was a sensational benefit, to boot, as all of the speakers’ time as well as the supplies required for the event were donated to allow essentially all proceeds to support the Jimmy Fund, a key nonprofit organization leading the fight against cancer at Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Research Institute. The Jimmy Fund, long a major recipient of the Red Sox philanthropic efforts, is an incredibly worthy organization, and the knowledge that we were helping a good cause was simply icing on the cake for event-goers who were treated to a superbly organized and informative two-day session.

The biggest names to present were a few key members of the Red Sox staff, as well as MLB official Mike Port. Normally, it would be shocking to have high-level members of a team’s front office and coaching staff presenting in a seminar on a gameday during the middle of the playoff hunt, which simply shows the organization’s remarkable dedication to the Jimmy Fund. Among the Sox’ staff to present were manager Bobby Valentine, bench coach Tim Bogar, director of Baseball Information Services Tom Tippett, and director of Pro Scouting Jared Porter, and the legendary Bill James also (briefly) sat a row behind me in the audience. I was hoping to take in some of his baseball intellect through some sort of unbeknownst-to-man information osmosis, but simply seeing the legendary father of sabermetrics in the flesh was quite an exciting experience.

One of the most interesting things about listening to the presentations by the members of the Red Sox organization was the understanding they provided about how the analytic function has been integrated into the team’s front office management strategy.Valentine said that he hadn’t felt pressured to make specific moves by the front office, but that the game had still changed immensely since he last managed in MLB with the Mets. Valentine had exceptional relationships with his players early in his career, even being present at the births of a number of his players’ children. Now, Valentine says, things are “more complicated,” and such a relationship is generally considered out of the ordinary. He feels that, more important than making the sabermetrically optimal decision in every given game situation, his core task is to keep the players in the clubhouse happy and comfortable in order to play at their best.

Tippett also emphasized that players, as hard as it is to remember at times for those of us not affiliated with major league organizations, are people, too. He spoke for most of his allotted half-hour about the differences he’d seen since transitioning from his time as the founder and architect of the Diamond Mind baseball simulation system to being on the inside of a major league organization. He talked about the team’s need to plan its’ moves ahead of time, such as giving a call-up 36 hours of notice rather than 12 so his parents have time to hop a plane to Boston for the player’s debut. He also spoke of a reduced burden of proof, saying that instead of producing studies with an airtight statistical p-value of under 0.05, his work simply calls for him to produce thoughtful, educated opinions for consideration along with the rest of the scouting and other information gleaned by GM Ben Cherington for personnel decisions. Tippett said that it’s easy to get lost in the data, with over 100,000 pro, amateur, and international scouting reports. As a result, a key to his position is framing that data in a way that is simple and comprehensible enough to be useful in the team’s decision-making.

Port’s question and answer session was fascinating, as he’s spent over 40 years in nearly every facet of the game, including serving a 7-year term as GM of the Angels and spending a season as interim GM of the Red Sox after John Henry bought the team and dismissed Dan Duquette. However, Port’s session focused on his time as VP of Umpiring for MLB, a job he held from August 2005 until just before the 2011 season. Port was candid, informative, enlightening, and once in a while, hilarious.

In addition to the Red Sox staff, a number of prominent academics with interest in baseball were present, as well as several writers from the biggest baseball analytics sites on the web. Dr. Dan Brooks, a neuroscientist at Brown who in his off-time runs the Pitch F/X database, used that data to give a fascinating presentation on the consistency and size of umpires’ strike zones. Brooks’ incredible humility belies the fact that the guy is a tireless, hard-working genius, who along with a full-time job and a hobby that might take up the better part of another programmer’s days also found the time to organize and promote the fantastic event. Dr. Alan Nathan, a medium-energy (as opposed to high- or low-energy, I didn’t know this was a thing either) nuclear physicist at Illinois known for his interest in the physics of baseball, gave a fascinating presentation on the physics of the knuckleball. Using a vast array of data, Nathan showed that knuckleballs simply don’t do the “fluttering” motion most of us think of, instead taking a smooth path to the zone but moving in an unpredictable direction. One knuckleball might dive inside to a hitter, and the next might move outside, but according to Nathan’s data it certainly won’t do both.

Nathan also introduced a demonstration of the Trackman system, a doppler radar system that allows teams to track incredibly precise data on both pitched and batted balls. The system was set up just outside the science building, and the Seminar took a quick field trip outside to watch a couple local college pitchers throw about 15 pitches each. The data was then taken inside, where Brooks brought it up on the screen to show the velocity and rotational speed and direction of each pitch, allowing viewers to easily see in the data the difference between each pitcher’s groups of fastballs, changeups, and breaking balls. The system is in use by nearly a third of the teams in baseball, and Tippett noted that the Red Sox have it installed in Fenway, as well as their minor league stadiums in Pawtucket, Salem, and Ft. Myers.

ESPN’s Mark Simon, former BP editor-in-chief and current SB Nation writer Steven Goldman, Fangraphs managing editor Dave Cameron, and Boston Herald Sox beat writer Michael Silverman participated in a fascinating panel on Stats and Scouting in Media, discussing everything from the integration of advanced statistics in ESPN broadcasts to the issues created by the two different systems for WAR calculation used by Fangraphs and Baseball Reference. Cameron returned for another round of heated debate to close the event on Sunday, discussing defensive statistics with Mitchel Lichtman and calling students of the game everywhere to consider shifting the focus of their research to the understanding of how teams can maximize their revenue generation.

It’s simply impossible to explain all of the cool things I saw and learned this weekend in a blog post, so to avoid this turning into a book, I’ll simply say that a number of the other presentations were equally fascinating, including Dr. Michael McBeath’s The Science of Catching Balls and a Sports Medicine presentation by Drs. Chris Geary and Peter Evangelista, as well as abstracts by Michael Schader on the use of pattern recognition for more accurate pitch type classification and Dash Davidson on the Steamer projection system he and Peter Rosenbloom developed as students in a Brooklyn high school.

I hope I gave you a good idea of what happened last weekend, but the truth is, you’ll never fully experience it until you attend next year’s Seminar. On Saturday night, Brooks invited the audience to join him and several other speakers at Remy’s bar to watch the game across the street at Fenway. So there I was, sitting at a table with some of the smartest baseball minds I’ve ever met, and some of my idols in the world of baseball writing. I felt so honored to sit alongside the incredible intellects of Brooks and Nathan. In an era where it’s so easy for members of the media to act pretentious and dismissive, Dave Cameron and David Appelman of Fangraphs and Steven Goldman were exceptionally approachable. As I was sitting down to a tall glass of house-special brew and talking shop with Appelman, all I could think about is how I can’t wait to see what the Seminar has in store for next year.

Thanks so much to Brooks, Korb, and the rest of the people that made Saber Seminar possible. I had an incredible weekend, and I hope you’ll consider coming to the Seminar in 2013 to support the Jimmy Fund and learn, I kid you not, more about baseball in one weekend than most will throughout the rest of the year combined.

If you see fit and have a couple extra bucks lying around, please donate to the Jimmy Fund‘s incredible ongoing work.

Questions or comments are welcome in 140 characters or less @saberbythebay.

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