Highlights from the SABR Analytics Meeting

I’m fortunate to be in Phoenix this week for the 5th SABR Analytics conference.  Today was a great day with a nice opening talk by Brian Kenny, several interesting panel discussions including well-know media personalities and former baseball players, and two research talks. Let me focus on Brian Kenny’s talk which gave a nice overview of the current state of baseball analytics.

Resistance to Analytics

Although Kenny states that analytics has taken over baseball, there has been notable resistance among the broadcasting community, baseball teams, and managers.  However, there have been some signs that the resistance is fading.  The media did not mock Cub’s manager Joe Maddon when he regularly had the pitcher bat 8th in the lineup.  It was okay during the recent season to have a power hitter bat second, and closers could be used in the 8th inning.

Lag Time for Excellence

Kenny explained that the resistance to analytics is not new — there have been other examples of a “lag time for excellence.”  For example, the Cardinals employed a full defense infield shift for Ted Williams in the 1946 World Series — it has taken a long time (almost 50 years) for the shift to be common practice.  Kansas City had success with the “three headed monster” relief pitching in the 2015 season.  Kenny believes that it will similarly take a long time for this bullpen attack to be commonly adapted.

Why Doesn’t Baseball Use Good Information?

Kenny gives several explanations for the resistance of baseball and the media to adapt analytics.  One reason is that we tend to be herd animals and bucking the herd is perceived to be dangerous.  A second reason is that laziness is built into our nature.  It takes energy to think hard about baseball questions and baseball folk tend to place too much weight into our intuition.

MVP Voting

Although we are more informed about what it means for a player to be most valuable, Kenny makes an interesting comment about the MVP voting.  In the years 1931-1969, there were arguably 8 bad choices for MVP.  One would think the sportswriters would be better in making reasonable selections in recent years, but there have also been 8 bad choices since 1970.

What is the Next Thing?

Despite the advances in analytics, Kenny comments that we aren’t just replacing players with statistics.  There actually is something to watching the game beyond what is measured by a play-by-play account or a boxscore.  (I would add that the statistical information adds to my enjoyment in watching the game.)  Following his earlier comments, Kenny believes that there will be changes how pitcher are used in the future.  Do we really need a starter (especially when the current starter does not pitch that many innings)?  The closer may be used in more creative ways (say at times of high leverage) than just the 9th inning with a lead.

There were many more highlights of this first day of the SABR Analytics Conference and there will be more highlights to share in future posts.

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