Tuesday, February 2, 2010

SABR Day in America - Recap

The San Diego (Ted Williams) Chapter of SABR met Saturday at Petco Park. In case you've wondered why the San Diego Chapter is named for a famous Boston Red Sock, Ted Williams was a San Diego native and broke into professional baseball with the San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League. So the local connection is why we honor him in our chapter name. There's also a Ted Williams Parkway in North County, for the same reason.

At any rate, about two dozen people participated in the day's discussion. The room we previously had access to at the Park is accessible from the street, but isn't the best room for meetings or presentations requiring a movie screen. Today the Club allowed us access to one of their conference rooms on the fourth floor - a much nicer venue to be sure. The room overlooked the concourse between sections 109-119, with the first base line visible from about halfway up the line from home plate to the foul pole. Thank you, San Diego Padres, for the upgrade.

There were four topics on the agenda. David Kinney led us off with a quick review/summary of the latest baseball books in print. Rather than touch on every book he discussed, which numbered about 10, here are the ones I found intriguing:

- "But Didn't We Have Fun, by Peter Morris. It covers the period from 1843-1870, before the first professional leagues became economically viable. There's an awful lot of information in there as to where certain baseball sayings come from, like 'knocked out of the box'. The original pitcher's mound was not raised at all, but marked off by a box, and the pitcher was not allowed to leave it. So, if he had to move out of the way of a batted ball, and left the box as a result, he was 'knocked out of the box'.

- "The Art of Catching" by Brett Mayne. Written for men (and I guess women too) playing the catcher position. For the baseball fan/student, it contains lots of insight as to how catchers play the position, which can enhance understanding of the action on the field.

- "Pull Up a Chair: The Vin Scully Story" by Curt Smith. One sees a lot of autobiographies by broadcasters and baseball announcers, but not too many biographies. This takes a look at how Vinny got into broadcasting. Smith makes the point (as David related) that Vinny was incredibly lucky - fortune favors the prepared? Scully came along just as Red Barber was looking for someone to mentor. Red Barber was the voice of the Dodgers before Scully took over the reins.

The oft-repeated anecdote about being able to walk down any street in Brooklyn while the Dodgers were playing, and not miss a pitch because everyone had the game on, is repeated in this story. Imagine the pressure on Scully to perform, at such a young age, given that kind of fan loyalty.

One more item from the book: Smith describes LA Dodger fans bringing their transistor radios to the stadium when watching the Dodgers play. Dodger games were at the LA Coliseum the first 3 years they were in LA, because Dodger stadium was being built. Well, since the Coliseum seats 91,000+ fans, most couldn't see the action; so to better understand what was going on, they brought their radios and listened to Scully. Chavez Ravine opened in 1962, but I can attest that, 15 years later, Dodger fans were still bringing radios to the ballpark to listen to Scully.

- "Lords of the Realm" (John Helyar) and "Juicing the Game" (Howard Bryant) describe the behind-the-scenes stories, controversies, personalities, and infighting amongst players, umpires, and owners, from expansion until the 1995 strike (Helyar) and from the strike until about 2004 or so (Bryant). It is almost essential reading.

Batting second, Eric Hanauer presented a photo presentation called 'shooting the Cubs'. Eric is a professional photographer, and had collected a lot of images during his time working for the Cubs he thought might be interesting. Cub presentations at our SABR meetings have become something of a running joke in my family - seems like there's a Cub presentation at every meeting. All are well-intentioned, but some aren't very good.

Eric's presentation was not only good, it blew me away. First, his real field of expertise is in underwater photography of marine life, and he got things off on the right foot with some photos of schools of fish, a great white shark, and humpback whales. From there he showed us all manner of field photos, from spring training relaxed shots of players warming up and signing autographs, to game images of action on the mound, at second, in the outfield, at the plate, in the stands at Wrigley, and so on. He talked about the "golden hour", that hour before sunset when the light gives off a warm glow and leads to well-lit photos of players. And he shared some of his stories of on the field incidents, including his getting clipped by a foul ball (which required 5 stitches). I was disappointed when he finished. Making the meeting was worth it just to see that presentation. Eric has a website where his photos can be purchased, if you're interested. The Cub photos are here.

After the break, and a trivia contest which I ended up winning (got 6 of 8 right), we had a 'Hot Stove Session' with the membership. Essentially the moderator (in this case, Chapter President Dan Boyle) would throw out a topic for everyone to offer an opinion on. The discussion started with whether or not to keep Adrian Gonzalez, Mark McGwire and steroids in baseball (specifically whether or not proven steroid users should get into the Hall of Fame), and so on. We actually talked about stuff like this for an hour or so.

But the highlight of the meeting had to be our question and answer period with Josh Stein (Director of Baseball Operations) and Chris Long (Senior Quantitative Analyst). We had warmed up for this discussion by revisiting opinions on trading Adrian Gonzalez, which boiled down to ‘don’t trade him’, ‘trade him, but when’. They spoke to us for a little more than an hour, and one of the first things they mentioned revolved around that second Gonzalez debate, for which they had been in the room. Basically Stein stated it was exactly the kind of discussion they have in the front office regarding Gonzalez. One expected that kind of discussion occurred in baseball front offices, not just by fans online or over the radio air waves; even so, it was cool to hear that suspicion confirmed. Rather than post a word-for-word recap of the discussion, I wanted to hit some of the highlights. In no particular order, that follows below.

All of baseball is on board with statistical analysis, and teams use data collected over the course of seasons/careers to evaluate their players and their ballparks. We are all familiar with Pitch F/X data, and what it can tell us about the trajectory of a pitched ball from the time it leaves the pitcher’s hand until it crosses the plate or is put in play. Development is under way to create a similar system for batted balls in play, and for defense. It sounded like enough cameras would be present in major league ball parks to track the ball from contact through landing, whether it lands as a hit or an out. It also sounded like enough cameras would be present to track a player’s route to a fly ball, and arm strength on his throws in, as opposed to using UZR or Dewan plus/minus for defense, and looking at ‘runners held/thrown out’ for arm strength.

Evaluating players with respect to Petco has been important in the past, and is being emphasized even more heavily now. As you know Petco plays big; it is the best pitchers park in the League. As such, it presents unique problems for scoring runs and for defending the open spaces. Who the Padres acquire, either through trade, free agency, or draft, has to be done through the prism of their ballpark. As an aside, Stein mentioned Mike Cameron as an outfielder who was a great fit at Petco specifically because of his defense.

Speaking of defense, Stein and Long mentioned that 66% of games at Petco have been decided by 3 runs or less. The ML average is about 60%. Run prevention has to be a big part of the strategy for putting teams together at Petco, because of the difficulty in scoring runs in bunches at that ballpark. The team tries to fold in defensive statistics from the minor leagues when evaluating prospects, although they admit that data has it limits based on the quality of the official scoring and the propensity of young kids in the lower minor leagues to make errors (which complicates the statistical analysis).

There was some time spent talking about Adrian Gonzalez’s future, as follow-up to what we were talking about when they walked into the room. Again, suffice it to say the Padres would love to keep him, but are keeping their options open. Quote from Stein: “We recognize what a special player he is on both sides of the ball.”

A question came up on the ballpark, and moving the fences. Seems this topic will never go away. Stein and Long did say analysis was done on where balls land out in RC/RF before the fences were moved in 12 feet a couple of years ago. Long mentioned the major factor making Petco play big is the weather, and they both described how the wind acts on structures around the ballpark much like water acts on a rock or obstruction in a river – it goes around the obstruction. So, since the prevailing wind is from left to right, and the Western Metal building is the first structure wind encounters in left, the wind goes around the building on either side, around the scoreboard above the LC bleachers, banks off the façade in RF, and swirls around the ballpark. This would explain why, if you sit in the nosebleed seats down the first base line, the wind blows from your right to your left, towards home plate. It also explains why it’s always really breezy up there.

We talked about potential other markets for finding players. One question was about looking in India based on how many men play cricket, and because the Pirates recently signed two Indian prospects. Based on the reaction (Chris Long: “I was just talking about that. We should hang out! (NB: I didn’t ask this question)) it has been considered. Not just looking at India, however, because every country has great athletes who could play baseball competently and well. What prevents clubs from mining these elite athletes for baseball purposes lies in working with that raw athletic talent, because the player would have to learn the game from scratch, which brings along with it its own set of problems.

A specific question about Latos and Blanks was asked vis-à-vis their performance last year. Latos’ decline after 7 or 8 starts has been attributed to fatigue by the Padres; he hadn’t thrown more than 60 innings in a professional season before last year. Blanks’ numbers as a starter were significantly better than as a bench player. In fact, as a hitter he has always performed, and at a younger than expected age, in his rise through the minors. Stein and Long are high on Blanks’ ability and potential, and are excited about watching him play in 2010 at the Major League level.

Finally, they talked a little bit about pitcher evaluation (strikeout and walk rates are a good measure of the quality of a pitcher, but aren’t the whole story), and pitcher injuries (there still aren’t good metrics or ways to evaluate when a pitcher will get hurt). Stein and Long evinced a lack of belief in the 100 pitch count, but didn’t completely discount it; they did say the level of effort inning to inning (and the subsequent fatigue high effort brings, with perhaps not enough recovery time between innings) is much more of a consideration on how long to leave a starter in the game.

To a man the Chapter was very appreciative of Josh Stein and Chris Long’s remarks, and the time they spent with us on a Saturday afternoon. Personally I hope they can become regulars at our meetings, because the amount of insight they gave us was well worth the short time we got to spend with them.

No comments:

Post a Comment