SABR Analytics Conference: Day 2 Recap

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

I attended the second annual SABR Analytics Conference in Phoenix over the weekend. The following is my recap of day 2 of the conference, featuring a GM panel, Stan Kasten, Bill James, Geoff Miller, and Matt Swartz.

General Manager Panel – Jon Daniels (Rangers), Jed Hoyer (Cubs), and Rick Hahn (White Sox)

Like the player panel for my Day 1 Recap, I’m going to give you a list of notable quotations and points made by the GMs.

Daniels:

  • The Rangers have no formal Analytics department.
  • "The bigger the decision, the more information you need."
  • Advanced scouts take the analytic reports on a player and find the most important numbers for the players and manager.
  • "We don’t want group-think…We don’t always know the right move."
  • The most important part of being a GM is to the hire the right people to do their jobs.
  • All scouts look at the numbers, and all stats guys like things that they see on the field.

Hoyer:

  • You have to ask a lot of questions before you can become comfortable with a number, and you can only use a number once you’re comfortable with it.
  • You have to provide the right information to the managers – don’t give them all the numbers.
  • For any managerial decision, "all I care about is that the manager has a well thought out, intelligent reason for their move."
  • "Managers of the future are guys just off the field."
  • The most important part of the GM’s job is "make sure the processes are really good."
  • "I can honestly say that I can’t wait to get to work in the morning."
  • Looks at FanGraphs, Baseball Prospectus, and The Hardball Times every morning.
  • You want the scouts to work off their eyes and instincts, independent of the numbers.
  • You see fewer prospect deals in recent years because fans are more informed.

Hahn:

  • Doesn’t want the impression that the White Sox are analytics-centered; allows them to be more "stealthy".
  • Five guys in the Analytics department, and they use only outside sources for hardcore math.
  • "We want numbers to be part of the conversation."
  • Likes to translate the numbers into something run-based or an index (ERA+, for example).
  • Ozzie Guillen would challenge the numbers, not throw them away, and engage in debate. Robin Ventura is very open-minded.
  • Reads South Side Sox (the White Sox SB Nation site) often. Believes that fan blogs are a good source of information.

Stan Kasten Interview with Vince Gennaro

I don't have too much to say about Kasten's interview, as he did not talk extensively about sabermetrics or analytics. However, he mentioned one very interesting thing. Kasten said that for in-game situations, statistics are hugely important and should be used almost exclusively because over the long run, the most probable outcomes will occur most often. However, for front office decisions, a mixture of scouts and stats is necessary:

Stats can tell me that something will happen 65% of the time, but I only get to make that decision once.

In other words, the decision to sign a free agent or offer an extension or draft a player is unique every time, so the laws of regression to the mean and so forth don't necessarily apply. In those situations, every piece of information is important so that the front office knows that it's making the correct decision.

Making Intangibles Tangible - Geoff Miller

This was one of my favorite talks of the conference, not because it was mind-blowing or revolutionary, but because it was an entirely different perspective than the rest of the presentations and than most sabermetric thought in general. Miller is a Mental Skills Coach, which means he helps players grow psychologically so that they can succeed in the minors and majors. In his presentation, he spoke about the various aspects of a player's psychology that can help or get in the way of his development.

Miller's main goal is to help players perform under pressure, which entails knowing what to do, and being able to do it when it counts. To do so, they must be able to answer four questions:

1. Know who you are (Self-evaluation)

2. Know what you want (Goals)

3. Know what to do when you don't get it (Dealing with failure)

4. Know what to do in the meantime before mastery of these concepts (Short-term fixes)

These seem like vague concepts, but Miller has players take very in-depth tests in order to assess various aspects of their personality. This tests tell Miller what the player will naturally do in a pressure situation - will he act on what he knows or will he think about what to do? Players who analyze and think are often very knowledgable about the game and what they need to do, but when it comes to pressure situations, it is players who can act that succeed.

What came to mind for me was the famous Derek Jeter "flip play". Jeter may have gone over all the possible situations in his head before the play, but when it came down to the heat of the moment, he couldn't think about what to do; he had to act on his instincts and trust that he was prepared to come through.

Wonderful Ignorance - Bill James

The moment you've all been waiting for - the founder of sabermetrics. James didn't really have a central message in his talk, and mostly just rambled about whatever the hell he wanted. Luckily, he's Bill James, so it was still fascinating and awesome. One of the core messages was the importance of questions. Here's what he had to say about sabermetric research:

What's critical is to be able to find a question that has an answer, and you don't know what that answer is.

He continued to say that it doesn't really matter if you find the correct answer, because if you don't, someone else will. As a side note, that's what we try to do here at BtB. We obviously want to find the right answer, but more important than that, we want to find interesting questions to answer.

James also talked about the relationship between the baseball operations department and the business side of things, explaining that the business part of a team has a lot of influence and control over baseball ops, but not the other way around.

Finally, in the Q&A portion of the talk, James emphasized the importance of public sabermetrics research, saying that the brainpower of researchers not on a team is far greater than that of team employees. That's definitely a nice thing to hear for people like us.

Bayes at the Plate: Game Theory and Pitch Selection - Matt Swartz

This was a fantastic presentation. Unfortunately, I didn't take too many notes, so I can't give you a lot of details about the material. Basically, Matt, who has a doctorate in economics, talked about the relevance of game theory in pitch selection - that is, how often should pitchers throw fastballs and curveballs, and where should they throw them, based on the risk and reward of walks and strikeouts?

You should absolutely read Matt's five part series for a much more in-depth explanation of this concept. I think this is literally game-changing research/analysis.

Clubhouse Confidential Panel - Dave Cameron, Rob Neyer, and Vince Gennaro

Again, unfortunately, this panel was so entertaining that I forgot to take notes. The three sabermetric superstars spoke about a tons of topics within baseball. One of my favorite moments was an argument about the National League potentially adopting the DH. Neyer mentioned that NL owners won't allow that to happen, and Cameron responded, "Well those people will die." Priceless.

Oh yeah, one more thing. BtB's own Lewie Pollis won the award for Best Contemporary Commentary, beating out Dave Cameron, Brian Kenny, Jayson Stark, and Russell Carleton. That's quite a group, and we're immensely proud. You can read Lewie article here.

Check back later this week for my final recap of day 3 of the conference.

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