After an exciting first day, Saber Seminar's second day began on Sunday, with Red Sox manager John Farrell representing one of the more impressive speakers. During the 2012 Saber Seminar, then-Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine held a 30-minute Q&A with the audience and admitted that he hardly used any of the statistical information Boston’s front office had at its disposal to make in-game decisions. In a similar Q&A during this year’s seminar, the difference in Farrell’s approach was evident immediately, as Boston’s current manager said he spoke with Tom Tippett, the team’s Director of Baseball Information Services (and fellow Saber Seminar presenter), multiple times per week.
Farrell stated he used the reams of data that Boston’s front office compiles to improve the team’s defensive positioning, aid in player adjustments, and help him strategize while planning off-days for different players. He did, however, state that much of his digestion of statistical information takes place in the hours before games so he is well prepared for the quick, "5-to-10-second" decisions that must be made during the game.
When asked about the team’s liberal use of defensive shifts, Farrell conceded, "We’re still looking for greater accuracy to determine where balls are hit and how that impacts our defensive positioning." Farrell mentioned how the key is to "guard against where the hardest balls are hit," not necessarily "every ball that is put in play." He did mention, moreover, that defensive shifting can be tough due to each player's comfort zone, as veterans are often uncomfortable with playing out of position.
In discussing how to best present advanced stats to players, Farrell admitted that the process remains a bit of a "trick," as you almost have to convince the player an adjustment is his idea. He also said that rookies can be overwhelmed by all the information that is suddenly available to them, so often the team tries to simplify the process for younger players.
One of the more interesting revelations came when Farrell discussed the organizational differences between Boston and Toronto. He characterized Toronto as an organization that is "scouting-based" and focuses more on evaluating a player’s physical tools than anything else. In contrast, Farrell believes Boston stresses player development more and blends multiple aspects together (physical, mental, analytical, etc.) in evaluating players.
Kicking off the afternoon, former big league pitcher Brian Bannister talked about "sabermetrics on the field" and how pitchers can use advanced stats to improve their performance. Bannister admitted his talent level fell far below that of many major leaguers, and as a result, he is a big believer in finding non-traditional ways to improve a player’s performance on the field.
He began his presentation by recognizing the paradox in how front offices use stats to evaluate players and inform their decision-making process, while pitchers rarely use stats to make themselves better in the majors or during their developmental process in the minors. Bannister also acknowledged the gap between elite pitchers, who can pick up strikeouts with big fastballs and pure stuff, and pitchers like himself, who have to really tinker with their approach at the major league level.
At this point, Bannister arrived at the crux of his presentation, which centered on how "non-elite" pitchers can provide value to major league teams. He then listed six factors in this process:
- During development, prioritize skills that will maximize statistical production in majors
- Be objective about what works and what doesn’t
- Develop superior secondary pitches
- Overweight (or overuse) secondary pitches that are superior
- Be willing to try a non-traditional approach
- Add an element of randomness to a pitch (splitter, Vulcan changeup, knuckleball, etc.)
Using his experiences as an example, Bannister discussed how he had to scrap his more traditional fastball, breaking ball combination when he quickly realized the two pitches weren’t good enough to get major league hitters out. He then took us through his adjustments, including the differing pitch types (cutter, sinker, split-changeup) he used to get more movement on his pitches and generate weak contact.
The biggest impression Bannister made during his talk was just how open and willing he was to discuss (1) his limitations as a player and (2) how stats helped him overcome these limitations. Much like Gabe Kapler at places like Baseball Prospectus and WEEI, Bannister's insight and willingness to discuss players and their often-tenuous relationship with stats was refreshing to see.
In addition to these two great presentations, day two also included some phenomenal research from Dr. Alan Nathan on modern techniques for evaluating hitters and Dr. Dan Brooks on just when statistics become reliable. A fun panel, featuring Brian MacPherson of the Providence Journal, Alex Speier of WEEI, Dave Cameron of FanGraphs, and Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus, also discussed the use of statistics in the media and how presenting advanced stats to a mainstream audience has changed in recent years.
The afternoon speakers also shared loads of great research and fellow BtBS writer Stuart Wallace will provide his insight on a few of the other presentations in the coming days.
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Alex Skillin is a regular contributor to Beyond the Box Score and also a Staff Editor for SoxProspects.com. He writes, mostly about baseball and basketball, at a few other places across the Internet. You can follow him on Twitter at @AlexSkillin.