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Want to help me plan my baseball class? Topics and Links needed.

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Update: Topic schedule that I am using is in the comments (toward the bottom), though not with references yet.  I will update this page (or make a new page) recapping the semester with the full reading list once the class is over.

I teach at a small university, and this spring I'm going to be teaching a class on baseball.  Here's the description I submitted this fall:

Course Title: The Science of Baseball

Description: Perhaps no other sport relies as much on tradition, hearsay, and loud opinion as baseball. But what is gained (or lost) when these claims are examined using a scientific approach? How do hitters watch the ball when it moves faster than human eyes can track? Do clutch hitters exist? Do steroids really help performance, and if not (or even if so) should they be banned? Why does a MLB bench player earn 10 times more money than a teacher? We will discuss these and other questions in light of studies from the exercise physiology, psychology, economics, and "sabermetrics" literature.

So, it's not a "sabermetric" class per se.  But a big part of what we're going to do will be sabermetrics.

Given that next semester starts in a month and, beyond this description, I basically haven't started prepping the class, it's time to start putting together a battle plan.  And I thought this might be where you folks could help. 

More below the jump.

Background on the course

This class is being offered as part of our general education program.  Each student at our university must take a 2-credit colloquium during their freshman year.  Typically, these classes are based on professors' pet interests.  This year, in addition to my baseball class, there's a class on the Twilight Saga, the works of C.S. Lewis, mankind's sense of invulnerability, etc.  

Classes are small (15-20 students, max) and are designed to be discussion-oriented (lectures should be minimal).  My class filled up quickly (popular, though admittedly not as popular as the Twilight class...but then, I doubt any class in campus history has been), so I can hopefully anticipate that most people took the class because they like baseball...though some might have taken it because it fits their schedule.  However, I can assume very little in the way of basic math skills, much less background in sabermetric concepts.

Grades will be determined by a) a research paper, which can be either a novel study that a student does, or a review paper on a specific topic, b) "entry slip" writing assignments responding to each day's assigned readings, and c) participation in the class discussions.


My primary goal in the class is to have students practice using a scientific approach to advance their understanding of something (in this case, baseball).  And, in my mind, that comes down to using logic and data as the basis for forming opinions, rather than other "approaches."  It sounds simple, but this is a remarkably underdeveloped skill among many students entering (and even leaving!) college.  A secondary goal is to get students up to date in modern research about baseball.  I don't need them to be researchers, but they should be able to read Hardball Times or FanGraphs, for example, and understand what's going on.  As a tertiary goal, this course designed is to permit me to play around with baseball all semester while simultaneously having a legitimate claim that I'm doing "work." :)

How you can help (should you be inclined to do so)

I have assigned two books (Bridging the Statistical Gap by Seidman & the Physics of Baseball by Adair), and we are definitely going to work through major parts of those books to start the semester.  However, I would also like to generate a large list of topics from which students can choose so that we can target the class to their specific interests.  Furthermore, for each topic, I'd like to get together a set of good readings--be they book chapters, journal articles, or online articles--that address the topic, ideally from several different angles (or in ways that come to different conclusions).  

I've started this below.  I've spent time on it, but it's still preliminary.  I'd very much like suggestions for additional topics, as well as and especially links to good articles on topics.  I'd especially like a) links to groundbreaking original articles (methods papers, etc) that are a cornerstone of our understanding of specific topics, and b) links to especially good, readable, and influential articles summarizing findings on specific topics (i.e. good review papers).  Recent applied stuff might also be interesting to provide methods-in-practice examples, but for the most part, I want to go after the original, influential papers.  As long as they're readable.

If this list turns out to be a resource that folks find useful, I may turn it into a small website of its own.  Many thanks in advance!

NOTE/UPDATE: If the topic list is too large/intimidating to work through in entirety, please think about your "pet" interests and then focus on those items as you look skim through the bigger list.  Not everyone can be an expert on everything!

Potential topic list

Baseball physics, biology, and psychology

How can we describe the different pitches that are thrown?

  • Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers, excerpts from each pitch type.
  • I'd love to include some good pitchf/x stuff here, but I haven't kept up.  Any nice, current primers?  John Walsh had a good one early on at THT.  Anything more recent?
  • Hardball Times 2009 by Fast (cliff lee turnaround; good example piece)

Why do breaking pitches break?

  • Physics of Basball by Adair, chapters 1,2,3,4

How do hitters make contact with a baseball (neuroscience-wise)?  What happens when the ball hits the bat (physics)?

  • Psychology of Baseball by Stadler, chapter 1,2
  • Physics of Baseball by Adair, chapters 1,2,3,5,6

How do fielders track down fly balls?

  • Psychology of Baseball by Stadler, chapter x.
  • Physics of Baseball by Adair, chapter 7.

Myth, or Reality?

Do players go through hot & cold streaks?
How valuable are batter/pitcher matchup numbers?  And other small sample size questions.
Do clutch hitters exist?
  • The Book by Tango et al, chapters 1,4
  • Baseball Between the Numbers by BPro, chapter 1-2
  • Bridging the Statistical Gap by Seidman, chapter 6
How did steroids affect the on-field game of baseball?  Did they?
  • Between the Numbers by BPro, chapter 9-1.
  • The Baseball Economist by Bradbury, chapter 9

Fielding isn't really that important, is it?

Are scouts being replaced by statistics?

  • Moneyball by Lewis, chapter 2 (draft board discussions)
  • Baseball Between the Numbers by BPro, "extra innings" by Perry
  • The Baseball economist by Bradbury, chapter 11
  • Something on the Fan Scouting Report, maybe my thing:
  • Perry:
Do umpire strike zones really vary all that much?
  • Could use some help here.  I know there's been stuff on this, I just haven't kept up on it.

    Speed guys add as much value with their legs as power guys do with their bats, right?

    • Anyone have a good article on this?  Ideally using something like Dan Fox's EqBRR?  I think John Walsh might have done some speed stuff at some point along with his arms stuff...?  I don't want to just do SB's, it's gotta be all baserunning.

    Players today just aren't as good as players in the past.

    • Between the Numbers by BPro (Silver's article has flawed methods, but good discussion)
    • THT Annual 2008(?) by Gassko (All-time pitcher rankings, adjusted for era difficulty)
    • Dan Fox: and (subscription wall)


    Evaluating Value

    Why can't we just judge hitters on AVG/HR/RBI?

    Why can't we just judge pitchers by W/L record, ERA, or save totals?

    How can we assess a player's fielding?
    • My crap: and and
    • Fielding Bible by Dewan and James, "chapters" 2 & 3 (Everett vs. Jeter, overview of plus/minus)
    • MGL's UZR series: and
    • Hardball Times Annual 2009, TZ article by Smith
    • Smith on Total Zone:
    • Shane Jensen & SAFE:
    • THT Annual 2008 by Tango ( WOWY Jeter)
    How can we best estimate a players impact on scoring runs?  Winning?


    Judging trades and free agent signings: how much money is that player worth, dollar-wise?


    How much does home park matter?  How can we deal with that problem?


    How can we evaluate managers?

    • MGL in Hardball Times 2009 Annual
    • Gassko in Hardball Times 2008 Annual
    How should we decide end-of-season awards?  Hall of fame?
    • Not sure on articles (recommendations?).  Discussion would likely involve context-neutral vs. context-sensitive statistics, average vs. replacement baselines, and for hall of fame, peak vs. accumulated value.  This might end up being a good way to pitch the player value discussions rather than a topic in and of themselves.

    Game strategy

    When is sacrifice bunting a good idea?

    Can we really just use win expectancy to answer our baseball strategy questions?
    • The Book by Tango et al, chapter 10 (bluffing in baseball)
    • Any other good game theory articles, especially ones not about sac bunting?
    How can we best use our relievers?
    • The Book by Tango et al, chapter 8
    • Baseball Between the Numbers by BPro, chapter 2-2
    What is the best way to make out a lineup?
    • Baseball Between the Numbers by BPro, chapter 1-3
    • The Book by Tango et al, chapter 5

    Team-level analysis and front office strategy

    This part could definitely use expansion, both in topics and article.

    How can we best estimate team winning percentages?
    Should cities build stadiums for their local sports teams?
    • Baseball Between the Numbers, chapter 6-2
    • Anyone know a good original economics paper on this?  I think I remember reading something by Zimbalist, but haven't found it yet.
    How do teams make money?
    • Diamond Dollars by Gennaro, chapters 2 & 3
    • Between the Numbers by BPro, chapter 6-1
    Do teams cycle?
    • Between the Numbers by BPro, chapter 8-3
    • Anything else on this issue?
    How do players age?
    • I'm thinking about using the Bradbury article & the Birnbaum/Tango responses as a way to discuss sampling bias.

    General summaries of sabermetric ideas

    Thanks to pur own Michael Jong and his glossary for directly or indirectly providing some of the links on this page.  Others were cobbled together from internet searches and my own recollections of important articles.