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Daily Box Score 8/9: Fans Who Roll Up Their Sleeves


Certainly, baseball culture is enriched by the people who work inside baseball professionally. There are thousands of dedicated people, from beer men to groundskeepers to organizational shortstops, who make the game work. But there are also many more non-professionals who use their expertise in other areas to contribute to baseball culture. From historians and mathematicians to poets and archivists, these folks make baseball a more enjoyable pastime. Today's box score is dedicated to some of their contributions.

Table of Contents
The Historian
The Applied Mathematicians
The Neuroscientist
The Gamers
Discussion Question of the Day


The Historian

What would you imagine a baseball Santa would be like? You might say he'd bring baseball-related gifts, like bats and jerseys. But for the SABR set, topping the list of most-hoped for gifts would be nuggets of baseball knowledge, and the more obscure the better. Which is why a profile/interview in the Voice of San Diego is worthwhile: it features Bill Swank, who both plays "Baseball Santa" and is San Diego's pre-eminent baseball historian. I especially enjoyed his comments about the prevalence of black baseball in San Diego:

Rube Foster brought the Chicago American Giants out in 1913. They came out to play in the California winter leagues, but they were so good that the teams up in Los Angeles couldn’t compete with them. So they just ended up spending the whole winter in San Diego, where they played a total of 24 games. The San Diego Bears won 14, and the American Giants won 10.

The whole tone of reporting changed: Cartoons that depicted Foster as a big monkey just completely disappeared. And in the end, the newspapers were saying that these men were good ballplayers [...]

Swank, who is a retired probation officer, has dedicated his life to learning and writing about baseball in San Diego. There's something great about his attention to detail. 

The Applied Mathematicians

Mathematicians and baseball have always gotten along well. After all without that crossover, sabermetrics would be significantly impoverished. But mathematicians also often have access to extremely powerful computers and there is often free time available on these computers. So when they are looking for ways to test theories in the real world, those mathematicians who are baseball fans (and the incidence rate is higher for them than it is for the general population) turn to their favorite sport.

Take, for example, the paper "Mutually-Antagonistic Interactions in Baseball Networks," recently published in arXiv. Sergeui Saavedra, et al., use a form of run expectancy (they call it Runs Until End) to quantify every possible batter-pitcher matchup in a season. They then use network analysis to make inferences about hypothetical batter-pitcher matchups that might never have happened. By daisy chaining these matchups, they arrive at a ranking for all time. 

An article in Wired magazine recently examined the study:

It’s still rough around the edges, having not yet learned to handle stolen bases, injuries and differences between ballparks. (Todd Helton, his numbers accumulated in the thin air and vast gaps of Denver’s Coors Field, currently surpasses Mickey Mantle.) Many contemporary stars benefit from having their numbers not yet reflect the performance decline of age, and the defensive side of the game is ignored.

Those don't sound like terribly difficult changes to make (considering how much work has been done already), and most likely are a residue of the RUE formula. From the paper:

To quantify the outcome of each plate appearance, we used the sabermetric quantity runs to end of inning (RUE), which assigns a value to each of the possible outcomes in a plate appearance based on the expected number of runs a team would obtain before the end ofthat inning following that event, independent of game context.

Perhaps they can use a different set of linear weights for each season and each park?

The Neuroscientist

Towards the end of 2008, a certain type of image began making appearances on various baseball websites. It displayed PITCHf/x information in a variety of different ways and always carried a badge reading: "" By now, of course, these images are ubiquitous. For that, we have Dan Brooks to thank. Profiled in a recent Cedar Rapids Gazette article, Brooks revealed how quickly things have grown:

"It’s a pretty niche thing," Brooks said. "But I feel like we’re getting a lot of hits for something like this. It’s been pretty successful."

Brooks’ site averages roughly 1,000 unique visitors per day. That includes scouts and journalists who cover major league teams.

Brooks is a graduate student attending the University of Iowa and studying behavioral and cognitive neuroscience. Pretty handy hobby, if you ask me. His visualizations update just a few minutes behind real time.

The Gamers

Many sabermetrically-oriented fans became interested in the numbers after being exposed to baseball card games, like Strat and APBA. These games lost a bit of popularity with the rise of the internet and fantasy baseball, but the diehards (and even some younger enthusiasts) play on. A recent article in the New York Times looked at the APBA championship:

The 16-year-old-Wells, a fast-talking native of Wyomissing, Pa., who has a summer job as a busboy, became the first person to win the tournament twice. His first title came in 2002, when he was 9, his second in 2008. The older players have accepted him, some begrudgingly, as a member of their fraternity.

"It used to be when I was 9, when I was younger, they didn’t seem like they wanted me there, you know, little kids," Wells said. "And then, like winning, they didn’t really like that at all."

Give 'em hell, kid. The article also discusses APBA's plans to roll out an interactive, electronic version of their product.

Discussion Question of the Day

I bet some of you lurking out there are big card game/sim fans. What is your favorite? APBA? Strat? Computer sims? Which are the most user-friendly? Which are the most sabermetrics-friendly?