The Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) Analytics Conference brings together the top minds in the baseball analytics community to discuss, debate and share insightful ways to analyze and examine the game of baseball. The Washington University Sports Analytics Club made it a priority this year to attend the conference. Now is in its third year of existence, the club wanted to allow members to learn from professionals in the field and increase networking opportunities at the SABR Analytics Conference.
Not only did we – Tyler Brandt, Kenny Dorian, Brent Katlan, Ben Rosenkranz, and Brody Roush – attend the conference, but we also competed in the Diamond Dollars Case Competition that invites students from across the country to analyze and present a real baseball operations decision. We ended up winning our undergraduate division, and learned a lot from our own experience presenting, watching other teams present, and listening to expert panels talk about analytics in baseball.
The case itself was on pitch tunneling. We were handed a data set that was just recently unveiled by Baseball Prospectus, and asked to use that data to “develop insights into how this information can enable a MLB team to gain a competitive advantage on the field.” Our specific case looked at the ball in play effects of pitch tunneling. If you want to know more about how pitch tunneling affects groundball rates, pull rates, or the value of certain fielders, come find one of us. What follows here is a recap of some of what we learned.
Lessons from the Case Competition
In reality, the simple things helped us the most. We knew that MLB analysts were going to be the judges, and knowing our audience helped a lot. The judges were well aware of what pitch tunneling was, but the teams were split about 50/50 on which ones defined terms regarding pitch tunneling and which ones did not. Our decision not to define terms like the tunnel differential (see the link above) gave us an extra 7-8 minutes to get into our process and results. That extra time gave the judges a much clearer idea of how we came to our evaluation of how pitch tunneling can help a Major League Baseball team.
Additionally, just attaching values to our insights played a major role in our presentation. In baseball, each value must somehow be connected to the number of wins a team can get. Nevertheless, it’s pretty easy to put yourself in a situation where you just can’t get to a number that can be translated into wins. One common denominator among the winning teams at the competition was that they found a way to value their projects in terms of the one thing that baseball teams really care about: wins.
Lessons From the Conference
Players Don’t See the Same Things that the Front Office Does
One of the common refrains that we kept hearing was that using the insights gained from analytical work can be very difficult, because of the disconnect between players and analysts. Analysts try to break things down in terms of data and numbers, while players are trying to think through an actual game and see how that would affect the individual players. Many people brought up the idea that the front office and the players are “speaking two different languages.” What became clear to us is that the team that can communicate the results of new studies to its players better will have a sizeable advantage on the field, at least until others catch on.
New Developments in Baseball Analytics
There were a couple of interesting new developments that are worth sharing. The one that will affect fans the most is Statcast’s new catch probability. For fly balls, they can now tell how likely a ball is to be caught by the average fielder given flight time and distance from the nearest fielder. When you watch games this year, you might see those numbers on your TV screen, in addition to a rating that tells you the difficulty of each catch. Some other highlights include: the Mariners employ mental experts at all levels of the minors to help their prospects develop the toughness needed to succeed in the majors, Bill James implored us to think on a more macro level about where we need more insights in baseball, and Tom Tango* revealed himself!
*Tom Tango is the Senior Data Architect, Stats at MLB Advanced Media and is the co-author of The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball. He also developed the Tangotiger.com website, where fans and analysts will find a large number of research pieces devoted to sabermetrics. Tom has previously worked as a consultant for major-league teams in baseball and hockey.
Guest Blogger: Tyler Brandt, A&S ’19
Photos from SABR Flickr page.