Julio Cortez/Associated Press file photo
Julio Cortez/Associated Press file photo
PHOENIX – They were called old-timers or purists, those who blanched last fall at the thought that Detroit slugger Miguel Cabrera might be passed over for the Most Valuable Player award after achieving the Triple Crown, leading the American League in batting average, homers and RBIs.
On the other side of baseball’s dividing line stood new-school thought, people who argued just as vehemently that advanced statistics left no doubt the Angels’ Mike Trout was best in the game.
The debate continues to rage, long after Cabrera captured the award and as a new season dawns, and has thrust the notion of baseball analytics into the public consciousness.
This weekend, some of the game’s brightest minds – team executives, statisticians, economists and more – have gathered to take a deeper look into the numbers behind the box score.
The second Analytics Conference, put on by the Society for American Baseball Research, is a three-day feast of America’s pastime. But instead of jersey-wearing fans pining for signatures from their favorite players, economists and law school students and hundreds of others are huddling in hallways and back rooms to discuss WAR (Wins Above Replacement), BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) and other ways of dissecting the game.
“The idea behind the conference is pretty straightforward,” said SABR president Vince Gennaro, author of Diamond Dollars: The Economics of Winning in Baseball. “It’s to discuss various topics of interest to the baseball community and baseball.
“This conference is all about sharing viewpoints, and in the process of doing so, elevating our understanding of the game.”
Dozens of presentations are planned at the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University and the Sheraton Phoenix Downtown, each of them presenting opinions and unique thoughts.
Dodgers president and chief executive officer Stan Kasten is scheduled to speak Friday, shortly after a panel that includes Rangers general manager Jon Daniels, White Sox GM Rick Hahn and Cubs GM Jed Hoyer.
Others scheduled to appear include Bill James, who ushered in the idea of advanced statistics with his baseball abstracts in the late 1970s and ’80s and now advises the Red Sox; author Joe Posnanski and TV personality Brian Kenny; Tyrone Brooks, the Pirates’ director of player personnel; and Derek Falvey, director of baseball operations for the Indians.
“I think any fan who ever thinks, ‘Why is this guy still playing third base?’ is thinking of the game as a general manager,” said Kenny, whose “Clubhouse Confidential” show on the MLB Network incorporates sabermetrics in examining the day’s baseball news.
These aren’t the kind of discussions that usually take place on a bar stool, though, or by a couple of buddies sipping a beer in the cheap seats at Wrigley Field.
Just consider the titles of some of the presentations: “Nash Equilibrium Solutions for Fastball Locations in Two-Strike Counts,” by Kevin Tenenbaum and Dave Allen, and “Bayes at the Plate: Game Theory and Pitch Selection,” by Matt Swartz, who writes for several baseball publications and holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Pennsylvania.
“Some of it is pretty deep, but the real goal is to design a conference that is appealing to the 30 major league clubs, and from there expand it to a wider audience,” Gennaro said.
One of the highlights of the conference is the “Diamond Dollars Case Competition,” where teams of students from colleges across the country argue their solution to a baseball-type problem.
In this case, students were to examine the contract situation of Trout – widely considered one of the best young players in the game – and present to Angels GM Jerry Dipoto their recommendation, whether that means year-by-year deals or signing the young star to a long-term contract.
The students’ responses are judged by a panel that includes front-office officials from the Cardinals, Indians, Rangers and Rockies, with the winner crowned by the end of the weekend.
The conference isn’t just about numbers, either.
Geoff Miller, the mental skills coach for the Atlanta Braves, was invited by SABR to discuss ways for baseball officials to combine intangible factors with analytics methods, and agents Casey Close and Gregg Clifton planned to discuss ways new data and information has changed their jobs.
Meanwhile, the Cabrera vs. Trout debate keeps popping up.
Cabrera led the AL in hitting with a .330 average last season, and his league-leading 44 homers and 139 RBIs allowed him to win baseball’s first Triple Crown in 45 years.
Trout hit .326 with 30 homers and 83 RBIs, but had a WAR – a metric that factors in numerous statistics to encapsulate a player’s true value – of 10.7, which in theory made him the single most valuable position player in the majors last season.
“Look, Miguel Cabrera did actually win the MVP award,” said Kenny, who has called the vote an example of antiquated, pack-mentality thinking. “The next challenge is for innovative thinking. This is a period for innovating and changing things. At least, you’d like to think.”
Matt York/Associated Press file photo