In the 8 years since I joined SABR, I’ve been to a few dozen chapter meetings, at times driving more than 2.5 hours just to get to the meeting locale. I served on a local chapter board, partially redrawing the chapter map for SABR. I’ve consumed baseball material since I was 6. Many times in the past, I had been asked if I was going to the upcoming SABR convention, and for many years, my answer would always be a disappointed “no”.
That answer changed about 8 months ago. With ample vacation time from my day job and not needing that time for other purposes, I was finally able to go to a SABR convention. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the first person to register, but I definitely made sure to register as soon as I saw the notice that I could do so in the weekly SABR notes e-mail. And so it was that last week, I made my way to Houston for SABR 44.
A typical SABR convention is a mix of research presentations, player panels, research committee meetings, a ballgame or two, and seeing how many attendees can shut down the hotel bar. With a jam packed schedule, the baseball chatter starts early (around 7 AM on the earliest days) and goes well past midnight. Since I haven’t been blessed with the ability to be in two places at once, I’ll go over what I was able to attend, ranking things in order of my favorites as I go, and close with some general thoughts on the experience.
The biggest draw of any convention are the player and media panels. Thanks to SABR’s improving relationship with MLB and the Larry Dierker Chapter’s close relationship with the Houston Astros and its chapter namesake, the panels here had a special twist: the last 2 were held Saturday afternoon at Minute Maid Park before that night’s game between Toronto and Houston. I’ll note those two in the ranks and comments below. I’m also including Reid Ryan’s opening keynote here in this section, since it is set aside like a panel in the schedule. For reference, I’m using the names of the panels as listed in the convention schedule, and have included links to audio/video where available:
- College Baseball Panel (audio/video) – The recordings don’t do justice to the hush that came over the room as soon as Roger Clemens entered and everyone noticed. I enjoyed the wide range of topics covered here (recruiting, bats, experiences) and the perspectives that Clemens, Mike Gustafson, and Lamar head coach Jim Gilligan provided.
- From Playing Field to Front Office – This ended up being more entertaining than informative, because at least 5 different Yogi Berra stories were shared. Dr. Bobby Brown is still sharp as a tack, Bob Watson was defiant when asked about his “struggles” against Don Sutton, and Eddie Robinson talked about his friendship with Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe.
- Reid Ryan keynote (audio/video) – Like most people who get a podium to themselves at a SABR meeting, Ryan told his story of involvement in the game and how he got to where he is today. What made him extra fascinating was hearing the perspective of a player’s son who has been involved at all levels of baseball.
- Decision Sciences Panel (at MMP) – For me, the most anticipated session. Moderated by and featuring Astros GM Jeff Luhnow, along with AGM David Stearns and Sig Mejdal (official title: Director of Decision Sciences. Real title: guy who has one of my 30 dream jobs). Lots of discussion about how the Astros front office works, and a little bit of insight into how they do things. Baseball Prospectus referred to as the “minor leagues” by Mejdal.
- Astros Player Panel (at MMP) – Larry Dierker, Alan Ashby, and Art Howe featured on this panel, and started swapping tales and interjecting into each other’s stories. A joy to hear multiple perspectives on the same story, especially the 1980 NLCS. Howe also commented on how he would have been involved in Steven Soderbergh’s version of Moneyball, and Howe talked to Philip Seymour Hoffman about his portrayal only after the movie premiered because of how Bennett Miller directed Hoffman to play the role.
- Colt .45s Panel (audio/video) – 4 players and a beat writers discussing the early seasons of Houston’s MLB franchise, with a lot of references to the heat, humidity, and mosquitos that made Houston the most interesting addition with the 1961 expansion. Featured Bob Aspromonte, Hal Smith, Carl Warwick, Jimmy Wynn, and Mickey Herskowitz. You can guess which one was the writer.
- Media Panel – This was the one panel that included someone without ties to Houston, and he is probably the most well known of the four panelists: Buck Martinez, currently working for the Toronto Blue Jays broadcasts. Writers Evan Drellich (Houston Chronicle) and Alyson Footer (MLB.com) discussed the print side, while Martinez and Bill Brown (Astros TV play-by-play) discussed the TV side. It’s tough to rate this one seventh, which goes to show just how good the majority of these panels were.
- Women in Baseball panel (audio) – In a week where the role of women in sports was getting plenty of play in national media, this panel ended up with more of a media slant than what seemed to be intended. Marie “Red” Mahoney was the headliner, as the only women from Houston to play in the AAGPBL. Jana Howser talked about things from her perspective as the head of development for the College Baseball Hall of Fame. Alyson Footer and Laila Rahimi addressed the media issues.
- 1980 Houston Astros – What should have been a more interesting panel ended up as 10 minutes of panelist introductions and Tal Smith talking for almost 15 minutes with all the details of how that 1980 Astros team came together. The players and coach from that 1980 team, Enos Cabell, Deacon Jones, and Jose Cruz (Sr.), weren’t left a lot of time to tell their sides of the story. Jose Cruz looks like he could still swing a bat today.
One additonal note: many veteran convention attendees remarked that this was the first convention where question cards were used as opposed to open mics. This did expedite the asking of questions, as some SABR members tend to take a long time to ask a questions at a mic. However, it did seem to allow for the questions to be screened, which kept the questions on the panel topic but also likely enabled some of the potentially thorny questions for the panelists to be avoided. This process will likely be adopted for SABR 45, especially if it turns out that using the cards was a condition for some of the panelists to appear. (Here’s looking at you, Roger.)
The heart of the convention are the research presentations. Only 32 are given, each only supposed to be 15-20 minutes in length with time for Q+A towards the end of each 25-minute session. 2 presentations are given during each time slot on the convention schedule, meaning there’s no way to attend all of them. Below are the ones I attended, again ranked from my favorite to my least liked, with a brief recap of their findings as best as I could take notes on them:
- RP21: An Expanded Game-Theoretic Model of a Batter-Pitcher Confrontation in Baseball – Yes, it was as academic as it sounds. But game theory is something that fascinates me, and seeing Anton Dahbura’s model was interesting to me, as it was the first time I had seen a game-theory model account for the number of balls and strikes and the rate at which the umpire misses the call. A few assumptions made here to simplify things, such as pitchers being able to throw strikes on command, that aren’t practical in real life. In the 3-2 count example he went over, Dahbura advocated the pitcher throw a strike around 91% of the time, while the batter swing only 75% of the time.
- RP16: The Ballpark Sportscape: Outfield Advertising and the Branding Issue – Ed Mayo presented on behalf of co-authors Dobb Mayo and John Weitzel, looking at outfield wall ads in 8 major league parks with a panel of 6 interior designers, 2 ad industry pros, and 2 marketing consultants. Their most important take-away: the fan experience, not the baseball game, is the core product.
- RP25: Why Does the Home Team Score So Much in the First Inning? – Retrosheet founder David W. Smith noticed an uptick in 1st inning runs compared to all other innings, and just kept asking questions of the data. Based on what he showed, it appears to be some combination of the best hitters tending to be at the top of lineups, how long the away starting pitcher has to wait to throw in the bottom of the 1st, and travel impacts, though no single metric that was used to investigate these impacts was found as a strong correlating factor. Interaction effects were not investigated.
- RP20: William Hulbert and the Birth of the Business of Professional Baseball – Business of Baseball committee chair, and UW-LaCrosse economist, Mike Haupert discussed William Haupert’s influence on the formation of the National League in the late 1800s. Many of the ideas he used to sell the owners on are now hallmarks of the modern American professional sports landscape: territorial exclusivity, fixed schedules (a problem at the time), and no admittance of teams from “small towns”. This was also the winner of the award for best presentation at the convention
- RP27: The Strike Zone Squeeze – Richard Thurston explored the jump in BB in the AL between 1948 and 1950 (inclusive). He created a metric called WALA, Walks Above League Average, which uses a bit of a WOWY methodology calculate how much better or worse a player is at drawing walks. (The formula was too complicated to copy in notes in the time it was displayed.) Thurston theorizes it was an attempt by the AL owners to pressure umpires into calling a strike zone that would cause run scoring to go up and lead to better attendance.
- RP32: Was Mantle’s Peak Value Really Greater than Mays’? David Kaiser revisited Bill James’ articles in the Historical Baseball Abstract and the New Historical Baseball Abstract. Instead of using Win Shares, as James did in his updated comparison in the the latter book, Kaiser used Wins Above Average from Baseball-Reference, but substituted their fielding wins estimates with those created by Michael Humprhey’s in Wizardry. His results? Mantle and Mays are similar in their best seasons when you account for league difficulty, but Mays had more great years than Mantle did. And I have another book to add to the reading list.
- RP10: “The Biker Boys Beat the Boy Scouts”: Facial Hair and the 1972 World Series – Maxwell Kates, a very colorful Canadian, examined MLB teams’ facial hair policies over time, using the 1972 World Series between the mustachioed Oakland A’s and the baby-faced Cincinnati Reds as a springboard. Kates comes back around to cite that year as a turning point for facial hair in the game, which seems plausible just from looking at players’ photos from the Topps card sets in those years. I especially enjoyed the point he made that MLB was marketing to families from 1962 in 1972. (As a postscript, it gave me great joy to see the mustache featured on the Reds’ 2015 All Star Game logo).
- RP23: An In-Depth Study of Team Chemistry in Baseball – SABR president Vince Gennaro presented some early findings from interviewing players and front office personnel, then tied it into teamwork studies on the business and military realms. Most of the saberists you meet will question whether chemistry matters at all, but yet all those in the game continue to insist that how players get along and interact matters. I agree with Vince that something is there, and it seems as though we’re just getting our arms around how to study it.
- RP04: Just a Little Bit Outside…: Drs. Nick Miceli and Tom Bertoncino attempted to use pitchF/X data to see if pitcher injuries could be better predicted. Their results show that prior injuries and mix of pitches thrown are the biggest keys. I’m a little skeptical, because despite consulting with many knowledgeable people, including Harry Pavlidis and Alan Nathan, they still decided to use the pitchF/X pitch type tags to classify pitches. Those tags are notably inaccurate in many cases.
- Poster presentations – It’s a shame they only had these up for an hour on Friday evening. The posters should have been up sooner, and hopefully will be in Chicago. Kudos to Evan Wassman for basically creating his own linear weights system without having read any of the previous work (he’s still in high school, so there’s time) and to Matthew Crownover and Dr. Jimmy Sanderson on being awarded best poster presentation for their work looking at roster construction.
- RP17: The Cuban Baseball “Defectors”: An Insider’s Full Revelation – Peter Bjarkman is one of the authorities on Cuban baseball, and gave a pretty solid overview of the origins of current wave of Cubans in MLB, what the change in Cuban regulations means for players on the island, and an outlook on the potential for future talent. The main takeaway for me: the talent levels in Cuba have dropped significantly in recent years, and opening up the borders too much would likely turn the Serie Nacional into a low-level minor league. Its ranking is more a sign of the quality of the other presentations.
- RP14: Lead Me Out to the Ballgame: A Study Investigating the Leadership of MLB Managers – I take lots of notes at SABR meetings during all presentations. So it says something when a presentation only has 3 lines filled in my papers. It’s nice that Dr. Howard Fero and Dr. Rebecca Herman have a leadership manual based on their interviews with big league managers, but all of the leadership traits they cite can be found in dozens of other leadership books. This would have been more interesting if they had tried to find a trait that was unique to managing a baseball team that isn’t required in other industries.
- RP07: Let Them Play! The Houston Astrodome, the 190s, and America’s Golden Age of Popular Culture – There’s a certain style of presentation that’s common when exploring baseball history. I like to think of it as show and tell: show a picture and tell a story with the picture on the screen. David Krell just tried to tell a story, positing the Astrodome’s central role in helping turn sporting contest coverage into the event model that Fox has used to excess. Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On” played in my head as I left early to make it to another presentation.
This doesn’t even cover a couple of the presentations I wish I could have attended, which I either skipped so I could eat a midday meal or missed because of conversations going for a half hour after the previous presentation/committee meeting.
I attended 4 committee meetings, each with a little different structure and format. The Business of Baseball committee reviewed the status its current and recently completed committee projects. The Retrosheet meeting had a few presentations on investigations into data discrepancies. The Bibliography committee discussed updates to The Baseball Index system and the need to track a number of publications for baseball-related material. The Statistical Analysis committee discussed starting a committee project to create a centralized reference or bibliography. Given what I’ve already discussed here and here, there will be more on this last project to come.
The biggest event of any convention is the trip to the local Major League stadium. You can always tell where the SABR group is seated at these games; just look for every other seat in a group of 10 rows or so keeping score of the game. For me the game was a first trip to some hallowed ground for White Sox fans, as Minute Maid Park is the site where the first World Series since 1917 was clinched for next year’s host city. The game itself had its share of interesting events as well: the first time in 10 years with the roof open for an August game, an inside-the-park HR that was confirmed by replay after Jon Singleton was called out at home, R.A. Dickey’s knuckleball, and a robbed HR that those of us in the right field mezzanine could only see by video replay.
The trivia contest is the nerdiest part of the convention. What’s impressive isn’t just the depth of knowledge that those who compete have, but how quickly the contestants can answer some of these questions. The most entertaining category had contestants pantomime various batting stances and incidents in baseball history. My favorite was the best call to the bullpen by any manager in history: Ozzie Guillen’s signal for Bobby Jenks to come into Game 2 of the 2005 World Series.
The city history tour is a prelude to each convention. While it’s focus is aimed at exposing attendees to the area’s historical (and non-baseball) highlights, it does occasionally point out locations tied to baseball. Our tour in Houston highlighted the early years of the city’s history, wandering through downtown, the ritzy River Oaks neighborhood, the museum campus, the massive medical campus, and past the sadly neglected stadium in the Harris County Sports Center complex.
I didn’t attend the outing for the Sugar Land Skeeters game, the Awards Banquet, or the Historical Ballpark Sites Tour. Two of these I wish I had attended. I’ll let you guess which ones.
SABR 44 was 4 days of almost total immersion into baseball. Even more than a week later, I still wish I was there. Thankfully, the Internet has made the world a smaller place, allowing me to keep in touch with some of the fantastic people I met there. The baseball chatter that I engaged in with the likes of Graham Womack, Phil Birnbaum, Anthony Rescan, Andy McCue, Sean Lahman, Maxwell Kates, Chip Atkinson, Tara Kreiger and countless others is really the heart of any SABR convention. It’s no wonder the hotel lounge was hopping most of the weekend, even though many reasoned the drink prices to be too high.
That being said, I didn’t spend as much time chatting there as I might have under different circumstances. My wife made the trip to Houston with me so she could get some R&R before her school year starts up again. Thus, I ended up spending most of my time after each day’s sessions were done with her instead of hanging around and talking to whoever happened to be lounging in the lobby. This will probably not be the case for me next year at SABR 45.
The schedule is jam packed. This is not likely to change soon, as the organization doesn’t want to extend the convention a day longer for a variety of reasons. I didn’t get to attend everything I wanted to, but still making it to 95% of what I wanted to do was still pretty good. That being said, it is the first convention or conference I’ve attended where events started before 8 AM. An extra day for the convention could help this, but that addition is not likely to happen for a myriad of reasons.
Since SABR 45 will be in my homeland of Chicago, this time constraint could be extra challenging. This is a rare occasion where the convention dates have been announced ahead of the 2015 MLB schedule being released, and the games for the MLB team(s) are centerpiece events. We on the planning committee will hope to have 2 games to schedule, along with the 32 research presentations, 8-10 panels, and other regular convention events. Houston was so well organized that it will be tough act to follow.
If you made it this far, thank for reading. Hope to see you at the Palmer House Hilton in Chicago, June 24-28, 2015.