The Next Frontier Of Baseball Analysis

The Sloan Sports Analytics Conference assembled an excellent baseball panel this year in Boston.  Host Rob Neyer asked participants their thoughts on the next frontier in baseball analysis, and a few highlights follow.

Red Sox senior advisor of baseball operations Bill James gave a two-part answer.  First, James feels "one of the things we most need to understand better is how levels of competition fit together so that the information we get from one level can be interpreted at another level in a way that is more helpful."  James says "we really don't have a clue" how levels such as college, Double-A, and Japan fit together.  Second, James believes that teams and players act in their best interest, even if it's not beneficial for the game as a whole.  He gave an example of a player stepping out of the box to regain his focus.  That 30 second break helps the player perform his best, but delays of this nature are bad for baseball in general, because they cause many to consider the game boring to watch.

Astros GM Jeff Luhnow wasn't actually answering Neyer's question at the time, but he volunteered his thoughts, saying, "The frontier from my perspective is really turning that player evaluation into player valuation.  When Scott [Boras] and I have a conversation about a player, this player may be 12 runs above average and another player might be 10 runs above average, but there's so many other factors that go into whether I'm going to be willing to pay more or less for that player.  For example, we always talk about the most likely outcome for this player, but what's the distribution look like?  Is there a 10% chance that he's below replacement level, is there a 10% chance that he's above superstar level?"

Indians president Mark Shapiro spoke of an "infinite number of things that I don't know," but mentioned during the conference that "medical is an absolute separator."  Agent Scott Boras focused on psychology, as a means to increasing the chances of players reaching their potential.  Rays baseball operations special assistant Rocco Baldelli wonders why some players develop the ability to hit, and some do not.

The panel provided a wide array of answers, but Luhnow's resonated most with me.  We often apply straightforward methods to determine what constitutes a good free agent signing, but projecting a player's WAR and multiplying by the price of a win is just a starting point.  Both Luhnow and Shapiro lamented the inability to tell fans all the factors that went into a decision, so unfortunately there will always be missing information for those outside the front office. 


14 Responses to The Next Frontier Of Baseball Analysis Leave a Reply

  1. FS54 3 years ago

    When and where will the next conference be?

  2. Karkat 3 years ago

    Bill James is my hero.

  3. David X 3 years ago

    “Both Luhnow and Shapiro lamented the inability to tell fans all the
    factors that went into a decision, so unfortunately there will always be
    missing information for those outside the front office.”

    And all too often, the biggest factor is an owner dictating a signing to the front office, like Barry Zito by the Giants.

    • Or Sometimes the front office dictating to the owner to spend an exorbitant amount of money on a particular player. One example would be Theo convincing John Henry to open the wallet for Carl Crawford. Thanks Theo. Carl Crawford has been a wonderful player but signing him to a 7 year 142 million dollar contract was just bad buisness. 

      • JTT11 3 years ago

        Exactly how do you know that signing crawford was bad buisness?  He is only one year into that 7 year contract.  Plus his wrist injury has been widely documented in the media.  the media’s coverage of the injury mid season allows opposing teams and pitchers to exploin the injury – which in all liklihood increased the probability that he would struggle at the plate.

        I know in my line of work, I will take one-two bad years on a 7 year contract if the performance in the remaining years is above and beyond the value of the services provided.

        • andrewyf 3 years ago

          “Exactly how do you know that signing crawford was bad buisness?”

          Exactly how do you know that it wasn’t? Plenty of people questioned the contract when it was signed, saying it was a poor decision and bad business to spend superstar money on a player with below-average on-base skills and whose defensive prowess would be limited in value in Boston’s ballpark. Guess what? Bad wrist or no, Crawford couldn’t get away from his struggles because he has very little patience at the plate, and his defensive numbers left something to be desired. Whether or not that was because he couldn’t separate his offensive struggles from his defense is up for debate. But it certainly looks like a terrible business decision now.

          Like I’ve always said – speed is Crawford’s best asset, but even great speed is by far the least valuable asset a hitter can have. Such a player never deserved $20M, much less 7 years of it.

    • chrisn313 3 years ago

      Prince too

  4. bluejaysstatsgeek 3 years ago

    Luhnow’s comment is dead on.  Too often we base decisions on expected values, ignoring the variance.  That is what was also implied by Baldelli’s comment – Variation in development paths makes projectability more difficult. 

    Much of the variation will be random effects, but the next great inefficiency may be related to the extent that we can isolate that causes in variation.

  5. JTT11 3 years ago

    I dont know if many people picked up on the fact that boras was present and parcipitated in the discussions.  It is pretty rare that opposing parties (boras and agents in general v owners of sports franchises) will meet and discuss the issues presented in their industries.

    big thumbs up to Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Scott Boras, team officials in attendence and MLB trade rumors for their coverage.

    I cannot name one other agent who has been involved in a discussion like this.

  6. Yankees2832 3 years ago

    For those interested, in a separate panel titled “Box Score Rebooted” that featured James, John Dewan, Dean Oliver, and John Thorn, Bill James also mentioned the need to push better statistics on MLB and the public at large. He specifically mentioned altering the way wins are allocated to pitchers to avoid “BS Wins” (blown save wins, where a pitcher blows the lead but gets the win when his team comes back). He suggested that a conensus approach by all the big stats websites (baseball reference, fangraphs, etc.) to come up with a new Wins stat and to make it more readily available to the public could eventually force MLB’s hand into changing the stat.

  7. Call me a bad baseball fan if you want, but I just don’t give a flying crap about any of this, and I don’t know why a single “fan” would. Just play baseball and keep the nuts and bolts to yourselves, it just muddies the waters…  

    • David X 3 years ago

      No one is saying that you can’t enjoy baseball the way you want to. Others find interest in concentrating on stats other than the traditional ones, looking beyond the boxscore, finding reasons teams win and lose, and more accurate ways to value players.

      As far as muddying the waters, some people think that’s what traditional stats do when stats like wins and RBIs are used to determine who the best players are. No, those stats are mostly the product of luck. You can’t be a bad pitcher and get 20 wins or 125 RBIs, but getting 20 wins or 125 RBIs doesn’t automatically make you good. That water is cloudier than anything you might find in this post.

    • cubsfan97 3 years ago

      If you as a fan want to just enjoy the game of baseball with HRs, RBIs and Ws, thats fine.  No one here is stopping you from saying Verlander is the best cause he won 24 games, or Bautista is the best cause he hit the most home runs.  But the guys in the front office are PAID to WIN.  If they dont win, they wont get paid.  Im sure there some front office guys that wish baseball was the way it was, but they realize they need to be more analytical to get an edge on the other teams.

    • cubsfan97 3 years ago

      If you as a fan want to just enjoy the game of baseball with HRs, RBIs and Ws, thats fine.  No one here is stopping you from saying Verlander is the best cause he won 24 games, or Bautista is the best cause he hit the most home runs.  But the guys in the front office are PAID to WIN.  If they dont win, they wont get paid.  Im sure there some front office guys that wish baseball was the way it was, but they realize they need to be more analytical to get an edge on the other teams.

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