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.