Observations From Day One Of The SABR Analytics Conference

PHOENIX—Two pitchers from National League West clubs took part in a player panel on Thursday, focusing on areas of baseball where reality and analytics intersect.

Diamondbacks righthander Brandon McCarthy and Giants lefty reliever Javier Lopez discussed their first-hand exposure to modern baseball performance metrics, both saying they make use of such data to at least a small degree.

Lopez said that his first exposure to the game's rapidly-flowing data stream occurred in 2006 when he joined the Red Sox in a June trade. He said the presentation of analytical data was both impressive and overwhelming at first, but that he absorbed what he could while being mindful of avoiding so-called paralysis by analysis.

“I'm most interested in the simple stuff,” Lopez said, “first-pitch swing tendency, hot and cold zones, a batter's performance over the past two weeks and how lefthanded batters fare against other lefthanded pitchers.

“I prefer to keep the game as simple as possible. With everything in baseball becoming more specialized, I feel like the information gives me a competitive advantage and helps keep me around.”

McCarthy talked about how he altered his pitching mindset and mechanics to emphasize lower walk and higher groundball rates. He recognized that his flyball tendencies and proneness to home runs were holding him back. After all, he allowed 1.3 homers per nine innings through 2009 but nearly halved that to 0.7 per nine the past two seasons with Oakland.

“My model for change was Roy Halladay,” McCarthy said, “because I felt like I could do what he can do, at least in terms of velocity and my relative size to the batter. He throws a great cutter; I throw a good one. In other words, I felt he was close enough to copy, seeing that I can't throw 100 (mph) like Justin Verlander.

“What I didn't realize was that Charlie Morton, my winter-ball teammate (in the 2010 Dominican League), also was copying Roy Halladay. I thought I was doing it first.”

McCarthy says the pitching statistics he takes particular note of are fielding-independent pitching ERA—or FIP for short—WHIP and strikeout-to-walk ratio. Like most every other player and fan, he looks at wins and ERA out of habit, but he considers them incomplete stats that only seem to matter when it comes time to negotiate a new contract. According to McCarthy, clubs are only too willing to point to a low win total or high ERA when doing so could save them money.

While both Lopez and McCarthy embraced analytics in the game, they also shared their thoughts as to why so many players are not yet on board.

“Your whole goal is to reach the major leagues," McCarthy said, “so that makes it hard to change your ways if you're on the path to get called up.”

Lopez said: “You think you can draw on past success to get through current struggles, so that's why I think it's tough to effect change in such an ego-driven business.”

• Featured speaker Brian Kenny, MLB Network host and creator of the show “Clubhouse Confidential,” kicked off the conference by celebrating independent thinking in baseball. Innovators who fail outside baseball's accepted guidelines tend to face the most backlash, Kenny said, citing the Rockies' four-man rotation trial last season and the quickly-abandoned notion of the three-man, piggyback-style rotation attempted by Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan with the 1993 Athletics.

Kenny foresees a day when some team will follow Oakland's lead from two decades ago and create a rotation comprised of many sprinters instead of a few marathoners. He reasons that pitchers have higher velocity in short stints and greater effectiveness when they go through a lineup only once. If one team succeeds with such a model, the other 29 will follow in short order and to such an extent that Kenny predicts that baseball will institute a rule to limit pitching changes.

He concluded by saying that the next major philosophical shift in baseball may occur when a team elects to build around the personnel they have on hand, maximizing their performance in a way that does not conform to accepted standards.

• In his speech entitled “The Romance of WAR,” Joe Posnanski stressed the importance of storytelling when presenting analytical information to readers. The NBC Sports columnist credits Bill James with changing the landscape for advanced metrics, making them more palatable because of his penchant for telling stories.

Posnanski went on to say that any good writer will marry scouting—or the observed—with analytics to paint a complete picture. After all, numbers have the power to change the game, he said, citing the manner in which the save statistic ultimately altered the way in which managers deploy relievers at the end of games.

“One hundred percent certainty in all realms is bad,” Posnanski said. “Embrace uncertainty, find surprises and tell good stories.”

• Conference presenting sponsor Bloomberg Sports had the final say on Day One, standing between nearly 400 attendees and the 7 o'clock meet-and-greet reception at the Sheraton. In a segment called “Next Generation of Team Analytics,” Bloomberg president Bill Squadron and Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto extolled the virtues of Bloomberg's baseball database software that integrates thousands of scouting reports generated by an organization with preloaded on-demand major league video and all manner of granular major league data, such as pitcher tendencies and batter spray charts.

Dipoto said the Angels use the Bloomberg software to store information on the roughly 6,000 players the organization scouts each season. The software's immense library of visuals also helps the Angels advance scout their next opponent, though getting players to buy in to the performance data can be a challenge at times.

“We have to take the technology and combine it with scouts’ opinions to keep credibility in the major league clubhouse,” Dipoto said. “Players like to know hot and cold zones for their opponents, and almost 100 percent of them go for video and matchup information they can access on their iPad.”

Los Angeles even made use of the Bloomberg software during the 2012 draft, using it to narrow the field to, for example, all righthanders with a plus curveball still on the board in the 13th round.