Ten things I didn’t know before SABR 38by Chris Jaffe
June 30, 2008
This weekend was the 38th annual roundup of baseball enthusiasts at SABR. Critics (with some justification) frequently deride it as a collection of the nerdiest bunch of geeks one can imagine. Naturally, for me it's the social highlight of the year, as I get to see a slew of my fellow traveling friends for the one and only time all year.
Taking a page from Boss Studeman, I'd go over some of the highlights of the convention with his patented "10 Things" format. In some ways that's a bad fit as the most important thing about any SABR convention is something I already know: it's an absolute blast. Every single person I have known who has attended a SABR convention has loved it every time he or she has gone. How many things can you say that about in life?
More important than the learning is the camaraderie. That's tough to recap because it's very insular. You don't know my friends. Given that about two dozen showed up to this I really don't have the time or space to describe them all.
Suffice it to say, that past and present THT members and affiliates Aaron Gleeman, Steve Treder, Boss Studeman, Vinay Kumar, Joe Dimino and Ben Jacobs joined the motley crew including Sean Forman, Jim Furtado, Darren "repoz" Viola, Chris Dial, Craig Calcaterra and many more. If you follow sabermetrics on the internet, some of those names should be familiar to you.
I've enjoyed myself so much over the years at these summertime shindigs that I've come to believe there are only three simple questions one must answer when deciding to go:
- Do I like baseball?
- Can I afford it?
- Does it fit into my schedule?
SABR isn't just about stats. It's for people passionate about the game and its past. Most members are primarily interested in its history. So if any of you out there in readerland can answer all three above questions with "yes," then I heartily encourage you to come to SABR39 in Washington DC next summer.
While friendships formed over a common love are the best part, all sorts of things go on, including the 10 things learned:
The Jake Progressive Field: Overrated
I remember hearing so many good things about it when it came out shortly after Camden Yards. It didn't live up the hype. It wasn't a bad stadium, but nothing in it really grabbed me.
In fact, I think the whole wave of retro-mallparks is overrated. I've attended five, and only one—Seattle's Safeco—really impressed. The Jake would probably be second best, topping St. Louis, Cincinnati and Milwaukee.
In fact, I have attended the two most recent pre-Camden creations (Toronto's Skydome and Chicago's Comiskey II), and think they are flatly superior to the non-Safeco stadiums. Allow me to explain by comparing the Jake, the best regarded of the underwhelming new ones, to oft-blasted Comiskey II.
One of the main criticisms of Comiskey II was the steepness of its upper deck. Cleveland's was even steeper. The chair in the preceding row barely went past my ankle. Plus, at least the Comiskey seats came with a cup holder. The food selection was also poor in Cleveland. They had plenty of places to buy stuff, but it was the same six foods every time. Comiskey gives you superior variety.
Cleveland avoided the obvious mistakes of the multi-use stadiums, but that doesn't make it good.
2. Sean Forman has a new website coming out
Yup, that's right. The man who runs Baseball Reference and whose Sports Reference company provides online encyclopedias for football, basketball and hockey is gearing up for a fifth one. He's signed the paperwork and made the plans for an Olympics website to go up in conjunction with the beginning of the Summer Olympics.
Stay tuned and look for the official announcement from the Sports Reference internet oligarchy.
3. When there are technical problems: check the plug first
I gave a presentation this year called "Evaluating Managerial Tendencies." It's a shortened version of Chapter 2 for the book deal that's mentioned at the "about the author" blurb at the bottom of all my columns. I was pleased with the way it went, if you overlook the massive disaster that happened near the outset.
I used PowerPoint to give the presentation. I was at a podium with a laptop, which was connected to a slide projector, which displayed the information on a screen to the audience. Just as I finished giving the explanation for the math and got to the results, the screen went blank.
That's not what's supposed to happen. Since it was still on the computer screen, the room monitors, some good Samaritans, and myself all assumed the problem was with the projector. After a few minutes fiddling with it, some bright soul noticed the plug leading out of the laptop itself had come ajar. Oops.
Actually, even with that it went pretty well. I could fake my way through a few minutes by talking about what people had just seen, and the screen wasn't out long. This was my fifth presentation, and I actually had more strangers come up and tell me they appreciated it than any of the others. Lessons: 1) have the technology crash on me more often apparently, 2) but check the damn plugs first next time.
4. I'm sooooooo very tired of clutch hitting studies
By far the biggest names slated for Cleveland were longtime sabermetric lions Pete Palmer and Dick Cramer, who co-presented a section responding to Bill James's "Understanding the Fog" article from the Baseball Research Journal from a few years ago.
This confirmed for me something I've long since believed. It wasn't that clutch hitting can't be shown to exist even if you account for James' fog (which was their main point). It was about the entire debate. It's the same damn back-and-forth. You'll never be able to prove definitively that clutch ability doesn't exist (that's difficult with anything) and a rigorously mathematical approach will show at most only limited clutch ability.
It's one thing if some random study of the issue by Billy Joe Robidiminoux does a study that leaves me flat, but these aren't just any two random guys from Tacoma.
By and large, the air has become stagnant on this issue and the whole line of questioning is suffering. You know what someone will say about the issue before he opens his mouth. This dead horse keeps getting beaten.
5. There is a bit of a generation gap in sabermetrics
It's not entirely fair to call it a generation gap, as multiple elements come into play. The amount of gray hair appears to be the most pronounced trend though.
Palmer and Cramer knew about work from SABR's Baseball Research Journal (such as the James article) but not elsewhere. Cramer brought home this point rather dramatically during the presentation when he discussed how they used a concept first introduced by Eldon and Harlan Mills to judge win expectancy at any point in the game.
It was WPA, but it was clear he'd missed how much it caught on over the last two to three years. Aside from Boss Studeman's focus on it here, numerous other blogs deal with it, and Baseball Reference added it to the boxscores to every game since 1956. Based on how he discussed it, Cramer apparently thought it was some long-forgotten stat from the early 1970s.
It wasn't just that presentation, either. Right before it, David Smith of Retrosheet gave a talk on the importance of strike one. He said as far as he knew no one had ever addressed this topic before. Nearby me, Boss Studeman shook his head saying he could think of a dozen guys off the top of his head who had done so.
It isn't just generational. Boss Studenman is about 50. Jeff Angus (more on him in a minute) is older than him. They are both very much plugged in. You do see younger presenters drop the ball as well. There is a key difference, and it seems to revolve around the internet.
The 21st century has witnessed an avalanche of new sabermetric research, most of it outside the boundaries of SABR itself. This site is one of the most obvious manifestations of that. No one can track all of it, but some aren't tracking any of it.
In part, this seeming generation gap is a selective sample size issue. The only way to not pay attention to current work and still have others notice yours is if you already have a reputation, and ergo are any Voros McCracken.
The old guard follows what goes on through the older means: primarily SABR sources such as BRJ. Before the explosion, that was enough to avoid missing anything huge. The internet shifted the framework.
It would be easy for any of us to pat ourselves on the back for staying with the current stream, but that's not fair. Twenty to 30 years from now when the next great shift occurs (whatever it might be), how many current 33-year-olds will seamlessly make that jump? The older one gets, the more difficult it becomes to adapt to substantial seismic shifts.
Dave Smith actually is on the internet—he runs a site far greater than anything I or anyone else at THT will ever accomplish—but he's generally in his own little fiefdom. For the rest of us, if you don't interact no one will notice you.
6. Jeff Angus really knows his stuff
Angus shows how the notion of a generation gap shouldn't be taken too far. He's no spring chicken, but he's as aware of any ongoing sabermetric conversations as anyone you'll meet.
This was his second SABR presentation. His first came in Seattle and was one of the best I've ever seen. This year he gave one on Bill James' Game Scores that was one of my favorites of the weekend.
He made a good argument that it's a vastly underrated stat that does a surprisingly good job holding up across the eras. He argued that it can be used to create a modified win-loss record. While I had some problems with the particulars of his ideas, the overall idea seemed interesting. I can easily see GS being the next WPA—a stat that catches on decades after it's originally introduced.
7. Wally Yonamine: The Japanese Jackie Robinson
This presentation, given by Robert Fitts, may have been my favorite of the year. I had never even heard of him, but not only was he the first US-born player in Japan (during American occupation of the nation), but he was a great one (eventually enshrined in Japan's version of Cooperstown), and he radically altered the style of play.
He played an aggressive, hard-charging style of balls. Before then, players were more deferential to each other. They wouldn't try to break up double plays, men often wouldn't run out grounders, and there was a certain desire not to show up the other player. Yonamine changed that approach by adopting Ty Cobb's style of play.
Listening to it, I thought of my vague recollections of Ruth Benedict's classic study of Japanese culture, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Published just after WWII, it noted how Japanese culture affected competition between fellow citizens.
The basis of Japanese conduct was a system of situational ethics in which every deed done to someone must be repaid, whether it is a favor or an indignity. It went far beyond any code of honor one might be familiar with here. It was so strongly pronounced that Japanese often tried to avoid creating any unwanted debts or obligations to each that must be repaid in the future to maintain their name in society. Hence the desire to not break up a double play.
Japanese culture softened in the aftermath of WWII. Obviously it wasn't as wide open as America was or is, but some shift has occurred. Wally Yonamine and his style didn't merely change the game but helped signify the national cultural change.
8. Rob Neyer, Steve Treder and Mike Veeck are really good public speakers
I heard all three speak at various points and was duly impressed each time.
Neyer spoke at a forum for book authors at the public library. I'd heard that he was a middling speaker, but I did not find that the case at all. He doesn't burst with charisma, but he has an effectively low-key and calm demeanor. In speaking of his book Baseball Legends he got laughs from the crowd.
Treder did a very nice job covering the fascinating Frantic Frank Lane. Treder had it timed well so he could go at a good pace without ever seeming rushed. He knew when to pause so the audience could soak up the quotes and information on the PowerPoint slides and seemed overall to be in complete command of the material.
Veeck, who spoke in a management forum with Cleveland GM Mark Shapiro, stole the show, though. Whether it was discussing his father, Disco Demolition Night or advising SABR on how to market itself, he kept getting a steady stream of laughter.
9. My friends ain't holding up so well
I've been coming to these things for five years now, and I can finally start to see aging take its toll. Jon Daly, a frequent poster at Baseball Think Factory, has glasses. Well, at least he had to turn 40 before needing glasses.
Vinay Kumar has an obvious blast of gray hair at the front of his head. That ain't so bad, though. It just makes him look more distinguished. Craig Calcaterra has a bigger problem. One would think that getting a buzz cut and wearing a ball cap would hide a receding hairline, but that just isn't the case with him.
Last and least is original THT writer Joe Dimino, who sprained his ankle while playing ball. Whiffleball. Afterwards we all told Joe that no matter what, don't tell people how he really got hurt. Say it was in a real baseball game or a basketball match. Or a bar fight. Anything other than whiffleball.
He turned it while swinging, but gutted it out down the line for a single. Part of me wants to give him credit for scrappiness, but . .. . "grinding whiffleballer"—that's one of those phrases where the noun defeats the purpose of the adjective. It's like being a fundamentalist Unitarian or a nationalistic Canadian. Man, you got to be kidding.
10. Even little children find Aaron Gleeman irredeemably stupid
Now for the cutest and most enjoyable moment of the entire weekend.
Chris Dial brought his five- or six-year old daughter up to Cleveland for the fun. On Friday, Gleeman asked Dial if he was going to the library (for the author's forum at which Neyer spoke). "The library—what's that?" Dial asked in his trademark North Carolina accent.
With that opening, Gleeman did his "Airplane" on Dial, explaining the basic functions of a library, before joking to the urchin, "Wow, can you believe your dad doesn't know what a library is?"
Dial's daughter—a very intelligent, well-behaved, and quiet girl—did not give Gleeman the answer he expected. As her eyes rolled back, her facial expression clearly indicated that the stupidest person in this or any other lifetime had just uttered the single most asinine thing he had or would ever say.
The little angel cried out, "No—he KNOWS what a library is, he just wants to know what's going on there!" She was so assertive, you wanted to turn to Aaron and say: "Yea, Gleeman—ya mope—didn't you know that?" If she was an older kid, or a brat, the effect would have been very different. As it was, the incident was so damn precious. Kids correct the darnedest things.
While most adults would be taken aback at such a sudden, forceful and unexpected Lisa Simpsoning, Aaron handled it with aplomb. After all, as anyone who frequents BTF or similar sites knows, he has tons of experience coming across people who think he's a complete idiot.
Actually, it turns out he has a much more difficult time handling the opposite extreme. In Minnesota where he lives and blogs, there are occasional get-togethers of the Twins' online fandom community.
As not only the most famous and established Twins blogger, but one of the most successful fan bloggers in America, Gleeman has his own fanbase show up. There are people there who are impressed by the very presence of the man whose words they've read since they were in grammar school. Imagine, if you dare: Gleeman groupies. It's a fate worse than being a grinding whiffleballer.
It's understandable. He's a terrific success story. He started out just writing on his own, building up his readership and reputation one day at a time, co-founding this site and forcing it through its difficult debut stage. From that he now has many people's dream job: writing about sports for a living with NBC Sports.
Yet it's so odd to hear Gleeman treated like that, especially for Gleeman himself. Apparently, he'd much rather be treated like some big, tall, bearded guy who knows nothing about nothing than some guru of baseball blogging.
Unfortunately, no recap can really cover the weekend, especially when I'm the writer. It has to be experienced rather than read about. Next year it'll be in Washington, DC and in 2010 in Atlanta. Hope to see you there.
History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail. Oh, and now he's on twitter.
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