The SABR Analytics Conference has stolen some of its luster, but the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference remains an important event for the sabermetrics community. The seventh annual took place this past weekend, in Boston, and featured a plethora of thought-leaders. The Baseball Analytics panel included Ben Jedlovic, Jonah Keri, Voros McCracken, Joe Posnanski and Farhan Zaidi. Other speakers included Mark Cuban, Michael Lewis, Sig Mejdal, Dan Rosenheck and Nate Silver.
Several of them took the time to answer questions between presentations. This installment includes conversations with Cuban, Jedlovic and McCracken. Later in the week we’ll hear from Mejdal, Rosenheck and Zaidi.
Mark Cuban [owner, Dallas Mavericks]: “Coaches and GMs evaluate talent differently. Coaches try to win possessions and games. That takes a different thought process than balancing short term versus long term. As [Houston Rockets GM] Daryl Morey was saying, coaches have a very limited window they’re trying to succeed within, whereas general managers and owners have to look at a longer time frame. You’ll see it with the Mavs, the way we approached building our team post-CBA versus pre-CBA. The variables change.
“We take input from everybody, but in the end, the GM and owner have to make the final decisions. A lot of it is how you evaluate players organizationally. It’s not about any one individual, it’s what the organization is thinking.
“A lot of GMs measure their own mortality relative to their job. If they feel they’re at risk, they’ll make different decisions than if they feel safe. That’s typical in any job. People want to keep their jobs. Man loves hierarchy. GMs want to feel safe and have longevity, and hopefully they also want to win championships. If he feels there is a risk of losing his job, he’ll behave differently than if there’s no chance he’ll lose his job.”
Voros McCracken [creator of DIPS]: “Just because everyone knows OBP is important doesn’t mean OBP isn’t important. Just because we learned something a long time ago doesn’t mean we should unlearn it. We should keep it and add to it. There are a lot of people who are itching to do the next new thing. That’s great, it’s just that mindset can cause you to forget some of the basics.
“Not to pint fingers at any team, but to a certain extent the Mariners did that. They got so wrapped up in talking advantage of fielding statistics that they forgot they should have a first baseman with an on-base percentage over .280. Maybe that’s unfair. If they were here, they may interrupt me and say no, that’s not the way it happened. But my perception is that sometimes you can forget about the basics when you’re pursuing something new.
“You might say to yourself, ‘I want a stat that can measure this.’ Then video technology comes out and gives you the stat you wanted to measure. There is a tendency to think, “Ooh, I’ve been waiting for this, and now I’ve got it, and it’s the greatest stat in the world.” But you haven’t even looked at it yet. You haven’t looked at what it actually says — what its weaknesses are. There’s a hazard there. You want to know more things than your competition. What you don’t want is to know something your competition doesn’t, and it’s wrong. If everybody is wrong about something it doesn’t hurt you too bad, but if you’re the only one, you have 29 teams taking advantage of your mistake.
“Scouting is still an important smell test. If scouts all say someone is a terrible defender, and a stat says he’s the best defender in the world, the truth is probably somewhere in between. Scouts say things for a reason, and you shouldn’t dismiss that.
“If you come up with a new number, and somebody says they don’t like it, I don’t think it’s helpful to just keep pointing at it, over and over again. ‘Well, that’s the number.’ Every number a guy like me comes up with it, you have be skeptical of. You have to be extremely skeptical. That’s the quickest way to knowledge. If you don’t believe something, figure out if it’s true or not. It’s a basic scientific approach, to a certain extent. Falsifiable hypotheses, that sort of thing.”
Ben Jedlovec [Baseball Info Solutions]: “At Baseball Info Solutions, we’ve continued our tradition of collecting and analyzing innovative baseball data. For example, we have collected batted ball timer data for ground balls and fly balls, and we built this information into our Defensive Runs Saved system. Upon close investigation, the improvement is remarkable. We’re now taking that same data and turning it around on hitters and pitchers. My presentation at the SABR Analytics Conference on March 8 [in Phoenix] will include an in-depth look at batted ball trajectories for individual hitters, covering a few of the patterns and trends that emerged.
“Looking at batted ball information is an improvement over the results-oriented evaluations we currently rely on. We can now understand that the particular batted ball falls for a hit X percent of the time and is worth an average of Y runs, independent of the outcome of the play. Furthermore, batted ball characteristics are more reliable than outcome statistics in small samples, so this information has tremendous predictive potential.”