First Pitch Arizona 2017: A Review

This review was written with permission — I asked, not the other way around — and was not reviewed prior to publication.

There exists several gatherings for baseball enthusiasts every year, including, off the top of my head, MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, SABR Analytics Conference, Saber Seminar and Pitch Talks. However, I can’t name many, if any, conferences that cater specifically to fantasy baseball enthusiasts other than First Pitch Arizona (FPAZ). It’s not that the other conferences wouldn’t benefit fantasy baseball players — surely, they share sharp, illuminating content — but they don’t synthesize it specifically for the fantasy baseball experience.

Brent Hershey, general manager of BaseballHQ, invited me to speak on a panel with Greg Ambrosius (National Fantasy Baseball Championship, or NFBC), Dave Potts (RotoGrinders) and Brian Slack (BaseballHQ) about 2017 average draft position (ADP) musings. For an event in its 23rd year, I could find scarcely any reviews of the conference aside from these testimonials.

Accordingly, I thought it would be worthwhile to allow readers to learn (more) about the event. I’ll provide a brief overview of everything and then break down the programming by day, almost like I’m writing in my diary, except without the anxiety and self-doubt.

Overview

FPAZ occurs every year the weekend of the Arizona Fall League (AFL) Fall Stars Game (typically the first weekend of November) in Phoenix, Ariz. Registration costs $249 for early birds and $499 for late birds. The conference spans four days, four nights — for this year, the evening of Thursday, Nov. 2 through the morning of Sunday, Nov. 5 — and includes two tickets (or more, depending on availability) to any AFL games playing that weekend and, once available, all of BaseballHQ’s major publications. It also provides breakfast each morning and a buffet lunch on Saturday on site. Exact programming is liable to change from year to year, but a couple of panels (based on cornerstone BaseballHQ content) likely stay the same. Hotel fare is not covered, but the conference took place at the DoubleTree suites by Hilton, which is where most attendees stayed.

Thursday

Unfortunately, I missed the Thursday evening welcome reception because I missed my connecting flight (thanks, United!). Attendees gathered at an AFL game to watch baseball and connect with panelists and other attendees (which, for first-timers, includes a chance to meet one another). I’m sure it was fun, but I’ll never have a chance to be a first-timer again. Oops!

Friday (link)

Morning

BREAKFAST BUFFET. It’s surreal to see Tristan Cockcroft in the flesh, loading up on fruit and french toast. He’s pretty tall. (So is human beanstalk Paul Sporer, by the way. Why is everyone so tall?)

AFL PROSPECTS. Scouts and prospect analysts, including FanGraphs’ own Eric Longenhagen, discussed top prospects in the AFL such as Ronald Acuna, Victor Robles, Francisco Mejia, Mitch Keller and Kyle Tucker. As someone who possesses only a passing familiarity with everyone but the game’s top prospects (and who makes an admittedly weak effort to seek out more information on prospects in general), the insights and information shared, as well as the banter among panelists, proved very engaging. I would bet folks who fancy themselves prospectors still learned a thing or two — and if they didn’t, they were afforded the opportunity to ask their prospect questions directly to the panelists. (Q&A takes place at the end of every 60- to 75-minute panel, so I will not mention this detail hereafter.) I live-tweeted this in limited fashion at #FPAZ, in case you want the two-minute version of an hour of great content.

STATCAST. A cup of coffee and a stretch of the legs later, FanGraphs’ Eno Sarris used Statcast data to identify hitters to love or hate (or somewhere in between — the “one tweak away” guys) ahead of 2018. He also discussed more technical aspects of the data, including plans for data collection moving forward as well as ballpark-specific discrepancies and calibration issues that currently affect collection efforts. Statcast data is complicated, and the aforementioned calibration and measurement issues can make interpreting the data all the more confounding. The presentation did not delve too deeply into the weeds here, instead focusing primarily on results, where to find them, and how to interpret them. It effectively straddled the line that divides advanced and beginner Statcast users, avoiding boring the former group and confusing or burdening the latter. Unsurprisingly, Sarris knows what he’s doing, and he relays information with clarity and an effortless humor.

Afternoon

GAME TIME. I attended the Mesa Solar Sox @ Scottsdale Scorpions game with RotoGraphs’ Jeff Zimmerman, where we saw one Acuna plate appearance — likely pulled early simply to rest for the next night’s Fall Stars Game — a handful of other lukewarm prospects, and the quietest one-hitter I’ll ever see. It was my first fall ball game (and my first pro ball game in Arizona in at least a decade), and the mostly empty stadium allowed us to sit among the scouts behind home plate. An aside: the AFL was experimenting with pitch clocks — 12 seconds for pitchers from the wind-up, 15 seconds for pitchers to come set from the stretch, 30 seconds for hitters to step into the batters’ box, and 150 seconds between inning halves.

Evening

DRAFTS AND PODCASTS. In what could be construed as the slower of the two main nights of the conference, FPAZ organized live draft rooms and a live podcast room, all of which existed simultaneously and in harmony. Over the course of six or seven hours, 75 owners — analysts and laymen alike — drafted in five drafts of varying formats: NFBC (x2), mixed auction, Scoresheet, and Ron Shandler’s BABS league. FPAZ, in its enabling of attendees to draft shoulder-to-shoulder with the analysts they follow, took advantage of an excellent opportunity for commingling and making the experience much more personal. Down the hall, BaseballHQ Radio, RotoWire’s baseball podcast, and RotoGraphs’ Sleeper and the Bust (Sarris, Sporer, Jason Collette) recorded special FPAZ episodes that invited audience participation.

An idea of what one might do: I poked around the 4 pm NFBC draft and listened to a little bit of BaseballHQ Radio before drafting in my own 7:30 pm NFBC draft (that I pregamed in between with In-N-Out). I can’t remember who’s in my league, but I drafted one spot ahead of Nick, who finished 3rd overall in the NFBC in 2016. That’s some serious competition. After a flustering but exhilarating two-and-a-half hours, I hopped over to catch the latter portion of Sleeper and the Bust before playing some cards* then catching zome Z’s.

*The informal evening festivities are a delight. I played a round of Texas Hold’em with co-panelist Slack, Jeff Erickson (RotoWire), and other writers and attendees.

Saturday (link)

Morning

FACT OR FLUKE. Fact or Fluke, a staple at BaseballHQ, typically involves a writer declaring whether a player’s performance has been legitimate (fact) or not (fluke). Rather than deriving a singular conclusion from one author as would typically occur on BaseballHQ, multiple speakers offered varying takes and supplemented them with banter — especially enjoyable and illuminating when spurred by disagreement. Each player (of the dozen-or-so pre-selected names) gets a few minutes of discussion, allowing for satisfactory coverage. It’s not rigorously in-depth, and there’s nothing wrong with that; reviewing too few players would risk being boring and unfulfilling. Consecutive 75-minute blocks discussed hitters and then pitchers.

BLISTERAMA. One of the conference’s best segments covered the 10-day disabled list and how it affected fantasy baseball outcomes and roster management in 2017. Panelists suggested ways in which fantasy leagues could change their rules to accommodate more frequent DL stints (that might become more frequenter in 2018 and beyond).

EXCERPT: The bulk of additional DL time relative to previous years was concentrated almost exclusively among starting pitchers. It makes sense, given how teams could take advantage of it to manipulate rest time for certain pitchers, forcing them to miss as few as one start rather than a guaranteed two or three starts. Ideas that floated around included allowing unlimited DL spots, expanding benches and, in weekly leagues, allowing for mid-week DL moves.

Afternoon

After a buffet lunch during which attendees, if they so desired, could chat about fantasy baseball topics at specially designated tables, FPAZ offered nine hour-long breakout panels in three rooms over the course of three hours:

  • Minors Q&A
  • DFS Lineup Psychology
  • How to Use BaseballSavant.com
  • Ask the Prospect Listmakers
  • Lessons from the 2017 ADP (this one was probably really good, but I don’t know, hard to say
  • Rules and Commissioner Forum
  • Keepers, Flyers and Throwaways
  • Scoresheet Lineup Construction
  • The Importance of Arm Slot

DFS PSYCHOLOGY. OK, maybe this was my favorite segment. I’m not a DFS player — it’s illegal in my state of residence — so I’m effectively a novice. However, I’m very interested and passionate about behavioral economics, game theory, and psychology. Rather than teaching people how to build optimal lineups — there are quick-and-easy optimizers for that, if such a shortcut tickles your fancy — the panelists primarily gave a crash-course on grinding.

EXCERPT: DFSers who aspire to be DFS grinders should aim to maximize return on investment. This might seem painfully obvious. Less obvious, though, is that most go about maximizing ROI all wrong because we are fallible beings who frequently overestimate our abilities or, at the very least, our chances of winning a contest of inherently remote probability. It’s boring, but head-to-head play, not the big tournaments that pay out six or seven figures, is the most lucrative game type in the long run. As a former poker enthusiast, this makes sense: grind out sit-and-go games — single-table “tournaments” — where there’s less volatility rather than trying to “be the hero” and win the huge tournament. If you’re serious about making money, you won’t play tournaments, period. I know it’s easier said than done; it’s hard not to dream on the big payday and seeing your name in the lights, so to speak, just like every modern poker player has dreamed of winning the World Series of Poker’s main event. And if you want to make a good roster, play the best players, period. It’s a long season; develop a good process, stick to it through thick and thin, and you will turn a positive ROI in the long run.

But the tip of the DFS psychology iceberg. A fantastic panel.

Evening

AFL FALL STARS GAME. The formal highlight of FPAZ, everyone gathers to watch the game’s elite prospects (Acuna, Robles, Mejia, et al.) duke it out in nine innings of televized, clock-timed baseball. Merriment abounds. (More cards and merriment to follow.)

Sunday (link)

WOULD YOU RATHER… Another BaseballHQ staple, panelists choose a favorite from duos or trios of similarly skilled/valued players. This segment cultivated much more disagreement than Fact or Fluke to the enjoyment (and benefit!) of the audience.

EVALUATING MAKEUP. It might surprise you to learn this wasn’t an hour dedicated to cosmetics and beauty products. I missed most of this session to pack my luggage, but Brad Kullman, author of the recently published Hardwired for Life, suggested player makeup will be the next developmental frontier. He discussed neuroscience, differences in player personalities (specifially emotions), and the importance of identifying those differences and being able to effectively manage them. (Kullman noted that players, during their most vulnerable developmental stages in the lower minor leagues, are managed by coaches that are least likely to be equipped to be empathetic toward such differences.)

I was a good ballplayer in high school, but even if I was the most talented player in state, I still wouldn’t have been able to make anything of it. I was severely inhibited by my anxiety — I didn’t even have a name to put to it, “anxiety.” I had no idea how to talk to my coaches about it (partly because I didn’t even know how to talk about it in the first place) and, therefore, they couldn’t help me through my issues. I can’t turn off my mind. You could charitably characterize it as “cerebral,” but it was more a curse than a blessing. Senior year: it’s first and third, one out. I’m leading off third base. Ball on the ground, I’m going, like clockwork.But: grounder to short. I freeze. Infield turns two. I’m still frozen. I finally break free, and I dive back to third base, but the tag beats me by half a second. Triple play. I walk past the dugout directly to the clubhouse. I know my day is done, but I also realize it has gotten way too bad.

Roberto Osuna’s mental health issues last year were nothing to take lightly. I’ll step off my soapbox now, but know that I agree (and I’m sure Rick Ankiel and Khris Davis do, too) there’s an existing market inefficiency in baseball pertaining to player mental health.

I CAN’T TELL YOU WHAT THIS WAS. Or, I can’t tell you what was discussed. That was Hershey’s lone request when I asked for permission to review FPAZ. But it included some special guests discussing some special content.

EXTRA TICKETS? Hit up another AFL game.

The Intangibles (atmosphere, etc.)

I’m saying this completely sincerely: FPAZ greatly exceeded my expectations. Honestly, I was afraid there existed a high probability that it’d be a room full of awkward nerdy dudes who like fantasy baseball, and that’s it. And it kind of was, truthfully, but it was also much, much better. The energy was excellent; everyone was friendly and eager to meet one another and pass along advice when asked. The atmosphere inspired an air of comfort for attendees to not only approach analysts with questions but also simply engage in casual conversation with them, as if they don’t lead regular lives as television personalities. A huge percentage of attendees are repeat offenders, some having made the pilgrimage a dozen times or more. There’s almost a sense of brotherhood among the attendees who look forward every year to seeing and chatting with one another again. It’s not hyperbole to say deep friendships and connections are formed at FPAZ.

I was also afraid I might not learn anything — a bit arrogant of me, yes, and the excerpts I shared indicate I did, indeed, learn more than just a thing or two. But to reframe the question: What’s the quality of the content provided? It’s commendable. I can assure you every analyst there, all alleged “experts” in this so-called field, learned something new, which means you would, too. We always have something to learn from one another.

Fantasy baseball is a white man’s hobby. There were maybe half a dozen women in attendance and even fewer people of color. It’s not an indictment of FPAZ — it’s not in their control. It’s just how it is. FPAZ did well to accommodate this, specifically organizing a breakout table for folks to discuss women in (fantasy) baseball with women in (fantasy) baseball. It’s not BaseballHQ’s responsibility to do so, but it might do well to take the gesture a step further and organize a formal breakout panel to discuss women in not only fantasy baseball but also MLB scouting and front office roles. It could be especially fascinating to recruit actual front office folks to sit in on it, too, although the logistics of such are much more easily said than done.

Verdict

For fantasy baseball lovers, there’s really nothing else in the way of fantasy baseball conferences or programming quite like FPAZ. Given it has the market effectively cornered, BaseballHQ could realistically deliver a subpar product and still make folks happy. Fact of the matter is it’s a well-organized and thoughtful conference that inspires camaraderie among the attendees as opposed to simply filling seats and delivering advice and insight.

If you’re someone who refuses to pay for any kind of specialized or exclusive fantasy baseball content, FPAZ may not be for you, only because I can’t imagine you’d want to pay the registration fee to attend. Truthfully, this is me. I’m not subscribed to any content anywhere. I’m frugal and lazy, but I’m also way too busy with my actual job that I barely have time to write, let alone read, so paying for subscriptions is unwise for me. It is not out of malice or arrogance. Know this: the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference charges $600 for non-students, and the SABR Analytics Conference charges $395 for early-bird SABR paid members up to $695 for late-bird non-members. Straight up, FPAZ packs a bigger punch at a more affordable price. Also: about half of an early-bird registration fee goes toward tangible things (BaseballHQ swag, AFL tickets, meals, etc.). It’s all incredibly worthwhile; here I am, having greatly enjoyed myself at FPAZ, my offseason invigoration freshly renewed. I’m feeling inspired. Suddenly, it’s not just fantasy football season.

So, that’s it. If you’ve been on the fence and didn’t know much (or anything) about FPAZ, I hope this was an illuminating look inside this year’s symposium. And if you’ve always wanted to meet your favorite writers and analysts — Sarris, Sporer, Collette, Erickson, Cockcroft and Eric Karabell (ESPN), Shandler, Erickson and Derek Van Riper (Rotowire), Todd Zola (Mastersball), Steve Gardner (USA Today)… the list goes on and on and on — and not just meet them but hang out with them, then FPAZ is very much your jam.



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Currently investigating the relationship between pitcher effectiveness and beard density. Biased toward a nicely rolled baseball pant. Three-time FSWA finalist, one-time winner. Featured in this year's Lindy's Sports' Fantasy Baseball magazine. Doing everything I can to better understand (fantasy) baseball using only publicly available data.

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Andrew Perpetua
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First off, I’m so jealous of the people who went to this event. I have a story about why I couldn’t go which relates to the DFS psychology. I entered a DFS tournament in which I had one of the best lineups I have ever put in DFS. Everyone struck gold.

This was draft kings, both of my pitchers rocked like 30+ point games. Every batter in my lineup scored 18+ points. It was really awesome, and there was one point where 13 of the days games were over, and I was rocking out in first place with a $7500 prize. And then Chris Iannetta happened. He hit a 3 run homer and a grand slam. I ended up losing my $7500. I dropped to $15. If I remember correctly, the difference between myself and 1st place was 30 points, and Chris Iannetta scored something like 45. And the 30 or whatever guys who had Iannetta leaped ahead of me, most of them by fewer than 1 point.

So, Chris Iannetta is the reason I couldn’t go to this event. Gr!

Back to DFS psychology, let Chris Iannetta be your reason to avoid large tournaments. For the majority of the year I was playing smaller games, 5 to 12 team single entries. I’ve never done head to head (although IIRC people from rotogrinder have invited me, and I always chickened out), but 5-12 team tournaments are absolutely amazing for maximizing profit. If you aren’t into head to head, that’s cool. But stick to the small stuff. Don’t get Chris Iannetta’d.