2013 Fantasy Baseball: Thoughts from Saber Seminar

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Art Credit: John Kenyon

This past weekend I had the opportunity to attend Saber Seminar in Boston. This event is two days of non-stop presentations by some of the most interesting people associated with baseball covering some fantastic research and topics. Presenters included names like Dave Cameron, Keith Law, Dan Brooks, Harry Pavlidis, Brian Bannister and many more. It was truly an intriguing and stimulating experience, and I am grateful I was given the opportunity to go. Below is a recap of some of the presentations and some of my thoughts from the event.

Tom Tippett

Tom is the Director of Baseball Information Services for the Boston Red Sox, and he led off the event. Tom talked a lot about what he does for the Red Sox, and essentially he researches and answers questions posed to him by executives and the managerial staff. He said a lot of the questions he is asked to answer are questions that often don’t have an answer. But it’s his job to make a decision in a short time based on the best research he can do. He said one of the more challenging things he has to do is find a way to communicate his process and results in a simplified manner.

Some of you may be interested in Tom’s advice on how to get a job with an MLB team. He gave a list of attributes and skills that could help you get a job with a team and to get ahead once you get there. First, he stressed being proficient in things like Excel, SQL (aka sequel which is programming language for data management) and the BATS video system, which is the technology almost all teams are using for video. He also mentioned knowledge of the data that the PITCHf/x and Trackman systems spit out. Communication skills are important, especially the ability to write proficiently and present your work and conclusions in an effective written manner. And if you can speak Spanish, that’s a big plus. And finally, you can benefit from having a solid understanding of how some of the processes of baseball work like arbitration, the Rule 5 draft and the waiver system.

Harry Pavlidis

Harry is someone I’ve followed on Twitter for awhile and someone we’ve had on the podcast. Harry’s work involves pitch classification and the study of PITCHf/x data. He gave a presentation on change ups and what makes a good one. The most interesting part of Harry’s findings has to do with the gap in velocity between a fastball and change up. The conventional wisdom is that a pitcher needs at least a 10 mph gap to have a good change up. But Harry has found that you only need that kind of gap if you want to induce more swings and misses. And that’s obviously a desirable outcome. But Harry has found that pitchers with a smaller gap in velocity are more likely to induce weak contact, which is also a desirable outcome.

This made me think of Jordan Zimmermann who has publicly stated that he’s often pitching to weak contact as opposed to punching guys out. However, when you look at his splits you’ll also see stretches where he racks up strikeouts. Could JZimm be alternating his change up speed depending on his desired outcome? My guess is that it has more to do with location, but it’s something I’ll be looking into and writing about this offseason.

Doug Thorburn

Some of you may know Doug from his work at Baseball Prospectus, specifically his podcast with Paul Sporer, TINSTAAPP. Doug’s expertise is pitching mechanics. He spoke of the trade off between having an over the top delivery and the distance a pitcher’s release point is from home. An over-the-top delivery is apparently something coaches stress in order to get a more downhill plane in the hopes of getting more grounders. But Doug has shown that the over-the-top delivery and the resulting increase in the release height of the ball don’t help ground ball rates to go up. Stuff is much more important to inducing grounders.

The real problem with the effort to increase release height is that it comes along with a pitcher’s release point being further away from home. An increase of one foot in release height will lead to the release point being an extra two feet away from home, which can lead to drop in velocity equal to or greater than 5 mph at the time the ball reaches the plate. The distance of the release point from home can also be affected by stride length. This seems obvious to say, but the longer the stride length the closer the ball is to home when released and the more relative velocity it will have. As I was writing this paragraph, the Oakland TV crew was pointing out Charlie Furbush’s long stride length and discussing this exact point. Kudos to them for not being a horrible broadcasting crew.

John Farrell

The Red Sox manager did a 30 minute Q&A session that was very interesting. As you might expect, he said some things that left a more saber minded audience shaking their heads a little. But I have to give the guy credit in that he seemed much smarter and in the know about the advanced statistics than I imagine most managers to be.

The thing Farrell said that I disagreed with the most had to do with bullpen usage. He stated that he thought it was important for bullpen guys to have defined roles. And specifically he thought it was crucial to have a solid guy at the end of the line because middle relievers pitch better when they know there’s a reliable closer behind them. My bullshit meter went nuts when he said that, and it’s something I plan on researching in the future.

But I want to be clear, Farrell seemed like a smart guy and a good manager. I was impressed. I should also be fair and point out that he made a really interesting point regarding defensive positioning. He said they don’t position guys just based on a spray chart, but really on the hard hit balls in the spray chart. They’re not looking at where all balls are being hit, just mainly where the hard ones are going. This made total sense and wasn’t something I had considered before.

Dr. Glenn Fleisig

Dr. Fleisig is apparently a freakin’ powerhouse in the sports industry. This guy started the American Sports Medicine Institue in 1987 with the Dr. James Andrews. He has published over 100 scientific articles, worked with thousands of athletes including those from 20 major league teams, and he is probably the leading expert on sports biomechanics. He gave a presentation on both days, but I thought his Sunday presentation on adolescent pitching was fascinating.

Dr. Fleisig has done research that disproves the common conception that curveballs are bad for kids. He has found no correlation between throwing curveballs at a young age and shoulder and/or elbow injuries. This is probably because he has also found that there is actually less torque on a young pitcher’s arm when he throws a curveball than there is when he throws a fastball. What really causes injury to a young pitcher is simply overuse. He stressed the important of pitch counts, knowing to stop throwing after becoming fatigued, not playing on multiple teams with overlapping seasons like a local team and travel team, and not playing baseball for more than 8 months in a year.

About Brett Talley

Listen to Brett on TheFantasyFix.com podcast and find him on Twitter @TheRealTAL.

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