This past weekend, I had the pleasure of traveling to Boston to take part in the 6th annual Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, hosted by the MIT Sloan School of Business and presented by ESPN. A friend is currently studying statistics and asked if I would like to come along, so I was able to hitch a ride on a plane with him and take part in the gathering of some of the brightest minds in all of sports.
You’ve seen me write a lot from the analytical side of things on here and with good reason: It’s my passion when it comes to baseball. I’ve followed sabermetrics for about five years now and it’s been a passion of mine. I’ve thought about wanting to learn more about the process and I got a little bit of insight from it. Along with quite possibly one of my favorite memories I’ve had in my lifetime.
I started furiously Live Tweeting what I could (@TimmyLivingston) throughout the panels that I went to and the baseball ones were of the most interest. I got my practice in on the opening panel of the conference on Day 1. It started out with a confab of some of the greatest minds in sport for the opening panel called “In the Best Interest of the Game: The Evolution of Sports Leagues.” Mike Wilbon presided over a council that included NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, MLB Executive VP of Labor Relations and Human Resources Rob Manfred, NBA Deputy Commissioner and COO Adam Silver, New York Giants president Steve Tisch and perhaps most interestingly, Scott Boras.
Most of it was mainly statistics on how baseball is going when it comes to things like international players (Boras mentioned that Ichiro was the Lin of baseball…I’ll let that one stew for a minute) and Manfred talked about how the number of Latin players in baseball was just under 30% in the Majors and just over it in the minors. They also talked about the Ryan Braun steroid issue, noting that outside of this particular instance, independant arbitrators HAVE led to good things since being used and that Boras would like to see the medical boundaries put up in accordance with steroid advancements.
Also on Day One was the Baseball Analytics panel, which featured Boras, Houston Astros GM Jeff Luhnow, Cleveland Indians president Mark Shapiro, Tampa Bay Rays special assitant Rocco Baldelli, and the man who started the statitstical revolution with his baseball abstracts in the 70’s: Bill James. The panel basically started with background, and Baldelli seemed a little nervous (and stated as such) considering the company kept on the panel. Boras made a mention about “making the cake” in the talking about player contracts, something he mentioned in the opening panel. If you’re looking for a great fantasy baseball team name, Scott Boras Cake Mix is right there, folks.
James was both insightful and brutally honest. He probably had the question of the panel to Boras in regards to player value in contracts, asking Boras what would happen if the GM or owner don’t hold the player to as high a value as you did, eliciting a hearty response from the crowd. Boras responded with the players needs being most important. Before taking the helm of the Astros, Luhnow helped bring an analytics approach to the St. Louis Cardinals and helped them to two World Series titles.
Shapiro had the best outlook on things considering he had been with the Indians for almost two decades. He talked about how there is still an art to dealing with player decisions, and that the intersection of stats, analysis and technology is the most important thing. One can’t live without the other.
James had the most poignant words for the panel, talking about how the next frontier in sports is two fold: Finding out how a player’s performance at different levels relates to Major League performance and broadening the sight for baseball enterprise as opposed to what’s good for the individual or team. That led to talk about the draft, which many believe is a broken system, and that the chances will only take for a few years before being exploited once more.
Also, something very interesting on the draft from Shapiro. He spoke about how limiting money used in the draft gives a major advantage to high income teams due to it leveling the playing field. Teams who might not have a lot of money at the Major League level might want to invest heavily in the future. They also talked about how the international market is basically the wild wild west, and that Shapiro is still waiting on what the MLB definition of “competitive balance” is.
All in all, the baseball panel was really well done and gave us a lot of insight into how the various components of baseball worked. James didn’t get a chance to talk as much as some of the others but when he did, he was very poignant and direct in his comments on baseball as a whole.
The other big baseball-related panel for me was the Box Score Rebooted panel, which included James, ESPN stats guru Dean Oliver, MLB historian John Thorn and John Dewan, the owner of Baseball Info Solutions and the publisher of the Bill James Handbook. Right away, James set the tone, saying that there’s a great amount in scoring that doesn’t make sense at all (hence him diving into some of his early baseball work). He had a great quote: “There is a great power in rationally reporting the correct ways of scoring.” He also brought up an interesting point about how a pitcher could bring advanced stats to an arbitration case and could lead to him winning the case.
They mainly talked about the stats that made the most sense to them and went around talking about the ones that they used most, like James’ Runs Created, OPS+, and so on. They talked about their sources, including Baseball-Reference, FanGraphs and Retrosheet. In the end, they talked about how there needs to be a consistent stat that defines replacement level.
But the crowning jewel of that panel (and the conference)? The question and answer session, where James answered one of my questions and thanked me for it, regarding how to properly administer the win to a pitcher. I asked if quality starts should be considered and he said that he wishes there was more of a consensus for making decisions on stats, something that was echoed by his fellow panel members.
There was a lot to take in during the conference, but for stat heads like myself, it didn’t get much better than hearing the guy who is responsible for the statistical revolution answer a question and thank you for it. It’s an expensive conference ($400 for non-students), but if you get the chance to go next year and are interested in finding out what statistical analysis is all about in sports, there are few better opportunities than that. Take advantage of it if you can.