SABR meeting 2/4/17

SABR logo

Today was the 46th Annual Bob Davids Chapter Meeting of SABR.

Well, that was fun! This was my first SABR meeting, and I have to say it exceeded expectations. I expected that at least one session would be full of dry numbers and my eyes would glaze over, and that at least one other session would be about something (team/stats/etc) that I didn’t care about. Well, that was wrong. Spouse and I both had a great time.

In addition to the sessions and a tasty lunch, there was a raffle for memorabilia and books, and silent auctions for jerseys. Authors were there either signing books or taking pre-orders.

I donated some bobbleheads to work on clearing out my extras, and came home with a dozen books (at the end of the day, you could just take what books were left if you’d bought raffle tickets. Good thing I just ordered new bookshelves!) Attendance was 142—only about 5% women. NICE: no line at the women’s room!

Yes, there were stats—but who these days wouldn’t be interested in “The Cult of the Closer”?

So, here’s the details:

Opening session was Glenn Donnellan and his Electric Slugger. Not only did he play the National Anthem, but he played several other classic and classic rock selections, converting from Bat-o-Caster to Bat-o-Varius with a touch of a switch.

We also got the background on how he finally got the right to call it the Electric Slugger, and how he got a signature plate. Turns out that the U.S.S. Louisville fired the first shot in Desert Storm, and had painted “Louisville Slugger” on the first shell. The bat folks heard about that, and ended up offering a retiring military guy from that ship a job in their factory doing the signature plates. Glenn was touring the plant, and asked about getting a signature plate (now that all the licensing had FINALLY been worked out after several years with several sets of lawyers). His guide said, not sure about that, but let me take you down to the shop. Glenn and Mr. Ex-Military hit it off, and suddenly the signature plate became “no problem!” Glenn says that when the bat is rolled across the hot signature plate, it smells like popcorn. Glenn has made Electric Sluggers for other folks (Joe West was his first order).

Because he doesn’t want to cover the signature section, the Bat-o-lin plays more like a viola than a violin as far as finger and bow positioning. Yes, other members of the symphony have played it.

He doesn’t interact with the players when he’s down on the field waiting to play the Anthem: he doesn’t want to distract from their focus on batting practice.

Next up was Mark Pankin presenting Dave Smith’s paper on “The Myth of the Closer.” This paper was presented at SABR nationally last year. (For the locals, Mark Pankin is the one with the NO DH license plate I spotted last week.) Obviously, I won’t be able to present all the statistics (the paper is available on Retrosheet). But here are the stats I thought most relevant:

With a 3 run lead in the 9th, bringing in an ace closer increased the win percent from 96% to 98%.

With a 2 run lead in the 9th, bringing in an ace closer increased the win percent from 91% to 94%.

With a 1 run lead in the 9th, bringing in an ace closer increased the win percent from 80% to 86%.

What that works out to is one to two wins per year. So with wins valued at $7-8M each, an ace closer should be worth (drum roll, please) $15M a year. Oddly enough, that’s about the market.

The percentage of games won with a 1, 2, or 3 run lead going into the 9th oddly enough hasn’t changed significantly over the time period 1920-2015: what has changed is how that’s happening.

The win percentage of a team going into the 9th with a 1, 2, or 3 run lead hasn’t really changed over the 1920-2015 era, which is what the paper covered. But the number of innings pitched by starters has dropped continuously (with a minor blip up in the AL in the first year or two of the DH), and the number of relievers per game and number of innings they pitch have continuously increased over the same time frame. Obviously, the number of complete games has dropped continuously over the time studied (down to under 2% last year [I counted 2.2% in Nats Park over the last 5 years: thanks, Max Scherzer!]). Starting pitchers pitch an average of 6 innings. “Pitchers per game” average out at 3.15.

Jerome Nelson spoke about the CBA and the arbitration process. Because the CBA is still being drafted, expected to be completed in March, he was working from the press release. He covered the scheduling changes for 2018 that have already been discussed here. He also talked about the difference between the various types of arbitration, how the commercial arbitration he was used to differed from the baseball arbitration where the player has to listen to the team say how bad he was. He also talked about the difference between the salary arbitration and the grievance arbitration (i.e. A-Rod). Jerome does not like the “file and trial” idea, since he has seen the effect on the relationship between the players and the team. [This gave Barb and I an idea for our first SABR research paper: the effect on players’ tenure with a team if they actually go through the arbitration process vs. if they settle before the hearing. We could think of several anecdotal examples of “bad” outcomes].

He also noted the increase in the number of in- and out-of-season urine and blood tests (totaling 7200 tests!). The arbitration panel will have more discretion in taking mitigating circumstances into account when setting penalties for violation of drug policies. No details available yet, of course.

A few stats:
1974-2015: 221 arbs won by the player, 301 by the club.
2015: 55 filed for arbitration. 14 actually went: 8 won by the club, 6 by the player.

Next up was Paul Dickson (as in the Baseball Dictionary and a few (dozen) other books). He gave a preview of his upcoming book: “Leo Durocher: Baseball’s Prodigal Son.” Publication will be March 21. Leo really was a bad boy in a lot of ways, but somehow managed to be an effective manager anyway. Paul said that he came away with the impression that Leo could not stand anyone to have a bigger presence than he did, and that’s why he was so obnoxious to various players (i.e. Babe Ruth, Ernie Banks) along the way. One of the audience asked in the Q & A if doing this research helped him understand the current president. Paul said that two of the people who were doing the pre-publication work said the same thing, that in reading the book Leo reminded them of the current occupant of the White House. Although the book focuses on Leo, of course, it also covers a good portion of 20th Century baseball because of his interactions with so many players (and celebrities—Leo was big on hanging with celebrities.) Unfortunately, he never could give up gambling, and that colored his life and career.

Lunch was preceded by Take Me Out to the Ball Game singing along with the Electric Slugger. Given the number of different jerseys in the room (Pirates, Tigers, Cubs and others, although more Nats than any other team), the name of the team in the song was, shall we say, a bit muddy.

Now, on to Cuba with Bruce Adams and Tim Wendel. Bruce gave us the story of getting the Cal Ripken League team (college level) to Cuba last summer (and home again!). They played 3 games against what would be Cuban ML equivalent teams. However, given the state of baseball in Cuba, the games were actually close (won 3-2, lost 2-6, and rained out with the score 6-8 against the Industriales, who are the equivalent of the Yankees). The sports minister of Cuba admitted, in a rare moment of candor, that their teams “aren’t very good.”

That was borne out by Tim’s observations on his trips there. Why is that? One reason, of course, is that many of their best players have left: he said 100-200. So, why is Cuban baseball continuing to decline? Tim’s take:

1. Soccer is available on TV broadcast from Europe.
2. There is less space in the streets to play baseball. Soccer takes less space.
3. There are newer cars parked in the streets, so the owners don’t want kids playing baseball near their cars.
4. The players who leave cannot come back and play winter ball, which would provide role models and increase the level of play.
5. Baseball is seen as the game of the old revolution. Just as baseball was revolutionary in its time (Che played 2nd for Fidel’s team) vs. bullfighting, now soccer is seen as revolutionary against the “old school” baseball.

The Esquina Caliente (Hot Corner) in the Parque Central is still active 24/7 for baseball talk. Tim remembers taking sports magazines to Cuba and how the people wanted so badly to see what the players looked like (most of what they knew was from the radio). He remembers someone following him afterwards and saying “Does Mark McGwire really look like that?”

Cubans’ feelings about the players who have left vary: it’s really a case-by-case judgement whether they admire them, hate them, or just consider them non-persons. As far as the players, yes, it’s about the money, but also about challenging themselves by playing against the best. One of the questions was about more recent Cuban defectors: there were rumors that the government was encouraging certain troublesome players (i.e. Yasiel Puig) to leave. Tim said that he had heard rumors that certain government officials may have been involved in some defections. Nothing certain, of course, but he had heard the rumors. Used to be that you had to escape on a raft: now it’s gangsters with a cigarette boat.

The last speaker was Mark Zuckerman, who talked about founding Facebook (kidding!). He talked about how the life of the beat writer has changed because of the transition from paper with fixed deadlines to internet with a constant deadline. He used to write two articles a day, now it’s more like 6 or 7. A typical day for a beat writer (on a day with a night game) runs 2:30 p.m.-12:30 a.m., plus setting up the next day’s blog after getting home at night. What’s the trade-off for all those articles? Well, it’s depth vs. speed (anyone surprised? Didn’t think so). So what’s missing is the ability to pull together little pieces of information and make a true story, vs. publishing each little snippet/factoid/tweet as it appears.

He covered his personal professional history, and how surprised he was (1) about the support he got during the year he started Nats Insider that enabled him to travel to cover the team and (2) how the community formed itself starting online and then into “real life.” That year of independence was one of the high points of his career—although when the opportunity came for a regular paycheck and health benefits, he took it.

In response to an audience question, he said that sports writers have been used to dealing with “alternative facts” for years, and mentioned that to their fellow (non-sports) writers when this started happening in the political arena. Sports teams have long attempted to manipulate the media (i.e. limiting access to players, hiding injuries, announcing that a team was interested in a player just to run up his price). Mark was critical of the Nats’ policy on in-game injury announcements, since waiting until the end of the game led to hours of (often unwarranted) speculation.

Questions were asked about his HoF ballot. He only voted for nine this year.
On Mike Mussina, he says that he just doesn’t see him as dominant at any point in his career. He was a very good pitcher for a very long time, but that’s not Mark’s criteria: he wants to see a HoF inductee as the best or at least among the best at some point in their career.

On the steroid era guys, he said there is no right answer. He wishes that either the HoF would get rid of the character clause (NFL does not have that: their HoF criteria is just stats), or give more guidance on how to apply it. His interpretation is that if what the player did affected the integrity of the game, then he won’t vote for him. If the guy was a clubhouse problem, or had other personal issues that didn’t affect the integrity of the game, Mark would still vote for him. On the “what about players who were rumored, rather than proven, to have used?” Mark responded that he used the standard that one of his fellow writers (I think St. Louis) uses: “unless there was enough evidence that I could have written and published a story, I don’t count it.” So a book by someone with an agenda, without more evidence, wouldn’t be enough. He also said “Think about this: what if Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens do get elected? How would that feel at the Hall induction ceremonies when they introduce them?”

On whether the BBWAA should be the voters, and what about the outlets that don’t allow their writers to vote? He thinks that the writers should be allowed to vote. (1) the newspapers endorse political candidates and cover them at the same time, and (2) it implies that the employer doesn’t trust their employees to be ethical—not a good message.

On the parks: Nats Park’s press box is the highest. Pittsburgh is a little lower. It’s always a shock coming from Spring Training—the game seems so far away. Used to be that when stadiums were built, the press box was right behind home plate. Now, that real estate goes to the expensive seats. At least Nats Park the box is above home plate: some stadiums have moved the writers off to the side, which is hard to see the game. At Nats Park, the broadcasters are so far up that it does lead to broadcasting errors: despite decade of experience, the broadcasters may mis-call a hit because they can’t get a good read on it at that altitude [OK, now I’ll cut them some slack. I’ve been up there, and it is really a long way down to the field]. Going the other direction, at Camden Yards the press box is right there, and several laptops have been lost to foul balls over the years. Perhaps apocryphal, but the day after an Orioles writer said that Cal Ripken should really pack it in, Ripken hit a foul into the press box and took out the writer’s laptop.

On what players were his most and least favorite to work with, he said Livan Hernandez was always a pleasure to cover, not just because he was easygoing, but just interesting as well. He said most of the people he has worked with have been great. The managers have been great with the media, no matter what you think of them as managers. On the down side? Elijah Dukes was a piece of work (although that was partially the fault of the team and how they handled him. They had the PR folks run interference between Elijah and the press, and no one else got that treatment. (That led to clubhouse resentment.) Jon Rauch was rough. Anthony Rendon can be tough in the clubhouse, although away from the cameras and large groups he’s much better.

He hasn’t had any interference from MASN, although obviously everyone knows that he’s not going to write about the lawsuit itself.

He wrapped up with talking about baseball coming back to DC, how Frank Robinson saw that the 2005 team just didn’t have the horsepower to keep up in the second half of the season: that they’d been playing over their heads and getting lucky in the first half. He remembers the first game at RFK when the Nats scored their first run, and the press box started shaking. Boswell leaned over and said “welcome to RFK.”

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