It was the annual SABR (Society for American Baseball Research) Day in Washington, DC over the weekend. This article was all done from notes on my phone, so if anyone else was there, feel free to make additions (or corrections) in the comments.
Booz Allen Hamilton hosted the local DC SABR Day—which is good, because the Holiday Inn hotel we’d had it in for several years in Rosslyn has been torn down. It was held in their new conference area “The Helix.” It was good to be back in person—2022 was only virtual. “In-person” allowed everyone to bring in the baseball books they’d been accumulating for three years and donate them to the raffle. Of course, members might go home with as many books as they came with—just different ones! Jerseys, bobbleheads, baseballs and one pair of Nats socks were also available. I consider that part of the day a success—I left with fewer books than I brought!
The first speakers were a panel on the influence of Artificial Intelligence (AI) on baseball. Panelists were Mike Carney, Executive Vice President, Business Operations from the Nats, Brian Hall of NYU, and Allison Levin who Zoomed in from Chicago. I’ll cover the specifics to the Nats first (all this was from Mike) and then the general discussion (not going to try to give direct quotes or attribute each remark to a speaker).
Security cameras in Nats Park have been upgraded to “enhance game day experience.” Moving toward facial recognition for entrance. Said he knows that people have privacy concerns, but really, “they’re just using the data to give people a better game day experience.” At some point they would expect to track fans to be able to deliver food to them.
Nats’ social media “team” is only two people. That needs to be improved. They’ve at least started talking about TikTok. They know they have to balance developing new fans while not offending existing ones.
Nats have the largest mobile ordering volume in baseball.
In response to my question “What are you doing to fix the mobile ordering for 2023?”, Mike acknowledged that there were problems between the mobile ordering software (owned by the Nats) and the vendors (subcontracted to Levy) in 2023. He indicated that one of the reasons they wanted the Yankees for the exhibition game in 2023 was to try to get more fans into the park to stress-test the ordering system before Opening Day [Note: 2022’s exhibition game was cancelled due to weather]. I didn’t really consider that an answer to my question, but at least he knew there were problems.
AI comments from everyone:
AI has been applied in the Premier League to reduce injuries—taking the data from wearables and on-field video to be able to predict, based on past patterns, how and when players might injure themselves. Obviously the next step is to apply that knowledge to prevent injuries. That technology is now being applied to baseball.
Fantasy and gambling are enhanced by AI. [Author’s note—duh. But I fail to see how that helps the game].
AI can now write well enough to pass the medical board exams, so optimizing lineups is easy by comparison. Brian predicted that within five years the WS winner will have used AI to optimize their lineup.
AI for fan development: baseball has been much better at retaining fans than developing new ones. STH revenue is still the main revenue source for all sports teams, but that number is declining across all sports. AI can be used to predict what might increase the odds of getting a casual fan to buy a ticket and then contact him or her, reserving human salespeople for “white glove” treatment for the STH.
In other sports, the process of optimizing the use of AI is being done at the League level—but not in MLB (each team is on their own).
The AI presentation was followed by a presentation on the components of fWAR and bWAR and why they differ. Summary—it’s how they handle defense and the “position adjustment” for different positions.
Dave Raglin did a presentation on the 2005 Nats and that season, complete with photos and his original cap purchased in the trailer team store. For more details on how that year got started, see my story of the home opener https://sabr.org/gamesproj/game/april-14-2005-baseball-is-back-in-washington-dc-as-nationals-win-home-opener/ .
Mark Zuckerman from MASN followed. He was going to talk about how his career covering the Nats had changed from 2005 through today, through different media and different outlets, but he listened to Dave’s presentation and instead started with what it was like covering the Nats in 2005. He did say that being in media today requires flexibility—he’s moved from all-newspaper to web-publishing, Twitter, and podcasts. He did say that despite the state of the team, interest in the podcasts remains high. He reminded folks that a beat writer cannot be a fan—media have to be rational, and to be a fan is to be irrational.
Going back to 2005, he had never been to RFK for a game, although he had toured the stadium when it was under renovation (and was skeptical, like everyone else, as to whether it would be ready to play in by Opening Day). When Vinny Castilla hit that triple, scoring the first Nats runs, of course the fans started jumping up and down—which shook the press box considerably. He was not prepared for that—old guys like Ladson laughed and explained the structure to the newbies (Note: the press box was attached to the bottom of the bouncy part of RFK. And it was bouncing that day for sure).
Spending time talking to Frank Robinson was the best perk of covering the Nats in 2005. Frank knew that the Nats’ hot start wouldn’t last—they had been ultra-lucky in one-run games and he knew that wouldn’t hold up. He didn’t say anything publicly, of course, but off the record, he knew. By the end of 2006, Mark had the impression that Frank would rather chat baseball (or golf, or life) with the reporters than go out in the clubhouse and deal with the players.
Moving to Mark’s HoF ballot, he explained why he changed his mind on Scott Rolen (who he voted for). First, new analytics make it easier to compare him to other players of his time—which is what convinced him that Rolen qualified. Also, 3rd basemen are quite under-represented in the Hall, which made him feel as if perhaps the voters weren’t looking at the right comparisons. Rolen met Mark’s criteria for “excellence and longevity” (so certain players who were great for several years, but then fell off quickly in their early 30’s wouldn’t qualify in his mind).
He had voted for Curt Schilling while holding his nose—his application of the character clause in HoF voting is to apply it to how the player’s actions affected the game. So PED guys—no. Schilling is an awful person, but Mark’s not aware that that affected how he played the game.
He voted for Ortiz even though his name showed up in the “supposedly anonymous” report from the early 2000’s. One of the Commissioners acknowledged that the testing for that wasn’t as accurate as it would be today, and since Ortiz played several years into the testing regime and never tested positive, Mark ignored that earlier result.
In response to a question, Mark does wish he had learned Spanish, since it’s always awkward to work through a translator, even a baseball player translator. He really likes to develop the relationships with players in Spring Training so he’s not approaching them first right after they gave up a home run. After 2020 and 2021, he knows how valuable it is to “be there” face-to-face in the clubhouse.
MASN is definitely an issue in the team sale. Zuckerman reminded everyone that “if there’s information out there, someone wanted it out there for a reason.”