By Laura Peebles
January 27, 2024
Yesterday while the Washington Nationals were holding their Hot Stove event, the SABR Day for Bob Davids Chapter event was going on simultaneously. After the announcements, the first speaker was Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post. She spoke at length about what has changed in baseball since she left the political beat and returned to sports.
These are my summaries of her comments.
- The rule changes are indicating that there’s more flexibility at the top.
- The economics are completely in flux. How will people see the games? Cable? MLB.tv? Something else? Change is coming—the bankruptcy and the fallout from that vs. the teams that have it made with their own networks and contracts is unworkable in the long term. No one knows what the answer will be, it’s just known that change is coming. She thinks what Manfred has in mind is taking control of the whole media market and selling a streaming service. The Padres tried that but only got 18,000 subscribers, which was a disappointment.
- Ownership structures may be reconsidered—large vs. small markets. Is it really possible to be a winner and be profitable?
- Huge number of women now are working in baseball. Now, when she attends the Winter Meetings, there are text groups of just the women.
- Change in the demographics on the field. More Asian players. She sees the economic effect of that changing the structure of international player contracts. Players under 25 coming from Japan are competing for the same money in the International Signing Pool with the DR players. And, there’s all the issues with the DR and the academies. Again, she says something will have to change, but no one knows what it will change to.
- There will be a woman on the field, in uniform, in 2024. Yes, she’s heard that an umpire is coming. [my note—knowing their system, I would guess there will be a female fill-in umpire when a regular one gets their vacation break].
- Media shrinking. Now it’s pretty much The Athletic and local beat reporters. Only a couple of papers have national baseball reporters.
- Definitely enough fans in the DC-Balto area to support two teams even if they’re good at the same time.
- She’s surprised at how easily the A’s plan to move was approved by the owners—so far all that’s happened is a bunch of contributions to the NV politicians. The move is from the 10th to the 54th largest media market so she’s not sure how that’s going to work.
- Restructuring of the minor leagues and eliminating draft rounds has the downside of disadvantaging the teams who were good at finding gems in the lower levels of the draft.
- What hasn’t changed is that she can write critically about the Nats. The secret is to avoid adjectives and to be there the next day after the story. She and Davey got crossways over a story on bullpen usage, but they worked it out face to face. Speaking of face-to-face, Rizzo yells at all the reporters and then they’re fine the next day. It’s part of the job.
- She’s waiting for the shoe to drop on gambling by players. The clubbies at other clubs have mentioned it to her—no smoking guns, just that they say “they see a problem coming.” And yes, she sees the hypocrisy around Pete Rose and gambling.
- She’s glad she doesn’t have a Hall of Fame ballot (Post reporters are prohibited from voting). She thinks the current system is a problem since the qualifications don’t preclude writers who haven’t covered baseball recently from voting. But, she doesn’t have a great solution, either. Definitely not players voting!!
- The process of rule change approval. She doesn’t know how they all approved a system with a committee of 3 players, 2 umpires and 5 owners. Things are going more smoothly now that Max Scherzer is off the committee. Sometimes they’d have to send him to another room to play Wordle to get him to calm down.
- The Shohei Ohtani deal, when looking at it now, makes sense for a team as long as they have the cash to set aside to fund a deferred obligation like that. Won’t work for every team, of course.
- Media people have to become personalities on TikTok and Instagram. She gets advice from Andrew Golden who’s 24.
- Next up was Dr. Tony Dahbura and Tad Berkery. Dr. Tony was involved with the Hagerstown Suns from 2003-2019, starting with shagging balls (hence his nickname “Shag”). He had a lot of great photos and memories (a young Bryce Harper, a rehabbing Denard Span, him climbing the outfield wall to catch flies). He also spent one season working in Mexico with Tony Tarasco—where his observations and suggestions were not well received, even when he put them in graphic form (see photo of charts with green, red, and danger zones for each batter). The exception was Jarrod Saltalamacchia—the pitchers’ ERA was one run lower when he was catching since he followed the advice. He has noticed that the current Mexican baseball broadcasters are not afraid to discuss analytics and inform their viewers about them.
He’s used that experience, including long periods sitting in the bullpen with time to think, to work on creating, and conveying to teams, what he calls “operational intelligence.” That can be legitimate sign-stealing, pitch-tipping, or any other analytics that can give teams an advantage. They’re both at Johns Hopkins University, and they’ve worked with the Orioles and Ravens. Currently working on a lineup optimization project for the O’s. The O’s take what they’ve developed and then bring it in-house, so they don’t really see the results.
Tad talked about his work (he’s still a student at JHU). Baseball is ahead of other sports (i.e. hockey and football) in analytics because it’s composed of discrete events–there’s a defined time for offence and defense. Some players are more open to analytics than others—some worry about numbers being used against them in arbitration.
- At the break, Dean Clayton talked about organizing analytics clubs in high schools. They learn to do analytics to make the case for someone to be inducted into a local (i.e. school or state level) hall of fame.
- David Smith of Retrosheet gave a talk, with great statistical analysis, covering whether the 3-batter rule has led to the demise of the LOOGY. He also talked about LOOGYs, ROOGYs and OOGYs generally. (That’s Lefty One Out Guy, etc). He presented an analysis of his data 1920 through 2022. (This is a follow-up from his presentation at SABR 2016 about the effect of the closer.) His conclusion was that OOGY’s are still more effective than other pitchers, and definitely still being used. However, the use has shifted more to “two out” situations, and being deployed earlier in the game (i.e. 6th inning high leverage) rather than almost always in the ninth inning. So yes, the 3-batter rule has led to changes in use of OOGYs, but not their demise by any means. Left-handed relievers as a percent of rosters have remained constant.
The funniest stats he had showed that as the use of the closer increased over the last couple of decades . . . the chances of a team winning the game remained exactly the same!
- Brian Engelhardt gave a humorous tour of the checkered history of 19th-century pitcher Harry Pyle. He was a good pitcher—when he could stay sober and out of trouble, which wasn’t often. He lost his major league debut game against the Providence Grays, giving up only one earned run but losing 8-0 . . . to Old Hoss Radbourn who was notching his historic 60th win.
- Marty Payne gave a well-illustrated talk on baseball on the Eastern Shore 1866-1950. He has recently written a book on that subject.
- Bill Lewers covered the Red Sox of the 50’s and 60’s through the changes in their yearbooks: the transition from art to photos, from black & white to color, from posed to action photos, how the narrative moved from chatty stories to stats, and how the players spent their off-seasons.
- Adam Korengold showed how he uses art to convey the concepts of analytics, especially in comparing players—sometimes a picture is really worth a 1000 words.