Saturday, March 17, 2012

SABR Conference: Day 2

The conference moves on.  Day 1 of the Society for Baseball Research (SABR) conference in Mesa, Arizona proved both exciting and humbling.  When you last left me I had attended a number of panels, speakers, and presentations.  Thursday, day 1, sported (pun intended) a number of interesting panels and speakers, but Friday's lineup (again pun intended) featured some big names in the baseball world.  They included, Jerry Dipoto, Angels GM, Chris Antonetti, Cleveland Indians GM, Doug Melvin, Brewers GM, and Tom Ricketts, Cubs owner. 

Due to my inability to integrate into pacific standard time with the speed of the flash, I awoke on Friday morning bright and early and went down to the complimentary breakfast provided by the hotel.  I walked in only minutes before the General Manager's panel began and thus grabbed something quick and sped to get a good seat.  Due of course to my punctuality, the panel began late.  Nonetheless, in strode the three GM's, walking into a room full of baseball minds like the winners of the Nobel prizes in physics appearing before an undergraduate mechanics class.  Antonetti and Dipoto displayed athletic physiques, toned and tanned bodies with faces that showed intelligence, confidence, and intensity.  Doug Melvin, the elder statesman of the group, wears a bushy grey mustache that perfectly matches his age (60).  The three men took their seats and almost immediately the room fell silent.  Next, the exuberant FOX Sports writer and commentator Ken Rosenthal stepped to the podium.  Rosenthal would be moderating this panel probably because he has interviewed all three GM's at least once in his career. 

Doug Melvin
Chris Antonetti
Following a number of well thought out, yet not incredibly difficult to answer questions by the moderator, the session opened up for questions from the audience.  A number of the older gentlemen who always sit in the front row asked questions with a surprising number of younger attendees swallowing any bit of nervousness they possessed in order to ask three kings of the industry a few solid questions.  Eventually the session faded, but before it ended Ken Rosenthal, considered one of the best insiders in baseball, had some breaking news for everyone in the ballroom.  Andy Pettitte, recently retired NY Yankees left-handed pitcher, just signed a one-year contract with the Yanks for $2.5 million.  This is news that most of us sitting in the room usually discover this information reading Rosenthal's twitter feed, but instead on this day we found out from the horse's mouth without any electronic go between.

 What struck me about the three GM's on the panel occurred after the session ended.  Following the obligatory and well-deserved applause some of the crowd dispersed while others sped to the front of the room to ask one of the three men some questions.  The longest line of suitors appeared in front of Jerry Dipoto, who made splashes this off season by signing top free agents Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson.  As seen above a few attendees surrounded Doug Melvin and one or two walked up to Chris Antonetti.  While Melvin and Dipoto answered questions, I watched Antonetti.  As the GM of the Cleveland Indians, Antonetti works with a smaller budget than most, using that money in an attempt to ameliorate the ailing hearts of all Cleveland sports fans by bringing a world series to Cleveland.  He specifically spoke to younger conference attendees while Dipoto and Melvin took questions from mostly older ones. 

Following the star studded GM panel came Tom Ricketts.  Ricketts recently bought the Chicago Cubs, and even more recently lured Theo Epstein away from Boston to run baseball operations in Chicago.  He is a fairly plan looking yet polished man in his late 40's.  Vince Gennaro, president of SABR, asked him numerous questions concerning Ricketts' business background, the process involved with buying a major league team, the hiring of Theo Epstein, as well as Rickett's plans for renovating Wrigley Field.  Although Ricketts spoke well, this session paled in comparison to the one that preceded it. 

Moving right along, the next speaker, Greg Rybarczyk, presented some fascinating findings.  His talk was titled, "Integral Baseball: Comprehensive Performance Valuation via Player Tracking."  Essentially he went through the process of creating a metric that assigned value to all parts of a typical defensive play using new proprietary technology dubbed field F/X.  Field F/X uses a number of cameras strategically placed around a baseball park that capture the movements of the ball as well as all of the players.  This is an analogue of pitch F/X, which tracks a pitch when it comes out of the pitcher's hand as it crosses the plate and either finds the catcher's mitt or the batters bat.  Most fans see the results of pitch F/X at the bottom of their TV screens in the form of a strike zone.  Pitches come in and using pitch F/X every fan can see where exactly the pitch cross the plate and at what speed it did so.  Field F/X looks at similar dynamics but instead of pitching, it focuses on defense.  His research was complex yet fascinating, but due to it's complexity I will not delve into it now, but ask me any time and I would be glad to discuss it.
Ichiro Suzuki warming up
Chone Figgins and Ichiro stretching

Well, apparently I am running behind schedule, so I will, once again, cut this post short.  In short, my Mom and I went to an A's Mariners spring training game at night and enjoyed it immensely as we had seats just in front of the Mariners bullpen.  I leave you with a few photos from the game and bid you farewell until tomorrow when I will recap today's events and talk about the conference as a whole. 


Friday, March 16, 2012

SABR Analytics Conference: Day 1

So, for those of you who don't know, I am currently at the 1st ever SABR (Society of American Baseball Research) analytics conference in Mesa, Arizona.  The event is held in the Hilton hotel beginning Thursday March 15th ending Saturday the 17th.  This is obviously a niche event.  Great baseball minds who believe in and continue to progress sabermetrics.

The conference began at 1:30pm Thursday afternoon.  Unfortunately, hotel registration began at 3:00pm so most of us attendees left our luggage behind the front desk and scurried off to the conference registration table.  After receiving my "official" badge and conference schedule I walked into the ballroom for the opening event.  I walked into the ballroom noticing the oddly decorated carpet and (performing quick multiplication in my head) determined that the hotel had set up about 220 chairs with a podium, stage, and projector screen in the front of the room.  Knowing nobody, I moved along the aisles trying to find an open seat with some room for my backpack.

 I sat down and took in my surroundings.  The average age of the conference participants had to be around 35 years old.  It surprised me to see a significant number of older men, some of whom I assumed had been fans of sabermetrics since the 1970's when the guru of the craft, Bill James, began publishing his findings.  On the other hand, with information becoming so rapidly available, many of the older attendees might have recently picked up the analytics side of baseball because of its growing importance to the game.  In addition to the "dinosaurs"of the room scattered around, like sprinkles on a cupcake, were younger participants like myself.  I checked them out, figuring that most of them attended the conference in order to participate in the case competition in which a number of college age student teams compete against each other regarding a hypothetical baseball operations decision.  Going along with the demographics theme, I also noticed one or two female attendees, not something a bunch of baseball nerds would expect, but a welcomed sight amidst a room full of men.

The first panel featured John Dewan, Dave Cameron, and Cory Schwartz.  Dewan works for Baseball Info Solutions and has been a sabermetrician since the founding of the movement in the 1970's.  To his right sat Schwarz, a middle aged goatee sporting guy who wouldn't have been recognizable on any street in any city save his official polo shirt.  Cameron, the youngest of the three, sat to Dewan's left.  The moderator for the panel, which focused on the "Changing Face of Baseball Data" was none other than Sean Forman, creator of  Search any MLB player and almost assuredly the first link will be to Forman's website.  I won't bore you with the details of the panel, but overall I found it fascinating.  The highlight of the discussion occurred during the question and answer portion when a women in her 40's stepped up to the microphone to ask a question.  She prefaced her query by saying that she trained as an astrophysicist but loves baseball and attempts to use her background in physics to perform research on baseball.  I can't even remember her question, mostly because her presence at a meeting such as this astounded me.

Following this panel I remained glued to my seat waiting for the next talk.  In this discussion, Vince Gennaro, the president of SABR, spoke about his top 10 value plays for building a roster.  He spoke about inefficiencies in baseball and ways to exploit them in order to build the cheapest and most productive roster possible.  Although some of his analysis sounded like statistical mumbo jumbo, two points of his resonated with me.  First, he explained that some teams use a platoon advantage when building their roster.  The best players cost the most money, so when replacing the value of a top player, the cheapest option may be to sign two players to the same position and have them switch off different games.  A current example of this phenomenon is the Phillies attempt to replace Ryan Howard for the first few months of the 2012 season (see Cory Seidman's article on the issue).  Gennaro demonstrated that often times it can be cheaper and more efficient to sign two players to play a position, one left-handed and one right-handed, instead of doling out large sums of cash to a bigger name player.  Gennaro's next point concerned looking at players as assets.  Why shouldn't a team, Gennaro explained, sign/draft a player and convert them to a position that the market overvalues in order to then trade them for a player(s) that the market undervalues.  He gave examples such as Oakland recently trading closers Andrew Baily and Huston Street as well as the Padres trading Matt Latos.

Following Gennaro's talk I listened to economist J.C. Bradbury speak about pitch counts and days of rest for starters.  His paper demonstrated that a pitcher who throws more than 99 pitches in an outing is not likely to have those extra pitches affect his performance the next time out.  On the other hand, he did find that a pitchers' earned run average will rise if said pitcher throws more than 99 pitches in at least 5 and then 10 consecutive starts.  In other words, consistent overuse causes performance and sometimes medical issues, while sporadic overexertion has little effect.  Having recently written about young arms and overuse I found his findings concerning adult pitchers interesting and pertinent.  To give you some perspective, Bradbury looks like a middle-aged college professor, who speaks with a southern drawl.  At times he spoke too quickly, but he also recovered well and repeated anything in his presentation that had extra significance.

Currently it is 8:10am on Friday morning and the first panel of the day (the GM panel) begins in 20 minutes.  I leave you to digest some of yesterdays events.  Later today I will rehash yesterday evening's events including a presentation by Bloomberg Sports and the player panel including Oakland A's starting pitcher Brandon McCarthy.  

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Back to Little League

Recently, while perusing the New York Times "most emailed" section, I came across an article that resonated with me.  Bill Pennington, the author of the aforementioned article, talks about young pitchers and the arm injuries they face due to pitching.  The article debates the reasons behind these arm injuries.  Do these youngsters throw breaking balls (curveballs especially) too early in their lives or is it overuse that causes arm problems? 

The Author Reliving His Playing Days
I felt a strong connection to this subject because I was a young pitcher who developed elbow problems in my teenage years.  I began pitching when I was about 10 years old.  I quickly took to the position, loving baseball even more due to my immediate success on the mound.  I wanted nothing more than to pitch all day, pestering my dad to play catch even as dusk quickly approached.  With no one at home after school with which to play catch I resorted to throwing a baseball against the stucco siding of our garage, thus breaking down the stucco, and causing my parents to devise another less damaging solution.  

Between constant practice with my father and the side of my house, and playing in Little League, my arm experienced a fair amount of use even at the age of 12.  I pitched in at least one out of every 3 games in addition to pitching during practices.  At that point I threw two pitches, a four-seam fastball and a weak changeup.  I didn't begin throwing a curveball in games until I was 13 years old, but I experimented with it during my pitching sessions off of the field.  Once I began throwing a curveball in games it quickly became part of my pitching repertoire. 

Curveballs aside (I'll return to this), one of the greatest difficulties for a young pitcher is becoming accustomed to the change in distance when leaving Little League and moving into other travel team leagues like AAU, Babe Ruth, and American Legion.  In Little League, the distance between the pitching rubber and home plate is 46 feet.  Following Little League the distance jumps to 60.5 feet between home plate and the rubber.  This jump may not seem like much but it has a significant effect on young, and sometimes only partially developed, arms.  The extra strain placed on a young pitcher's arm when adding 14.5 feet in distance adds up.  Making the transition isn't impossible, in fact, if a youngster is properly monitored for pitch counts and number of games pitched he should experience few problems.  For a number of reasons I was mishandled, pitching far too much, but I never refused to take the mound.  Kids who realize they have talent want to prove it and rarely say no when asked to pitch.  In addition, success leads to fun, thus young pitchers who experience success want to take the mound as much as possible

Pitching excessively caused my arm problems.  I partially separated my right shoulder and spent the winter in physical therapy.  After a few months of both physical therapy and strength training I returned to the mound with a healthy shoulder and greater velocity.  From that point until my junior year in high school I experienced no arm issues and proceeded to advance my pitching.  I refined my mechanics, working on locating my fastball as well as curveball, and attempted to add a cut-fastball into my arsenal.  I did however play in three different leagues every year and worked with numerous pitching coaches.  I can't say how many innings or pitches I threw, but in retrospect it was too much.  In my junior year in high school I began to feel pain and numbness in my elbow.  After an MRI and a visit to the orthopedist I discovered that I had incredible amounts of inflammation in my right elbow as well as issues with my Ulnar Collateral Ligament.  This type of injury could only be fixed by a variation of UCL reconstruction, otherwise known as Tommy John Surgery.  My pitching career was most likely over.

This leads me into my opinion on the subject of young pitchers and arm injuries.  In my view curveballs should not and usually do not lead directly to arm issues.  This is not to say that young pitchers should be throwing curveballs, but the reasons against it are less than obvious.  In order to convince readers of my reasoning we must first start with the question: what is a curveball?  If you haven't read my previous piece on the curveball please read it here.  If not, this is a short synopsis.  A properly thrown curveball involves little curve.  Instead, curveballs should have a downward break to them, considered a 12-6 break (see your nearest analog clock for assistance).  In order to attain this movement the pitcher must first hold the ball with the proper grip and then throw the ball as if he is chopping wood.  As the arm comes downwards the pitcher should allow the ball to roll off of his top fingers thus created spin and a dramatic drop.  

Nowhere in my description did I mention the pitcher twisting his arm to throw the pitch.  The simplest and only explanation for omitting this fact is that twisting one's arm when throwing a pitch causes the pitcher to throw a slider, not a curveball.  Sliders are bad for young arms; in fact many pitchers do not start tinkering with a slider until they graduate from high school.  If thrown properly, with the right mechanics, a curveball shouldn't hurt a young arm.  On the other hand, curveballs are difficult to control, throw for strikes, and can lead a pitcher astray from practicing the fundamentals that have far greater impact on young hurlers.  

I would advise young pitchers to stick with the fastball and at the most develop a simpler yet effective pitch like the cut-fastball instead of difficult-to-learn pitches like changeups and curveballs.  Adding a slight cut to the fastball can keep hitters off balance and cause more ground balls, which lead to lower pitch counts.  Curveballs may lead to more strikeouts, but they also lead to higher pitch counts due to the difficulty involved in controlling the pitch.  Also, if thrown improperly, curveballs can lead to arm problems.  If a pitcher lowers their arm slot or begins to throw anything in between a curveball and a slider arm issues commonly follow.  Nonetheless, I do not think curveballs cause arm issues, instead overuse does.

My orthopedist told me that "pitching is one of the most common unnatural motions for the human body."  Although many contortionists might disagree, repeatedly rearing back and firing a 5 ounce ball at a small target 60 feet away constitutes an extremely unnatural motion for any human.  Due to this fact, it is vital to limit the number of pitches a young pitcher throws, especially during their key developmental years.  My doctor was concerned with throwing curveballs, but he also remarked that I pitched an exorbitant amount in my youth.  He determined that it was overuse and not specialty pitches that most likely cause my arm issues.  As he said this, I began to think about the countless hours I spent pitching and quickly realized that he had hit the nail on the head.

Recently, both Little League Baseball, and many travel leagues, have instituted pitch counts for players.  This is a great first step, but is it enough?  Coaches should limit a pitcher's pitch count during games because it is during game situations that players tend to overexert in order to win.  Although coaches should be applauded for these constraints, in-game situations constitute only a fraction of the problem.  Young pitchers should not play in more than one league simultaneously, and non-game pitching should be restricted to once-a-week pitching lessons and small amounts of off day pitching in practice.  Although Malcolm Gladwell demonstrated that practicing anything for 10,000 hours makes a novice into an expert, this should not apply to pitching at a young age.  Anyone who has practiced with a pitching coach will tell you that most of his or her sessions involved little actual pitching.  Learning how to pitch is a process; one that involves perfecting basic mechanics, hours of strength and stamina training, and improving one's baseball IQ.  It is these skills that young pitchers should learn, not new pitches and funky deliveries.  Pitches like curveballs and weird deliveries like that of Tim Lincecum (seen above), accomplish little, further deteriorating a young arm instead of strengthening it. 

So, are curveballs evil?  Maybe, because often learning to throw one diverts a pitcher's attention from the skills that truly matter, but the pitch alone has little to no influence on future injuries.  Parents, advise your children to learn and perfect the basics of pitching before transitioning into more complex areas.  All young pitchers should read two books on the subject.  "Nolan Ryan's Pitcher's Bible" written by Ryan and pitching guru Tom House and "The ABC's of Pitching" by H.A. Dorfman provide incredible insight into pitching, describing workouts, diet, mentality, and drills that will refine an inexperienced pitcher into a polished one.  But remember, no matter how many books you read or drills you perform, never pitch too much, and remember to rest.  Take it from someone who has gone through it all, from participating in 3 leagues at once to ending up in an orthopedist's office; the worst thing a young pitcher can do to their arm is overuse. 

Sunday, March 11, 2012

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