Guest Post: Five Big Ideas from the 2014 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

Sabathia's velocity is worth watching this spring
2014 Season Preview: The Erstwhile Ace

The following is a guest post from long-time reader Alex M. He attended the recent Sloan Sports Analytics Conference and in a two-part series will outline a few themes from the conference and their application to the Yankees.

MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

The 2014 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference is akin to Mecca for the mathematically inclined sports fan. Featuring esteemed panelists, including current athletes, coaches and front office personnel, the conference provided a forum to showcase advances in analytics across the sporting world. In particular, five* big ideas stand out for their potential to reshape our understanding of baseball going forward.

1) Disconnect Between the Availability of Information and Application on the Field – To date, the application of statistics and other analytics in sports has been primarily focused on roster construction. Going forward, new streams of data will increase the potential for in-game management. From tandem pitching to reliever usage and defensive shifts, the goal of GMs and coaches across sports will be to translate analytically-derived strategies (defensive shifts) into execution on the field (player placement and pitch selection).

2) Health Analytics as The Holy Grail– On panels covering every major American sport, health analytics, the ability to predict and prevent injuries, was consistently emphasized as “the holy grail.” Despite advances, pitcher injury rates have remained unchanged over the last 20 years, which teams hope to address through biomechanical analysis and load monitoring. Yankees fans were exposed to biomechanical analysis recently when CC Sabathia visited Dr. James Andrews to compare his delivery over time.

3) Potential for More Efficient Drafting – An interesting anecdote from the conference was about the recent tendency of the Houston Rockets to draft players with a big arm-span-to-height ratio, as chronicled in David Epstein’s book The Sports Gene. The bias towards longer wingspans highlights the variety of information teams use to assess players, and also how difficult it is to judge a draft as an outsider. Three areas where teams are making advances in evaluating draft choices include biomechanical analysis, improved comparable player projections, and, perhaps most importantly, train-ability assessments.

4) Batted Ball Profiles Have More Predictive Value than We Realized – The Houston Astros have recognized that not all line drives are created equally. By measuring the vector and speed of the ball off the bat, the Astros have been able to associate individual batted balls with a run expectancy that is highly predictive. Tracking the ball off the bat allows teams to develop individual park factors for players, potentially improving player valuations in trades or free agency. SABR President Vince Gennaro specifically cited Brian McCann as benefiting from Yankee Stadium compared to Turner Field.

5) Batter Strategies to Counter Improved Pitching and Defense – On the baseball analytics panel, multiple speakers expressed surprise at the relatively limited response of hitters to the increased use of defensive shifts. Based on the data, hitters should bunt and attempt to place hits more to overcome extreme shifts and pitching strategies. A second area for improvement is in valuing position versatility, which provides flexibility in roster construction, consistently affords platoon advances and accelerates injury recovery.

Advances in data collection, analytics and on-field implementation are happening across every major sport. The five big ideas outlined above all have the potential to improve our understanding of baseball as fans and also the performance of our favorite team. Next week, I’ll discuss applications of the next big things in sports analytics to the Yankees.

* As RAB previously reported, MLB Advanced Media’s new Player Tracking System offers fans and front offices a treasure trove of new data. Through a $300M capital investment, MLB will be rolling out network infrastructure in stadiums that will improve our understanding of defense, baserunning, and to a lesser extent offense and pitching. Most affected will be our assessment of defense with new data including first step time, first step efficiency (angle taken relative to optimal angle), route efficiency, speed, acceleration and turnaround on a throw back into the infield. Our understanding of baserunning will also be profoundly affected with data on runner leads, reaction times, route efficiency, speed at every step and acceleration. In a game of inches, MLBAM has figured out a way to measure the inches that determine the outcome of games.

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Sabathia's velocity is worth watching this spring
2014 Season Preview: The Erstwhile Ace
  • dkidd

    someday soon, a team (read: the rays) will create a new coaching position dedicated to turning analytics into in-game strategy

    • 28 this year

      It’s called the manager. The Rays hired Maddon with the idea that he would do that. The Yanks hired Girardi for his binder. But the idea of a second guy could be interesting.

      • TWTR

        What do you think is in the binder?

        When Torre left New York in 2007 after 12 consecutive trips to the postseason, it was because the Yankees offered to extend his contract for only a single season at a much lower base salary along with playoff bonuses. But Cashman was certainly ready to hire a manager more attuned to the Sabermetric approach made famous by Oakland general manager Billy Beane earlier in that decade. Torre, now Major League Baseball’s executive vice president of baseball operations, finished his managerial career in 2010 after three years of guiding the Dodgers.

        Asked if a manager could survive in the Majors today without taking that Sabermetric approach, Cashman said:

        “No, I don’t think so. Today’s manager, you need to be prepared like anything else. You need to be willing to utilize the valuable information sitting there right in front of you. If you don’t, you’re just hurting yourself and you’re just relying on luck.”

        link

        • vicki

          thing is, the binder badly needs updating.

          • Tanakapalooza Floozy

            Problem is it only has a serial port.

  • Jorge Steinbrenner

    Thanks for the contribution, Alex.

    I pray to God you’re not actually Eddard.

    Incredibly interested in what #’s 1 and 2 have to offer. Some potential ways to really revolutionize how managers approach players and the game.

  • dan2

    trainability and batting strategies against overshifts, thy name is Teixeira. By refusing to adapt, his stubborness has changed him from a .300 star to a .240 so-so player.

    • Bobby

      Amen to that. I didn’t think we needed rocket scientists at MIT to figure out that you gotta hit it where they ain’t but as long as the message gets across somehow

      • Jorge Steinbrenner

        Both your phones must ring off the hook with scouts asking for advice.

        • Bobby

          No the point is sort of the opposite. You don’t need a scout or an advanced analyst to see that you should try to hit the ball where fielders aren’t standing.

        • Bobby

          No the point is sort of the opposite. You don’t need a genius, a scout, or an advance analyst to see that it’s beneficial to hit the ball where the fielders aren’t standing.

          • http://www.riveraveblues.com Mike Axisa

            It’s not as easy as you seem to think it is.

            • Donny

              When you have so many moving parts of a given system to analyze, it is often skewed by the idea that more information is a good thing. While gathering as much information as possible should be cnosidered a good thing (as all good researchers would tell you), putting that information/data into a cognitive order is the most important piece.

              To me, this symposium just provided another means for interpolating data. It could end up being useful to someone somewhere, but I feel differently.

              For me, Point #4 sums it up: “By measuring the vector and speed of the ball off the bat, the Astros have been able to associate individual batted balls with a run expectancy that is highly predictive.” To me, this is just a fancier way of saying that balls hit harder on a line drive have a better chance of producing positive results. But like so many others before me have so keenly pointed out on this site, it seems a little too obvious of a point to be made.

              • Tanakapalooza Floozy

                The point now is that it’s being measured and tracked. That’s very different than the eye test which is full of confirmation bias, etc.

          • Jorge Steinbrenner

            Let’s quit while we’re ahead.

            • handtius

              We’re ahead?

      • TWTR

        Try hitting it “where they ain’t” with the uppercut swing he has batting LH.

  • TWTR

    Although it would have applicability for all players (especially pitchers), given their usual reliance on expensive older players, the Yankees should be all over health analytics. The multiplier effect on a dollar invested would probably be fairly large.

    • Jorge Steinbrenner

      Absolutely. I’d love to see a way to get more pitchers through a system without arm issues and, honestly, really erase some of the controversy about innings counts and how every pitcher does not share the DNA of Joba Chamberlain.

  • will

    Jobas life can’t be all that bad, i mean he’s hanging out with Kate upton, when’s the last time Jeter let his boys play with his girl toys?

  • Bryan

    I forget which site is running it, but there is a free college course on sabermetrics online beginning in May.

    https://www.edx.org/course/bux/bux-sabr101x-sabermetrics-101-1558

    I am signed up. They are all online and should be fun.

  • roadrider

    Not sure what happened to my comment that seemed to be prematurely submitted and then disappeared. Anyway, to paraphrase it I’m all for evidenced-based baseball but I’m afraid that this stuff will end up being the equivalent of introducing the neutral-zone trap into baseball. Pitchers and fielders will benefit much more from this stuff than hitters since they already have so much advantage to begin with. Yeah, they mentioned how hitters might benefit but “more bunting” is not exactly and exciting prospect. Are they trying to recreate the dead-ball era?

  • Tanakapalooza Floozy

    Sorry but what is tandem pitching? Honest question.

    • Tom

      Basically what the Yankees were doing last year with Hughes and Huff at the end of the year

      You basically have two starters (or I guess I should say pitchers) each throwing a smaller # of inning back to back in the same game. Like say 3 or 4 innings each.

      The theory being pitchers are more effective the first time (or two) through the lineup. Also if you pair a lefty and a righty you force the opposing manager into tougher PH decisions or you have the 2nd pitcher with an additional advantage.

      Some teams may have started doing this in the minors; I think the Astros might be trying this (not sure what level).

  • 461deep

    Brian McCann moving to YS from TF is a good point. But a similar move was made over 90 years ago when YS 1 was designed for another beefy left handed hitter called the Babe. So numbers have always been part of baseball planning but taken to a higher level these days. MIT may wish to examine how some players, made the HOF despite being too short, slow, poor arm, light, heavy, ETC. Maddux smarts plus control, Mantle not big but unusual power-speed for his size 5-11 200 LBs or so, Yogi awkward looking. Football and basketball drafts players who fit the mold of specific positions. Pedroia at 5-8 probably cannot slam dunk easily, but can hit, run, catch and throw with some pop. Basketball players are very big and one trait is huge or big hands. A basketball is much harder to control with short fingers than a baseball. So the small or odd shaped boy or girl can play baseball or softball at a high level if they have 2-3 of the 5 tools.