What do you make of this graphic presentation of how a ballpark’s foul territory may contribute to a hitter’s strike-out total? Tom Tomsick, a bullpen catcher for the Cleveland Indians from 1964-66 and current professor of radiology and director of neuraradiology at the University of Cincinnati, is a SABR member making his argument at this weekend’s convention in Long Beach.
A national convention of hopelessly romantic and persistently precise seamheads lends itself to being a bit unconventional.
The meeting rooms are jammed with middle-aged men sporting retro jerseys and caps of teams with logos long ago retired. They scribble into notepads, drag around brief cases and stop to engage in deep conversations almost every other step along the Long Beach Hilton second floor.
If they’re pouring over bar charts at the hotel bar, it’s usually for form a quorum in trying to recalculate formulas that could change someone’s long-held success into a below-average failure.
The Society of American Baseball Research, in its 40th year, winds down a five-day horsehide think-tank today. More than 400 attendees from around the country flew in to mix, mingle and manage the statistics and history of the sport at an L.A.-based pilgrimage for only the second time in the last 30 years — most dues-paying members are from the Northeast, and a select few here were even part of the first meeting of the minds at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., back in 1971.
But all this new SABR rattling has a purpose.
It may not change some perceptions of those who think these are just a bunch of Bill James disciples who get WHIP’d into the vortex of a new WORP stat. But if they were to take the time to crunch the data of their own journey – starting with a jump from 15 on Day 1 to about 1,5000 a decade later and now up to about 6,000 members worldwide — the numbers don’t lie about how much impact they’ve made.
“We might have reputation as being a bunch of stat geeks, but the truth is that only about 25 percent of our members are statistic specialists – the other 75 percent are really historians, doing quality work for decades,” said Andy McCue, raised in Whittier, living in Riverside resident and UCLA graduate who just finished a two year run as the group’s national president.
“Our purpose has always been to do baseball research and disseminate it to the public. And that can be seen everywhere in the game now. Scouts use it. Teams use it. Agents use it. And many of them are SABR members now.
“I just got a call from the Dodgers asking if they could send a couple of their baseball operations people to hang out here and see what they could pick up.”
Fill in your own punchline.
Wes Parker did.
Wes Parker, left, is with historian John Thorn, former general manager Roland Hemond, part White Sox owner Dennis Gilbert and STATS Inc. founder John Dewan on a panel discussion Friday.
During a panel discussion Friday morning about “The Evolution of Baseball Over SABR’s Four Decades,” the former Dodgers’ Gold Glove winning first baseman wasn’t so much lamenting how much more he could have made back in the 1960s and ’70s if his agent had today’s sabermetics that discern the value of defensive abilities.
He seemed more disappointed about how about roster turnover caused by free agency hasn’t allowed fans to “invest their hearts into their teams” any more.
Add to that what’s going on with the Dodgers and owner Frank McCourt doesn’t add up either.
“I’m disgusted, absolutely disgusted, to see a jewel of a franchise turn into this situation,” Parker said.
Conversely, Yankees fans at the convention Saturday morning might have disrupted a presentation by SABR heavyweight Dave Smith, the founder of Retrosheet.com, as their cell phones reverberated over the news of Derek Jeter’s 3,000th hit.
“Glad wifi’s back so we can watch Jeter’s HR (quietly),” came a tweet from the official SABR Twitter account.
Noted historians like John Thorn and agent/execs like Dennis Gilbert, who sat with Parker on that Friday panel, may give the group more notoriety.
But it’s the constant critical discussion on statistical analysis that will continue to be a SABR staple – the organization’s largest research committee has nearly 1,300 members.
This fall, Brad Pitt will play the role of Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane in the film adaptation of the Michael Lewis book, “Moneyball,” another example of how economics guided some forward-thinking execs into embracing new talent metrics.
Maybe Hollywood will be the next to change the perception of what SABR does, pushing these former closet statisticians and history buffs into a new spotlight.
McCue, a semi-retired journalist in the process of writing a biography of former Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley, admits that the group has “fought credibility battles, but now when we talk to teams, we’re not ‘the crazy people.’ We can be a valuable tool for them – plus we’re guys who love to come to games, bring our kids and be ambassadors for the game without any agendas or axes to grind.”
Just breathing the clean, crisp air of their own Strat-O-Matic atmosphere.
Graphic above: Scott Barzilla presents part of his Hall of Fame Index idea, taking three popular statistical platforms — win shares, wins above replacement player and wins above replacement — and combining them into one metric. He works as a counselor in Houston with a wife and daughter.