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What I Learned at the 2018 SABR Analytics Conference

SABR does amazing work fostering research into baseball history and the advancement of analytics.

SABR is the Society for American Baseball Research, and they are a nationwide organization of about 6,000 writers, journalists, and researchers, as well as many fans just like us. The common ground among us: a true love of the game and the desire to learn more about it. A few weeks ago, on March 9–11, I had the privelege to attend the 2018 SABR Analytics Conference. Some of the featured speakers at the event included Brian Kenny, Jon Sciambi, Eric Gagné, Chris Getz, Andy McKay, Eno Sarris, and many others. It was three days filled with research, discussions, and an exchange of ideas amongst researchers, writers, and students. So, what were some of the biggest takeaways for me from this weekend? Here, I outline 4 of them.

(Left to Right) Rob Neyer, Jon Sciambi, Eno Sarris, and Brian Kenny: “Is the Media Doing its Part to Advace the Analytics Discussion?”

1: One Stat You Want to Know: wOBA

For all of you sabermetric lovers, wOBA is a stat you want to know. wOBA (Weighted On-Base Average) is a “catch-all” offensive statistic (Fangraphs). It’s goal is to measure a hitter’s overall offensive value. The difference with wOBA: “Not all hits are created equal. Batting average assumes that they are” (Fangraphs).

This was definitely one of the most referenced statistics in both student presentations and research presentations, so make sure you give it a look and really learn how to value a player using it. I was not super familiar with it before going to the conference, but if you are someone who really is passionate about statistics and analytics in baseball, this is a good one to learn. wOBA can lead to new avenues of analysis for baseball fans and researchers.

For more detailed information on wOBA, follow this link to an article in Fangraphs.

2: Big Key to Successful Analytics: Individualization to Players

Any of us can punch numbers into a computer and let it spit out a bunch of other numbers; that part of baseball analytics has become incredibly easy. Baseball data is supposed to tell a story, and as an analyst, it is our job to tell that story in a clear, understanding, and convincing way to players and coaches. For many, this is the most difficult part of analytics, especially because it is difficult to convince “old school” coaches that advanced analytics can be useful. No one at the 2018 SABR Conference doubted the fact that the statistics are helpful. What everyone believes still needs the most growth is telling the story well while showing the players how changes can directly help them — it really involves a personal relationship to get that far. It’s important to really focus on these communication skills as hopeful analysts, and these skills can really help you focus on what is most important in the analysis.

3: Where Next? Mental Skills

Baseball is the most advanced sport when it comes to integrating analytics into the game. It really isn’t about gaining an unknown edge right now. So, where else can the game really develop? The next realm many have tried to dive into is the mental skills of the game.

What is the importance of the “make-up” of a player? How can we even measure that? What about a player’s aptitude for change, or “coachability”? Or consider a player’s mental growth, and his ability to bounce back from slumps. Can we find a way to put this on a 20–80 scale like we do for Power, Speed, and the like? Could we ever have a, say, 70 scale Coachable player? This is what many people are trying to find out, and it’s not easy. There is a lot of Neuroscience involved, and as always, we have to remember that players are humans. Could you be the next one to figure out how to crack this mental skills code?

4: Fans, Writers, and Those Who Are Looking to Get Into an MLB Front Office: ALWAYS Ask Questions, and Always Try to Learn

Jon Sciambi had a great quote on the first day of the conference: “I’m interested in getting smarter.” I think this is the most important part about baseball analytics today: the willingness to continue to learn. Numbers can be daunting for some people; there is a lot of learning that goes into it, and this is coming from a Math major! However, the most important thing I learned at this conference is that I don’t know nearly as much about baseball analytics as I thought I did. It was a humbling experience, but also an important lesson: never assume you know enough, because there is always something more to learn. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people when things don’t make sense; sometimes, you just need a little bit of help to get you where you want to be.

I hope you keep this message in mind as we go through this season. Ask questions when you watch the game, challenge the narrative we live by as baseball fans. We got to this point in analytics because of our ability to challenge the status quo, and our willingness to find a way to be, as Brian Kenny would say, “Ahead of the Curve”.

Happy Baseball Eve fans, and I look forward to a wonderful season of learning with all of you.

Jordan Lazowski

I'm a Senior Math and Economics major at the University of Notre Dame. I'm from Chicago, Illinois, and I am a huge White Sox fan. Feel free to reach out and talk baseball - Lucas Giolito slander will not be tolerated, however. Twitter: @jlazowski14

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