PITTSBURGH — A longtime columnist here in town recently asked if sabermetrics have taken the fun out of baseball.
I’d rather devote my time to more answerable questions. And I could think of no better place to go for that than the 48th national convention of the Society for American Baseball Research, an organization more commonly known as SABR.
SABR 48, as it’s being called, is taking place mostly at the Grand Wyndham Hotel in the heart of Pittsburgh’s Golden Triangle over this weekend, although some will make a field trip to PNC Park for Friday’s Pirates-Diamondbacks game.
I invaded the premises Thursday afternoon, shotgunning five mini-seminars over a three-hour span. My intention was to get a representative sampling of the smörgåsbord. I do believe I pulled it off.
As one might imagine from the last letter of the SABR acronym, this event is as much about the historical aspects of professional baseball as it is anything else. You could lovingly call every attendee a ‘nerd’ of some sort, but not all are numbers geeks.
For instance, I managed to squeeze in two math-free presentations, and back to back no less. The first concerned the decisions made by the Giants and Dodgers to move from New York City to California in the late ’50s, and the second highlighted the history of Pirates broadcasters, from Rowswell and Prince to Blass and Brown.
Not that I didn’t learn some things from that throwback hour — did you know the Pirates were the first team to offer road games on local television, or that former Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley was served with a subpoena upon touching down in Los Angeles? — but the brain had to be fully engaged for the other three acts of this play.
Here’s a quick taste of those:
• University of Illinois physics professor Alan Nathan (@pobguy on Twitter) delivered the opener, exploring the potential and real effects of humidity on how far batted balls travel. The discussion was inspired by the Diamondbacks (timely!) adopting the use of a humidor for home games at Chase Field this season.
Per Nathan’s research, a ball stored at 50 percent relative humidity compared to 20 percent will travel roughly 4 mph slower when launched at typical home-run velocity. Year over year, dingers are down roughly 30 percent at Chase Field on a per-game basis, already lining up with the long-term humidor results at Coors Field in Denver.
Nathan wondered aloud what might happen if humidors were installed in all 30 Major League Baseball parks, but perhaps the reduction of homers per fly ball in 2018 can be credited to new standardized regulations on how to store baseballs.
• Physics can be fun, especially with Statcast data now available to throw in the mix, but when most people think sabermetrics, they think of ideas like what Philadelphia lawyer Noah Goodman brought forth at Thursday’s dinner hour.
Using arithmetic that would be rather intimidating to most mortal minds, Goodman came up with the conclusion that, of the 34 players to sign pre-free agency extensions over the past five years, on average those players cost themselves around $11 million over the length of a career.
Goodman conceded that the certainly of having tens of millions of dollars guaranteed should impact the decision-making of young players presented with extensions, but his research of the post-2012 sample size would indicate patience is a virtue in an economic system that puts precocious producers at a compensation disadvantage.
• Perhaps most relevantly to a Pittsburgh audience, Canisius College statistics professors James Goldstein and Paul Sauer attempted to determine which on-field aspects of a modern MLB team had the biggest impacts on how much revenue they could create.
According to this study, in the revenue sharing era — a.k.a., 1995 and beyond — wins and losses apparently have less to do with how much money teams generate when contrasted against player payroll, star power (measured by All-Star Game appearances), and stadium age.
What I found especially interesting from a Pirates perspective is that MLB’s smallest markets have been shown to respond more to recognizable names and faces than bigger cities. Stadium modernness also showed a strong correlation, so the Pirates at least have one of two, although PNC Park isn’t as new as it used to be.
Nathan started his presentation with a mission statement of sorts. It rang with the tone of a man who’s probably had to answer countless probing questions about his hardball obsession.
Why bog down a great game with sines, cosines and tangents?
“Our goal is not to reform the game,” Nathan said, “but to understand it.”
I perked up at that sentence. That’s what this is all about: Comprehension, not revolution; curiosity, not bookishness.
Now, would I prefer it if MLB teams and players acted more logically, especially the one(s) I pull for? Absolutely. Will there be unintended consequences to more information being uncovered? Probably.
The sport of baseball will continue to change, from dead ball to designated hitter to interleague play. And those of us who love it in any form will continue to ask questions and make observations.
Here’s to 48 more years of SABR-rattling, my friends.