Saberseminar 6 Was A Smashing Success

Each August, the best and brightest minds in the game come together in Boston for Saberseminar. Like the five conferences that preceded it, Saberseminar 6 was a fantastic weekend of friends and baseball research, and most importantly, raising money for cancer research.

We helped kick off the weekend with a Friday night event at Mead Hall in Cambridge. Anecdotally, it was the best attended pre-Saberseminar meetup yet, and it was wonderful to see so many new faces, as well as familiar ones.

As you likely know if you’ve heard of Saber Seminar, 100% of the event’s proceeds go to The Jimmy Fund and the Angioma Alliance, and we were greeted on Saturday morning with a reminder of just how important their work is. Former Red Sox prospect and survivor of multiple brain surgeries Ryan Westmoreland helped kick off the event Saturday morning by telling us his story. It was a winding story that led him from a 159 wRC+ debut in 2009 at the tender of age of 19, to the operating table, to the Dominican Republic for a comeback, back to the operating table, to retirement. This would be a harrowing ordeal for anyone, let alone a young person just finding their way into the world, and Westmoreland very candidly detailed for us his battle against suicidal thoughts. Thankfully, through the support of his family and doctors and counselors he has met through the Angioma Alliance, he was able to move past that. It was a moving story, and hearing it really drove home why raising awareness of cavernous angiomas is so important.

With that, the conference — once again held at the best school in America, Boston University — got into full swing. Art Shapiro and Baseball Prospectus’ Grant Jones got us primed for the day, and then in came Tom Tippett. Tippett, who has spoken every year I’ve attended (this was my fifth year, as I somehow didn’t make it to the first one) gave a presentation on both the Red Sox’s 2011 and 2016 seasons, and as always, it was quite illuminating. Following him were three more killer presentations. The first was The Hardball Times’ David Kagan, and the last was Driveline Mechanics (and former THT writer) Kyle Boddy. Sandwiched in between was a real treat. Former catcher John Baker, who now works for the Cubs front office, and former pitcher Brian Bannister, who now works for the Red Sox’s, took part in a Q&A on in-game and out-of-game adjustments for pitchers and catchers. Given their thoughtful and creative answers and reservoir of baseball knowledge, it’s not hard to see why both have ascended into the front office ranks so quickly.

After lunch, Glenn Healey gave his presentation on the intrinsic value of a batted ball. It was modeled after his two pieces that have been featured on THT this year, and you should definitely try to read both of them.

Later in the afternoon, Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski took to the stage, and regaled us with brief anecdotes on his nearly 40-year career in the game before giving measured responses to the audience’s various questions. In mostly direct contrast to previous keynote speakers like Curt Schilling and Bobby Valentine, it was refreshing to see Dombrowski’s calm and ease in the room, even though, as he noted, he hadn’t spoken in front of such a large audience since a long-ago SABR convention in Miami.

In fact, Q&A’s were sort of the order of the day. Diamondbacks assistant general manager Bryan Minniti took part in a Q&A of his own, and the day concluded with a live recording of the Effectively Wild podcast. Sam Miller and Ben Lindbergh broke from their normal two-man format, and asked Baker and former pitcher David Aardsma — who was also attending the conference — up to the front of the room to help the dynamic duo answer three-year-old questions from their mailbag that they hadn’t answered in the past for one reason or another. It was a fantastic end to day one.

There were three more Q&A’s on Sunday. The day started and ended with them — the Red Sox scouting and development team in the morning, and FanGraphs’ own Dave Cameron in the afternoon, and the morning also gave us a media panel. The highlight of the media panel was a long diatribe against sports talk radio from noted sports talk radio host Mike Ferrin. It came on the spur of the moment, so I don’t think anyone actually recorded it, but if you were in attendance, you won’t soon forget his line about “Johnny from Pig Vomit.” But Sunday was also chock full of incredible research presentations. Breaking down into bullet points:

  • Harry Pavlidis and Jonathan Judge gave back-to-back talks on the new pitch calling metric they are developing for BP. These were the polished and informative presentations we have come to expect from Harry and Jonathan, and I think we are all looking forward to delving into their work more deeply when they publish it on the site, which they said would happen soon.
  • Alan Nathan presented evidence that suggests that the baseball might not be juiced.
  • Brian Mills showed changes to the strike zone, and while he didn’t show conclusive proof, his presentation certainly brings up the question as to whether the umpires are influencing run scoring now that the strike zone has shrunk a little.
  • Director of Tufts Sports Medicine Chris Geary broke down every Red Sox injury and then some, with his rapid fire talk. Chris speaks every year, and is always a breath of fresh air.
  • Scott Powers’ talk on jointly predicting exit velocity and launch angle for batter-pitcher matchups was great.
  • The Rockies’ Jerry Weinstein gave a marvelous talk on pitch calling as well, and gave us such great tests as “The Rule of 68” and the “Porcelain Test.”

These are not all of the memorable talks. From Peter Bonney to Meredith Wills to Allison Levin to the student presentations from kids at Tufts, Skidmore and Notre Dame, to former Red Sox trainer Mike Reinold, the day was wall-to-wall with new information. Levin in particular was notable, as she closed her presentation by telling us the story of her mother, who three years prior had been diagnosed Stage 4 with her cancer, only to see new medicine work to the point that her cancer was recently diagnosed as dormant.

From a literal mic drop (from first-day presenter Michael Richmond), to pictures of blue, Irish, upside-down cows from event co-organizer Dan Brooks, to the testimonials from Westmoreland and Levin, to Ferrin’s speech, the event was charged with positive emotion, and it is a testament to just why Saberseminar is the best. The camaraderie here is always evident, whether it is a group of physics professors convening for the first time, team employees bonding over their yearly chance to get away for a weekend, or factions of writers from FanGraphs, Baseball Prospectus and Beyond the Box Score getting to see each other for perhaps the only time each year. It puts everyone in the mood to learn, and as a result we do that with smiles on our faces, and the weekend zips by in the blink of an eye. Anyone can organize a conference, but Saberseminar is an event.

Here is Ryan Westmoreland’s speech. It picks up roughly 30 seconds into it.

Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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