More than 700 baseball purists gathered in downtown Chicago over the past four days for the national SABR convention. Snapshots of presentations I attended comprise much of this week’s column.
Among the notable presentations at SABR 45 was David Smith’s “Home Team Scoring Advantage in the First Inning Largely Due to Time and Travel.” According to Smith, home teams win approximately 54% of the time, and 58% of that advantage comes in first inning scoring. Historically, more runs are scored in the bottom of the first inning than are scored by either team in any other inning.
The longer the visiting team hits in the top of first, the more scoring there is in the bottom of the first. The primary determinant is time. Unlike the home team’s starter, the visiting team’s starter doesn’t know exactly when he will begin pitching. Based on Smith’s research, the longer the visiting starter waits to throw his first pitch, the bigger his statistical disadvantage.
Smith also determined that distance traveled doesn’t matter. He looked at data from first games of each series, and found no tangible impact related to frequent flier miles.
On a related note, the Mariners traveled 52,519 miles in 2014, the most of any team. The Cubs traveled 22,933 miles, the least of any team.
A few weeks back, I approached Sam Fuld. The Oakland outfielder is a thoughtful sort, so I asked him what’s been on his mind. He brought up little red dots.
Fuld told me he’s been “using the left side of the infield a decent amount” and that most of his opposite field ground balls “go just to the left of second base.” Opposing teams know this, and position their shortstops accordingly. Fuld is savvy to that fact, but lacks a corrective answer.
“Spray charts show teams where to play me, but I don’t know if there’s a way for me to change that,” said Fuld. “I don’t think anybody is good enough to say, ‘All right, I’m going to hit the ball 20 feet further to the left. That’s hard to do.”
Cage work isn’t the cure, even if it might seem like it on the surface.
“It’s a completely different look,” explained Fuld. “My whole career, I’ve been able to do things in BP that I can’t replicate in a game, because it’s not a 50-mph fastball from 40 feet. It’s hard to carry over, so my spray chart has all these little red dots just to the left of second base. That’s what I’ve been thinking about, although I’m not sure there’s anything to be gained from thinking about it.”
On a related subject, I was recently chatting with a coach from a major league team about hang time for balls hit in the air. He brought up a salient point: Positioning an outfielder where an opposing players hits the majority of his fly balls isn’t necessarily optimal.
“If you have 20 red dots that are high fly balls, and 20 feet over there are five blue dots that are line drives, you want to position where the blue dots are,” said the coach. “You have time to move over to where the red dots are, because the ball will be in the air longer. Your outfielders are going to be athletic enough to cover that distance pretty easily.”
I always make it a point to catch up to John Thorn at the SABR convention, and this year was no exception. MLB’s official historian is a treasure trove of information on all things baseball. Thorn shared the following anecdote, and some rule-book background, regarding pace of the game.
Thorn: “On June 27, 1911, there was an unintended consequence of an attempt to speed up the game. American League president Ban Johnson had issued a directive that warm-up pitches were now banned, because they were time-wasters. Once the batter stepped into the box, any pitch that was thrown would count.
“On June 27, Stuffy McInnis moved into the batter’s box and smacked a warm-up pitch before any of the fielders were in position. He ran around the bases for an inside-the-park home run. It was after this incident that Ban Johnson vacated the edict, and warm-up pitches were again allowed.
“The 20-second rule has been in the books since 1901. Attempts to speed up the ballgame date back to the 1850s, with the introduction of called strikes, so that batters wouldn’t let good ones go by, and waste time. In 1864, there was the introduction of called balls, because pitchers were wasting time by nibbling outside of the plate, trying to get batters to swing at an unhittable pitch.
“The current obsession with the time and the pace of the game, like with most things in baseball, isn’t new.
Chaz Roe is striking out better than a batter per inning and has a 0.93 ERA in 14 relief outings for the Baltimore Orioles. He’s taken a circuitous route to success. As the 28-year-old righty told me recently, “The path to get to where I am now has been a long one.”
Roe was drafted 32nd overall by the Rockies in 2005, but didn’t make it to the big leagues until 2013, when he appeared in 21 games for the Diamondbacks, A year earlier, he was out of affiliated baseball.
“I was drug tested and got popped for Adderall,” said Roe. “I got 50 games for that, and ended up playing a year in the American Association. Indie ball was a last resort. I thought I was pretty much at the end of the road, that no one else would take a chance on me.”
Arizona did, and Roe rewarded their decision. After serving his suspension, he earned a call-up and made his MLB debut on July 1, 2013, against the Mets. It’s an experience he’ll never forget.
“When I was running in from the bullpen, my legs felt like I was Bambi,” remembers Roe. “I felt like I was just born and was trying to get my legs to work. I was shaking when I got on the mound, but then the adrenaline took over and I got through the inning without giving up a run.”
The D-Backs put Roe on waivers after the season, and a roller coaster followed. From November 2013 to December 2014, he belonged to five different organizations. Each time he got cut loose, he called his agent to see if he could find him another home. Then he called his wife.
“She’s been on this roller coaster with me,” said Roe. “We’ve been together since I was in indie ball, and this has been just as stressful for her as it has been for me. There have been many times I’ve thought it was over, but I’ve kept going, and it’s paid off.”
Roe is heavily-tattooed, and a message he wears on his sleeve has helped him persevere. It’s a phrase he often heard from his mother when he was growing up: “What you give is what you get.”
Another SABR 45 presentation was “An Aging Fan Base: Using Twitter to Develop a New Generation of Baseball Fans” by Allison Levin.
According to Levin, recent statistics suggest that the most-active Twitter users are ages 13-25, which roughly corresponds to the age group that commissioner Rob Manfred wants to target. Following her talk, I asked her about media influencers.
“We are seeing former major league baseball players moving into the media,” Levin told me. “These are often people who are very active on Twitter and have huge social media followings. Eric Byrnes and Mark DeRosa are popular. Looking at current players, Hunter Pence, John Axford and Bryce Harper even have a lot of followers who aren’t baseball fans. They follow them because of non-baseball things they Tweet about.
“We saw, for example, that Logan Morrison’s fans followed him from Miami to Seattle. Many of them weren’t Miami fans so much as they were Logan Morrison fans. Through that para-social relationship, they felt they knew him. As people like him move into broadcasting, I think we’re going to see our influencers being individuals, not big media outlets.”
When I talked to Trevor Plouffe early in the 2010 season, the subject of his guitar playing came up. At the time, I asked if he was a better baseball player or a better guitar player. His response was “Sometimes I’m not too good at either of them.” He added that he hopes he’s better at baseball.
Plouffe made his big league debut with the Twins shortly thereafter. He’s since become a mainstay in the Minnesota lineup, and earlier this month I reminded him of the question I asked five years ago.
“I’m still not great at guitar,” Plouffe told me. “I love playing, I just don’t play it enough anymore. I’d say I’m a better hitter now. That’s probably a better thing for my career.”
The player’s panel is always a highlight of the SABR conference, and this year’s was one of the best I’ve seen. Three former White Sox were featured, including the entertaining Mike Huff and the outspoken-and-gregariously-hilarious Ron Kittle. The third member of the panel, Carlos May, was a man of far fewer words. He did have a few gems. Talking about the quality of fields he played on growing up in Alabama, May said he was “playing in pastures and jumping over cow dung.”
After the panel discussion, I asked May – a .274/.357/.392 hitter from 1968-1977 – why he hit so well against Luis Tiant (23 for 68 with 10 extra base hits).
“I don’t know,” answered May. “He’s a good man, and we always joke about that when we see each other. He’d throw me a curveball and I’d always set him up. For some reason… everybody’s got one guy they hit, and one guy they don’t hit. Frank Tanana, I didn’t hit. Tiant, I did. Tanana’s ball really moved and he threw mid 90s. I did so-so against Nolan Ryan. If he kept the ball up, you couldn’t hit him. If he got it down, I could handle him.”
Looking at the numbers, it appears Ryan didn’t get it down very often. May was 9 for 56 against The Ryan Express, with one extra base hit and 15 strikeouts. He had one hit in six at bats against Tanana.
A fun exchange between Kittle and Huff, the latter of whom was assigned to help teach outfield defense to Michael Jordan, during the NBA icon’s brief dalliance with baseball:
Kittle: “You did a poor job, too. If you saw that giant giraffe out in right field, he couldn’t do diddly-squat.”
Huff: “I got him playing basketball again, didn’t I?”
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
The above Gillick tidbit was part of a SABR 45 presentation by Dan Levitt, who co-authored “In Pursuit of Pennants” with Mark Armour. On Friday, Levitt was given this year’s Bob Davids Award, SABR’s highest honor.
Per another SABR 45 presentation – Little League Home Runs in MLB History, by Chuck Hildebrandt – on July 27, 1988, Milwaukee’s Jeffrey Leonard grounded back to the mound and scored on the same play as Yankees pitcher Tommy John committed three errors.
Per Bill Chuck of Gammon’s Daily, Francisco Liriano has been the most effective fourth-inning pitcher in baseball this season. In 48 plate appearances, opposing batters have two hits and four walks against Liriano. Matt Garza has been the least effective. In 75 fourth-inning plate appearances, opposing batters have 30 hits and five walks against Garza.
A few factoids from Don Zminda’s SABR 45 presentation on former White Sox knuckleballer Wilbur Wood: In 1972, Wood started 25 times on two days rest. At one point he made six straight starts on two days rest. On July 20, 1973, Wood started both games of double-header and was the losing pitcher in both.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.