Over the weekend, the ninth annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference took place in Boston, and I was lucky enough to be invited to be part of the baseball panel — along with Sandy Alderson, Ben Lindbergh, Dan Brooks, and Jonah Keri — on Saturday morning. I enjoyed our conversation, but I’ll mostly leave it up to others to recap that conversation, since I’m likely a bit biased by being part of the panel. There were some other parts of the conference that I thought were worth discussing, however.
For instance, on Friday afternoon, Commissioner Manfred took the stage for an hour long interview with Brian Kenny. While the commissioner has been making the media rounds since taking over, and has established some talking points that he repeated during this conversation, there were also some interesting points made during the conversation. Among the things that stood out to me from Manfred’s comments, which I’m going to paraphrase below:
Pace of Play and Length of Game
He clearly delineated between pace of play and length of game, noting that they were two separate issues, and he was far more concerned with the latter than the former. He went as far as to note that he didn’t think a three hour baseball game was a problem, as long as it was an exciting three hour baseball game filled with action. He also noted that he expects the initiatives put in place to improve pace of play to also have a carryover effect on length of game, and didn’t sound particularly motivated to also create new rules to impact just total time at the ballpark.
I’m in pretty much the same camp, as I’m perfectly happy enjoying three hours of baseball as long as it isn’t three hours of guys standing around doing nothing. If we can get the time between pitches back closer to 20 seconds and eliminate many of the silly delays that do nothing to help the game move along, I think problems with the length of games mostly go away.
Yoan Moncada/International Draft
An international draft is something that Bud Selig worked towards for years, and it seems clear that it’s something that the new commissioner is also in favor of. However, he made a point of emphasizing that his interest is more about a “single method of entry” for players from all over the world, and left room open for that to have more variability than simply pushing for an international draft to replace the current system. He also noted that any system in place would have “carve outs” for established professionals from Japan, so no matter what happens with the international system going forward, the posting process is likely to remain in place.
One interesting comment he made reflected his belief that the international system was working fairly well prior to getting “stressed” by the recent influx of Cubans. Personally, I strongly disagree with that assessment, as we’d already seen teams exploit the flaws in the soft spending limits by loading up on signing huge numbers of players in alternating years. Moncada might most obviously highlight the system’s problems, but the current system was broken before this off-season; it just took a high-profile signing like this one to make it more obvious.
The Place of Gambling in MLB
This was perhaps the most interesting part of the conversation, especially given Kenny’s hilarious phrasing of the topic, which went something like “So, gambling?” with no real lead-in beyond that. Manfred’s response was pretty well thought out, though, suggesting this is something they’ve spent real time thinking about prior. While he made clear that their first priority would also be to defend the integrity of the game by drawing distinct lines between gamblers and acts on the field, he also was realistic in noting that much of the interest in sports is driven by an interest in betting on those sports, and noted that the league was interested in helping using gambling to grow the sport.
When Kenny followed up with a question about the growth of daily fantasy leagues and how they are somewhat blurring the line between fantasy baseball and betting, Manfred noted that the league will always try to clearly delineate between those two activities, but does not need to be hostile towards the latter, and they do recognize that there is interest in smaller scale games that don’t require the commitment of a full rotisserie league season. This seemed like a particularly progressive set of ideas that I wasn’t expecting to hear from the commissioner.
After noting that he received a status update “within the last hour” from MLBAM President Bob Bowman, he said they are on track to have Statcast up and running in all 30 parks on Opening Day. When discussing what that might look like for the public, he noted that they expected to be providing the data in real time through the premium version of the MLB At Bat App, as well as having some data available on the website, though he did note that not everything might be available right from the beginning. In other words, 2015 may end up being a bit of a beta test year, as they figure out which features the public will get and how the information will be disseminated.
He did specifically reference PITCHF/x as something of a model for how they expect Statcast to eventually be utilized by the public, however, which was maybe the strongest statement yet made towards reassuring us that this data won’t all be hoarded by the teams. While the logistics of the data release may not yet be finalized, I’m feeling more confident than ever that Statcast will be treated more like PITCHF/x than HITF/x.
For more information on specifics of Statcast and what will be captured in real-time versus on a slight delay, I strongly recommend reading this article from the Sport’s Video Group, with lots of quotes from MLBAM Vice President/tech guru Joe Inzerillo. Between the public statements made in that article and Manfred’s comments on Friday, I think we should all be fairly encouraged about the future of Statcast as a public tool. It won’t be perfect from day one, and there very likely will be some pieces kept internal to the teams, but this does look to be something that will filter down to the public domain.
The Strike Zone/Run Environment
While Jeff Passan has recently written that the league is preparing to potentially take action on reducing the size of the strike zone if 2015 doesn’t bring a reversal of recent trends, Manfred’s comments led me to suspect that he’s not yet entirely convinced that this needs to happen. When asked directly about the strike zone, he noted that he was thrilled with the job umpires have done to make their own personal zones more uniform, he stopped short of agreeing that the low strike issue was one that required intervention from the league. He noted that baseball can be cyclical, and often times the players themselves will make adjustments to put an end to growing trends.
He did note that the league wants to be prepared to take action once they become convinced that a rule change — which is how he believes such changes should be implemented — is required, so they are doing their due diligence now in case that is the conclusion that is reached. So, while I’m probably more convinced that the strike zone is a problem than Manfred, the good news is that we probably won’t have to wait long for action once he does become convinced; the plans for a reaction are already being put in place now.
I noted this on Twitter during the talk, but I was particularly impressed by how thoughtful Manfred came off during the talk. There’s certainly something to the idea that he’s receiving a halo from simply not being Bud Selig — maybe the worst public speaking commissioner of my lifetime — but the shift in attitudes from getting a much younger commissioner seem very real. While it’s nothing more than an illustrative example, baseball has gone from having a commissioner who famously didn’t even have an email account to one who publicly admitted during the talk to having used Snapchat.
Younger and more technologically inclined doesn’t always equate to better leadership, but Manfred is clearly invested in things that resonate more with the younger generations. Having a commissioner who embraces technology, is open to growing the game even if it involves interacting with gambling, and whose office is willing to be influenced by public research just feels like a remarkable breath of fresh air. The game’s finances grew tremendously under Selig’s reign and he accomplished many significant changes during his tenure, but I will say that I’m significantly more optimistic about the sport’s future under Manfred’s leadership than I was under Selig’s. I don’t agree with everything he says, but it seems like the process that the office is going to undertake will be significantly more modern than it was under his predecessor.
Okay, so I wasn’t planning on writing 1,500 words about just the commissioner’s talk, so I’ll have to make this last part brief. While the conference skews towards basketball, there were some other baseball talks given that were of interest.
Dan Rosenheck introduced a study purporting to show that spring training statistics do matter quite a bit, and forecasts that include them do a better job of projecting the upcoming season than forecasts that don’t. I remain a little bit skeptical of the conclusions reached, but will be writing more about this in the future after I review the data and how his model integrates spring training statistics into the forecasts.
Scott Spratt and Joe Rosales presented their catcher framing research, which I’d previously seen presented at the Saber Seminar last August. Their presentation was named co-winner of the conference’s research awards, and is certainly worth reading through if you are interested in framing metrics. That said, there has been some good public dialogue regarding some of their findings already, and in addition to reading the paper, I’d also suggest reading this thread at Tango’s blog.
Finally, I also attended the presentation based on Clayton Graham’s model that he used to bet individual baseball games last summer. While Graham is clearly a smart guy and the talk was entertaining, I’ll simply say this; if anyone ever claims they can beat the oddsmakers 68% of the time and produce a 1,450% return on their investment, your B.S. detector should sound all kinds of alarms. Anyone with that kind of sustainable advantage over the house would have zero incentive to tell us about it, and would instead simply use their model to become extraordinarily rich. It’s at least theoretically possible that Graham’s model does allow him to find real arbitrage opportunities versus the betting lines, but I think I’ll wait until he shows sustained success over multiple years before I buy in.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.