The SABR 50 Convention in Baltimore
Notes, photos, links, and more from the Society for American Baseball Research's 50th annual convention, held last week in Baltimore.
I've just returned from the 50th Convention for SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research. I’ve been a member of SABR for many years, off and on since the 1990s. But I finally attended my first SABR national convention in San Diego in 2019 when my first baseball book had just been published, Now Taking the Field: Baseball's All-Time Dream Teams for All 30 Franchises (ACTA Sports, 2019).
SABR was planning to hold their big 50th Annual Convention in 2020, but due to the pandemic had to delay it twice until 2022. But we finally were able to have it, and it was great! Over 500 SABR members gathered at the Hyatt Regency in Baltimore this past week for a great lineup of presentations, panels, an Orioles/Red Sox game, and a celebration of Camden Yard's 30th anniversary.
The conference included a great schedule packed with:
Fresh new research on many aspects of the game, including history, analytics, and more
Over two dozen SABR committee meetings, on a wide range of topics
Interview sessions with former MLB players like Boog Powell and Mike Bordick
A poster-session room with 19 research "posters," each with loads of detail on interesting baseball research topics
An exhibitors room for book publishers, authors, and vendors and service providers to demo and sell their wares
Also included was a historic ballparks bus tour, an awards luncheon, and a Red Sox-Orioles game at Camden Yards.
No one article can capture all of the presentations and other components of the conference. I really enjoyed the keynote address by Tim Kurkjian, famed ESPN baseball analyst and winner of the BBWAA’s 2022 Career Excellence Award, and also the interview session with Orioles great Boog Powell (both shown below). I didn't take notes on either of those sessions, nor several others, but I did for some and have photos from the week too.
Opening Remarks: Sig Mejdal
Sig Mejdal is Baltimore Orioles’ Vice President and Assistant General Manager of Analytics, and previously worked for the Cardinals and Astros.
Mejdal was first a member of SABR while in grade school; his father was a Danish immigrant who wasn't a baseball fan, but took his fifth-grade son to a SABR convention anyway.
Members of SABR's Statistical Analysis Committee deserve more credit in the baseball analytics revolution that has taken place leading up to and beyond the book Moneyball. They were important in producing OPS, the Runs Created formula, Range Factor, etc. Their work has appeared regularly in Baseball Digest, Bill James Abstracts, Retrosheet, and more.
For a long time the powers that be in MLB didn't really care about the work of SABR. Technology and data advances were having an increasing impact in many areas of life, but not so much in baseball, even with the sports’ long-time reputation for being full of statistics. For too long it was still wed to traditional numbers, scouting practices, etc. As in many areas of life, it is very hard for paradigm shifts to occur when designated experts have power they don't want to lose.
As detailed in Moneyball, Sandy Alderson of the Oakland A's, starting in the 1980s, was the first General Manager to use outside-produced, analytical information in a lasting way.
About 20 years ago, most baseball owners thought the perfect number of analysts to have on staff was zero ("not too many, not too few.") Since then they have been hired throughout baseball at a non-linear rate.
Sig went to Baltimore when they were at their very lowest—both in terms of major league results, but they also had an awful farm system. And they still had long contracts on the books for non-productive players. And they are in the very competitive AL East division, where every team is some combination of either rich, super rich, smart, or super-smart.
Bringing in Sig, the Orioles analytics department has since growth from zero to about a dozen.
The decision making processes for the Orioles are now as sound and modern as any MLB team.
The facilities, technology, coaching, etc., have all been overhauled.
Even at the Major League level, the Orioles surpassed their 2021 win total in July. And beyond Adley Rutschman, there are many prospects on the way soon.
And that is great, because the local Orioles fans deserve success—they truly love the game and their team.
None of this would have happened without SABR doing such fundamental work.
See also the recent article at MLB.com: "How the Orioles Turned Their Franchise Around," by Mike Petriello.
Babe Ruth Panel
Award-winning author Bill Jenkinson (The Year Babe Ruth Hit 104 Home Runs) and Mike Gibbons, Director Emeritus and Historian for the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum, spoke about the life and legacy of Babe Ruth, who was born in Baltimore in 1895, learned to play baseball at St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, and began his professional career at the age of 19 with the minor-league Baltimore Orioles in 1914. (Tom Shieber, Senior Curator at the Baseball Hall of Fame, pinch-hit for author Jane Levy, who was not feeling well, on this panel.)
The panel members brought several artifacts (see photo) including jersey pants that Ruth wore and a booklet from the St. Mary’s school in 1914.
Babe Ruth's name is still the most recognized across all of baseball history, even more than local players within their region (e.g., Cal Ripken or Brooks Robinson in Baltimore).
Jenkinson believes there is a lot of evidence that the primary reason that Ruth was kept from ever managing a team was that he was committed to integrating baseball quickly (i.e., immediately) versus a powerful subset of MLB owners who were opposed to integration.
Gibbons noted that yes, the Museum does get a lot of calls from Japanese media about Shohei Ohtani. They very much appreciate the increase in attention that it has brought to Babe Ruth and his legacy.
A lot more information about Ruth's childhood and teen years has come to light as the Baltimore Sun and other content has been digitized and can be more easily searched. For instance, Ruth was not an orphan as some believe, but was sent to St. Mary’s as a child by his father to protect him from the Maryland law at the time that sent young boys who were truant (and Ruth did often miss school) off to government facilities. In addition, we now have more information about Ruth's mother, e.g., she did not lose so many children because she was "frail," but because she was an alcoholic (and it was her drinking, and related marital infidelity, that was the major reason for the parents' divorce.)
Interesting details were shared on the barbaric training and medicine that Ruth and his peers received during those times. Ruth regularly suffered bronchitis that would have been resolved today from antibiotics, etc. He also had a knee injury early in his playing days, and then later once had to have his knee forced back into place by being hit by a baseball bat.
There is hope for a really good movie to one day be made about Ruth's life and career. The two main ones that have been produced are not considered to be great films. (There is a little-known 1991 made-for-TV movie that Gibbons said was very good.)
Oriole Park at Camden Yards Panel
Panelists included Bill Stetka, Baltimore Orioles Team Historian; Greg Bader, Orioles Senior Vice President, Administration & Experience; and Joe Spear, founder of Populous (a stadium design firm).
Camden Yards in Baltimore was a revolution in stadium design, that has greatly influenced ballparks built ever since.
Initially, they looked at doing a renovation of the then current Memorial Stadium. But that was going to a produce a B+ result at best. Then they considered a multi-purpose stadium design. But the team and the other stakeholders wanted something better for baseball.
"The Ballpark that Forever Changed Baseball" became a slogan about Camden Yards in 2012 during its 20-year anniversary celebration.
Even at just 20 years old, they did renovate the ballpark to upgrade a few areas: creating the roof deck area as a social area both before and during the game; renovations to the concourses and concessions areas; and the creation of six Orioles Legends bronze statues: Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Jim Palmer, Earl Weaver, Eddie Murray, and Cal Ripken.
The analytics department, led by Sig Mejdal (see above), led to them moving the LF fence back to cut down on HRs to that side. That helps make it more attractive for pitchers to join the team, and relies on the team being built to have athletic outfielders.
There is currently a lease renewal process underway, that should be wrapped up in the next few months, and will include some further renovations, especially to infrastructure elements.
See also this article at The Ringer: The Baseball Stadium that "Forever Changed" Professional Sports, by Dan Moore
Women in Leadership Panel
A panel discussion with Baltimore Orioles leaders Eve Rosenbaum, Baltimore Orioles Assistant General Manager, Baseball Operations; Nicole Sherry, Orioles Director, Field Operations; Jennifer Grondahl, Orioles Senior Vice President, Community Development & Communications; and Lisa Tolson, Orioles Senior Vice President, Human Resources.
Lisa Tolson started as a ticket taker, and has had a 37 year career with the Orioles, including positions in sales, finance, and for over 25 years in human resources.
Nicole Sherry's educational background is in agricultural science, with a specialty in turf grass science specifically.
Eve Rosenbaum played softball (as a walk-on catcher) at Harvard, was an intern for the Boston Red Sox and later the MLB Commissioner's office, has worked in multiple sports, and is now on the path to becoming a major league general manager someday soon. She said she learned a lot from one of her internships, which was for Kim Ng, the first female MLB General Manager (Miami Marlins).
The similarity in all three of their careers is that when opportunities arise, they took them and worked hard.
And opportunities are arising more and more for women—the glass ceiling is shattering more and more often. That said, having mentors and other people who believe in you, remains important.
Even The Grounds: Cheating the Very Dimensions of the Game
SABR President Mark Armour gave a very interesting talk about a less-often discussed aspect of cheating in baseball. Armour is co-author of the new book Intentional Balk: Baseball's Thin Line Between Innovation and Cheating.
The bat, the ball, the body… and the field itself—all are areas where baseball players have tried to cheat over the years.
Cheating to change the playing field dates back over 100 years—John McGraw spoke of it in the 1800s, Rube Foster in the Negro Leagues decades later, and then infamously the Giants changed the field for a crucial 3-game series in 1962 between the Giants and the Dodgers, when the latter's Maury Wills and his teammates were running far more than any other club.
Several times the batters' boxes have been shifted intentionally by groundskeepers at the instruction of the home team's leadership.
Rare rule infraction: catchers can be called for a catcher balk if they setup outside of the required area they must be in to receive the ball (until after the ball is released by the pitcher, at which point they can move). The Braves during the 1990s sometimes tried to widen the catcher's box so that they could support the great Braves pitchers who loved to hit the outside corners.
Adrian Beltre was once thrown out of a game for snubbing an umpire's demand that he stand in the official on-deck circle. This is a rarely enforced rule, but if you stand too far outside the circle, you can be requested to move back into it (Beltre didn't just refuse, but physically moved the circle mat to where he wanted to stand, and hence was ejected).
Over the history of the game, very often pitching mounds heights were illegally raised or lowered, in order to help the home team's starting pitcher, or hurt the opposing team's starting pitcher (e.g., they would lower the mound when Bob Feller of the Indians came to town, to make him less intimidating and effective). Doing this was not actually a violation until 1950, as the rule until then was that the mound had to be no more than 15" in height maximum. It was then changed to be 15" precisely, and then in 1969 was lowered to 10" precisely.
Fences' distance from home plate have been moved many times, for many reasons, by different teams over the years. Usually this is done between seasons, based on the composition of the home team's roster relative to their competition.
Some teams have also altered the bullpen areas—either lowering the mounds, or not even having the correct distance (60'6") for their warm-up throwing.
Sign Stealing Before the Astros: The Tangled Web of What Was Legal
In a follow-on to Armour's presentation, co-author Daniel Levitt discussed sign-stealing. Levitt is co-author of the new book Intentional Balk: Baseball's Thin Line Between Innovation and Cheating.
Sign-stealing was not actually illegal until recently (2017).
During all the years prior, the general agreement was that you could use your eyes and your intelligence to steal signs and use them to your benefit. Players and coaches were not supposed to use binoculars, buzzers, or other technology to steal signs or communicate the information.
CF scoreboards were long a problem, as there had to be a peep-hole for the scoreboard operator to see the game and change the score displayed.
Initially in 1959, CF television cameras were banned out of fear of sign-stealing via monitors in the dugout. That soon changed, by banning the monitors—allowing fans the modern day camera angle we all expect by now.
Committee Meeting: Statistical Analysis
This committee meeting included two presentations. First, guest speaker Vinay Kumar presented on “Talent Differential: The Balance of Talent Across the NL and AL”
Past studies have focused on only a small set of players, and not necessarily a representative set: only players who switched leagues (and seeing how they did the following season).
More recently, with inter-league play, players are playing against the other league far more regularly.
Analysis found that for most of the inter-league era, the AL's pitching and hitting were a little stronger, until the past few years where it has flipped and the NL is stronger.
Second, Hans Van Sloot (primary software developer at baseball-reference.com for five years, and now with the Minnesota Twins) presented on the earliest computer baseball simulation.
John Burgeson (1931-2016), SABR member, was at IBM and created a baseball simulation in December of 1960.
He used time on an IBM 1620 computer, which at the time cost $90-120K, but in today's dollars would be about $900K-$1.2 million.
This type of computer used punch cards for instructions and paper tape for storage.
Hans ran through a demo for us, which used an eclectic mix of all-time great players.
Going Downtown with a Golden Sombrero (1891-2021)
Going downtown is slang for hitting a HR. A "Golden Sombrero" is a mythical award for striking out four times in a game. A "Downtown Golden Sombrero" would then be a mythical award for hitting a HR and striking out four times in a game. Researcher Herm Krabbenhoft described his study of this subject.
The first known Downtown Golden Sombrero was accomplished by Jimmy Williams in 1899 for Pittsburgh.
Since then there have been a total of 155 regular-season Downtown Golden Sombreros (through 2021).
In those games, the player's team has had a very impressive winning percentage of .665.
There have been seven players, all since 1982, to have a Jackpot Downtown Golden Sombrero—meaning the HR was a grand slam.
The first player to have two Downtown Golden Sombreros was slugger Dave Kingman.
Ryan Howard has done it an amazing five times; no one else has more than three.
Five players have had one HR and five strikeouts in a game, all since 1998: Ray Lankford, Sammy Sosa, Brian Dozier, Dexter Fowler, and Mike Tauchman.
MLB Diversity Pipeline Program Overview
Tyrone Brooks, Senior Director of MLB’s Front Office & Field Staff Diversity Pipeline Program, talked about increasing diversity in baseball on and off the field.
Careers at MLB fall largely into two categories:
Baseball Operations, such as major league operations, scouting, player development (coaching, athletic training, strength and conditioning), research and development, and umpiring.
Business Operations, such as accounting, marketing, finance, media/public relations, corporate partnerships/sales, ticket sales, community relations, and baseball/softball development.
Tyrone and MLB's Diversity Pipeline Program participates in several events throughout the year, beyond the SABR Convention and the SABR Analytics Conference, such as the Black Sports Business Symposium, the Women in Sports Data Symposium, the National Society of Black Engineers, and many more.
In terms of results of the Diversity Pipeline Program in 2022, there have been 123 assisted hires so far this year, already surpassing the 80 in 2021 and bringing the total to over 400 since the program's inception.
In addition, there have been 57 Fellows selected for the MLB Diversity Fellowship Program. This program has a 92% FT industry placement rate and an 88% Fellow industry retention rate. 14 of 30 teams, along with MLB itself, participate in the program so far, so there is room for significant growth.
The Diversity Pipeline Scout and Coaching Development Program was created in partnership with the Buck O'Neil Professional Scouts and Coaches Association. The second Scout Development Program class will participate in the Arizona Fall League in October, as will a new Coaching Development Program cohort. The first Scout program class yielded 18 hires and 7 club promotions.
Progress, though slow, is being made. There are currently 11 women who will act as coaches—excluding strength & conditioning and mental skills coaches—with Major and Minor League Teams in 2022.
Research Committee Meeting: Ballparks
This committee meeting featured a panel discussion, moderated by SABR CEO Scott Bush, with three special guests: former Baltimore Orioles president Larry Lucchino; acclaimed ballpark design director Janet Marie Smith; and longtime baseball executive Charles Steinberg. They talked about the construction and design of Camden Yards, which set the standard for a new wave of ballparks after its opening in 1992.
Critical to the success of Camden Yards was treating the design and implementation as a baseball ballpark, not a "stadium" or "building". There is something special to a ballpark, when done well.
It needed to be able to be a "baseball institution" and also an appropriate "Baltimore institution."
The team recognized that Memorial Stadium was an inadequate shared facility (with the NFL's Baltimore Colts). In fact, the idea that a new ballpark was going to be needed, to replace and not just upgrade Memorial Stadium, dated back to the 1971. That year and in that era in general, the Orioles were one of and perhaps the best team in all of MLB, but in 1971 they had 14 rainouts and relatively low attendance.
Winning the World Series in 1983, after going there in 1979, helped a lot to cement the Orioles as a once again successful ballclub.
The role of the local press in generating interest in a new ballpark is often overlooked.
The Orioles had been on a year-to-year lease, but that changed entirely when they built Camden Yards and started a 30-year lease. This has become far more common in MLB since.
Football and Baseball are too different to share a facility, e.g., the ideal shape is different and the capacity needs are different, with baseball usually optimal in the 30-45K range, and football often wanting 60K capacity (since games are only once per week).
So, early in the design process they really focused on a baseball-only approach, with the implication being that if Baltimore were to get an NFL team again (which they later did in the Ravens) that there would need to be a second facility for them.
The goal for the Orioles, and for what became Camden Yards, was to create a traditional, old-fashioned feel, but with modern amenities.
They wanted the ballpark to be part of, and to enhance, the Baltimore Inner Harbor District. To do this, they needed to marry the ballpark to the values and traditions of the city. The desire was that the location would be walking distance to other entertainment venues, hotels, etc.
Most pro ballparks in use today have been built since Camden Yards. But not all have learned the lessons of Camden. In short, the ballpark should be designed so that it can be seen as the 10th man, an important part of the home team.
When fan surveys and focus groups were asked for input for the new ballpark that became Camden Yards, the top three ideas were more, larger, and cleaner women's restrooms.
Fans also wanted to see who was warming up in both bullpens.
And they said they wanted to see all the current scores as they were developing, across both leagues.
Red Sox vs. Orioles Game
Lastly, here is the view from our seats for the Red Sox-Orioles game that many from the SABR Convention attended on Friday night. It was a wild game with a little of everything, but most notably had a lot of offense, with 37 total hits, 5 HR (all by the Orioles), and a final score of Baltimore 15, Boston 10.
My wife Kassy joined me on the trip, and enjoyed this wild game too! She took the nice shots below of me out front and of one of the HR fireworks displays.
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