White Sox takeaways from Saberseminar

The 2016 iteration of Saberseminar, a conference devoted to baseball scouting, statistics, and sports science, took place in Boston this past weekend. In roughly 12 hours of baseball presentations across two days, it was inevitable that topics relevant to every team would pop up; here are the portions of my notebook that pertain to the White Sox.

In the interest of full disclosure: Baseball Prospectus is a prominent sponsor of Saberseminar; Saberseminar is co-organized by Dan Brooks, a member of the BP stats team; several of the talks were given by people currently or formerly employed by Baseball Prospectus; and I presented research at a past iteration of the conference.

–Glenn Healey presented some research regarding expected runs based on quality of contact–i.e. launch angle and exit speed–they were largely summaries of two articles he published at the Hardball Times earlier this year. He showed results relying on data from the 2014 season, and two White Sox showed up as players who outperformed expectations given their quality of contact: Adam Eaton and Jose Abreu. Given that most players who outperform expectations are either fast, lucky, or both, Abreu’s presence on that list was a bit alarming, As was discussed at some length at the time, a lot of his home runs barely cleared the wall, which is reflected in Healey’s numbers. Chris Sale also clocked in as the fourth-best pitcher in terms of contact allowed, though this skill is generally much less persistent than the analogous trait for hitters.

–One of the nice things about Saberseminar is that they give time for a half dozen or so talks from students or otherwise non-established researchers, and White Sox popped up in a few of those talks. The most prominent appearance occurred in Jenna Weinstein, Nick Dulchin, and Tyler Graham’s research, which involved using game theory to model which pitches hitters should look for at the plate. They used Sale as one of their examples, and concluded–using last year’s data–that it made sense for a hitter to sit changeup about 90 percent of the time; their model suggested similar tactics toward basically every pitcher that throws an offspeed pitch. Given the brevity of the presentation and the corresponding lack of explanation of some pivotal aspects of their model, I’m taking those numbers with a pound of salt, but it was interesting to see in light of the recurring discussions this year regarding Sale’s decreased use of his changeup.

–Relatedly, Harry Pavlidis and Jonathan Judge of the BP stats team presented some research they’ve been doing on game calling. No White Sox showed up on their lists of worst or best game callers in 2015, but part of their research involved assessing what kinds of pitches a catcher calls for, and last year Tyler Flowers had a greater tendency toward calling non-fastballs than any other catcher in the league. Food for thought from a work-in-progress model, if hard to translate into actionable insight.

–The student talk that closed the conference, given by a recent grad named Jeb Clarke, sought to identify managers whose teams performed worse than the quality of their players would suggest. The methodology was rather sketchy and focused on very broad effects, and I think most White Sox fans would agree that not having Robin Ventura in the bottom fifth of manager quality over the last five years is a sign that the model needs substantial improvement. Terry Collins was rated the worst manager in baseball, though, so that’s a small win for the model.

–Ben Jedlovec of Baseball Info Solutions presented some new data they’ve begun collecting recently on check swings, broken bats, and bunts pulled back. The cover photo of his talk was a picture of Gordon Beckham doing both of the former two on the same pitch in 2012, but nobody from the White Sox showed up on any of his leaderboards for those two stats. For bunts pulled back, which Baseball Info Solutions has only computed for this year, Melky Cabrera is seventh in the majors by count with 31. By rate, he’s second, having pulled back 86 percent of the time he’s shown bunt. (Angel Pagan is at 90 percent, but in substantially fewer attempts.) As with the Flowers game calling statistic, it’s not clearly meaningful but it’s still somewhat interesting.

–Scott Powers, a doctoral candidate in statistics at Stanford, gave one of the stronger student presentations, using a regression model to estimate hitters’ and pitchers’ distributions of vertical launch angle and exit speed after controlling for other factors. Todd Frazier has the highest estimated variation in his launch angle of any hitter in the league, barely edging out Kevin Plawecki, Maikel Franco, and Kevin Kiermaier. Given that popups have launch angles very different from most other batted balls, I suspect that’s the main driving factor there, as Frazier is within 0.1 percent of the major-league lead in pop-up rate and Plawecki’s, Franco’s, and Kiermaier’s rates are all solidly above-average in that area as well. He was one of the few speakers to post his slides, which can be found here.

–A number of teams had baseball operationss representatives at the conference, including at least the Tigers, Indians, Cubs, Red Sox, Brewers, and Phillies, plus presumably other teams whose analysts were either incognito or simply went unrecognized. Anyone from the White Sox fell into the latter category, befitting the near-total opacity of their baseball ops department.

–There was a live taping of Effectively Wild that had a cameo from the alphabetically superlative David Aardsma, a longtime former MLB reliever who spent one year on the South side. He has a very deadpan sense of humor in conversation.

–Each year there are a number of speakers from the Red Sox front office, which is unsurprising, since the conference is in Boston and raises money for the Jimmy Fund. They mostly talk about the Red Sox, and they don’t typically divulge much (for obvious reasons), but two things they said merit mentioning here. The first came from Dave Dombrowski, who started his career in the White Sox front office; as he was going through the positions he’d held throughout his career, he got (deserved) laughs simply for mentioning that Hawk Harrelson had once been the White Sox GM. Not the finest hour for this franchise.

–The other came from Tom Tippett, Senior Baseball Analyst for the Red Sox, who talked about some of his memories of the 2011 Red Sox. He mentioned a nugget I’d forgotten, which was that the Red Sox were discussing acquiring Bruce Chen to pitch a one-game playoff if they’d made it that far, as he was a decent pitcher who’d cleared waivers and whose deal was about to be up. Of course, the only reason Chen looked decent was that he ran up a 1.89 ERA in 5 starts against the White Sox, as opposed to his 4.20 ERA against other opponents. It’s nice to know some things never seem to change.


Lead Image Credit: Denny Medley // USA Today Sports Images

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