MLB: Winter Meetings

Notes from Saberseminar 2017 featuring Rick Hahn

The 2017 installment of Saberseminar, the excellent annual baseball research conference, took place last weekend in Boston on behalf of the Angioma Alliance. (Disclosure: Baseball Prospectus is a keynote sponsor of the event, and co-organizer Dan Brooks is an author for BP.) Like most years, the talks and panels were a mix of front office folk (mostly the Red Sox), baseball media folk, and people presenting their research. Unlike most years, the White Sox were in town, and the organizers were able to get Jason Benetti to MC and Rick Hahn as the keynote speaker on Saturday.

This was my third time in attendance, and Hahn’s talk was a cut above those of the past GM presenters. While he obviously wasn’t going to veer into the territory of trade secrets, he was more willing to relate anecdotes that give some flavor of how he approaches his job than the other GMs I’ve seen speak have been. A dump of my notes from the 45 minute talk:

  • Hahn said that the first offer they were willing to accept for Jose Quintana didn’t come from the Cubs, but once they had one he quickly moved to see if Theo Epstein was interested in making the deal. He mentioned having forgotten the typical start time for Sunday Cubs games and texting to offer some starting pitching … right after Jon Lester had given up 10 runs. Epstein didn’t take it too personally, it seems.
  • He expressed a lot of skepticism about teams that are willing to put a single number valuation on a player (whether veteran or prospect), saying he thinks there’s too much uncertainty and too many different player profiles for him to take such ratings particularly seriously. He said it’s frustrating to hear in trade talks that “this player is worth $100 million and my prospect is worth $120 million, so there’s no way we’re doing this deal.”
  • He praised the quality of public scouting, and said the greater attention paid to prospects has made his job harder, as both fans and ownership are more attached to their prospects and accordingly skeptical of dealing them. That’s something I hadn’t heard before, and has a ring of truth to it, but I’m mostly relaying it because I like the mental image of Jerry Reinsdorf hitting refresh every thirty seconds to see how many Sox made the BP Midseason Top 50.
  • He told a very funny story about dealing with A.J. Preller that David Laurila wrote up at FanGraphs.
  • Hahn mentioned multiple times using scouts as a data source, i.e. evaluating players in part not just by how much the scouts like them but which scouts and how they’ve done with similar players in the past. This isn’t a novel idea by any means, but given the amount of skepticism that’s been directed toward White Sox scouts both pro and amateur over the past few years it’s good to see them be introspective. (It’s also a classic example of an analytical project probably every team has done that’s impossible to do with public data.)
  • With respect to Statcast, Hahn mentioned that they’re still working out what’s useful from the reams of data, but mentioned he thought their analytical advantages were with respect to “foot speed and defense.” I’m not sure what he’s alluding to with respect to speed (though their current major league roster has a lot more than past iterations), but the point about defense does align with the White Sox going from 21st to 15th to fifth in shifts over the last three years, per Fangraphs.
  • Hahn referred to the White Sox as a “mid-upper-small market team.” I don’t know what he meant by that.
  • As made the rounds on Twitter and in some beat writer reports, Hahn casually but pointedly suggested Reynaldo Lopez would be starting Friday against the Royals. He said he’d done everything they asked, but they thought it was unfair to have him make his major league debut against either the Red Sox (on the road) or the Astros. That’s a good point, but then again he didn’t have to pay good money on Saturday night to see James Shields give up 4 runs in 6 innings and still lower his ERA.
  • It’s nothing new, but Hahn emphasized Don Cooper and Herm Schneider’s importance to the organization repeatedly, saying they keep pitchers healthy and effective, dictate development strategy for the entire organization, and serve as a lure for pitchers who realize they could use some help. He jokingly said it helped cancel out the advantages that a team like the Padres gets from a warm climate and a pitcher’s park.
  • Hahn explained the Sox reputation as a team opposed to leaks by saying he thinks it makes it harder to make deals and that he hates what leaked trade discussions do to a player.

Other White Sox-related notes from the weekend:

  • Ben Cherington called Hahn “one of the smartest and best guys in baseball.”
  • Julia Prusaczyk, an MLBAM intern, presented on modeling sacrifice flies using Statcast data, including a table showing Avisail Garcia as being the seventh hardest throwing outfielder in the big leagues.
  • Tyler Clippard showed up on a couple leaderboards, being the eighth most distinctive right-handed pitcher in 2016 per the metric Glenn Healey presented based on research he’s done with Shiyuan Zhao and Dan Brooks (which was presented on the mothership a few weeks ago). He is also the sixth worst high leverage reliever in the bigs this year, per Paul Mammino’s talk.
  • Mammino also had Ronald Belisario’s 2014 season as the second worst high leverage season of the last 10 years, which only goes to show how silly it was for Chief Keef to use him as an example of getting hitters out (link has NSFW language).
  • As I mentioned above, Benetti was the MC, and I’d be remiss not to mention that he did a fantastic job. As on broadcasts, he knows when to be funny and when to be serious, and made thoughtful comments all weekend without getting in anyone’s way. He also was clearly paying close attention to the talks with an eye on including the results or ways of thinking in broadcasts when opportunities arise. A couple other folks came up to me and mentioned how fortunate White Sox fans are to get him for most of the team’s games. He also teased a few games with a three man booth next year, which I’m sure will be an interesting viewing experience.

Lead Photo Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

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