Quick Reflections on SABR 44

I just returned from Houston where I attended the 44th annual Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) convention. It was my first national conference, and I had a great time! I attended a lot of really interesting presentations, met some people whose work I admire, and saw an awesome ballgame.

One of my favorite presentations was where Dave Smith of Retrosheet investigated why the home team tends to score more runs in the first inning than the visiting team does. Along the way, he investigated lineup construction and when your number 9 hitter is better than your number 7 hitter.

Another presentation I liked was Michael Haupert’s talk about William Hulbert and the founding of (what is essentially) professional baseball, and professional sports, as we know it today. And of course I can’t forget my friend Eric Robinson’s presentation, which focused on the terrible time the Eagles (a Negro League team) had when they moved from Newark to Houston. I am not a historian but I found these talks really interesting.

In addition to the talks, the event featured a number of interesting panels. This being Houston, many formers Astros were present. Jimmy Wynn, Bob Aspromonte, Hal Smith, and Carl Warwick represented the Colt .45s. Enos Cabell, Jose Cruz, and Deacon Jones (with Tal Smith also present) represented the 1980 pennant-winning Astros team, the first in francise history to go to the playoffs. And Larry Dierker, Alan Ashby, and Art Howe represented as well. (Many of the audience questions Howe got were related to his portrayal in Moneyball by the late Phillip Seymour-Hoffman.)

These guys talked a lot about their playing time and shared various stories. I appreciated the historical impact, but they weren’t super meaningful to me personally, having been either not alive or not cognizant of baseball when these guys were playing. (I realize I wasn’t the target audience for these particular panels.) But hearing what goes into constructing and playing for a pennant-winning team was interesting. And of course it’s always fun to just hear war stories straight from the horses’ mouths, so to speak. Cabell in particular was hilarious when talking about how manager Bill Virdon would discipline players for not running to first base every time.

I did enjoy the panel with Bob Watson, Eddie Robinson, and Dr. Bobby Brown. Robinson and Brown shared some entertaining stories about Yogi Berra, Joe DiMaggio, Marilyn Monroe, and the like. You won’t get to hear stuff like this for much longer, folks. I tried to take it all in as much as I could.

There was also a pretty interesting panel with Astros GM Jeff Luhnow, assistant GM David Stearns, and Director of Decision Sciences Sig Mejdal. They didn’t reveal any team secrets, but they did continue to explain how they set up their organization, how running a team has changed just in the past 10 years, and the kinds of data they are interested in.

They seemed to try to put a human face on the organization by talking about the human element of what they are doing, and I wonder if that’s because there has been so much bad press about them recently. The team has been accused of running science experiments on its players, trade information was leaked from their organization, and they had an acrimonious fallout with 1-1 pick Brady Aiken a couple of weeks ago. That, plus the recent SI cover story that celebrated their data-driven ways, has probably combined to make the organization appear too robotic, too heartless, and too unfeeling.

And then there was Saturday night’s 8-2 win over the Blue Jays. I was rooting hard for the Astros, since the Blue Jays are chasing my Orioles in the AL East, and I wasn’t disappointed. The game featured several home runs, including an inside-the-park job by Jon Singleton (that was awarded when replay overturned the “out” call) and a mammoth dinger by Chris Carter. It featured an almost-home-run when Rob Grossman leapt and robbed Juan Francisco of a game-tying two-run shot. It featured speedy Jose Altuve scoring the go-ahead run from first on two wild throws by Blue Jays defenders. And if that wasn’t enough, it featured the MLB debut of Mike Foltynewicz in which he struck out Jose Bautista. I kept joking with other SABR members that if only we’d seen an unassisted triple play, we would’ve had baseball bingo.

Whew. In addition to all of that, I met a ton of nice people, including several whose blogs I follow or whose work I have enjoyed. I attended several committee meetings and was encouraged by all the talk and ideas I heard. And I thoroughly enjoyed a rousing trivia competition (as a spectator, mind you).

My biggest takeaway is that this is just a group of people who love to get together and talk about baseball, whether it’s the 1910 Triple Crown Race or the current exploits of Mike Trout. It took me a while to realize that though, because despite hanging out with the local chapter often, I’m not fully used to being around such a group. The first day I was there I didn’t really know what to do or how to fit in. I felt like I wanted to contribute and that I wanted to shout my baseball interest from the top of the rafters. I was meeting not only new people, which is not something I am terribly comfortable with, but also people whose work I’ve enjoyed and whose name I’d recognize anywhere, which gave me that giggling-fan feeling.

It left me kind of jittery. But by the second day I settled down and relaxed. It helped to have members from my local chapter, people whom I already knew and was friendly with, present and grinning. But mainly it helped to just sink into all the talk, to be present for the discussions, and pay attention to the research. Everyone I met was also extremely pleasant and welcoming. I ended up making several new friends and getting some great information about the kind of baseball work I enjoy doing.

There’s a lot of good stuff going on in baseball, both the game and on the sidelines with this research, so to speak. There are innumerable facets of the game to research, analyze, consider, and debate. And there are a lot of smart and passionate fans around to discuss these things. In addition to having so much fun at the conference, I feel I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of what this community can offer and what I can contribute to it. SABR 45 is in Chicago and I plan on doing all I can to attend!