A Few Thoughts from the 2013 Saber Seminar

Saber Seminar 2013
Saber Seminar 2013

This past weekend I was fortunate enough to fly to Boston to attend the 2013 Saber Seminar held at the Boston University Science Center, with all proceeds going to the Jimmy Fund.  As some of my readership knows, I lost my mother to cancer last year, so any opportunity to discuss baseball and fighting this tragic disease is a perfect combination.

The incredible list of presenters and their considerable knowledge awed me at times, as their casual use of terms like r-coefficients resembled baseball scouts tossing around jargon like approach or want.  That said I was proud and humbled to be around such intelligent baseball people and tried to soak up as much knowledge as I possibly could.  I feel guilty highlighting only a few of the outstanding presentations given over the two days, as each person was seemingly better than the next, but a few speakers particularly captivated my interest.

Saturday morning Harry Pavlidis from Baseball Prospectus and the Washington Post gave a fascinating talk about what makes a good changeup; after making the distinction that there are two different types of changeups a pitcher can throw, one that is about 7mph slower than the fastball that tends to induce weak contact and another version closer to 10mph slower meant to create whiffs from hitters.  He highlighted Brandon McCarthy as a pitcher who uses a “faster” changeup to get ground balls and mentioned Nationals Stephen Strasburg as someone who uses the pitch for strikeouts.  In addition, he specifically pointed out Tampa Bay starter Chris Archer as an interesting pitcher to watch in the future as his changeup matures in the big leagues. 

Immediately after lunch Saturday Dr. Glenn Fleisig spoke about the biomechanics of the delivery, explaining how injuries to the ulnar collateral ligament, which notoriously leads to Tommy John surgery, and SLAP tears in the shoulder occur from flaws in a pitcher’s mechanics.  He also explained how other various minor imperfections in a pitcher’s motion, such as a short stride length or placement of the head at ball release can directly impact both velocity and future injuries.   I could write an entire article just on his speech, as he made me a much smarter baseball fan in just a 30 minute presentation.

Later Vince Gennaro discussed his latest research project, in which he is trying to more accurately find potential positive and negative matchups for hitters by clustering pitchers of similar repertoires and styles, rather than relying on the rather limited and flawed sample sizes involved in one-on-one pitcher verses hitter matchups.  Mr. Gennaro makes quite the compelling case that grouping and examining the results in these larger numbers can more accurately predict future success.  This was probably my favorite speech of the weekend, and I am excited to keep track of the work he continues to do in this area.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the wonderful presentations Sunday by John Farrell and Brian Bannister, who were both quite candid in their question and answer sessions and gave incredible insights from unique perspectives inside the game.  Also I would like to personally thank the members of the Red Sox front office Jared Porter, Gus Quattlebaum, and Ben Crockett, who were extremely engaging and forthright during their question and answer session, then generously spent 5-7 minutes with me after their presentation discussing the fundamentals and finer points of scouting amateur hitters. 

Finally I would like to mention one of the student presenters, Rebecca Fishbein, who discussed the effect of Tommy John surgery on future fastball velocity.  After explaining that her original thesis arrived from reading athletes were having elective Tommy John surgery to increase their velocity and thus improve their chances at advancing in baseball, she determined that the surgery has little to no effect on future velocity and was essentially having elective surgery without much chance of future benefits.

In addition I want to give special mention to the Master of Ceremonies for the weekend, Dan Brooks from BrooksBaseball.net, who I was lucky enough to meet for a moment or two.  I also want to thank all the many new friends I made at the conference, and especially my friends Jim and Caitlin for their wonderful hospitality.  I highly recommend attending the Saber Seminar for any passionate, numbers-focused baseball fan, and I eagerly await my return in 2014.

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