August 10, 2010

2010 SABR Convention Recap

I got an aisle seat for my Wednesday afternoon flight to Atlanta for the 40th annual Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) convention and sat down to the right of an orthodox rabbi. Moments later the seat across the aisle was filled by a priest. Seriously. I waited patiently for the world's most obvious joke to come to life and deliver a punchline for "a rabbi, a priest, and a blogger/fat guy/SABR member get on an airplane," but sadly they never actually interacted.

Delta decided to play a joke of their own on all of us by leaving the plane on the sun-scorched Atlanta runway for 45 minutes, leading a flight attendant to announce: "We're gonna be here a while, so y'all might wanna slide the window shades down to stay cool." That worked about as well as my current weight-loss effort, but Baseball Think Factory regular Mike Emeigh was kind enough to wait for me and drove me to the hotel along with Joe Dimino and Greg Spira.

We headed directly to the hotel bar and met up with Steve Treder, Chris Jaffe, Mike Webber, Mike McCullough, Anthony Giacalone, Josh Heit, and Neal Traven, which was our party of 11 for dinner at Top Chef runner-up Kevin Gillespie's restaurant Woodfire Grill. It was too classy for me even without factoring in my cargo shorts, but the wine flowed, the $16 risotto and $28 pork loin were great, and we closed the place down. And then we closed down the hotel bar.

The actual convention began the next morning, and I saw presentations about Ted Lyons and the "Sunday Starter" from Jaffe and about the effect workloads and days between starts have on pitchers from J.C. Bradbury. Back in the hotel bar I found Chris Dial, who's starred in many of my past SABR recaps, and also met Cory Schwartz of MLB Advanced Media, who admitted to being a longtime reader and held no grudge over my reports about MLB.com's Twitter policy.

In fact, Schwartz invited me to that evening's Braves-Giants game along with Dial and Dimino, and then showed us how MLBAM and MLB.com roll by getting us into the swanky "755 Club" at Turner Field. We watched Jair Jurrjens out-duel Tim Lincecum while sitting outside at a table filled with pizza and buckets of beer, which has more or less ruined me forever. Everything we talked about was, as Schwartz and Dial repeatedly ribbed me about, "off the record."

(From left to right: Gleeman, Dial, Schwartz, Dimino)

However, definitely not off the record was Schwartz's reaction when a June bug landed on my shoulder. Sensing his unease, Dial plucked it off my shirt and held it near Schwartz, who more or less freaked out. The pictures below don't even do it full justice, because they show him still seated. He later got out of his chair, stood behind Dial, and threatened bodily harm if the bug stayed near him, which is a 10 on the absurdity scale. Dial eventually ended his reign of terror.

Schwartz said his friend Eddie Spaghetti of the Supersuckers was playing at a nearby bar, so after the game we took a cab to The Gravity Pub and saw him perform in front of around 50 people and 50,000 tattoos. I was once again way out of my element, but the music was very good, Mr. Spaghetti and his fans were as nice as they were ink covered, and another car full of SABR guys joined us there until the place closed after 3:00 a.m.

On the way back to the hotel we drunkenly decided it would be wise to instead get dropped off at a 24-hour diner where we combined beer and breakfast food in what's technically known as a "bad decision." Heit ordered rye toast, which admittedly seems somewhat less hilarious to me now than it did at the time, and an unnamed member of our party never made it to the breakfast food because he booted in the bathroom and stumbled back to the hotel in shame.

Our blond, 19-year-old waitress was shockingly amused by the whole thing and actually sat at the table for most of the hour-long meal, not totally unlike how Jane Goodall immersed herself in the chimpanzee world. Also, on the walk back to the hotel I'm told I recreated the scenes from "The Matrix" where Neo dodges bullets in slow motion, which I can assure you must have been funnier to watch than even Keanu Reeves' acting.

On a completely unrelated note, I woke up the next "morning" at 1:00 p.m. with a sore back and syrup on my pillow. I wobbled downstairs to the presentation room and sat a couple rows behind Red Sox assistant general manager Ben Cherington for Vince Gennaro's talk about measuring the asset value of players for midseason trades, followed by a presentation on the 1962 expansion draft during which the elderly man next to me literally fell asleep.

Sleeping beauty thankfully woke up for Treder's presentation on baseball (and America) in the 1960s, after which the several hundred-person SABR group went to the Braves-Giants game. I finagled a ride to the ballpark with Dimino, Baseball-Reference.com creator Sean Forman, and Neil Paine, who does great work blogging on Basketball-Reference.com. We got there just in time for a two-hour rain delay, after which the Braves hastily retired Tom Glavine's number.

We had tickets in Turner Field's all-you-can-eat section and my stated plan was to do enough damage that the Braves would have to trade Brian McCann just to cut payroll, but believe it or not my tremendous appetite was no match for the horrendous food set up like farm animals feeding, so instead I reluctantly downed some junior high cafeteria-quality offerings in the rain while chatting and complaining with Dimino, Webber, Paine, and Anthony and Chris Milazzo.

Once the rain stopped the weather was perfect and I sat with Forman, Dimino, Webber, Paine, Jaffe, and my former The Hardball Times partner Dave Studenmund. We had a great time, but naturally after the two-hour rain delay and Glavine ceremony the game went into extra innings when the Braves' defense imploded behind Billy Wagner. Forman also let me use his iPhone to watch the Twins-Indians game, which was great right until Matt LaPorta's walk-off homer.

We closed the hotel bar again Friday, but I woke up Saturday just in time to catch the "New Technologies in Baseball" panel at 3:00 p.m. Physics of baseball guru Alan Nathan was joined by Fan Graphs and Baseball Analysts writer Dave Allen, former THT staffer and current Tampa Bay Rays baseball operations analyst Josh Kalk, Trackman business development director Rob Ristagno, and Sportvision video development director Rand Pendleton.

In terms of the actual convention it was the highlight for me on several different levels. Allen took the stage sporting epic mutton-chops that, as Rob Neyer pointed out, made him look like Hyde from "That 70s Show." Beyond that Kalk used props, including a baseball attached to a power drill that predictably malfunctioned and almost crippled Nathan. And last but not least, the technology shown, discussed, and hinted at was mind-boggling.

(Allen and his tremendous mutton-chops)

Over the past couple years Pitch-f/x has changed the way many people analyze the game by providing previously unavailable details about pitching that turn "velocity" and "location" into a science. Field-f/x is now in the works, with the stated goal being to "create a digital record of all events" happening on each major-league field at all times. In other words, track everything. In truth a lot of the details went way over my head, but my mind was sufficiently blown.

Right now for each pitch thrown Pitch-f/x shows speed, location, release point, and movement. Field-f/x would take that and apply it to everything else, from batters and fielders to umpires and runners. What was the speed and trajectory of a fly ball? How was an outfielder's jump on the fly ball? How precise was his route? How fast did he get there? What type of jump did the runner get? How quick he did move? Was an umpire in proper position to make a tough call?

(Kalk and his baseball power drill, before the malfunction)

And that vastly understates the potential impact because I don't know or understand enough about the technology involved to do it justice and visual aids really made everything come to life, but I really think we're on the verge of a huge shift in baseball analysis and the discussion panel has me very excited to see what's next. If you think the depth of data available on sites like MLB.com and Fan Graphs right now are amazing, just wait until next season.

After having my mind blown by upcoming technology I rehydrated in the hotel bar and Hooters, and then went with a group of 15 to a Brazilian steakhouse called Fire of Brazil. As you can imagine we did some serious damage, and at the end the waiter took it upon himself to snatch away my plate despite my stop/go card being flipped to green. I consider it a victory over the restaurant, running my career record against buffet-style eateries to 154-0 with 97 knockouts.

After that we retreated back to the hotel bar and around midnight Dial noted the collection of Baseball Think Factory regulars, semi-regulars, and (back when it was called Baseball Primer) former regulars huddled together in a beer-littered corner and decided it would be the perfect opportunity to hold our first official chapter meeting. And those who remember my recap of last year's SABR convention in Washington, D.C. know just how fitting that was.

(From left to right: Traven, Spira, Dial, Webber, Gleeman)

Paul Brewer first mentioned the idea of a BTF and/or internet-based SABR chapter over dinner and a bottle of wine, and that notion was further hashed out by a couple dozen degenerates jammed into my hotel room and drinking from a makeshift bar built around the bathroom sink. We stayed true to those roots a year later and as we brainstormed ways to expand the group even further for future years Dial mentioned the role my annual convention recap could play.

That made me nervous because while SABR and the SABR convention are many things to many people--history and research, presentations and discussions, passion for baseball--to me it's always been about getting together with my friends each year to shoot the shit, go to a game, and break bread in a new city. My recaps of beer drinking and shit shooting are a glimpse into just one of the many great aspects of SABR, but I do hope it somehow helps spread the word.

(From left to right: Dial, Gleeman, Giacalone, Dimino, Milazzo, Milazzo, McCullough)

I had no idea what to expect when I went to Cincinnati for my first SABR convention in 2004, but I haven't missed a convention since and can't imagine ever not going. I'll be in Los Angeles next year and the SABR convention is coming to Minnesota in 2012, so I'm counting on a whole bunch of AG.com readers and Twins bloggers joining the fun by then. If you like baseball you'll enjoy it and if you like hanging out with other people who like baseball you'll love it. I do.

24 Comments »

  1. Awesome recap, Aaron. I’ll definitely be there in 2012.

    Comment by Bloody P — August 9, 2010 @ 11:07 pm

  2. fantastic

    Comment by Phil Coorey — August 9, 2010 @ 11:08 pm

  3. Sounds like you had an awesome weekend. All that drinking and eating and hanging with baseball nuts makes me a little jealous. Adding the Supersuckers to the mix pushes it into full-on envy.

    It’s also a little crazy how many of those names I recognize from rec.sport.baseball (UseNet) back in the 90s. That’s where I became a certifiable stat-nerd, reading those postings. There’s so much more work to be done analyzing the game and it’s great to see they’re still at it.

    Thanks for the recap!

    Comment by Chris — August 10, 2010 @ 12:01 am

  4. Nice recap, Aaron, even with all the self-censoring you did to avoid the NC17 rating.

    I ran into SABR Prez Andy McCue on my way to the airport. Before I could bring up the BTF Chapter’s plan to put its midnight-Saturday annual meeting on the official SABR41 schedule, he mentioned it to me first! With an appreciative chuckle.

    Every one since Cincy in 2004, eh? For me, it’s now a 21-year streak, since the first Cleveland convention in 1990. Needless to say, I can’t imagine ever missing one either.

    Comment by Neal Traven — August 10, 2010 @ 12:05 am

  5. Yeah but…can they play?

    Comment by Reise — August 10, 2010 @ 12:40 am

  6. Great recap Aaron, had a blast this year, as always.

    My streak is 9, back to 2002, so I’ve got a ways to go to catch you Neal . . . but as you and Aaron say, I can’t imagine missing one.

    It’s like being back in college for 4 days a year. You stay in what is essentially a dorm, many of us with roommates. There are classes, but you can sleep in and skip them if you go out drinking too much, which you always do. You learn a lot, drink a lot, and have some great times. Definitely my 4 favorite days of the year.

    Comment by Joe Dimino — August 10, 2010 @ 1:08 am

  7. They could’ve created a perfect strike zone 6 years ago and gotten rid of home plate umpires. The technology uses microweave ultra-light metal fibre in the mass-produced baseball stitching that a homeplate sensor reads. The same fibre is installed or computer modeled on the batter’s armpit and knees, so batter crouching to squish the strike zone is also eliminated. Also, this fibre doesn’t change the character of the baseball in the least. If you think the year of the pitcher is this year, watch out: Given an objective standard, pitchers learning to move breaking balls and curveballs over the back of the plate for a strike without umpire laziness/bias are going to destroy hitters. I can’t wait! So bored of the ridiculous tradition of home plate umpiring for balls and strikes.

    Comment by brian — August 10, 2010 @ 1:23 am

  8. Great recap, Aaron. Had a great time hanging with you guys at my second convention, can’t wait for #3.

    Comment by AJM — August 10, 2010 @ 2:43 am

  9. How would one of us “”"”"”"”"”"”"”"”"”"minions” register to attend some or all of the next SABR convention in LA, Aaron? I live in SoCal and it’d be fun to at least attend some of the sessions, I bet.

    Many thanks!

    Comment by Nealcp — August 10, 2010 @ 8:17 am

  10. I may have to go to the 2012 one!! I might not fit in though because, I’m assuming there are actual programs/discussions in the ‘mornings’ too, right? Field-fx sounds pretty crazy cool, even for someone like me, who rarely uses stats. :)

    Comment by SethSpeaks — August 10, 2010 @ 9:34 am

  11. Obligatory: “NERRRRRRRRDS!”

    Wow, I’ve never seen so many out of shape, pale, white guys in one place since I last visited SABR 39!

    Comment by Brooklyn Twins Fan — August 10, 2010 @ 10:03 am

  12. No poker this year?

    Comment by Jose Hernandez — August 10, 2010 @ 10:49 am

  13. Glad you guys enjoyed The Gravity in East Atlanta. As a non-tattooed resident of the neighborhood, I understand how much you must have stuck out.

    But more importantly, do you SABR guys have any projections on the Tool Race in Atlanta? Can you figure out the mathematical possibility of The Drill ever winning?

    Comment by Tim's Neighbor — August 10, 2010 @ 10:52 am

  14. i am really pissed off that the twins are bringing up glen perkins to pitch in a crucial game against the sox. this after monday off.bump the starters. am i missing somethig?

    Comment by bcntwinsfan — August 10, 2010 @ 11:13 am

  15. I gotta get off the board so I have time to run with you guys.

    Comment by FXF — August 10, 2010 @ 1:06 pm

  16. ah, also, nealcp … http://www.sabr.org … you don’t need to be a member to come to the convention … registration will be available sometime around March …

    Comment by FXF — August 10, 2010 @ 1:08 pm

  17. Nice nose pick in that last pic.

    Comment by AlexO — August 10, 2010 @ 1:29 pm

  18. I gotta get off the board so I have time to run with you guys.

    Comment by FXF — August 10, 2010 @ 1:06 pm

    Some of us are able to multi-task at conventions, F.X. And, in addition to the Board and the running of the Primates, I was also wrangling presentations.

    Comment by Neal Traven — August 10, 2010 @ 3:03 pm

  19. Your recap was fun to read Aaron. Being a stat geek I find the interesting ones such as BABIP and VORP to be beneficial, but I’m struggling with this new Pitch-F/X business. While it would be cool to know that stuff, I can’t imagine watching the game and thinking about the trajectory of a fly ball and if that even matters when the out is recorded or not recorded. Or caring how fast Jacoby Ellsbury got off first base in his attempt to steal second, cause he most likely will get there anyway. Seems interesting, I’m excited for it, but it might be a bit much.

    Comment by Kurt. E — August 10, 2010 @ 10:33 pm

  20. “i am really pissed off that the twins are bringing up glen perkins to pitch in a crucial game against the sox. this after monday off.bump the starters. am i missing somethig?”

    The situation as I understand it is:

    1) Slowey’s elbow hurts

    2) Pavano and Liriano were called into the managers office seperately and asked if they could both go on normal rest so they could both pitch the Sox series. They both asked for the status quo and extra days rest.

    3) Nick Blackburn on short rest was an option.

    4) So was burning down Target Field.

    5) The most major league ready AAA pitcher available was Monsieur Perkins. He of the 6+ AAA ERA. But he has been doing good lately.

    6) So he has that going for him.

    7) Which is nice.

    Comment by Karl — August 10, 2010 @ 11:42 pm

  21. Tell me you didn’t eat all that food on the plate. Yes that was a definite knockout. You got your moneys worth there. Looked to be enough food for a family of 4.
    Regards,
    Brian

    Comment by Brian — August 11, 2010 @ 9:36 am

  22. The elderly man who fell asleep has a sleep disorder.

    Comment by Mark Kanter — August 11, 2010 @ 1:53 pm

  23. I think I can afford to make the drive to Los Angeles next year from the Bay Area. Atlanta was out of my price range.

    Anyhow, keep up the good work. I’m hoping to follow the trail you’ve blazed from blogging to mainstream baseball writing on a professional basis.

    Comment by Graham Womack — August 11, 2010 @ 9:05 pm

  24. I totally agree. I went to my first SABR convention in 2002 in Boston and I haven’t missed one since. I’ve been too poor to eat and drink like the champ you are, though, for a while. Maybe by next year. :-)

    Comment by Cecilia Tan — August 12, 2010 @ 1:35 am

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