PHOENIX — I write this column with a headache. I went to a meeting of the SABR Analytics Conference here Thursday night. The throbbing may never stop.
SABR stands for Society for American Baseball Research. It is basically an organization that turns a child's game into calculus. A huge room at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication on the downtown campus of Arizona State was nearly full, so my cynicism must be misplaced.
Picture a room with Billy Beane and 300 of his closest friends. From this came "Moneyball," and that was a pretty good movie.
SABR is the organization that has, among other things, brought us these measurements:
OPS: On-base percentage plus slugging percentage.
VORP: Value over replacement player.
And my personal favorite:
BABIP: Batting average on balls in play.
In this group, things such as runs, hits, RBIs and batting average are blase. If a player scores a lot of runs, does he do it in early innings or late? Has he come home more on 2-1 pitches or 2-2? On close plays at the plate, does he hook slide left or right?
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Inquiring minds want to know. At least these inquiring minds.
I came to hear the main speaker, Angels General Manager Jerry Dipoto. I had wanted to hear him speak in an interview situation, as in, I ask and he answers. But he's a busy man and I understood that much better after Thursday night, seeing those graphs and charts he apparently deals with every day.
I didn't have much to ask. Just the basic journalism on subjects readers who buy tickets and watch the Angels on TV seem interested in. Maybe a sentence or two on why Torii Hunter had to go when there was obviously plenty of money in the signing pot (Exhibit A: Josh Hamilton); or worry among fans that Mike Trout will be a less-than-happy player at minimum wage; or about how he and Manager Mike Scioscia get along.
Dipoto is, after all, the custodian of a sacred Southern California trust, and his take on it is as sacred as that trust. For now, we'll have to assume his stance on those subjects hasn't changed:
Hunter had to go because Vernon Wells and his big contract couldn't.
Trout loves to play the game, will be fine and will get more than his share soon.
He and Scioscia get along fine. Maybe not snap-towels-in-the-shower buddies, but just fine.
So Thursday night was my best (only) Dipoto viewing of the spring, and it was impressive. He is well-spoken and young enough at 44 that, had Charlie Hough taught him the knuckleball, he might still be on the mound, not in an office.
Of all the statistical gobbledygook flying around, Dipoto, though a disciple of SABR analytics, a.k.a. sabermetrics, championed the retention of the human element in what is, and always will be, a game played by humans.
"The live eyes [of scouts] do mean something," he said.
He was realistic about the role these statistics play. He said that, despite all the written material, video presentations and discussions of other teams' tendencies, "There is always gonna be an element of the team that says, 'Aw, I'm just going to go out and play.'"
In my experience, that "element" never exceeds 25 players.
This conference was sponsored by Bloomberg, the news service that developed the massive statistical approach that showed the public it will never understand the stock market. Now Bloomberg is hoping to do the same with baseball.
Bloomberg provides major league teams, undoubtedly for a nice fee, reams of statistics to help guide decisions about which utility infielder to bring up from Pawtucket. During the session, Bill Squadron, head of Bloomberg Sports, was asked who the other target audiences are. He said other professional leagues, fans and general consumers. And he said there might be a market "in places in Europe where people can gamble on sports."
Good thing there isn't much illegal sports gambling in this country or Bloomberg might be seen as aiding and abetting.
Squadron spoke the SABR language perfectly. He showed pitching charts that looked like beehives. He said technology was always changing, that there are "new, faster platforms." That "you have to keep iterating."
My first question to Scioscia next time I see him will be: "Are you iterating?"
He'll probably slug me.
As Scioscia would say, that's all I got. Besides, I need aspirin.