Thorn: James most influential non-player

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* No one argued when John Thorn tagged Bill James as the most influential non-player in baseball with the exception of Henry Chadwick  at the SABR Analytics Conference in Phoenix, Az. …. 

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By C.J. Pentland

PHOENIX, Az. _ As MLB’s Official Historian and the author of several books, John Thorn knows a thing or two about baseball. So when he claimed at the SABR Analytics Conference last week that Bill James is the most influential non-player in the history of baseball – with the possible exception of Henry Chadwick – no one in the audience raised an eyebrow. Sure, he was talking to attendees of conference that revolved around sabermetrics, but it’s hard to find a baseball fan who can deny the lasting impact of James’ discoveries.

Earlier this month , the Society for American Baseball Research held their fourth annual Analytics Conference in Phoenix, bringing together baseball fans to discuss an analytics movement that continues to influence the way baseball is played and watched. Each attendee might not have had a strong background in numbers – myself, a history and English major, being one of them – but each was a fan, and through talks with some of the brightest minds in the game today, each came away with a new insight on the game of baseball.

Thorn’s comments came while seated next to individuals whose efforts helped make the conference’s existence possible. Pete Palmer, who invented a little statistic called OPS, sat to his left, sharing stories about how his new stats were deemed as too complicated back in the beginning. John Dewan, one of the men who can be thanked for the prevalence of shifts in today’s game, sat on the far right, while Dick Cramer sat to the right, touching on his influential work on the “clutch hitter.”

These four helped open up a baseball world full of numbers and decimal points, and out of it came new ways of evaluating talent and gaining a competitive advantage on and off the field. The presentations at the conference showed how that world of sabermetrics continues the grow, but a main theme over the weekend stressed how relationships play a key part in how those stats can best be shared and utilized by players and teams.

Curt Schilling talked during the conference’s first panel, and shared how he lugged VHS cassettes across the country in order to study opposing hitters and their tendencies. The video analysis was a tactic he learned from Tony Gwynn, but one that all players didn’t utilize. Now with MLB teams possessing analytics departments, the goal now is to provide players and managers with stats in a way that they can understand and use them to their advantage through adjustments.

During the Analytics on the Field panel with Eric Wedge, Eduardo Nunez, Keith Law, and moderator Buster Olney, the group mentioned sabrhow many hitters don’t want to know that much (Olney told a story of how Miguel Cabrera once said “Once [the pitcher] throws the first pitch, I know everything”). So a knowledge of the players becomes mandatory – understanding their patience, their intelligence, their retention – in order to figure out what to tell them and not overwhelm them with numbers. The players can’t just be told what to do; there has to be a clear and concise conversation that shows the player how the advanced stats can make them a better player.

Yet as said by Dave Stewart, the former pitcher and new general manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, players are “stubborn mules,” and their ego can get in the way of judgment. Instead of making the adjustment and hitting the other way, some hitters still want to prove a point and show they can hit it through a shift. Others still live by the home run and accumulate high strikeout rates in the process, to which former player John Kruk mentioned that the home run totals aren’t high enough to make up for the whiffs anymore.

The Baseball Ops crew panel – TJ Barra from the Mets, Sam Grossman from the Reds, and Zack Rosenthal from the Rockies – stated how there isn’t much of a stigma around the strikeout anymore, as players who grew up watching home runs want to duplicate the feat. As Schilling put it, players don’t really want to brag about how they’re good at numbers, and change is “emotionally difficult.”

Former outfielder Doug Glanville, Schilling and Kruk believe that new generations are becoming more aware of these new analytics through new technologies, and that many new players will recognize that they need to put the ball in play and learn to combat defensive shifts. Glanville stated how sabermetrics can help speed up adjustments, but the effort still has to be put in to make them.

The players can’t also feel like they are changing just to fit a numeric mold. Larry Baer, president/CEO of the San Francisco Giants, stressed how the players still control the human element, and Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa stated how managers can’t have their hands tied by always having to follow the numbers.

For many of the conference’s speakers, being able to form a relationship and communicate the info was a consensus key to success for teams. Baer said the most important relationship is the one between the manager and general manager, while Wedge stressed how managers and players need to form a trust in order to succeed over the course of an entire season. While it can be hard to get everyone on the same page, Wedge believes that the best organizations are the ones who communicate across all levels.

Yet beyond all the numbers, it was agreed that the best teams still have the best talent. Schilling said how even though pitchers know that Mike Trout struggles on pitches above the belt, they still need to execute that pitch – and as evidenced by Trout’s stats, he makes them pay when they don’t do that.

The Baseball Ops guys mentioned how teams may try to find guys to fit their system or ballpark, but in the end it all comes down to talent – players who can play and execute anywhere. Wedge echoed similar thoughts, saying that even if a player won’t buy into the system, skill always trumps.

Those themes skim the surface of all the other fascinating and enlightening information and ideas put forward over the weekend. Palmer, Kruk, and La Russa discussed the importance of an at-bat’s first pitch; Baer mentioned how the MLB is now a technology that must meet all their consumers’ needs; Jonathan Mayo and Jim Callis from MLB.com discussed the future of international players.

Research presentations put forward ideas such as a new Quality of Pitch metric – presented by Jason Wilson and Edmonton’s Jarvis and WayneGreiner – meant to better analyze a certain pitch by taking into account location, movement, and velocity. These were some of the best minds in baseball, all sharing wisdom and opening minds to new ways of thinking about the game.

Through all the amazing information put forward, the best part for me was witnessing the shared passion for baseball that fostered it all. When Palmer created OPS nearly 50 years ago, he didn’t do it solely to revolutionize the game – he was a baseball fan who wanted to enhance his love for the game. La Russa might not buy in fully to all the sabermetrics, but come the end of his interview he acknowledged that he admires the people in analytics since they love the game of baseball. And after the conference ended, it was hard to not love the game a little more after learning so much more about it.

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