Rattling SABRs in Seattle — Part I

I had a genuine blast during my three days at the SABR Convention in Seattle — the first I’ve ever attended — spending hours talking baseball with other likeminded nuts, listening to presentations and panel discussions, and even taking in a ballgame. Most of the people I met were familiar names if not faces; it was as though my bookshelf, email box, and bookmarks lists sprung to life with an outstretched hand: “Nice to finally meet you!” I doubt I can do justice to the richness of the experience or the sensory overload of being among so many friendly, intelligent, enthusiastic folks, but what follows here and in the next couple of posts are some of the highlights.

I’d already registered and picked up my packet of goodies on Wednesday afternoon, getting the lay of the land by taking a bus downtown from my brother’s place out in Tangletown after lunching with Bruce Taylor of Fantasy Baseball Index, the magazine I wrote for back in December and then again during spring training. I’d slept in, missing the Opening Ceremonies, but arrived in time for the Poster Presentations, in which 10 different members presented charts, graphs, photos and such on various topics.

Still a bit groggy and reserved, drinking the worst hotel coffee available in the entire Pacific Northwest, I was pleased to start my day with a few familiar faces. Mike Carminati of Mike’s Baseball Rants, whom I’ve met a few times between New York and Philadelphia, had a series of graphs on the Hall of Fame entitled “Like School on Saturday: Reviewing the Hall by Class.” Mike’s work examined the Hall’s standards from a historical standpoint, using Win Shares to trace the valuation of the average Hall of Famer and how the institution’s standards have evolved over time. Sean Forman of Baseball-Reference.com presented information on the Wikipedia-like B-R.com Bullpen, “A Collaborative Enyclopedia of Baseball History.” Familiar with that portion of the site, I spent more time catching up with Sean and discussing the awesome stat site’s success and the possibility of designing a new banner for it (I did the old Babe Ruth one, which now survives as a link banner). I also met Sean’s lovely wife and infant son. Greg Spira, who doggedly convinced me to join SABR a few years ago, was nearby, and we spent a good chunk of time re-connecting and talking about various projects and SABRs past.

One of the most interesting poster presentations came from a trio of gentlemen I didn’t know beforehand, Steve Weingarden, Christian Resick and Daniel Whitman (I met two of the three but can’t remember which ones). Titled “Why is THAT Executive a Hall of Famer? Have You Seen His Leadership Stats?” the authors attempted to assess and quantify the accomplishments and leadership attributes of the dozen or so team-related execs in the Hall, including Bill Veeck, Branch Rickey, Warren Giles, and George Weiss (pioneers and commissioners who never worked for a team weren’t included). I can’t recall who came out on top; Veeck was fairly high, Negro League founder Rube Foster even higher, and George Weiss was by far the lowest-ranked. I spent a few minutes with one of the authors discussing where Walter O’Malley would rank were he enshrined (Maury Brown made the case for the oft-vilified O’Malley over at Baseball Prospectus recently; more on him later).

From the posters I toured through an exhibit of Pacific Northwest baseball memorabilia (not just the Pilots, but various Seattle, Tacoma, Vancouver, and Spokane teams from the past century-plus, but alas, no Walla Walla Padres) curated by Dave Eskenazi. Later during the convention I was tipped off to look out for the semi-obscured bogus Seattle Pilots business card of Allan “Bud” Selig, next to a real business card of another Pilots exec. Selig’s job title: “Franchise Thief.” I nearly doubled over laughing, and so did the other guys to whom I showed it.

After grabbing a quick bite for lunch, I met a handful of bloggers whose names are familiar: Aaron Gleeman and Ben Jacobs of The Hardball Times, Matt Rauseo, Joe Dimino of the Hall of Merit, and my namesake, Chris Jaffe (no relation; the creator of the now-defunct Run Support Index blog). Soon we were watching Chris’ presentation: “Evaluating Managers: Which Men Get the Most and Which Get the Least Out of Their Players.” Chris used five different means of exploring that question, comparing Pythagorean records versus actual, and the performances deltas of hitters and pitchers under said managers. As with most of these presentations, I can’t do it justice with my spotty memory, but I recall Joe McCarthy coming out on top by a wide margin, that both Casey Stengel and Connie Mack were hampered in the overall rankings byong, unproductive stretches fo their careers (Stengel scored well with the bad Braves and Dodgers teams but lousy with the Mets; Mack simply had too many years where winning was a secondary goal) and that the managers with the longest careers (2,000 or more games) tended to have the largest per year impacts (on the order of 1-2 games), while managers with the shortest tenures (less than 500 games) had the least (the paper on which Chris’ presentation is based starts here).

Following a break for some liquid refreshments (a bit early at 1:30 PM, but when in Rome…) we returned for Anthony Giacalone’s account of the creation of the Mariners, “‘Let the bleeps talk to me. I’m a seller, too!”: Relocation, Expansion and the Battle to Bring Major League Baseball Back to Seattle.” His was a complex narrative involving Charley O. Finley’s Oakland A’s, the Chicago White Sox, the Messersmith-McNally decision, Bill Veeck, Bowie Kuhn, Congress, and the rivalry between the two leagues; Giacalone followed the tale’s twists and turns an engaging fashion.

More refreshments, then back for Vince Genarro’s well-polished “The Dollar Value of the Last Piece of the Puzzle,” a look at the economics of the player who puts a team over the top. Like Nate Silver in Baseball Between the Numbers‘ chapter, “Is Alex Rodriguez Overpaid?” Genarro noted that within a very narrow range, the value of an additional win increases disproportionately due to the postseason revenue at stake, such that a team on the cusp of making the playoffs has the most to gain.

Following that, I sat through three presentations in a row. “Double Duty” Carminati served up “Welcome to the Halls of Relief: An Historical Review of Relief Pitching” which, in addition to throwing an overwhelming blur of data at the audience, concluded with a fantastic suggestion that the Hall create a special committee to review the cases of various relievers throughout history and select qualified oness for induction (screw the BBWAA and their inability to get it right on Rich Gossage). Phil Birnbaum asked “Do Players Outperform in Their Free-Agent Year?” (no, not to any great extent). Maury Brown and Dan Fox — two of the newest Baseball Prospectus authors — presented “The 2006 CBA and the Battles Within It”, reviewing the various potential sticking points in the upcoming labor negotiations and concluding that this time around, there’s a slimmer chance of a work stoppage than ever. The gregarious Brown did all the talking, actually, while the quiet Fox worked behind the scenes for a fine presentation.

With enough PowerPoint under my belt for the day, I retired to the bar, where I met up with fellow New Yorker Mark Lamster, whose Albert Spalding book I’ve been touting in this space. We caught up on the Yankees, bemoaning the state of their rotation and injured outfielders, he introduced me to Brown, and then we headed down to an author signing at Elliot Bay Bookstore by way of a reception at Ebbets Field Flannels.

The Elliot Bay event was a highlight, with the following panel:

Jeff Angus, offering up Management by Baseball, a book presenting lessons from the national pastime and their applications in the business world. Even to somebody like me, whose eyes glaze over at the thought of working in some corporate cubicle or attending a management seminar, Angus is an engaging, accessible and persuasive speaker. He had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand as he described his a-ha moment of combining baseball with his consulting skills: an unsuccessful steal of second base bay the Mariners’ lumbering Jeff Burroughs as ordered by the worst manager in the history of history, Maury Wills. Watching him, I had the vision of a man quite capable of convincing the Eskimos to diversifying their ice-based economy by applying lessons learned from the 2005 White Sox. Or something like that.

• Mark Armour and Dave Eskenazi, presenting Rain Check, their convention-related history book covering Pacific Northwest baseball. Armour, the co-author of the award-winning Paths to Glory: How Great Baseball Teams Got That Way, edited the collection and wrote a terrific perspective piece on the hoopla surrounding Jim Bouton’s Ball Four. Eskenazi’s photos and memorabilia gave the book its visual punch; Safeco Field even has murals of his treasures.

• Rob Neyer, speaking about his Big Book of Baseball Blunders. As he’d done in New York a couple weeks ago, the immodestly modest Rob went straight into Q&A mode instead of touting his book.

• Jonah Keri, flying the Baseball Prospectus flag for Baseball Between the Numbers, which he edited. Jonah focused on BBTN’s most provocatively-titled chapter (one of two he wrote for the book), “Why Doesn’t Billy Beane’s Shit Work in the Playoffs?”

Following the panel discussion and book signings, I joined all of the authors except Angus in heading to a nearby restaurant for burgers, onion rings, and other fried goodies. Also joining us was Armour’s co-author on Paths to Glory, Dan Levitt. The most memorable portion or our conversation was Armour relating the sad tale of a SABR member attempting to enter by hand over 100 years of baseball data in the service of his own particular (and understandably unfinished) encyclopedia. Brutal.

Back at the hotel bar, Armour and I joined a group that included Stuart Shea, who edited my stuff for Fantasy Baseball Index and who wrote Wrigley Field: The Unauthorized Biography, Cecilia Tan, author of The 50 Greatest Yankee Games and The 50 Greatest Red Sox Games, and their significant others. I’ve corresponded with both Stuart and Cecilia, the latter for several years, but this was the first time I’d met them too. No problem; I instantly felt at home bending elbows around a table that included six of us drinking for the cycle — beer, port, scotch, brandy, chocolate martini, and wine. Somehow our conversation turned to an All-Ugly team (current players only) and when we tired of that, an All-Domestic Violence team. Sadly, the latter took us hardly a couple of minutes to fill.

I hung out at the bar until about 1 AM, cracking the game with my new friends for a couple of hours, overwhelmed at all the people I’d met and hung out with in just one day at the convention. Finally, I excused myself and grabbed a cab back to my brother’s place, where I caught a few Z’s before rising early… to be continued

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