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Baseball 'Geeks' Gather In Phoenix For Annual SABR Convention

SABR Analytics Conference
(Photo courtesy of the Society for American Baseball Research)
Aaron Boone (from left) of ESPN, Eno Sarris of FanGraphs, Dallas Braden of ESPN, and Mike Ferrin of the MLB Radio Network discuss the analytics of baseball hitting and pitching during the SABR Analytics Conference in Phoenix on Thursday.

Spring training is in full swing, and with Major League Baseball’s opening day just around the corner, a group of baseball researchers is holding its annual convention in downtown Phoenix. And they're proving that there is much, much more to being a baseball fan than the crack of the bat, that peanuts and Cracker Jack.

This is a conference about baseball, but the Hyatt Regency ballroom is not exactly packed with athletes.

"My name's Scott Spratt, and I work for Baseball Info Solutions. And today we’re gonna talk to you about splitting range, positioning, and throwing and the separate components of runs saved. It’s actually made up of nine different component measurements," said Spratt.

This is the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR) and Scott Spratt is on the podium running a slide show with charts, graphs, percentages, probabilities — and lots and lots of numbers and lines.

SABR, which has been around since 1971, is big on preserving the history of the game, but its real claim to fame, popularized in a book and movie called "Moneyball." SABR created what’s known as sabermetrics: applying every conceivable stat, measurement, ratio and probability to a given player and team.

Runs, hits and errors? Passe. We’re talking OPS, FIP, xFIP, DRS, EQA, DIPS, and, fittingly, there’s even a pitching stat called NERD. It tries to figure out which pitcher will be the most aesthetically pleasing for a baseball fan to watch. It’s figured using standard deviations from a norm, strike percentages and a host of other equations.

"I’m Eno Sarris. I write baseball for FanGraphs and ESPN. I basically take the best in analytics research, the best numbers that are out there, and go ask the players about what they think of it," said Sarris.

Eno Sarris is well known in the research world. FanGraphs, by the way, is also is the group that came up with the NERD stat. Sarris is a self-described baseball geek. But he said his work is just as important to the as players as the researchers.  

I’ve learned not to use numbers (words) like rate and ratio, not because they’re not smart, they’re really smart, they just don’t use those words," Sarris said.

Dallas Braden pitched a perfect game on Mother’s Day 2010 while with the Oakland Athletics. It was only the 19th time ever that a pitcher had a game with no runs, hits, errors or walks.

"I don’t have pocket protector. I don’t have glasses that were broken in a swirly attempt. I don’t have any of that going on," said Braden.

Now, Braden is a TV analyst, and works with the numbers folks at SABR. Frankly, he does not fit in in this room, dressed in cargo shorts and ball cap wIth wild hair, and a thick beard to match, Braden says that there has to be a happy medium between how a player uses all the stats, and getting shoulder deep in numbers cranked out by the sabermetricians, who love the game, but have never played it.

"It’s ignorant to deny information, and it’s also ignorant to think that the only way to succeed is based on what the information says. But if I can go out there with a couple answers to the test on how this guy might feel during the game or he might feel during the situation, well now I’ve done myself a favor," he said.

Despite the perceived nerdiness, these guys are having a real impact on the game. Every team has a numbers guy in the front office now, which affects the way general managers and scouts choose their players.  And that's the part — paying attention to those numbers — that the sabermatricians really love.

The SABR conference runs through Saturday.

Mark Moran is KJZZ’s associate general manager of news and editorial strategy. He oversees all of the station’s news operations, which includes multiple bureaus in the Valley and state as well as one in Mexico City and Hermosillo, Sonora.Moran began his radio career in Alaska covering the timber and mining industries as well as local politics, which every entry-level reporter should have to endure. He was news director in Valdez, Alaska, shortly after the Exxon oil spill, which dumped 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound. He covered the environmental aftermath as well as the regulation changes that happened in the oil tanker industry as a result.From Alaska, Moran went to the Midwest, where he established the State Capitol Bureau for Iowa Public Radio. In addition to covering state politics and the Legislature, he reported on two Iowa Caucuses and other aspects of presidential politics.From Iowa, it was on to the desert Southwest, where Moran became news director at KJZZ. During his time here, he has reported extensively on border and immigration issues, the environment and cultural issues. As associate GM, Moran created the Fronteras Desk, which focuses on change, demographics and border and immigration issues in the Southwest. He has also established a host of other desks for KJZZ, including Science, Innovation, Health and Technology, Business and Education.