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SABR 42 Panels, Morning of Friday August 2

Two panels this morning:
* Scouts & Front Office Panel
* Imagining Baseball Panel

Whew! Made it to the SABR Scouts panel! I was 5 minutes late thanks to loooong Starbucks line, but the panel were 5 minutes late starting. Perfect timing. (And the team at Starbucks was really crack, four on the register, including one just on pastry duty, and four baristas working the steam. I now have a Soy Green Tea Latte, Unsweetened, because you know I’m sweet enough.)

Now to the first panel. Here’s my transcript, typed on the fly as it went along:


Barry Bloom presiding. Introducing the legendary Roland Hemond (Diamondbacks now, formerlyWhite Sox, etc), Tom Tippett (director of information for the Red Sox), and Ian Levin (who is in analytics for the Mets and now is doing more international stuff with them). Tippett is one of the instrumental figures in building the analytics approach for the Red Sox.

Bloom: Roland, what do you do as Special Assistant for the GM with the Diamondbacks?

Hemond: Well, I get to come to the SABR convention. (*big laugh*) But I’m so grateful that SABR is now based in Phoenix and we’re able to work together. Anything I can do to help SABR is great.

Bloom: Tom, how about you.

Tippett: This is the 21st anniversary of the first SABR convention I attended. For 17-18 years my job at Diamond Mind was to model how players played and projected and evaluate things like outfielder throwing skill, effectiveness of bunting strategies and all that. I had to do it with no scouting reports. All we had was the play by play. When I started working with the Red Sox, I suddenly had access to all these professional scouting reports and i just ate it up. Part of my job now with the Sox is to computerize all the information, including digitizing thousands of scouting reports and making them available to run analytics on.

Bloom: Ian, just like I’d known Theo, and I worked 20 years in San Diego so I’m tied in with Padres history, I’m friendly and have known Sandy Alderson for many years, and Paul DePodesta was Dodgers GM when I first met him, and then he went to the Padres for a small set-off which is the Padre way… but you look like you just got bar mitzvahed. (*big laugh*) So what do you do?

Levin: I work very closely with Sandy and Paul and we’re building our own analytics platform. (Ian Levin said a lot more than that, but you know, I boil down these quotes to the essence. -ctan)

Bloom: (*tells a story about how Gossage got thrown out of a game and Marc Appleman and Barry Bloom were writers at the time both covering the game, that’s how long they go back together*). Tom, tell us about this three-way deal that round up with Jake Peavy in a Red Sox uniform.

Tippett: There’s not much to tell. We called up Chicago, said we want him, they said they wanted prospects, and done! (*big laugh*)

Bloom: But how did you know you wanted him?

Tippett: It started a few weeks ago when we started looking at our somewhat surprising success this year and looking at our needs. [Ben Cherington] called a meeting about a month before the trade deadline, and then he asked me and Bill James to do independent reviews of the team’s risk factors and not influence each other and send them right to him. We both concluded that a premium starter would have a lot of value to the team. We already knew we were missing our number one in Clay Buchholz but we weren’t sure when he would be back on the mound or whether he would continue his high level. So we identified the need, and then started scheduling out pro scouts to attend all the games of the pitchers we identified on our list of targets. So the days leading up to the trade deadline we had very current scouting reports and we had done a lot of statistical work on the starting pitcher market. We had identified him as out top priority. In the days leading up to the deadline we also got the medical records so our doctors could review them. By the time we get down to talking a possible deal, we had already done our homework. Our pro scouts had done the work about knowing his personality and we felt very very comfortable about this player. The negotiation process starts with the White Sox asking for the moon and us offering very little, and then we work toward the middle. One of our scouts knew that the White Sox were very interested in Avisail Garcia. And we are particularly deep at that position (shortstop), and we knew with the BioGenesis thing hanging, we knew the Tigers might want a shortstop. Tangentially, it was a very weird trade deadline this year with the BioGenesis stuff hanging over our heads. It wasn’t talked about very much but it was in all our minds. It was a very strange force in the process this year.

Bloom: How tough was it to give up a guy like Iglesias who you nurtured and who hit crazily well once he came up to the majors?

Tippett: Dombrowski would have to speak for himself on his end, but Peralta’s name had been out there for a while (regarding BioGenesis), but we also thought they might be looking for a long term solution, too, since he might be a free agent at the end of the year, too. So maybe BioGenesis played a smaller role in that particular player to that team. Iglesias has an interesting background. He’s a Cuban player so he didn’t have the usual career path, who performed very well in the field, has some of the quickest more remarkable hands, amazing how quick he can get the ball out of his glove and the velocity he gets on his throws, and the question as every knows is was he going to hit or not. But he has an unusual career path (from Cuba) and he suffered a couple of injuries that may have affected his performance. So is his performance track record the true evaluation? We have our own scouting reports where we send scouts to evaluate our own players. Then we had 6 weeks where everything just fell in for him. Every line drive fell in front of an outfielder and every soft grounder was slow enough to beat out by half a step. How do you figure out where that’s going to settle down to? If it settled to .315 that would be one thing, whereas .270 would still be a very nice player. We realized he would have a lot of value as a major league shortstop, but to get something valuable you have to give something valuable. We have Stephen Drew, and we have Xander Bogaerts, so we had depth at that position and decided to give him up.

Bloom: Roland, can you talk about the Ian Kennedy situation? He won 21 games, then wasn’t so good, then had a beanball war that they say woke up the Dodgers, and now the Dodgers made up 11 games and are in first place while Ian Kennedy just wasn’t that good again. So you traded him to the Padres for a very good reliever and some other stuff.

Hemond: He’s a fine young man and we’re rooting for him to have a good career, but he went a stretch where he didn’t win a game in ten consecutive starts. He was getting hit hard in the early innings. He’s going to a ballpark that’s suited for pitching, the fences are farther than in Phoenix and he might turn it around there. Time will tell. He makes me think about Curt Schilling and Steve Finley. When we moved Schilling to Houston he wasn’t yet as studious about the game, but we were able to get him back later after he had grown and matured. Like Kevin Towers was saying, you used to make a deal at a cocktail party and close it in five minutes. Now you have to do so much more analytics. I feel sorry for Grady Little because Posada hit that line drive and what if a center fielder had caught that ball? Would Grady Little still be managing the Red Sox now? (*some groans from the audience*) I welcome any information they can give me, but I still have to make my own decisions. I would say that to Tony LaRussa, and Tony’s situation might have been entirely different if Jim Rice’s ball had left the ballpark. There is a lot of luck involved in our game and just when you think you have it figured out, it comes back to bite you. So you gather as much information as you can. I’m beyond needing the information now because I’m not the one who calls the shots. Kevin Towers needs the information now. The Yankees used to have Ian Kennedy. Players are human beings. That’s the tough part of managing, when a player has a turn. When they change their style, different grips on the ball, I remember them convincing Chuck Tanner to start, pitching 25 times on two days rest. Now a manager would get fired for doing that. He might still be pitching today though if he didn’t take a line drive off his knee. Am I going on too long?

Bloom: Roland, you talk as long as you want.

Hemond: Sometimes I forget which decade I’m talking about!

Bloom: Talking about that Grady Little game, if Aaron Boone doesn’t hurt his knee in the offseason, the Yankees don’t go out and get A-Rod. Look at that trade where the Yankees got Granderson, where they gave up Kennedy to the Diamondbacks and Austin Jackson to the Tigers, and the Tigers got Max Scherzer… in the end with Kennedy gone the Diamondbacks don’t have much to show for that trade. But Ian, tell us about the trade with the Giants for Zack Wheeler who is a big part of the Mets five-year plan to rebuild.

Levin: It’s always interesting when you have a guy who is going to be a free agent. You identify the teams who are most likely to need a guy of that caliber. We ID’d a couple of teams who seemed to have a need. The Giants seemed like a good target and they gave us a list of guys they were willing to give up. Then you go out and get performance-based analysis and projections on the players. Would the Giants do that deal again? They might, since it did help them at the time, but in the long term it didn’t happen to work out for them. This year we had some pending free agents like Marlon Byrd, we went through the same process as we did with Beltran, where you look at what value he has for you the rest of the season and what value you can get back, and this year we decided to hang on to him. Every kind of decision the front office makes, it’s all about information collecting and processing. One of the things I get to do with my background in scouting is to get together all the information from all sides. The more information you have the better decision you can make. Many moving parts are involved.

Bloom: Here’s a question for all three of you. For example, the Red Sox, you might see a guy who you want to get you over the top, but you can’t get him, while other teams are more often sellers. To me the real trade deadline is September 1st, because guys go through waivers. What do you think about this rent a player idea?

Tippett: I think part of your question had to do with who are buyers and who are sellers at the deadline. Obviously there are team in lots of different situations. The long run versus short run tradeoff is different. We’re obviously in a spot this year where we are in line for a playoff spot and w have to seize the opportunity. You can’t say we’re going to be really good two years from now so we’ll put everything into planning for then. What if you three main starters all go down? Last year we weren’t exactly buyers or sellers. I think categorizing teams that way isn’t that useful. You could be both because anything you can do to improve your team you have to take, whether that’s giving up guys or getting them. Sometimes the rent a player makes sense. It made more sense before when the free agent compensation rules were different. We specifically were looking to add players this year who would have value beyond this season. We could have gone after pitchers different from the one we got. But I try not to pigeonhole teams as buyers or sellers. We need to be flexible.

Levin: Biggest change is the second wildcard. I think there used to be more of a line between buyers and sellers and more teams fall in the middle. It’s a lot murkier. Some teams are looking to buy but there is more emphasis on the long term since they don’t know if they’re going anywhere.

Bloom: My question to Dave (Phillies CEO) yesterday was if you’re a seller, that means you’re a buyer too because now you have to fill in a hole. Why would the Giants break up a championship team?

Levin: It’s not as simple as just a single player. It’s all about how they fit into the season and the individual components useful for keeping the team going in the right direction, non-objective factors have to be considered.

Bloom: Should the deadline just be August 31st? Give more teams time to make decisions and be closer to the end of the season?

Levin: That’s a good thought. I think the league might be better served to have it back a little bit?

(one of the panelists phone’s rings)

Bloom: That’s a $50 fine to the commissioner’s office! Okay, now we’ll take questions from the audience.

Audience: Many of us are involved in trades in fantasy baseball. What’s your favorite negotiating tactic?

Tippett: Well, Ian and I are not involved in the actual negotiation, but we’re often in the room while the GM is making his deal on his cell phone. I think the main thing is patience. When one side puts an artificial deadline on the deal to spur you to move, sometimes you have to wait because them pressuring you is to their advantage. Avoid making mistakes by not allowing yourself to be put in a time box. You may miss some chances if they really mean it and someone else meets their price by 4pm tomorrow, but maybe it comes and goes and then you get to have another round of negotiation.

Bloom: My mother always told me when you buy a car don’t just walk once, walk twice.

Audience: Roland, I heard a story about how you got a certain shortstop from the Padres.

Hemond: Wayne Schafer had scouted Ozzie Guillen in A ball, so we wanted him, but I think they cheated a little and put a little weight on him that he didn’t have. I went down to meet him after the trade and he was sitting by the trainers table with no shirt on and I got scared, because he was built like me! I went back and told my people “I’m afraid we traded for a jockey!” But of course he worked out fine, rookie of the year and all.

Audience: I’m curious in our media-rich world it’s your job (Bloom) to write about every possible thing, while the teams are trying to keep things under wraps… Do you ever look at the deal you went through and you either say yeah that’s right or no the writers got it wrong?

Tippett: I am struck by two things that are polar opposites. On the one hand sometimes they hit it on the nose and we have no idea how they got the information, and other times like last week the press in Boston had us trading Will Middlebrooks to several teams and none of that was ever serious at all. Maybe sometimes it’s teams starting rumors or agents trying to pump up the value of their players.

Audience: About big market teams, if you could combine the player development record of the Tampa Bays of the world with the resources of a big market team like the Yankees, you could have a real dynasty. Big market teams can be pushed into short term decisions, I know, but what’s your thought on that?

Tippett: It’s a huge problem for large market teams. The Phillies have been so good for so long nobody wants to hit the reset button. There are so many parts of building a team including the amateur draft, international scouting, etc. But if you have a short term need you may overpay. In those situations the nature of the marketplace is you overpay. Other times the rules are set up to distribute the talent evenly and encourage more parity, and more of the smaller and mid market teams are getting aggressive about keeping their young talent. Ten years ago it was commonplace for 7 or 8 teams to sell off their best young players because they were getting expensive in arbitration and teams like ours could scoop them up easily. They’re not selling them off anymore and we’re having to work harder.

Bloom: I think we have to wrap this up, we’re out of time. Thank you so much for being here today!


Next up, the “Imagining Baseball” panel, moderated by John Thorn. Official description: “Imagining Baseball” is a panel to discuss the game as it is played between the ears–by a novelist, or a fantasy baseball player, a board-game expert, or an obsessed fan. For those who love baseball, the game is never over. The novelist is Eric Rolfe Greenberg, author of The Celebrant; the fantasy player and Original Rotisserian is ESPN’s Steve Wulf; the board-game expert is Dr. Mark W. Cooper, who built the game’s greatest collection; representing the obsessed fans of SABR is moderator John Thorn, the official historian of MLB.

Thorn: We are being sponsored today by the National Museum of American Jewish History here in Philadelphia, and so accordingly we have four Jews up here. (*big laugh*) I promise it won’t only be Jews telling Jokes today. You have to go to YouTube for that. (*more laughter*). This is the 100th anniversary of the publication of the great Casey at the Bat. DeWolf Hopper once interrupted a performance to read the poem because members of the Giants and White Stockings were in the audience. (Aside: check out this blog entry with photos about Wallack’s Theater in New York, the site of this: “In 1888 the auditorium was the scene of the presentation of the National League pennant to the Brooklyn Giants. Among the entertainments that evening was DeWolf Hopper’s second public recitation of “Casey at the Bat.” -ctan)

Thorn: Eric, what do you want people to know about you besides you wrote The Celebrant?

Eric: I am fine with it staying just that. People are invariably disappointed that I’m not some Jewish baseball Dostoevsky.

Thorn: Dostoevsky wasn’t Jewish? (*laughter*) But really, tell us more.

Eric: I am convinced that I saw Honus Wagner play shortstop. I don’t mean it as a fancy of a fiction writer. I used to go to the Old Timers Game at Yankee Stadium and they used to have opponents from other teams play in their Old Timers Game, they were the only team that had such a thing then. I know I saw in mufti not in uniform the introductions of players like Grover Cleveland Alexander and Cy Young. I know I saw Frank “Home Run” Baker, the hero of the 1912 World Series. But I believe I saw Honus Wagner in uniform playing shortstop. Now if one of you SABR folks digs into the Yankees archives and find out who played in those games, PLEASE DON’T TELL ME. It’s a much much better story that I don’t know for sure. That’s the power of imagination. We have no pictures of Ken Keltner’s amazing play (that ended Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak). If it happened today it would be printed on cheap china and be on sale that night. But it’s something that now only exists in imagination. All hail imagination and all hail baseball.

Thorn: Mark, would you wish to tell us more about you than you have a basement or attic full of games?

Mark: I consider myself other than this OCD person who acquired this collection. I consider myself an ambassador of baseball. I know I’m preaching to the choir here. Baseball is life. I played baseball my whole life, in college , up to age 50, then I coached my children’s teams, and I had a 30 year career working at baseball fantasy camps in the American and National leagues. But also the fact that there’s this timelessness. What drew me to my board games, there’s no clock in baseball, and there’s no clock in board games. And childhood is what baseball is about. And childhood and this cosmic wholeness and the trans-generational thing that baseball has, how do we continue this so that the next generations appreciate this great game? I took it upon myself to coach my son and his friends, they’re like 27 now and they’ll remember when they were 6 years old and got this hit. It was amazing to me they did it but every week we would go over one rule and we would learn one historical thing. Bob Feller or Hank Greenberg or whatever. It’s incumbent on us to pass the baton and that’s what I’ve tried to do all my life.

Thorn: I think childhood has no clock. Especially for SABR members. (*laughter*)

Steve: Well I’ve been covering baseball for a long time. I was working for SI and I was in the Yankees clubhouse. Pete Sheehy the ancient clubhouse guy came in and we stared talking about the weather and all that, and I finally got up the nerve to say Pete, you kew Babe Ruth, what was he really like. And Pete looked around to make sure no one was listening and quietly said to me, “he never flushed the toilet.” (*laughter*) The postscript to this is my relative was renovating an old house in Sudbury which had formerly been Ruth’s residence. And he called me up and said which would you rather have, Babe Ruth’s bathtub or his toilet? So that’s how now I am the owner of Babe Ruth’s… bathtub. (*big laughs*)

Thorn: Thanks for elevating the tone here. (*laughter*) Eric, how did you choose your protagonist who had a hero in Christy Mathewson?

Eric: Pee Wee Reese was my hero. When I was quite young I asked Reese for an autograph and he picked me up in his arms and said are you here by yourself? No, I’m here with my brother. My brother who could reduce me instantly to tears by telling me Reese had been traded to Cincinnati. Baseball was everywhere in those days. In the bars they would be marking the plays on the wall, or you’d go down to Madison Square Garden and watch them moving player cutouts around on the billboard, or wire reports would be read off. In the United States it’s everywhere, and baseball soaks into us from the ground up.

Thorn: Mark, what made you love games? How important was realism? Is it the baseball that drew you to them?

Mark: The first boardgame was an 1843 thing called The Mansion of Happiness, sort of like Candyland with virtues and vice. With the urbanization with the United States and the advent of leisure time, the growth of baseball and the growth of boardgames happened at the same time. The parlor became the oasis. Board games became a way for people to learn about baseball. Back in the 1860s one of the first board games created was pentagonal prior to home plate being that shape. But my passion is the history of baseball, and these board games that were created would have things like “catch it on a bound, you’re out,” seven balls were a walk, the beautiful chromolithographic technique that came about in 1860 and 1870s to make these beautiful images also taught the populace about baseball. In 1886 there’s the first player-endorsed game. There’s one in 1889 that commemorated a baseball world tour. It was about dice and spinners and luck. It wasn’t until the simulation games that it became more realistic, but it still grew with the game.

Thorn: Steve, what explains the need to visit the hall of fame or the play vintage recreation games?

Steve: I’m a hopeless romantic when it comes to the game. It’s changed drastically and yet it has remained the same. Because of the geometry of baseball, because of the rules, it has been able to evolve and take in all these incredible developments and improvements in physical conditioning. Runners run faster but fielders field faster too. Pitchers throw harder but batters swing faster. I think that’s what upsets people about the Steroid Era, because it upset the natural evolution of the game. I think what draws people to Cooperstown is imagining what seeing Honus Wagner was like at his prime. You see it at the turn of THIS century so you can easily imagine what it was like at the LAST century. When I was at ESPN The Magazine, we used to have a back page. One time we created a house out of home plate, using the pine tar rag as the smoke coming out of the chimney and bubble gum for the windows, and that’s the draw, baseball is home.

Mark: That last line in Field of Dreams, where he says “Dad, do you want to have a catch,” I cry every time I see it. My children had never seen me cry before that.

Eric: I don’t think of The Celebrant as a baseball novel. I think of it as a religious novel. Baseball is a setting, but it’s about hero worship and religious symbolism. When I read Eight Men Out by Eliot Asinof, I was struck right between the eyes, by the image of Mathewson, back from the war, dying from his illness, sitting on high next to Fullerton, making marks in his scorecard, judging the players for any questionable play, and there was his name, Christy Christy Christy… Christ. So I thought there might be a novel there. A writing teacher told me once I should be a writer and ruin my life (*laughter*), and she also told me that a tragedy starts in prosperity and ends in catastrophe. That’s Mathewson’s life. It’s a tragedy.

Thorn: What happens when you love the artifacts of the game more than the game itself?

Mark: Well, the first sim game was created, and from that embryo came All Star Baseball, Ethan Allen, and they all grew from there. That sim game I appreciate so much, but because I played the game and coach it and do it in three dimensions with the testosterone rush of being between the white lines and totally focused… I don’t have the passion for those sim games. I didn’t include APBA in my book but I went to talk at an APBA conference where I told them I didn’t have room for it. In 1983 Randy Hundley started this fantasy camp for the Cubs, so this friend of mine pitched it to the Phillies, and I started then to work at the camps. My job is sort of the throw BP and keep the book and so on, and I got to sit in the locker room with these icons listening to their stories. Stuff that has never been published. I did the Phillies in 1985 and Richie Ashburn talks about Ted Williams and Stan Musial standing behind the cage talking hitting at an All Star Game. And the next thing you know all these guys are talking hitting, DiMaggio is throwing in some tips… If that were taped today you could have the best book on hitting ever. Hearing Ray Boone about Ted Williams last at bat. Ray was his roommate and went to him and said you have to take a curtain call, and Williams saying “F— those beaneaters.”

Thorn: Reflect on the original Rotisserie League and the mediocre French restaurant where it all began?

Steve: My current team is terrible. But it does have a cool name: Sheep’s Clothing. But I do remember at the 1980 baseball meetings in Dallas, December 7, 1980, Dan Okrent telling me about it. I remember the date because the next day John Lennon was assassinated. It was an epic winter meetings. Bruce Sutter was traded. I met Dan Okrent and he said our league is full up, but we’re starting an AL version, an Italian Kitchen version, but then someone dropped out of the NL, and I inherited a terrible team. I only kept one player, my bullpen was Woody Fryman and Stan Bahnsen, but since the rotisserie league was full of all these people in publishing, editors and so forth, and they were all great self-promoters, so the word got out quickly. My first full year was the strike-shortened year and amazingly I won! And people thought because I was a baseball writer I knew something special. Well, it was the last time I won. With the help of FX Flinn we published a book about it. I was always afraid that the players would find out about it, though. I thought they would think it was demeaning that people would “own” them, and such. And one day at the batting cage this huge shadow loomed up behind me and it was Dale Murphy. And he asked me, “How’s your rotisserie team?” I was floored by this! I asked if he wanted to join the league, actually, and he said it was against Mormon principles, but he was interested in it! Nowadays it’s so open that people who are in my league regularly tweet at the players that they “own.”

Thorn: And now questions from the audience.

Audience: Why can’t we go back to the 154 game schedule and have the full playoff? The one-game playoff seems unfair.

Eric: I like the one game playoff. I think it’s fair to test a team under all circumstances, they have to win a one game playoff, a five game series, and a seven game series.

Thorn: I like the one game playoff because it restores the important of winning the division.

(Okay, there were more comments from the audience, but I had to pause in my typing to actually try to drink the soy green tea latte that was now mostly cold two hours after I got it, and to eat the blueberry scone I got to tide me over until the lunch banquet. Larry Bowa will be the banquet speaker. I’m not sure if I’ll have a chance to transcribe his remarks. I may tweet them. If you really want to hear everything, of course… you should come to next year’s convention and hear for yourself! Next year in Houston, and 2015 will be in Chicago!)

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