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SABR 44 Ends With a Flourish: A Fantastic Time at the Ballpark

Today was the last day of the SABR convention in Houston. I think this might have been the best one I’ve been to since Boston in 2002, which was my first and therefore special. Every convention has had some outstanding things about it–Jim Bouton’s keynote in Seattle comes to mind–but this one was on a high par in every aspect. I didn’t see a single research presentation that I felt was a dud, and all the panels were top notch, especially since all the panelists were top notch.

But it was all wonderfully topped off today by the Houston Astros themselves. First they invited us into the ballpark for two last amazing panels, one with three former Astros–Alan Ashby, Larry Dierker, and Art Howe–and one with three members of the front office–Sig Medgal, David Stearns, and GM Jeff Luhnow. Those guys really hit it out of the park, figuratively speaking.

But then the actual young Astros hit it out of the park, literally speaking. We saw one of the most entertaining games of baseball imaginable. If you were going to take a person who didn’t know baseball to a game to show them how exciting and nifty it is, this one would have been a good candidate. Here, I made a list of awesome things that we saw in this game:

1. A great giveaway! It was Andy Pettitte jersey night. That will explain why I will be the only person in Yankee Stadium wearing a Houston Astros jersey some day. I love getting free stuff at ballparks and this was one of the niftier things I’ve ever received.

Andy Pettitte Jersey Night at Minute Maid Park

2. Knuckleballer on the mound. RA Dickey was pretty amazing, even if he did come out on the losing end of the game. He didn’t walk a single batter. He would throw the occasional 83-84 mph fastball, but even from the right field bleachers where I was sitting with a bunch of my SABR cohort (including Retrosheet’s Dave Smith, Dave Raglin, and Barb Mantegani, Paul Parker) we could see that thing darting like a butterfly.

2. Speaking of butterflies… The roof was open. A tweet from the Astros said it was the first time the roof has been opened for a night game in August in ten years. At first I thought they opened it because they had 500 SABR purists in the house. But it turned out to be a beautiful evening. So beautiful that this little beauty came to visit:

Amazing butterfly rubbed its wings together while resting on David Raglin's shirt.

3. Jose Altuve. I’ve heard him described more than once as one of the most exciting players in baseball. He’s one of those super-young stars who is always fun to watch. He led off the bottom of the first with a double and scored on Chris Carter’s subsequent double. Then in the fifth he singled. An errant pickoff throw sent him sprinting all the way to third, where a second errant throw trying to catch him there failed, and he scampered all the way home. How often do you see that!

4. Confirmation bias! Earlier in the day, Dave Smith had given a presentation entitled “Why Does the Home Team Score So Much in the First Inning?” The data are completely conclusive that there is an effect separate from the mere “leadoff hitter leads off/lineup construction” effect that causes home teams to score more runs in the first inning than visiting teams. Unfortunately, after much analysis, Dave could only speculate about and not prove why the visiting pitcher is at a disadvantage, though possibly it has to do with the variable timing of when they would take the mound (whereas the home team pitcher knows to the exact minute when he will throw his first pitch).

Final slide from David W. Smith's presentation Why Does the Home Team Score So Much in the First Inning?

5. Home Run Power. Also in the fifth, after Altuve’s error-aided run, Chris Carter hit a ball so far it looked like it left the field entirely, over the train tracks, possibly onto the street. We couldn’t see if it hit the roof of Union Station on the way down or not. It was a majestic shot.

6. The train! Speaking of the train, with the roof open it’s a much more intriguing visual feature of the ballpark. I went to a roof-closed game on Thursday and the train was much more of a focal point against the sky than when it’s sort of against the rafters. Or maybe it was because today I found out WHY there is a train in the outfield! The grand entrance to Minute Maid Park on that side is Union Station, the actual old train station, restored to its 100+ year old grandeur and serving as a grand foyer for the ballpark. This foyer was converted to a fantastic function room for the player and front office panels. Wonderful setting for a wonderful program. Throughout the game we talked about the train many times, too. (“Why is the train pulling pumpkins?” “Those are Minute Maid oranges!” “Do you think the train engineer actually operates the train or is it automated?” “I hope he didn’t get a Harvard degree for that.” “Surely it would have been MIT, since he’s an engineer.” etc…)

The train, against the Houston skyline with the roof open.

7. Inside the park home run! Fewer than 1% of home runs are of this variety, where the ball doesn’t leave the park. It’s like the triple only even more exciting. It’s even MORE exciting when the runner who gets one isn’t exactly a rabbit on the basepaths. Tonight Jon Singleton of the Astros (it helped that these good things were happening to the home team so we could feel great about jumping up and cheering them) hit a ball to the outfield wall in the bottom of the eighth. Anthony Gose fell down trying to field it and the ball rolled far from him or any of the other fielders trying to back up the play. Singleton chugged around the bases and went for it with a play at the plate! Which leads us to:

8. Scoring play upheld upon review! Singleton was initially called out, which wasn’t too bad since the Astros were already up by 6-2 at that point. But upon video review Singleton was clearly safe. So we got to cheer the home run three times: once while it was unfolding, once when we saw the replay on the huge video board, and once when the umpires signaled him safe after all. Just fun. I’m sure someone in SABR is looking up right now whether that was the first IPHR to be established by umpire review.

9. Robbed homer! In the top of the eighth, when the score was only 4-2 Astros, reliever Mike Foltynewicz got two quick outs and then appeared to have struck out Nolan Reimold on two different pitches that were called balls. He was then replaced by Tony Sipp, who served up a looooong potential game-tying drive to pinch-hitter Juan Francisco. Except that Robbie Grossman timed his leap perfectly to snatch the ball from over the wall! I mean, damn. You definitely don’t see that every day, either.

10. Amazing Jeterian dive! And then, in the top of the ninth, with Paul Clemons on the mound trying to close the door on the Blue Jays, Steve Tolleson hit a foul pop. L.J. Hoes, who had come in as a pinch hitter himself and stayed in the game, dove into the stands to catch it in a move very reminiscent of the Jeter tumble into the photographers in the 2001 ALDS. (Jeter was running a lot harder when he went in, though.)

11. Time of the game: 2:38 — It was another neat coincidence that over the course of the weekend, as well as twice today, we’d heard numerous speaker express concern about the pace of the game and desires to speed it up. Larry Dierker, Alan Ashby, and others all preached a quicker pace to the choir. The Astros and Blue Jays apparently heard the hymn and took up the tune, too.

This whole weekend has been a tremendous celebration of what we love about the game. I think this might have been more panels than we’ve seen in the past? But I didn’t mind that since research presentations were still quite ample and the panels themselves brought so many different perspectives and lessons I didn’t necessarily expect. Insights don’t only come from data analysis or microfilm archives; they can come from hearing from the people who have so much direct experience of the game talk about it and talk to each other. To have what was a very eye-opening conference even for a jaded veteran like me (13 years consecutive SABR convention attendance), capped off by such a sparkling and fabulous game was even better.

I’ll be heading home now. I have notes on several more research presentations and panels I hope to get to posting, but we’ll see. The one time I might have gotten a chance to finish those write-ups would be on the plane. But I booked myself a Sunday evening flight on JetBlue, you see, knowing that the Yankee and Red Sox would be playing the ESPN game. I may be glued to watching. Sometimes it really is the game that matters most.

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