The future of baseball analytics

Checking in from the baseball panel at the Sloan Sports Conference

Updated: March 1, 2013, 5:25 PM ET
By Blake Murphy | Special to ESPN.com

BOSTON -- Thirty scouts from 30 teams with 30 radar guns sit watching the same pitching prospect and getting the same 30 readings.

That's essentially what the so-called "Moneyball statistics" have become to Major League Baseball now.

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AP Photo/Charles KrupaMost teams have embraced the type of thinking that once made Bill James a maverick.

What was cutting edge and a competitive differentiation 10 years ago is now commonplace among teams, and the next step for baseball analytics is to find the next wave of information for the next advantage. At the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston on Friday, a who's who of the baseball world gathered for a panel on the present and future of baseball analytics.

It was Farhan Zaidi, director of baseball operations for the Oakland Athletics, who first drew the comparison to scouts of the past, making the point that if all teams have the exact same information, the information in and of itself is not all that valuable. Instead, it's the interpretation and utilization of that data that can give teams an edge.

For Zaidi and the Athletics, a lot of their focus goes in to winning on a budget. Signing superstars aren't a part of the strategy for the A's, so they instead opt to build from the bottom and take risks on potentially undervalued assets.

"If we do what everyone else does, we'll play to our payroll," Zaidi said.

Once the panel, which also included DIPS theory legend Voros McCracken, Baseball Info Solutions' Ben Jedlovec, Grantland's Jonah Keri and Joe Posnanski of NBC Sports, came to some level of consensus on that fact, the focus changed to "what's next?"

While the answers varied by person, likely a representation of the diverse backgrounds in the group, one thing was clear: There is a whole lot that the baseball world still doesn't know. In the words of Nate Silver, who is essentially Justin Bieber in the halls of the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center this weekend, there are still a lot of known unknowns.

Things such as player nutrition, injury prevention and visual tracking data like Pitchf/x will continue to be explored.

"We will be measuring things in five to 10 years that we think are impossible now," Posnanski said.

Meanwhile, Jedlovec was sure to point out that this doesn't mean the data we currently have is obsolete. On-base percentage is still an important statistic, even if everyone knows that already. Plus, as he put it, when those 30 scouts take those radar readings back to their teams, they could be interpreted in entirely different ways. If all teams have Pitchf/x and other developing data, that data still can be understood and leveraged in an array of ways.

And even the data that is commonplace now isn't perfect. Defensive metrics disagree greatly depending on the methodology used, so there's obviously work left to be done there. But for the media members, the baseball insiders and the data guys on the panel, the future of baseball analytics isn't just about tweaking xFIP or UZR/150.

"Analytics is so broad," Keri said. "It means just thinking about things in a different way and trying to improve them."

Notes

• Keri had a great dig at one point. When Posnanski argued that not everyone understands the value of OBP yet, Keri quipped that he only thought that because he covered the Royals. Ouch.

• There was a lot of discussion about ways to improve the draft process and projecting and developing minor leaguers. Basically, baseball has gotten really good at determining how good players are, but not necessarily how good players can be. Dan Straily was one such example, someone who appears to be a sure-thing major leaguer now but went perhaps 20 rounds later than he should have in the draft. Whether he was undervalued at the draft, and why, or whether the A's just did a great job developing him, isn't easy to quantify.

• There was also some discussion of the apparent conflict between open-source data and proprietary data. While a lot of baseball's big advancements have come from fans with a computer and access to the data, it's in the best interests of the team, in competitive terms, to keep their information in-house. Baseball is extremely rich in terms of public data relative to other sports, so there is still plenty of room for "outsiders" to make those "eureka!" discoveries.

• Zaidi says he hit it off with A's GM Billy Beane in his interview talking about Oasis. The Gallagher brothers are the new market inefficiency, as Keri put it.

Blake Murphy writes for the TrueHoop Network blogs Raptors Republic and HoopData

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