Astros slander takes over baseball chatter at Day 1 of 2020 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

On Friday and Saturday (March 6-7), the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center is the home for one of the biggest gatherings of sports and analytics nerds. Founded in 2006, the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference (SSAC) is an annual platform for executives, players, industry leaders, students, and individuals in the field of data science and analytics to participate in discussions, panels, and networking to discuss the growing role of analytics in the sports industry. Co-chaired by Jessica Gelman (CEO of the Kraft Analytics Group) and Daryl Morey (GM & Managing Director of Basketball Operations for the Houston Rockets), the conference draws students from nearly 200 schools and representatives from nearly 100 professional sports teams across disciplines including the major American sports, e-sports, table tennis, volleyball, etc.

Day 1 of the conference was kicked off with opening remarks from organizers and chairs. Naturally, the breakout of COVID-19 wasn’t the only special circumstance addressed in at kickoff—the Houston Astros started taking a verbal beating as early as 8:30 AM and were brought up just about all day, in implications of the impact of player, league, and media intervention. One can say the conference started off with a bang.

With several panelists questioned about the biggest current scandal in sports, several perspectives were shared about its impact on the game of baseball—but perhaps the highlight of the day was ESPN personality Stephen A. Smith stole the show after a classic battle of words with Kendrick Perkins in their panel surrounding Player Empowerment.

While co-panelists Perkins and Philadelphia 76ers co-owner Michael Rubin noted the reputed culture of player empowerment in the NBA and how change is a serious consequence of player involvement, Stephen A. caught the crowd off-guard as usual when he threw down the hammer on the Astros situation.
"When it comes to player empowerment, the NBA should be jealous of Major League Baseball. The Houston Astros situation shows just that—a team put the integrity of the game in question in a player-run operation. The manager got fired. The bench coach got fired from his new team. Their player who later got the Mets managerial job got fired. Not a single player was punished. In what other league can players have the power to get away with that? Not the NBA." [Edited by author for clarity]

The fiery Smith doubled down on his disgust.
"Is it good for the game? No! But it is player empowerment."

Another noteworthy moment from the day was when Stephen A. Smith brought direct attention to the 2018 Red Sox when prompted about the ongoing sign-stealing investigations by panel moderator ESPN columnist and New England native Jackie MacMullan.
MacMullan: "We don’t know if Boston will also be implicated in the findings of the MLB investigation."
Smith: "They probably will be."
MacMullan: "Says the New Yorker."

Several other panelists voiced their concerns with the Astros and MLB’s ruling, with some expressing disdain for its negative impact on the game and the community, while some see the scandal as a way to draw interest from a younger generation.

Baseball continued to make its presence felt on Day 1 of the conference with research talks and poster presentations throughout the day as part of the research paper competition, presented by Major League Baseball. Winners of the competition will be announced on Saturday.

The conference will continue with more discussions and presentations, including appearances from Nate Silver, Larry Fitzgerald, Saquon Barkley, and Boston’s own Jaylen Brown and Enes Kanter. The highlights of the entirety of the conference will be up on CelticsLife after the conclusion of the conference. Panels will continue to be streamed on Saturday and left up on the 42 Analytics YouTube channel.

Follow the author at @AhaanRungta for updates on the remainder of SSAC and more sports content; read more Red Sox material here.