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Chat: Keith Woolner

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Welcome to Baseball Prospectus' Monday March 30, 2009 6:30 PM ET chat session with Keith Woolner.


Although he's now a BP alum working with the Cleveland Indians, industry-leading performance analyst Keith Woolner joins us briefly to take your questions.

Keith Woolner: Hi everyone, I'm ready to go now, so hopefully no one will mind if I start the chat a few minutes early. Maybe it will make up just a little bit for all the BP chats that have started late! :-)

Jim Clancy (Exhibition Stadium): Welcome back. Anything off limits today out of consideration for your employer?

Keith Woolner: Thanks, it's good to be back. There are definitely some questions in the queue that I won't be answering. I can't talk about anything proprietary or confidential. Unfortunately, that covers some of the things people would like to know most about -- particularly advice or decisions I've been involved in, and details on how the Indians organization works. That also extends to comments on specific current players on or off the team.

I can talk in more general terms, and I can get into more detail about the research that I did with BP. Hopefully there's be enough to hold people's interests. But I apologize in advance if I can't or don't answer your favorite question.

eliyahu (Elazar, Israel): Hand on heart: Whom do you root for when the Sox play the Indians?

Keith Woolner: Eliyahu alludes to my prior well known affinity for the Red Sox, whom I had rooted for since I was a kid growing up in New Hampshire.

Hand on heart, I root for the Indians now. I got tested pretty early on, since I joined the Indians during the 2007 season, and we faced the Red Sox in the ALCS. I was actually a little surprised how quickly my perspective changed. I guess my loyalty can be bought. :-)

As you might imagine, there's a connection to a team that you actually contribute to in a tangible fashion, working each day next to great people trying to help that same team, that goes beyond what even the most devoted fan can feel.

Mike K (The other end of the Interwebs): So what's different about working "inside" baseball?

Keith Woolner: There's so much I could say here, I don't know where to begin.

Wait, yes I do. I get to go the ballpark every day, and think to myself "I get paid to work here." That feeling still hasn't worn off.

makewayhomer (Boston): Hi Keith, It seems that clubs who embrace(d) advanced analytics have or had a big advantage over clubs who did not bother to do so. But now even the flat-earth Seattle Mariners have hired Tom Tango - how long will it be before this information edge is significantly decreased? will this be the harbinger of doom for small market teams?

Keith Woolner: The Mariners had a complete overhaul in the front office, and it's great that they recognize the value that someone like Tom can bring.

In a lot of ways, it's already getting harder to find that edge. You have to find new sources of information, new ways of thinking about the processes you have in place, stay on top of the latest findings in your field, and keep an eye on what new technologies become available. But I still think there's a lot of ways to exploit an information advantage.

Conversely, there are some benefits to talking to a club that thinks about players and value in ways similar to your own. It makes some conversations easier than others.

Mike K (Athens, GA): So remind us--what were some of the highlights of the work you did with BP?

Keith Woolner: Ouch! That hurt. How soon they forget... :-)

Probably the work I'm best known for was inventing and naming VORP. I wrote several back-of-the-book research articles on topics ranging from catcher game-calling, to replacement-level theory, to refining Pitcher Abuse Points (PAP), to developing a set of formulas for measuring Win Expectation (which are now used in computing the support neutral pitching statistics like SNLVAR and WXRL).

I was also deeply involved with developing the back-end database that power the stat reports, Team Tracker, and the like.

TGisriel (Baltimore): What can you tell us about what you actually do for the Indians? Is your work used more at the player acquisition level (GM) or the game tactical level (manager)?

Keith Woolner: I've done work in both areas, but I would say the bulk of my work has been as the player acquisition level.

Mike K (On the edge of my seat): Care to comment on BP's fairly new addition of comments?

Keith Woolner: I like them more than I thought I would. The signal-to-noise ratio has remained high, which was my major concern back in the day when I actually had influence on those decisions.

Mike K (Athens, GA): Sorry, I was worried it would come out like that, no offense intended. I'm familiar with all of what you just mentioned, I just have a hard time remembering who did what on the site.

Keith Woolner: No apology needed. I also have to remember that I actually wrote very little my last few years with BP as I focused on back-end development. That, and any new readers in the past two years wouldn't know my name anyways.

Henry (Oakland): Hi Keith, I have a somewhat wonkish question for you. It seems to me that making opposing pitchers throw a lot of pitches has value that is independent of the ultimate outcome of any given at bat, and that even the more sophisticated batting statistics do not fully capture this. As a thought experiment, most of us would agree that a single that is part of a two-pitch at bat is somewhat less valuable than one that culminates a twelve-pitch at bat, everything else held equal. Are you aware of any analysis that tries to quantify the value of this extra contribution that is made by the more patient hitter?

Keith Woolner: I'm not aware of any previous research in this area, although I want to say that there was an article on some site just recently that started to look at this. But I can't seem to find it at the moment. Anyone got a link?

Andy (Boston): Front office types would be (_insert powerful emotion_) if they were alllowed to trade draft picks in 2009.

Keith Woolner: In the abstract, I'm not sure if there's a consensus in the industry on what the effect of trading draft picks would be, and whether it would help or hurt smaller market teams.

That being said, it's an interesting thought experiment to ponder what the Nationals could command if they were to trade the #1 pick.

Andrew (Nueva York): Keith, thanks for taking the question. What advice would you offer someone desiring to work in a major league baseball front office?

Keith Woolner: I get this question a lot, and I always struggle with how to answer it. My path into baseball was so atypical that it's hard to use that as the basis for a recommended strategy. But if my case has any instructive value, I'd say that the best way to break into baseball analytics is to start doing it on your own. Don't have any expectations that it will lead to anything, just do what interests you, and it will lead you to other topics and questions. Build up a base of knowledge, and complement that with the technical skills (Excel/database/stats) that you need to answer your own questions well. Write, write, and write some more. If you develop a reputation as an expert in something, teams will notice.

Rob (Alaska): So what can you tell me about this Grady Sizemore fellow I've been hearing so much about?

Keith Woolner: My wife has trouble seeing Grady as the heartthrob he is here in Cleveland because he bears a slight resemblance to occasional BP contributor and techie Ben Murphy.

(Where else are you going to find that kind of insightful analysis?)

hotstatrat (Toronto): Do most MLB teams have their own version of the "Verducci effect" or is there a standard consensus on a safe way of increasing a pitcher's workload? More specifically, are major league innings considered all importantly stressful compared to minor league innings?

Keith Woolner: I don't know what other teams do (teams are generally pretty secretive about their analytical work), but I know that we have spent time talking about these questions. We are conscious of year-to-year changes in workload, and try to take a rational approach to stepping up a pitcher's inning count.

dg (Denver): Did you get down to Goodyear? Thoughts?

Keith Woolner: I did, briefly. For most of the work I do, it's easier for me to stay in Cleveland where the servers are, than to try to work across the network. But I did attend a couple of meetings, and got to see the new complex, which is amazing. I think I picked up a couple MPH on my fastball just by being near the training facilities.

Alf (Cambridge): Hey Keith- Good to have you back, if only for a day. How much influence do you have in making decisions on players? I know it's a vague question that doesn't lend itself to a straightforward answer, but can you give an approximation as to whether you're one of a few guys who make all the decisions, or whether you're one of 200 people providing input?

Keith Woolner: I see my role as an expert advisor. My job is to know what data and models are going to be most useful to the kinds of decisions that Mark Shapiro and Chris Antonetti are making. When I communicate the results, I try to be careful to point out the strengths and weaknesses of my conclusions. But I'm just one of several people (but fewer than 200) who have direct input into the process.

Ultimately, Mark and Chris, not I, know what pieces of information influence them the most. There are some decisions (including player acquisitions) that I believe my work had significant influence on, but I doubt very much that there are any situations where the analytics were the sole basis for going forward.

TGisriel (Baltimore): What research that you did at BP do you think has the most lasting value?

Keith Woolner: Probably VORP, in part because of how widespread (relatively speaking) it's become. It's become kind of a calling card.

I also think that the Win Expectancy work I did is one of the more generally useful and flexible contributions to the field that I came up with.

That said, the ones I had the most fun doing were the April Fool's pieces, and the lyric parodies where I got to channel my inner Weird Al Yankovic.

Mike (Chicago): When your team looked into to signing a player like Kerry Wood, how do you figure his injury history into the mix? Secondly, if the cubs had offered him arbitration, is there any way the indians would have given up a pick for him?

Keith Woolner: In general terms, you deal with problems with major uncertainties as systematically as possible. You try to assess the probabilities of each outcome, and what your downstream decisions would be if each kind of outcome occurs. You work out the values (costs, revenues, wins) associated with each alternative future and work your way backwards. Injuries, in this context, are just another uncertain event, albeit one that has a higher variance across the possible outcomes.

As for draft picks, I think you've seen a major change in how the market values draft picks, and what the impact has been on free agents. We knew pretty early in the process that Kerry wasn't going to be offered arbitration, so we didn't have to spend a lot of time evaluating that particular scenario.

john (chicago): Jim Rice - Hall of Famer?

Keith Woolner: Before I answer, let me acknowledge that (a) Jim Rice was my favorite player growing up, and (b) I'm a "big Hall" kind of guy.

With that context, I disagree with what seems to be the prevailing sabermetric opinion, including here at BP, that Rice was obviously unworthy as a HOF selection. I don't think he's a no-brainer Hall of Famer, but I think he has a legitimate argument.

Rice's case is obviously one built on peak value, not career length. Also, the argument has been that he is less valuable according to sabermetric models than how he was regarded at the time. His OBP, home park, double-play totals, and positional adjustments are counterbalanced by the notion that he was the most "feared" hitter or his day. But how do you actually assess how "feared" he was, and how that reputation played out in his peak value.

I actually did some work on this back when the election was on people's minds. Rice had 6 Top 10 finishes in the MVP voting.

Among players with exactly 6 Top 10 finishes, 11 are in the HOF, 6 are active or too recent, and only 4 are not in the Hall (Vern Stephens, Dave Parker, Andres Galarraga, Fred McGriff). Even among those with just 5 such finishes, the ratio is 17 HOF, 6 not HOF, 5 active. There's a reasonable case that players with Rice-like peaks get into the Hall about 2/3rd of the time.

Of course, all of Rice's Top 10 finishes were in fact Top 5 finishes. All of the players with 6 such rankings are in the Hall (4) or obviously qualified barring PED-externalities (Frank Thomas, Albert Pujols, A-Rod). Of those with exactly 5 Top 5 MVP years, only Pete Rose and Dave Parker aren't in the Hall or active.

Sorry for taking so much time to answer this one, but I think Rice looks better through contemporary views than through a modern analytical lens, and I don't think it's silly to consider that perspective.

Tim (Chicago): Have the poor economic conditions made a major impact on your day to day operations yet? Is this an issue you are worried about?

Keith Woolner: Ticket revenue is still a huge part of our business, and anything that affects it has ripple effects on the rest of our decision making. It's an area of great concern.

strupp (Madison): What's a harder task, getting the book together, or getting the information to put the team together? Which one is more rewarding in the end?

Keith Woolner: Getting the stat lines together in time for the book to go to print was always a challenge. I have more resources at my disposal with the Indians, and a great IT staff who supports me, so the technical side of things are easier now than then. But there's so much more riding on the decisions you help to make with a club that the pressures to get exactly right the first time are much higher. I can't post errata to the web site.

makewayhomer (Boston): in general, how much do real live FO types like yourself read BP, THT, The Book Blog, etc, and how valuable is "community" research to your day to day job?

Keith Woolner: One of the great things about my job is that I can read sites like the ones you mention while I'm at work without guilt. Hey, it's part of my job!

As with many things, the amount and sources of daily web-reading varies. There are some people in the office who read almost everything that's put out there. Links to articles are commonly forwarded to those who might be interested, so the "read-everything" types act as a filter and prioritization for the others.

strupp (Madison): Keith, you mention that Rice looks better in a contemporary view rather than modern analytical views. How is that specific case similar or different than guys like Trammell, Whitaker, Mattingly, Will Clark, etc, who aren't going to be in the HoF, likely won't sniff enough votes to merit argument or discussion, and might not even have the pull later on with the Veteran's Committee? (Not saying any of them are HoF worthy, but now there's not even debate)

Keith Woolner: For guys like Trammell and Whitaker, it's really more a matter of being underrated rather than overrated. The fact that players fall off the ballot means that the conversation for their case simply ends, whereas for someone who manages to stay on the ballot without getting elected like Rice, the consensus can build or ebb over the years. It might be nice to have a rule that players have to spend at least 5 years on the ballot before getting removed, just so the can get a little more attention, and give a chance for the Sweet Lou Whitaker fanclubs can get organized.

Also, the fact that of the players you mentioned, Mattingly is the only one who actually won an MVP carries some of the weight, and I think Mattingly got more HOF attention than his case might have warranted otherwise.

Mike K (Athens, GA): If you could make one major rule change, what would it be?

Keith Woolner: I'm on record as not liking the one-batter relief specialists, for reasons both tactical and aesthetic. If a reliever enters the game mid-inning, he has to remain in the game until either the side is retired, or he is charged with a run. (tip of the hat to Bill James for that last requirement, which I had more fuzzy ideas about before I heard him mention it)

SuddenSam (ClevelandHeights): Are you enjoying living in Cleveland?

Keith Woolner: Very much so. I have to say, the looks you get when you tell people you're moving *to* Cleveland vary between sympathy and horror. The jokes about rivers on fire are almost on autopilot. But we've really enjoyed the people we've met here, the city is big enough but not too big, and even the winters aren't as bad as we feared (having lived before in North Carolina and California).

I like to tell people that Cleveland is a great product with bad marketing.

TGisriel (Baltimore): Is there any one thing that stands out as different working with a team than you expected?

Keith Woolner: I can use a term like "regression" without getting all blank stares back. There's a lot more quantitative sophistication, even from the non-propeller-heads, than many people realize.

dg (Denver): Excuse me Keith, but Travis Hafner just went deep!! Life begins again!

Keith Woolner: Awesome. You just made my day!

Mike K (Athens, GA): Who's your favorite non-baseball author?

Keith Woolner: I guess I'd have to say Carl Sagan, seeing as how we named our son after him.

Alf (Cambridge): I'm curious as to the difference between the proprietary player evaluation tools being developed by baseball front offices and the work being done by the public. Do you see your tools as being more advanced? Baseball clubs probably have much more incentives, but 1,000,000 monkeys with spreadsheets have to come up with useful ideas too.

Keith Woolner: The sabermetric community has a lot of wonderful ideas, and we're not averse to cherry-picking the best of them. The biggest difference is that clubs have data that the public doesn't have access to, so there are practical limits to what the community can help with.

Mike K (Athens, GA): So you can't dish the dirt on the Indians, or on specific MLB players...how about telling us something about BP that we don't already know?

Keith Woolner: The idea that BP is some Borg-like entity governed by groupthink is a myth. That, and the idea that Bil Burke lives in a bunker underneath a mountain in Colorado warmed entirely by the heat given off by the BP server farm is not entirely true.

Mike K (Athens, GA): Really, Sagan? Do you read other Science Fiction? I'm a big fan of the "harder" side of the genre, but never been much interested in his stuff.

Keith Woolner: Sagan was more of a formative influence than a current one. I read his stuff voraciously in my teen years. I admired his ability to be skeptical and rational without losing a sense of wonder.

I used to read a lot of science fiction (Asimov, Clarke) and fantasy (Donaldson, Moorcock). Not so much time for that now. A lot of my reading time has been consumed with Magic Treehouse books, and the fabulously named "Baseball Camp on the Planet of the Eyeballs".

Tim (Chicago): From a team standpoint. Is it a good thing or a bad thing that MLBAM is posting data like PITCHf/x? Do you see that continuing and even expanding to more advanced data for the public?

Keith Woolner: MLBAM is really a separate organization from the clubs, and they have their own priorities and needs, although clearly they have some interest in supporting the clubs. The PitchFX data is a tremendous resource, and one that would have hard to assemble without dealing with some central entity, so I'd say it's been a good thing for us.

Mike K (Athens, GA): Here's an Indians question that maybe you CAN answer: what the general take inside the organization on the 1989 classic "Major League"? Even more beloved than it is in the wider world? Or viewed with disdain? (Who would have bet that Dennis Haybert's career would outlast Wesley Snipes's?)

Keith Woolner: To be honest, it rarely comes up on the baseball side of the house. I imagine it might be more top of mind with the crew that produces the in-game entertainment.

Tim (DC): Hey Keith...what is worse for you: listening to the Joe Morgan rant against the Moneyball idea without really understanding what the sabremetric community is trying to do. Or Roger Maynard rant back on rec.sports.baseball.

Keith Woolner: I'm pretty sure more people listen to Joe Morgan than the Cordial Boy.

Mike K (Athens, GA): Nah, the groupthink thing just pops up from a newbie now and again. I mean something like "Sheehan has a man crush on Johnny Damon" or "Clay Davenport is actually a pseudonym for Clay Aiken."

Keith Woolner: Gary Huckabay is really a program that scrapes buzzwords from management consulting sites and passes them through a Cranky.pl script I hacked together in 1998.

birkem3 (Dayton, OH): When teams have more injury-prone players than normal, do they ever consider adding more personnel to their training staff? It seems like a wise investment for, say, the Yankees and Red Sox this year.

Keith Woolner: I've spent some time talking to our training staff, and it's not clear to me that the relationship between the number of players you're treating and the number of staff you need is linear. The implication of your question is that some players who need treatment or therapy aren't getting proper attention, and that doesn't strike me as a reasonable position. If Will Carroll says otherwise, though, listen to him instead of me.

modofacid (Philly): Keith, could you compare and contrast the way in which the indians and BP approach problems/tasks? Specifically defining the scope of work.

Keith Woolner: I don't think I approach a problem any differently now than I did when I was writing for BP. The resources I have available are different, the focus may be different, but the process is the same. In comparing organizations, I think one major difference is that for a lot of BP evolved out of a group of passionate fans who didn't realize what this hobby/side project would become. The growing pains of such a group are very different from joining a organization that's been around for a century.

Tim (DC): Curious: since you are in the real world of MLB, do you participate in any type of fantasy baseball? Or do you instead do fantasy something else....fantasy Congress? "Will trade you Pelosi and a #2 pick for Teddy Kennedy"??

Keith Woolner: No, I withdrew from the couple of fantasy of leagues I participated in when I joined the Indians. I replaced it with helping to run a real baseball team. What better G-rated fantasy is there?

Mike K (Athens, GA): Who was your first favorite ballplayer?

Keith Woolner: As noted earlier, my favorite player growing up was Jim Rice, and he was pretty much from the beginning of my fandom. Other favorites along the way (in the non-Indians category) have been John Valentin, Pedro Martinez, and a few inexplicable choices like Gary Allenson and Joe Hesketh. My least favorite player for decades was Joe Rudi, until I made a shocking discovery (http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=2548).

ballparkfan (Colorado): What can you say about the hours people in roles like yours put in? Or about how it pays, at least in general terms?

Keith Woolner: Most of the baseball department gets in between 7 and 9 in the morning, and on game days will be in the office until midnight or later. On non-game days, it varies. I'm a little bit different in that I don't have any specific gameday duties, so I'm not required to be at the park, although often I will be, especially if it's a night where my family can come out to the game as well.

As for the money, it's a lot less than what you could make in other fields, but as my wife says, it also pays "psychic wages". Does that make me a believer in intangibles?

dg (Denver): You said "As for draft picks, I think you’ve seen a major change in how the market values draft picks." Sorry, but has there been a shift in how these are valued, and which way?

Keith Woolner: The Juan Cruz situation is an example. Teams are placing higher values on the compensation picks they would have to surrender when signing type A free agents, and that's affecting the market for players for whom the value of the pick represents a significant fraction of their perceived value.

Anonymous 2L (Chicago): Any place in the Indians organization for someone with (or eventually with) a law degree?

Keith Woolner: This isn't so much a direct response to the question, but I have been astonished at the volume and quality of resumes that come in unsolicited to a major league front office. In fact, my first day of work in Cleveland I had two letters from prospective interns waiting for me. There are tons of lawyers, physicists, grad students from elite universities, and Wall Street quants (especially lately) that are willing to work in baseball for peanuts. It's very hard to be noticed in such a torrent. The odds are against you, but if you want to go this route, do something that sets yourself apart from the 15 covers letters that all express how much they love baseball and their dream is to work for a team. Demonstrate your value and your uniqueness.

Matt A (Raleigh): ARE you a believer in intangibles? Has your experience with a big league club changed your thoughts on this?

Keith Woolner: I'm not sure that "changed" is the right word. Rather, it's help crystalize some things I thought to be true, but was fuzzy on the specifics. There are advantages to having good people on your team, whether you're talking about the clubhouse or the front office. Good work ethics rub off on the people around you. Veterans setting a good example help a young player develop good habits. Good habits help a player maintain and improve his ksills. A team leader isn't going to help a guy swing the bat when he's at the plate, but the guy at the plate might be a better, more prepared version of himself because of the players around him.

Alf (Cambridge): What's the best non-obvious job perk?

Keith Woolner: My parents are much more popular at cocktail parties when the conversation inevitably turns to "So, what do your kids do?"

Tim (DC): Is there something in particular as an insider into workings of a MLB that the average fan, or heck, even BP reader, would be surprised about? I really think that people who work in MLB are alot more passionate for the game than they are given credit. Or would it be the "All You Can Eat Donut Buffet"??

Keith Woolner: For me, it was realizing the sheer logistics and the number of people that it takes to pull off hosting a major league baseball game. Being able to see everything that happens out of sight in the corridors underneath the seats to make sure that the concessions are ready, security is in place, the umpires have what they need, the crowds are being directed, and the in-game entertainment goes off without a hitch was eye-opening. You see bits and pieces of it when you're at a game, but when you actually realize amount of equipment, and the the hundreds of game-day staff that are needed to make each one of 81 game events (and hopefully more!) successful, it's impressive.

Jon (Boston): Any regrets? If not, what do you miss most about your old job?

Keith Woolner: No regrets. I feel like I landed in the perfect opportunity for someone like me to be appreciated, and to make a difference. My family has adjusted to the move, and my son has become a gigantic baseball fan -- I don't see many 5-year-olds scanning the game program to see who is on the Royals' disabled list, for example.

If there's something I miss about my previous career in software development, it's the sense of being on the cutting edge of technology. I'm still geeky enough to think everything new is cool. But then again, in some ways I'm still involved with the cutting edge, but on the other side of things. We look at new technology as a possible source of competitive advantage, and so I still try to stay on top of things, but as a potential customer rather than a producer. Being able to actually apply the technologies to something useful like running a baseball team is also cool.

bigrick0016 (Cleveland): I am a Cleveland sports fan. So as such, I am a bitter, angry, pathetic and broken shell of a person. I would like to tell you... please, for the love of all that is holy win something. Please?

Keith Woolner: I think that's actually Chris Antonetti telling me to get back to work.

Keith Woolner: Wow, I think three hours is my personal chat record. I do have to wrap up now. It's been a lot of fun coming back and chatting. I hope my answers were at least moderately interesting despite the necessary vagueness in places. Thanks for stopping by and for reading BP. Go Tribe!

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