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Chat: Alan Schwarz

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Welcome to Baseball Prospectus' Wednesday July 21, 2004 1:00 PM ET chat session with Alan Schwarz.


Alan Schwarz is the Senior Writer of Baseball America, a weekly columnist for ESPN.com and co-author of the new 'Keeping Score' column in the Sunday New York Times.

Alan Schwarz: Ready to start, everyone. Bring it on!

Greg (Boston): Hi Alan. I really enjoyed your interview with Alex Belth, and I'm looking forward to the book. My question: Why is is that stories in Baseball America are so reliant on BA-HR-RBI as the representative stat line? I understand that those numbers have a certain meaning in the context of a full MLB season, but since so many minor league performances can be in smaller samples, seeing someone's Eastern League line of .289-5-26 (for example) doesn't exactly carry the "power of language," as Bill James would say. Isn't it time for minor league features to incorporate not only OBP and SLG but also league and park factors in more than a passing fashion?

Alan Schwarz: Look, I know that the BP audience looks at Baseball America pretty skeptically, so I'll start with this one. We use BA-HR-RBI in large part because it still represents the most understandable picture for the average fan, even the more knowledgable one. We have incorporated more sophisticated stats, such as BB-SO ratios for hitters in the minors (batting eye) and H-IP ratios for pitchers (a measure of pure stuff, generally). And Jim Callis is as knowledgable a statistics person as you could ask for. So I think we have some good folks monitoring that end of things. It's just that the average fan hasn't caught up to everyone yet, particularly BP.

Sanford (New York): Hi Alan. I'm currently reading your book and it's the greatest! I'm glad you wrote about Player Win Averages. I stumbled on the book about 10 years ago and thought the idea was brilliant, the concept of seeing the game as a series of events moving toward a win or a loss. Is there any current work being done on this? If so, how can one get these stats? If not, why not?

Alan Schwarz: Thanks, Sanford.....I truly believe that the Mills method, developed in 1968-69 and one that assigns weights for every individual event that changes the probability of a team winning the game, was the greatest single advance in the history of sabermetrics. I know that a person in SABR has been carrying the torch recently -- I don't recall his name -- and two guys at Yale did a very similar thing that was profiled in Newsweek last year. Great stuff. I'd love to see BP generate those numbers.

AndyWright (Boston): Is there anything in the perfomance projection toolbox that relates exactly when a given player will experience peak performance? I recognize the median is age 26-27, but I feel that recognizing outliers in the distribution would be a pretty useful advantage.

Alan Schwarz: Nothing that I'm aware of now -- let's face it, we've learned a lot about primes recently, how they come earlier (25-29) than many people used to think (28-32). But those are based on extraordinarily large samples. We all know that individual people swing all over the place, several standard deviations away. I don't think we'll ever get very close to knowing who they'll be before it happens. That being said, I'll bet that the Red Sox are pursuing that very issue, if only to simply be better than other teams who go at it willy-nilly.

Garrett (St. Louis, MO): Hello Alan. Love your writing. I heard one of the BP Writers, Gary Huckaby, on the radio, and he made a blanket statement that, and I quote, "Analytical management has already won in baseball, and it's only a matter of time until the entire game's transformed, but it's going to take longer than people think." Do you agree with him, and if so, how long is it going to take?

Alan Schwarz: "Than people think" -- it depends which people. Yes, I think it will take 10-20 years for the A's/Red Sox/Blue Jays methods (which aren't extraordinarily new, but are getting all the hype) infiltrate 25 of the 30 major league clubs, because many operations are slow and/or resistent to change their ways. This shouldn't necessarily surprise everyone. Baseball is very slow to adapt, but it will happen.

Will AKA RCS (Fredericton, NB): What was the old statistic published annually by Sport Magazine or Inside Sports? Total Average? Was that simply OPS?

Alan Schwarz: Inside Sports devoted many annual features to Total Average, a method developed by Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post. It wasn't OPS -- it basically divided all the bases a player gained by the outs he produced. A nice metric at the time (early-mid '80s). Believe it or not, the method was invented slightly earlier than Boswell by a fellow in Chicago, who called it Base-Out Percentage in around 1977. But he didn't get the play that Boswell did.

Adam J. Morris (Houston, Texas): Looking at the standings today, the Angels are 5 back in the A.L. West, 2.5 back of Oakland and Boston in the Wild Card, and to reach 95 wins (which would seem to be the minimum necessary to win the West or the Wild Card), they'll have to win two-thirds of their remaining games. How close are we to the point where Anaheim can be considered a non-factor in the race?

Alan Schwarz: Before I start here, if you're intrigued by Total Average, Lee Sinins' Sabermetric Encyclopedia includes it...........As for Adam's question, my "Keeping Score" column in the New York Times on Sunday detailed how surprisingly rare it is for teams to come back from 5-6 game deficits as of July 31, which of course is fast approaching. It's something like 8 percent, or one team in 12. People don't realize how hard it is to come back from that deficit -- one main reason being that being 5-6 games out 2/3 of the way through the season projects to 8 games at the end. But fans are so hopeful, they miss the logic and difficulty.

The other normal looking guy (Cincy, OH): Enjoyed meeting you at the SABR convention. Had you been to one of these before? Did you think the GNQ (general nerd quotient) would be so high?

Alan Schwarz: Honestly, I don't like speaking in those terms. The SABR guys are all right; I'd been to the convention last year, too, also to chair a panel....But I'm flattered you think I'm normal-looking.

AndyWright (Boston): Alan, Do you think there has been any progress in using psychological evaluations of ballplayers as a projection tool? I remember the Orioles were a team that were embracing this.

Alan Schwarz: I think that's one thing that has been lost as we all enjoy the advances in quantifications of talent and performance. Many clubs, particularly the Mets and White Sox in the '80s, spent a great deal of time making sure that the players they drafted weren't idiots. Sounds obvious, but makeup is a large part of the development process -- you want to see who will be a good learner, etc. I definitely think that has helped refine the way in which teams draft players and allocate their picks.

AndyWright (Boston): You want to build a top-notch bullpen from scratch: Do you try to prototype pitchers and pre-select the winners, do you cast a wide net and see who sticks, or do you hire a specific manager or pitching coach?

Alan Schwarz: I'm a cast-a-big-net guy. For instance the Mets right now -- they have many young minor league arms who look promising: Kazmir, Peterson, several others. As BP readers know, I don't think we can truly know who will emerge from that group. So I think Jim Duquette, in the long-term interest of the club, needs to hold on to them so that they don't find themselves with nothing two years from now. I'd guess that for every six decent starting prospects you have, only two develop into true assets. I'd want to make sure I have a lot to choose from......Also, if I were running a club, the first thing I would do is hire THE BEST minor league pitching coaches in the country. I can't imagine any area that would provide me better return on my investment of what, an extra $15,000 per coach?

Michael (Seattle, WA): When will the media stop using "errors" as a way to evaluate defense? Seattle has committed the least number of errors on defense in the AL thus far this year, but even Bill Bavasi has acknowledged that the team's defense has been average at best.

Alan Schwarz: That's a whopper, Michael. Yeesh, I hope pretty soon. It sure is easy to look at that one category and cite it, but I do think that increasing numbers of people know how relatively meaningless the stat is. You probably know about Range Factor . . . did you know that that was actually used in the 1870s, but died out basically until Bill James wrote about it in Baseball Digest in 1976? (F.C. Lane also proposed something similar around 1918.)

aschwarz (New York): Hey Alan, why have people stopped asking questions?

Alan Schwarz: Sorry for the silliness, folks, but there was no way for me to post a message without a question, so I filed it myself.....I'm out of questions. If anyone wants to ask more, I'm all for it.

AndyWright (Boston): Speaking of return on relatively inexpensive investments -- do you know of teams that embrace the notion of routine MRI's as a preventive tool for injuries? Secondly, what is your take on the service that Mike Marshall has been trying to sell? Thanks for doing this chat, btw.

Alan Schwarz: Never heard of the preventative-MRI theory. I think the sentiment, but I wonder if the Players Association would go for it.....I don't remember what Marshall's service is. Is it kind of like Tom House and Randy Jones?

AndyWright (Boston): Hey, I don't mind monopolizing the time of a smart guy. My thinking on the outliers was driven by the so-called AAAA players. My theory is that these are players who achieved a very early career peak, while still in the minors. Does this have any compelling logic?

Alan Schwarz: Hmmm....I'm not sure. We're talking the Mark Leonards and Roberto Petagines of the world, right? Or were they more guys whose OBPs weren't appreciated in their time? I think that AAAA players are in that predicament for many reasons.

Justin Kubatko (Albuquerque): Who was the most interesting person you spoke to while researching for the book?

Alan Schwarz: By far, they were George Lindsey and Eldon Mills, who are both around 84 and still alive (which makes the interview easier, I suppose). Speaking with them was a blast. If you're ever in Ottawa (Lindsey) or De Land, Fla. (Mills) I'll bet you could meet them, too. Wonderful guys, great memories.

Glenn Cole (Las Vegas): It's a shame that Barry Bonds' impact on the game is so underappreciated by the average fan, in part because most morning newspapers only use the most traditional of stats. The man's on-base percentage is so amazing compared to that of any other player that it's almost incomprehensible!! Your thoughts?

Alan Schwarz: Honestly, I think in many ways Bonds has made the media aware of OBP as much as the A's have. I think the average fan still knows that Bonds' OBPs are ridiculous, even if the morning papers are slow on the uptake.

Hank B. and Mark T. (Dallas, Texas): Which one of us is going to be the better hitter, long-term?

Alan Schwarz: Tee hee.....Man, I love both you guys. I'd say Blalock, by a nose. Teixeira's been real hot only recently, and Blalock has proven himself over a longer period.

Terry (San Bernardino, CA): Why use ERA based on a 9-inning basis rather than on a 1-inning basis? And do you think Inherited Runners Scored is a useful stat for relievers?

Alan Schwarz: ERA was invented by NL president John Heydler in 1912; before that, pitchers had been rated (by the so inclined) by ER/G. Heydler, as he watched more starters leaving games (rather than finishing them) realized that a standard, nine-inning baseline made more sense......As for using 1 IP, why bother? The 9-inning method helps separate the numbers, and most fans understand that 3 runs a game is very good; .33 runs per inning would leave them befuddled.

Justin Kubatko (Albuquerque): I noticed you have a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Penn. What was your original career goal?

Alan Schwarz: I was going to be a math teacher -- I joined the school newspaper at Penn and only very late decided to join that business. Still a math guy at heart, though I take writing very seriously.

Patrick Walz (Austin): What percentage chances do you give each of Anaheim, Oakland, and Texas to win the AL West?

Alan Schwarz: Do you mean mathematically or based on my impression of their relative talents? I am extremely impressed with how the Rangers have held on after June 1, when many such clubs would have slipped back. I still think Oakland will emerge. I'd say OAK 65%, TEX 20%, ANA 15%. I'd also like to look at the Pythagorean records, etc., but you get the idea.

Greg (Boston): I'm sure you touch on this in the book, but did you have any interaction with Eric Walker? I was surprised to stumble upon his personal website a short while ago, and it seems that he's kept up with his forms of analysis even after his time with the A's. Is he the forgotten man of the performance analysis revolution?

Alan Schwarz: I interviewed him extensively for Chapter 11, and in fact have his original memos and reports to Sandy Alderson from 1982, etc. Billy Beane was not the father of the A's philosophy. It wasn't even necessarily Sandy Alderson. It was Eric Walker. And Sandy confirmed this to me. Hope you enjoy that section of the book; it's one I'm pretty proud of, given all the A's hype these days.

Steve (Baltimore): When compiling information for your book, what were the items that grabbed your attention the most?

Alan Schwarz: I just couldn't believe how much great statistical analysis was being done as early as 1908 -- stuff that would blow people away today but never got much notice at the time. These people didn't have the Internet, databases, spreadsheets, even calculators. They didn't even have weekly stats in the newspapers, or even radio broadcasts to listen to. They gobbled up all the scoresheets they could and figured things out on their own -- systems similar to Pete Palmer's Linear Weights, OPS, and more -- generations ahead of when people today realize this work was being done.

skaron01 (Washington DC): If teams wind up leaning toward stats such as OBP, K/BB etc, what do you think the next step after that will be? Are certain trendy stats overrated in your mind?

Alan Schwarz: I think the next major advance will come in the area of fielding. MLB is in the early stages of setting up a six-camera system in every ballpark that will record hit trajectories, fielder positions, etc., that will finally let us know who turns batted balls into outs best -- which of course is the true charge of every fielder. We'll be waiting five years for this, but when it hits, most other fielding measures will be suddenly obsolete, and as laughable as rabbit-ear antennas.

AndyWright (Boston): Marhsall has a program where he promises he can 'fix' a player's mechanics to add speed on his pitchers, or to overcome injuries. I am unfamiliar with the Tom House and Randy Jones offerings. Anyway, I think Marshall has been speaking out against the lack of interest teams have shown.

Alan Schwarz: A lot of teams care about that stuff -- the Mets, of course, with Rick Peterson, come to mind. House and Jones have programs, as do many other people whose names I don't remember or know. I'm a little skeptical of people who claim they have THE way of handling pitchers. But I would agree with Marshall, if this is his point, that too many teams don't show enough interest in learning more about WHY pitchers break down, and looking to avoid it.

Steve (Baltimore): RedSox, Phillies or Cubs - which teams will not make the playoffs?

Alan Schwarz: I've never been a Cubs guy, personally. I always thought the Cardinals were better, so I'm not going to pick them for the wild card. As for the Phillies, I picked the Braves to win the division, so I'm sticking to it. I like the Phillies talent but I don't think they're going to all fit together in a way that wins enough games before the season is over.

FJ (SF Bay Area, CA): So, to follow up on someone else question. When are you guys at BAmerica going to start changing from BA-HR-RBI to BA-OBP-SLG?

Alan Schwarz: Honestly, I wouldn't be against it, though we'd HAVE to put in something about games or at-bats to better understand what was going on. You simply have to remember that you guys -- BP fans -- are so ahead of the curve compared to most fans that you can't expect everyone to quickly catch up. Having worked for many different publications (BA, ESPN, The New York Times, Newsweek, etc.) I always am very careful to keep my audience in mind. That's what makes BP so great -- there's no BS, they get right to the point with things that you guys love.

FJ (SF Bay Area): Oh yeah, is there any online link to the study about peak performances for MLB hitters? Or is there a specific book that talks about it? Thanks!

Alan Schwarz: "the study" -- if I gave you the impression I was reading a specific study, I'm sorry....I was just going off my general impression after reading many of them. I'll bet a BP person has done something along the way, or can direct you to someone who has. And I'll bet BIll James did something on it with Win Shares in either the WS book or in his new Historical Abstract; after all, looking at aging was one of the reasons he invented the system.

Lumpy (L.A.): Once DePodesta took over as G.M. in Los Angeles, I (and many others, I imagine) was expecting a wholesale change in drafting philosophy, given that L.A. has historically been one of the most "anti-Moneyball" type of teams. Yet, the Dodgers snagged a high school pitcher with their first round pick, and went on to have a draft that would seem to be very un-DePodesta-like (at least, based on what Michael Lewis reported). Is this a matter of DePodesta having a hands-off approach with the draft his first year in L.A., or is he just less dogmatic than Lewis would have you believe?

Alan Schwarz: Contrary to many people's impression, Paul DePodesta is not a computer-wielding propellerhead. Far from it. He's an immensely intelligent, engaging, open-minded person who will always adapt to new surroundings. I never thought for a second that he would shove college-only philosophies down the DOdgers' throats. That method works for Oakland, which needs to develop prospects quickly into tradable commodities (like this year's deal for Octavio Dotel). The Dodgers have more time and can take greater financial risks. He always knew that; it's the outsiders who didn't know he knew.

Michael (Seattle, WA): Alan, first off thanks for doing this chat and I'm looking forward to reading your book. I'm interested in your thoughts on what will happen with the World Cup. Will it happen in the next couple of years in your view?

Alan Schwarz: Though this isn't final, I'd be surprised if there were a World Cup for 2005. Too many parties (the Asian leagues, the IBAF) are having territorial and financial fights with MLB/MLBPA for it to sorted out in time. I'll bet we have one in 2006, though. And it'll be really, really cool.

Steve (Baltimore): You wrote: Having worked for many different publications (BA, ESPN, The New York Times, Newsweek, etc.) I always am very careful to keep my audience in mind. Given that,what is the most difficult thing about keeping that audience in mind?

Alan Schwarz: I don't want to sound weird, here, but it really isn't difficult....An accountant keeps arithmetic in mind, a taxi-driver keeps his gas level in mind. It's such a part of the job that you don't think about it. You know before you start writing what key the story has to be written in.

FJ (Same place :p): On another random note, I was reading up an article someone had pointed to me about the Rangers pitchers and their sinkers. About how long does it usually take for a pitcher to establish a new pitch? And is there any way besides scouting to measure the effects of that pitch? Drese comes to mind with how completely-out-of-nowhere he came from with his two seamer....

Alan Schwarz: I think that's a great question -- but I'll bet there isn't one answer. You hear so many stories of pitchers learning a magic pitch quickly (wasn't Bobby Castillo the guy who taught Fernando the screwball?). Whether they pick it up slowly or quickly, though, that's why I'd hire the best teachers around. Toss $200,000 more into your budget for coaches, outhire everyone, and I'll bet you get $5 million of value back in player performance.

Michael (Seattle, WA): During the course of research and interviews for your book, were there any player statistics or achievements that you gained a new (or renewed) appreciation for? I've always felt that Hank Aaron's Total Bases (6,856, which is over 10% more than any other player) was a tremendous number.

Alan Schwarz: Honestly, no. Contrary to many initial guesses, the book is not about statistics. It's about people -- people obsessed with keeping or studying baseball's numbers, of developing new ways of looking at them, and how they aren't byproducts of computers or Bill James -- they've been around since the game began in 1845. I loved learning about the METHODS people developed, the passion they poured into them, but the actual numbers that derived from them didn't interest me that much.

Alan Schwarz: Well, folks, my hour is up. Thanks for a great chat -- you BP fans are really the most knowledgable out there, and it's great to talk with you. Hope to meet up with you again soon. Take care, and have a great pennant race.

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