The Once and Future
By Phil Bencomo
Victor Wang hasn't played baseball competitively since he was a kid. He knew, back in elementary school in the '90s, that he'd never reach the pros. That he'd struggle even in Little League. That he simply wasn't very good.
So he quit.
That should be the end of the story, right there, because that's when a child's dream dies and his head hangs while his heart trembles in his chest. Unless he wanted to hawk peanuts or work in accounting, Wang would never get a big league job. He'd never cut it as a player, and to work in the baseball operations department—in a position like scout or general manager—well, that took real, gritty hands-on experience as a player, a manager, a baseball man. Wang has almost no such experience.
But that was then. Before teams started raiding websites and blogs for top baseball researchers and statisticians. Before Michael Lewis published Moneyball. Before Bill James, Pete Palmer and other analysts awoke a generation to new ways of thinking about the game.
Today's baseball world differs greatly from the old. In this one, the dream lives on, and Wang hopes to someday be the general manager of a team. And, though his playing days are long over at just 19, in this sabermetric age he's well on his way, with an internship—yes, in the operations department—with the Cleveland Indians already on his résumé.
* * *
Of tiny rumblings and SABR-rattling
Baseball, more than most sports, is a game dominated by numbers. The .300 hitter, the 3000-hit player, the 300-game winner! Basketball's largely focused on superstars and their championships—how many times have you heard that LeBron James, no matter how many points he scores, will never be the best ever until he wins titles?—and football's a visceral game of fleet-footed grace and thunderous violence. Baseball has similar elements too, of course, but above all else its numbers are held sacred—just look at the outcry over steroids and the tainted records they wrought.
Perhaps the individuality of the game led to such an obsession. Two men stand bare, one on an earthen pedestal and the other 60 and a half feet away, before their teams and a wailing crowd with scrutinizing eyes. Every step is logged and distilled, and no ballplayer can hide.
But which numbers dominate the game? For decades the answer was simple: Batting average, home runs and RBI for hitters; wins, ERA and strikeouts for pitchers. They're still important, and there's power in their simplicity, but today those numbers are akin to back-of-the-envelope calculations—rough estimators that are good enough for the layman, though more scientific measurements are readily available, if not always easily understandable.
In baseball, those measurements, rooted in objectivity, are the product of sabermetrics—SABR (the Society for American Baseball Research) plus metrics—which has forever shaped the game and the people who work in it.
The field of sabermetrics isn't new. Bill James coined the term in 1980, defining it as “the mathematical and statistical analysis of baseball records,” but the principle—using objective analysis to better understand the game—is much older. As early as the 1870s, teams played “scientific baseball” that reflected growing American interest in science, writes Richard J. Puerzer in the baseball journal Nine, and the best managers used “a systematic plan ... of keeping the opponent guessing and studying the opponents so as to take advantage of their weaknesses.” But Babe Ruth and the live-ball era shifted emphasis to the home run, and scientific baseball faded in the bombastic Roaring '20s.
Objective analysis lurked in the underground for the rest of the century. Branch Rickey is most famous for breaking Major League Baseball's color barrier with Jackie Robinson in 1947, but the then-general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers also pioneered modern sabermetrics by hiring statistician Allan Roth the same year. Writing in Life magazine in 1954, Rickey said “goodbye to some old baseball ideas” and concluded that on-base percentage was a better measure of offensive prowess than batting average. That notion is a staple of sabermetric thinking today, but Rickey and Roth's work was largely ignored—which didn't surprise Rickey, who wrote, “Baseball people generally are allergic to new ideas.”
Earnshaw Cook's 1964 Percentage Baseball was no more hypoallergenic. In the 1970s and '80s, James, Palmer and others wrote for a small but growing number of sabermetric-minded fans. James' lucid and humorous writing, in particular, earned him a cult following, but baseball's front offices rarely paid attention.
Tom Tango was one of those fans. A computer specialist in his early 40s, Tango freelances part-time as an analyst for professional hockey and baseball teams, the total numbering in the double-digits, he writes in an e-mail. “My interest in analysis started with hockey. [Then] I read Pete Palmer's Linear Weights in a baseball digest. The final hook was the Bill James abstracts, around 1984. So, I got into it right around the time I should have been chasing girls.
“I've always been good with numbers from when I was a little kid,” he continued. “And I had a fascination with sports (baseball, hockey, football). I suppose seeing the two concepts merged into book was enough of a hook for me. And, seeing how they try to put order to those numbers, well, that probably is what kept me chasing.”
Exactly what changed baseball to enable a self-taught outsider like Tango—or James, who has said of himself, “I played the game, but I was never an athlete”—to work for a professional club is debatable, but the Internet, the increased availability and quantity of data and Moneyball are surely all at the core.
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Wang, soft- but well-spoken, is just 19. In his jeans and T-shirt, he looks it. But it's clear after talking with him even for a few minutes that his youth says nothing about his grasp of the game.
He hails from Bloomington, Minnesota, but grew up a Braves fan. He watched them “as a kid, back in their heyday, crushing teams” nationally on TBS, he says, “and I just sort of fell for baseball at that time.”
Wang played the game for a time, but, like many kids, he played poorly. “I knew my career would probably tap out in Little League at best,” he says. He stopped playing the game then, but he didn't abandon it. He voraciously followed the stats and standings, and grew ever more interested in the numbers in baseball.
“And then I read Moneyball,” Wang says. “I got it as a birthday present when I was 12 or 13. I just read that and I was like, ‘This stuff sounds pretty cool. I love baseball, I like numbers, it's the perfect combination. I'm pretty sure this is what I want to do for my life.’”
* * *
“After Michael Lewis called, things kind of snowballed.”
For almost 15 years Tango kept his analysis to himself, stored in notebooks and electronic files because, “frankly, none of my friends were into it anywhere close as I was,” he writes in an e-mail. “Things all changed when I stumbled upon BaseballBoards.com.”
For the first time, Tango had an outlet for his analysis, a way to connect with others as interested in better understanding the game as he was. “It was around the year 2000 or so,” he says. “There were a few of us that managed to congregate there. As luck would have it, we're all still pretty well-connected today, even though none of us have met.”
Now defunct, the website can still be viewed at Archive.org, and its strategy section was once home to a veritable All-Star cast of passionate sabermetricians—Tango, Mitchel Lichtman, Voros McCracken and others highly regarded in the saber community today. Tango and others would later launch their own websites to house research projects.
“The first time I knew that I was having an impact beyond our band of saberists is when Michael Lewis called,” Tango says. “After that, things kind of snowballed.”
Lewis was working on Moneyball, which told the story of general manager Billy Beane and the Oakland A's, who, though cash-strapped and disadvantaged, still managed to win at least 87 games every season from 1999 to 2006, twice winning more than 100. Guided by sabermetrics and work done for the team by previous GM Sandy Alderson and analyst Eric Walker, Beane identified undervalued skills, most notably on-base percentage, and filled his roster and farm system with cheap but effective players. And it worked.
Moneyball spent 20 weeks on the New York Times' best-seller list in 2003. For many readers, the book was their first brush with sabermetric thinking, and the story resonated with fans and baseball management alike. Existing analytic websites grew, and many new sites launched. Armchair analysts pushed the understanding of baseball ever further, inventing new statistics and objectively reevaluating old ones.
And a new career path to the front office was born. Many teams took notice and began hiring, and earnestly listening to, sabermetricians. Statistical analysts had worked for MLB teams before, but few had any real say in the decision-making, and the analytics and available data paled next to those of today. Walker, before more meaningful work with the A's, consulted with the Giants in the '80s, and he “had had some input into a few decisions, but most of what I advocated, while listened to, was never acted on,” he wrote for Deadspin in 2009.
Bill James took a job in late 2002 as senior operations advisor with the Red Sox under sabermetric-friendly executives, including then 28-year-old Yale grad Theo Epstein. Tango, who says he “had never considered working for a team really,” started consulting work in 2004. More than a dozen other analysts are known to have either worked for or consulted with teams in the last decade alone, a long way from lone-wolf Branch Rickey in the 1950s.
The Pittsburgh Pirates in 2008 hired Dan Fox, a former writer for Baseball Prospectus and a software architect, as their Director of Baseball Systems Development.
“I got interested in analysis probably like a lot of guys, by reading Bill James,” Fox says. “But I got away from that for a long time. In 2003, though, I really became reinterested in it. I read Moneyball, but also it was then that I first became aware of blogging. A colleague suggested starting a blog on software development. I wrote four posts before I realized it would be more fun to write about baseball.”
He also wrote for The Hardball Times, a sabermetric-minded website, from mid-2005 to the spring of 2006, when he moved to Baseball Prospectus. All the while he worked full-time developing software. “I was contacted by a few teams after I started at Baseball Prospectus,” he says. “I guessed then that [a career in baseball] could be possible, but teams didn't generally pay market value for skill-sets like mine. So it didn't seem like much of a possibility then.
“Later, the Pirates opportunity came along [in 2008],” he says. “It's a mix of the software and analytic sides, and it seemed interesting. I just had to sell it to my wife. Everything looked good and I thought, ‘Chances like these don't come around often.’”
The organization, which hasn't had a winning season in nearly two decades, has been receptive to new ideas “at pretty much all levels,” Fox says. “And if you make sound arguments backed by good information, people couldn't be happier to use it.”
* * *
With Moneyball in hand, Wang kept dreaming. To break into the baseball world, he created two modest goals: “I just tried to read as much as I could about the game and do well in school,” he says. “I wasn't sure how [a career in baseball] was going to happen. I just knew I wanted to do it.”
As a 16-year-old high school junior, Wang published his first research article, a regression analysis weighing the run value of on-base and slugging percentages, in By the Numbers, a newsletter published by the Society for American Baseball Research. It ran just half a page and less than 300 words in the August 2006 issue (PDF), but it was a start.
And luckily, Wang says, “a New York Times writer was writing about the same topic a few weeks after [my piece] got published, and he asked me to do an interview for his article.” After the writer, Alan Schwarz, learned that Wang was still in high school, “the article ended up featuring me a little more than I think he originally anticipated.” Wang would publish another three articles in By the Numbers over the next year, and in both 2007 and 2008 he won SABR's Jack Kavanagh Memorial Youth Baseball Research Award.
In January 2008, Wang began contributing to The Hardball Times. “I just did random pieces whenever I had time for them,” he says. Many of his articles explored the monetary value of prospects and draft picks, and that work earned him another honor in 2010—Best Novel Research Article/Project in Beyond the Box Score's Sabermetric Writing Awards.
Wang started college at Northwestern University in fall 2008. He chose it primarily for the academics and says it's “pretty well-regarded in what I wanted to major in, which was economics.” And, lest you forget his age, “It's close to Minnesota,” he adds, “but not so close that your parents can drive down on a weekend and surprise you.”
He also served as president of the university's Sports Business and Research Club and still wrote in his spare time. “I just continued to do that up until last year , my freshman year in school, when I got a summer internship offer from the Cleveland Indians.”
* * *
“I hadn't thought front office jobs were available to the normal person.”
It was March 2007, and Joe Sheehan felt terribly frustrated. He was a college graduate fresh off a summer-and-fall public relations internship with the Colorado Rockies, but he couldn't find a front office job. Instead, he faced another summer working for his uncle's towing company.
“Baseball has its own hiring schedule,” the now 25-year-old Sheehan says, “and once it's past February, it's closed for the season.”
He'd taken and enjoyed statistics classes at Oberlin College—he earned a degree in biology from the Ohio school in 2006—and dabbled in original research about his lifelong favorite game. “It was winter term my freshman year,” Sheehan says. “I took a class called ‘Stats in Sports.’ And so I started playing around with it. I learned by doing lots of googling. The Web was my friend. And then I was going to be graduating soon, and I started thinking about the baseball front office option, that I could make it my job. I hadn't really thought front office jobs were available to the normal person, without professional playing experience.”
But there are only so many jobs and, with so much competition, Sheehan needed a way to differentiate himself.
“During the 2006 playoffs I had started looking into PITCHf/x data,” he says. PITCHf/x is a pitch-tracking system used in all MLB ballparks. “And in March 2007, I started writing articles about it.”
For a year he researched and wrote, publishing online at Baseball Analysts and hoping that “with all my articles, I could point to something I'd done, not just a résumé. And writing online, the barrier for entry is so low. Teams can look at it, and see what you've done.”
The San Diego Padres liked what they saw, and Sheehan was offered a baseball operations internship in 2008. Last November he took a full-time job with the Pirates. His tow truck dispatcher days seem firmly behind him.
“I'm just enjoying the ride,” he says.
As Baseball Operations and Baseball Analytics Intern for the Indians last summer, Wang finally got a taste of the dream he's been chasing since childhood. “It was just waking up every morning, going to the ballpark,” he says. “Doing that was just fantastic.”
He worked in an office with Baseball Research and Analytics Manager Keith Woolner, a former Baseball Prospectus writer, and assistant Jason Paré, another BP alum. Wang can't discuss the specifics of his work, but he calls it a “fantastic” experience. He'll return to the Indians this summer. “You don't really feel like an intern there,” he says. “Mark [Shapiro, general manager,] had a great quote where he said, ‘When you're in the war room, title doesn't really matter. We're just going to take the best ideas possible.’ And I felt like that was really true.”
“I think there's been a societal trend toward making data-based decisions,” Fox says, and databases don't care who analyzes them. By coupling the democratizing power of the Web with the immense amounts of available data, brilliant ideas can come from anyone with a computer and a database, and good work can't be ignored. The next Bill James need not, as he once did, toil as a night watchman and sell hand-bound abstracts.
Wang calls Epstein and other Ivy League baseball executives role models. (“Of course I have to mention the Cleveland guys too, don't want to get them mad,” Wang adds with a laugh.) Epstein graduated from Yale in 1995, interning with the Baltimore Orioles during school summers, and earned a law degree from the University of San Diego while working for the Padres.
After Epstein's hiring, former Oakland player personnel director and Toronto Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi told Sports Illustrated, “There's sometimes the idea in baseball that if you didn't play or manage in the bigs, you don't know what a big league guy has to be.”
But sabermetric thinking picked apart that traditional belief, too. Epstein's Red Sox have won two championships under his management. The Tampa Bay Rays hired 28-year-old financial analyst Andrew Friedman as their VP of Baseball Operations in 2005, and he led the club from last place to the World Series in three seasons. The Texas Rangers hired Jon Daniels as GM at age 28 in 2005 as well. Not one of those men played baseball professionally.
The real challenge, Wang says, is further incorporating sabermetrics into a team's decision making, “and I think that'll be up to the main decision maker, the GM.” But, with a youthful generation of saber-friendly GMs on the way, that hurdle may soon be gone.
“The next decade, when you see those people who actually read Moneyball, they're going to be going to college, and you figure some of them will land positions [in baseball],” Wang says. “I think there's a chance that these execs could become The Moneyball Generation. For so many of those guys, that's how they got their interest in it, not interest in baseball per se, but in working in the game. I bet a lot of people didn't know that was an option until Moneyball came out. I didn't play professionally, but that doesn't mean I still can't work in baseball.”
Ask Wang about his own aspirations, and he'll respond without hesitation: “Be a GM of a team someday.” And today it's perfectly feasible that Wang, the kid who washed out of Little League, will do just that. ♦