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Books | Sports

April 2, 2007

A Sabermetric Scribe

Steven Goldman of Baseball Prospectus talks about the chase for 756, the impact of 'Moneyball,' and why Don Mattingly made him a baseball fan.

Vincent Valk

Baseball Prospectus is known for using modern numerical tools to analyze the game, but the site also has a "liberal arts wing," charged with writing up BP's often counterintuitive results. So says Steven Goldman, co-editor of Baseball Prospectus 2007: The Essential Guide to the 2007 Baseball Season, who's traveling around the country to promote this latest edition.

Steven Goldman
"The great thing about baseball is what it can do as a business that commands public respect. It could set a good example and be visible about global warming, although now it is just doing typical money-saving things, like turning off lights."

Steven Goldman

Goldman, a New Jersey-ite who looks a bit like fellow Garden Stater Kevin Smith (although so far as we know he's avoided the temptation to make a sequel to Jersey Girl), has been writing about baseball since 1998. He writes the Pinstriped Bible and Pinstriped Blog for YESnetwork.com, and is a regular contributor to the BP website (his most prominent feature is the column "You Could Look It Up"). He is also the author of Forging Genius: The Making of Casey Stengel, an ode to the late manager of both the Yankees and the Mets.

Goldman spoke with me via cellphone while on a New Haven-to-Manhattan Metro North train, during which we both discovered that you don't want to rely on your cell service in Norwalk. In the following interview—edited for clarity—Goldman critiques the science of performance-enhancing drugs, rips on center fielder Juan Pierre, and defends BP from the barbs of New York Times writer Murray Chass. (Also, you can hear Goldman and other baseball-book authors read from and talk about their works at the free Varsity Letters event presented by Gelf on Wednesday, April 4, in New York's Lower East Side.)

Gelf Magazine: Will Barry Bonds reach 756? [BP projection system] PECOTA seems to think so—what's your take?

Steven Goldman: It would take an act of God for him to not reach 756; a meteor will have to hit him or something. It's regrettable because of all the stuff attached to him. That said, the history of the game is not so sacrosanct and perfect. Babe Ruth was doing it in a lily-white league with two teams that were always miserable [the A's and the Red Sox, sometimes the Browns]. Also, there's never been a test that shows what performance-enhancing drugs do to a player. We can't get mice to hit home runs.
In Howard Bryant's book Juicing the Game, he interviews a professor who is giving steroids to guinea pigs. The nonviolent pigs become violent predators after being given doses of steroids. Then we find out that the pigs were being given human doses. The science has a long way to go before we definitively know what Barry Bonds's cream and clear amounted to.

GM: In an offseason filled with big-money contracts, what do you think was the worst big-league acquisition (free agent or trade)? The best?

SG: Worst is pretty easy: Juan Pierre [acquired by the Dodgers]. He's durable, but he's not useful if he doesn't hit .320. He's not a good center fielder and has no power and no walks. He doesn't really do much to create runs. The best is probably the Red Sox with Dice-K. He seems to have No. 1 starter stuff.

GM: What are the latest areas of sabermetric research? What's being done in those areas?

SG: I'm really the wrong guy to ask. Baseball Prospectus is a combination of researchers, writers, and writer/researchers. Christina Kahrl and I call ourselves the "liberal arts wing" of BP. Clay Davenport, Keith Woolner, and Nate Silver come up with the new [statistical] stuff. We try to interpret their work for the public.
If anything, defensive stats are still the next great frontier. There are so many, and they don't correlate well. I like to use a few and try to get a consensus take. Until the point where baseball sticks GPS on everyone's cap, defense is going to be hard to quantify.

"There's never been a test that shows what performance-enhancing drugs do to a player. We can't get mice to hit home runs."
GM: With a plethora of exciting young players emerging, baseball appears to be undergoing something of a changing of the guard. If you could have any three players 25 or under on your team, which ones would you choose? SG: Off the top of my head: Grady Sizemore, Chris Young, and Phil Hughes. Multidimensional players who do a bit of everything, like Sizemore or Bernie Williams during his peak, deserve more credit.

GM: Borrowing from The Baseball Analysts, which team do you think is most likely to win 10 more games? Lose 10 more?

SG: Lose 10 more: the Nationals. You can keep adding 10 losses to them, and it may not be enough. Their pitching is that thin, and their offense isn't particularly good, either. Win 10 more: the Diamondbacks. I'm jumping on their bandwagon; I like Chris Young and Carlos Quentin, to name a couple of guys. It might be easier, though, for a team like the Cubs, just because they started so low.

GM: Was last year (especially in the National League) the start of a new era of parity in MLB, or was it just an aberration? What role do you think parity has played, or will play, in baseball?

SG: Last year was really strange for the NL. Off the top of my head, I can't recall the last time when there was such a huge gap between the two leagues. Part of it is self-inflicted. Some NL teams—like the Astros, who punt three lineup spots—have made some really poor decisions. We have to wait a couple more years and see if parity persists. I don't know if it will, as the status quo in baseball rarely holds. Eventually, someone will pick up an All-Star worth 7 to 10 wins and be dominant.

"Until the point where baseball sticks GPS on everyone's cap, defense is going to be hard to quantify."
GM: Will Weiss wrote an essay in Baseball Prospectus 2007 discussing MLB's efforts to be more sensitive towards environmental concerns. What role might an organization such as MLB—which is not generally seen as a big polluter, but has a great deal of visibility and influence—play in curbing global warming and conserving the environment?

SG: I love talking about that essay—I came up with the idea and commissioned Will to do it. I always wondered what will happen when gas prices skyrocket, and you're sitting on the Deegan bleeding gas—how will that impact people's behavior and the game's revenue? Also, how much are the fans and teams contributing to global warming? After looking into it, we found enough material for a couple of books and five years of follow-ups; the essay was just scratching the surface.
Baseball acknowledges it can do something, although now it is just doing typical money-saving things, like turning off lights. The great thing about baseball, really, is what it can do as a business that commands public respect. It could set a good example and be visible about it [global warming], like the Philadelphia Eagles' Go Green effort. Teams should lobby for more public transportation and less parking for the new stadiums. Face it, with 50,000 people driving to the ballpark every day, you're a polluter.

GM: If the Yankees made you their GM tomorrow, what moves would you make (within the bounds of reason, of course)? How about the Mets?

SG: If I'm the Yankees, I'd get a real first baseman. They're traumatized by Giambi and Sheffield, but I'm skeptical of the value of a pure glove at first base. There were talks this offseason about Richie Sexson, or Casey Kotchman, whose upside might just be Doug Mientkiewicz. Still, I'd rather roll the dice on a 23-year-old than go for a guaranteed mediocrity.
As for the Mets, I wouldn't have re-upped Jose Valentin, but they're doing a lot of things right. I also wouldn't re-sign Paul Lo Duca; that's a disastrous idea. He's the kind of guy who will be worthless when his batting average declines. I wouldn't have dealt for Shawn Green, but now that they have him, I'd give Lastings Milledge a chance to put him on the bench.

"No one is ignoring sabermetrics. Some teams are more open to it than others, although the scouting/stats divide is exaggerated. You need to have both to understand what's happening."
GM: What other sports do you like? Why? Has Baseball Prospectus ever considered a spinoff?

SG: I like football a lot; I just enjoy it. I must admit that playing fantasy got me into football, whereas fantasy baseball distracts me from the whole game. In football, there's not the same emotional investment for me, so fantasy adds something. There already is a spinoff called Pro Football Prospectus 2007: The Essential Guide to the 2007 Pro Football Season. It's coming out in July from Plume, and it's run by Aaron Schatz. Their website is Football Outsiders.

GM: Who is your all-time favorite player? Feel free to be as subjective as possible.

SG: My all-time favorite player is Don Mattingly—he's the guy who transformed me from a casual fan to a dedicated fan. Mattingly had a really unique style, with his bat control, the power he got out of a small body, and the great glove. I indirectly owe my career to him because he piqued my interest. My all-time favorite baseball-anyone is Casey Stengel.

GM: You wrote a book about Casey Stengel, which may seem odd considering that some sabermetricians have contended that managers don't matter. What made you want to write about Stengel? What is genius for a baseball manager, and did Stengel have it?

SG: Most of us don't believe that managers don't matter. Their importance is hard to quantify, and the in-game stuff is exaggerated: The bunting and stealing and all that, it's kind of masturbatory and doesn't amount to much. Where they do have an impact is in setting the tone for the team, and in player usage: stuff like the distribution of plate appearances and playing time. For example, the Mets have been batting David Wright second instead of Paul Lo Duca, which makes a lot of sense because now Wright will have 60 more chances to hit. [Eds. Note: Lo Duca returned to his No. 2 spot for the season opener Sunday.] It's harder to find a statistical record, but you can see it in a team's makeup. A great big-league manager has a great deal of mental flexibility, and Stengel loved to improvise. He was not into hard-and-fast rules about how to use players; he used everybody. He used platoons and shifted players to different positions. My book shows how Stengel developed those skills, which he then brought to bear on the Yankees in the late '40s and '50s.

GM: Aside from Oakland's Billy Beane, who are the most sabermetrically inclined GMs around today? Are some teams still ignoring sabermetrics?

SG: I don't want to single out any GMs; at BP we try to stay on good terms with everyone. No one is ignoring sabermetrics. Some teams are more open to it than others, although the scouting/stats divide is exaggerated. You need to have to both to understand what's happening—stats are an objective record of what happens, and they can be diced in ways that allow greater insight. Even if there was one scout for every player in organized ball, no one has a good enough memory to remember every pitch of, say, Alfonso Soriano's 700 plate appearances. Every team understands that to a greater or lesser degree.
That being said, there are individuals who are more or less dismissive of stats—some reactionary old-timers who may feel threatened by it.

"I have a lot of respect for Murray Chass, but who the fuck said that numbers play baseball? Nobody ever said that or thinks that."
GM: Was the publication of Moneyball a boon or a setback for sabermetrics? What are your thoughts on the book?

SG: I think it was a boon because it focused mainstream attention on some of these ideas. It was a tremendous story and a well-written book, and a great thing for Baseball Prospectus.

GM: Which national journalists and analysts are most favorably disposed towards sabermetrics (save the obvious Rob Neyer)? Least favorably disposed towards it (save the obvious Joe Morgan)?

SG: I don't want to single anyone out, but Murray Chass's recent comments about us [Baseball Prospectus] seemed very reactionary. I have a lot of respect for Chass, but who the fuck said that numbers play baseball? Nobody ever said that or thinks that. Stats are a record. His job, even at his advanced age of 7,006, is to know as much about the game as possible, but he said he didn't give a damn and that's not cool.

You can hear Goldman and other baseball-book authors read from and talk about their works at the free Varsity Letters event presented by Gelf on Wednesday, April 4, in New York's Lower East Side.

Vincent Valk

Vincent Valk is online editor for Chemical Week magazine.







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Article by Vincent Valk

Vincent Valk is online editor for Chemical Week magazine.

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