How different are the data available at the major league level to what is recorded at the minor league level?
Most of the information we have on major league players is also available on minor leaguers at this point. One of the key differences is that a lot of the minor league data we have doesn’t go back as far so in that sense it can pose some challenges when trying to draw comparable players or things of that nature for minor leaguers. But at this point there’s so much interest in the game and there’s a real appetite that people have for all sorts of data, that most things that are tracked for minor leaguers. Not every minor league park has F/X data and obviously some publically available advanced stats like UZR aren’t there for minor leaguers. But it wouldn’t surprise me if that changes in the near future. Obviously we try to gather as much information as we can and certainly minor league stats and metrics are a big part of what we look at.
As a follow-up, do the Indians try to employ rigorous statistical approaches at all levels of the organization, or do they focus primarily on the big league club?
We try to touch every area we can. That includes not only analyzing players but helping out with the player development staff, coaching staff, medical staff, and other areas where we can be of assistance. All of it is of course with the goal of helping our big league club win games, whether that’s now or in the future. But yeah we analyze players at the major, minor, and amateur levels. Independent leagues, Mexican leagues, Korean leagues, if there’s a player we like we’re going to take a look at it through an analytical lens. Now obviously, what we look for and how much we weigh stats vs. the opinions of scouts, etc, changes depending on who we’re looking at.
Do you think the Indians use of and data represents a competitive advantage for the club?
I sure hope so. More importantly I sure hope my bosses do. But obviously, yes, I do think that approaching the game with an analytical perspective adds value. That’s not to say other approaches aren’t valuable. Getting the perspective from a purely scouting approach also adds value. And that’s not to say a front office has to be big into sabermetrics to win, there are teams that aren’t and they have won. But we’re looking for every edge possible and having a solid grounding in analytics definitely helps in decision making. As you look around baseball I think you see that other teams are seeing the value of the analytical approach as well. That makes our work all the more important as we constantly try to stay ahead of the curve.
If you were to accompany the team on a West coast road trip and I told you that you had to watch either Moneyball or Major League 2 on the in-flight movie, which do you choose and why?
Moneyball, for sure. It’s the movie based on the book that helped make jobs like mine possible, so I have to go with it. Not everything in the movie is a perfect portrayal of how a front office operates of course. There aren’t 10 of us all standing around Chris Antonetti’s desk and whispering in his ear with Billy Beane in his office for instance and the portrayal of the scouts was over the top, but I thought it was enjoyable.
How intense do the informal NCAA tournament bracket pools get in the Indians front office?
Actually, you’d be surprised. We’re all so busy with baseball, that’s there’s actually not that much NCAA talk around the office. We’re all pretty focused on getting ready for the season, whether we’re down in Arizona or up in Cleveland. My interest in other sports has definitely fallen off somewhat since joining the Indians. Boring answer, but it’s true.
Before joining the Indians organization, you wrote for both baseballanalysts.com and SI.com. What role did this work play in getting you a job with Cleveland?
I can say with near certainty that I would have had no chance to land this job without my experience with Baseball Analysts or SI. There are a ton of people with advanced degrees in statistics – I have a Masters from Illinois - and a lot of them probably would love to work in sports, but the demonstrated ability to apply the academic knowledge to baseball was a separator. It allowed Keith Woolner and the others in the office to see how my brain thought about baseball and whether they thought my style of thinking would add value to the organization. Apparently they liked what they saw. Growing up I always wanted to work for a team. I burned a couple of summers in college trying to land internships in baseball to no avail and then decided I had better try to focus on another type of career. But the pull of baseball was strong – I still had ideas and did some work on my own just for fun while working as a statistician at a DC research company. In February 2009, I started a blog that literally averaged 5 readers a day. In trying to drum up some readers, I emailed Rich Lederer of Baseball Analysts and he thought enough of my blog to invite me to join his team. I ditched my own blog and starting writing there, one column a week. Dave Studemund asked me to write something for the Hardball Times Annual and through him I got in contact with SI. It started small there, but they liked my work enough that they asked me to start writing a weekly column on the main website. Then around Christmas another MLB team liked my work at Baseball Analysts and SI enough that they asked if I’d be interested in doing some consulting with them. Of course I did happily. That winter I saw the job opening for the Indians and by April I was hired. So basically everything happened for me in the span of just 14 months. I was lucky they hired me too because by the end writing two columns a week and consulting, all while working my regular job was not a sustainable lifestyle. I was in the right place at the right time, but it all started out with putting my stuff out there. Whenever people say they want to get into the industry as an analyst, I tell them to just starting doing work and getting it on the internet. If it’s good, the work will stand on its merits, you can build name recognition, and teams will take notice.
Do you live in Cleveland, or does your position with the club let you work remotely?
I’m in Cleveland. There are a lot of advantages to working in the office with the rest of the Baseball Operations staff. We’re a tight knit group and being there is an essential part of being part of the team. I’ve learned a lot from them and I think it helps a lot with buy-in as well. People are naturally going to trust information from people they trust and there’s a big advantage to having relationships with the decision makers and other guys in the office vs. just being a guy who comes around a few times a year and sends statistical analysis through email.
If I remember correctly, you are originally from Toronto and a Blue Jays fan. Working for the Indians, do you still have fan loyalty to another team?
Actually I was a Cubs fan before my life with the Indians. I can honestly say I’m a 100% Indians supporter now. I have friends who can’t believe I no longer root for the Cubs, but it was actually a much quicker and easier transition than you might think. Once you’re providing analysis and opinions to decision makers and they’re using your stuff help improve the team, you take ownership over that and your loyalties switch pretty quickly.