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The man behind the numbers (cont.)

Posted: Tuesday February 6, 2007 3:54PM; Updated: Wednesday February 7, 2007 10:58AM
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SI.com: When you started the site, it was just you and a kind of low-tech computer. Are you still flying solo?

SF: Yeah, I've generated probably about 98 percent of the pages, or more. I've created the templates for the data. I haven't necessarily found all the data. The people at Retrosheet and the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), they just do incredible work. I often say that I'm just putting a friendly face on the things that they're doing. I certainly can't take credit for getting the data in the raw format. But one of the things that I think the site does well is make this data easy to find. That's always been a goal of mine, is to make things as quick and easy as possible.

SI.com: It's certainly not as loud and flashy as other sites. Do you ever feel the urge to jazz it up a little, just for look's sake?

SF: It probably wouldn't hurt to have a little more design to it. And you can do that in ways that won't be intrusive. But I tend to want to just get the data out there as cleanly as possible. People start relying on the site in different ways, and when you tweak something, you can get some complaints. I just added a feature where, when you're moving your mouse over some of the longer statistic lines, it'll highlight the line. I got a couple of people that complained that I was adding unnecessary things ...

SI.com: Your site currently deals with stats from previous seasons. I guess that makes the offseason the busiest, getting a season's worth of stats in?

SF: There's always new stuff. SABR produces a biographical newsletter that has about five or six pages of corrections -- some player from 1902 was found to actually have had a first name of Wilhelm, rather than Wilbur. I try to keep those updated. There's always some maintenance going on.

SI.com: When you launched the site, did you envision it turning into a full-time gig? Are you living your dream?

SF: It's been a lot of fun doing this. I really enjoy coming to work. I certainly don't want to say I was trying to leave St. Joe's, or I didn't enjoy my time there, because I definitely did. But my wife likes to tell the story ... the first time she went with me to a math conference, I had a couple of people come up to me and talk to me, and they seemed excited to meet me. She realized then it was because of Baseball-Reference, not because I was a great mathematician. My gifts probably lay more with designing and working on Baseball-Reference than they did with mathematics.

SI.com: I get this image that you're hunkered down in some dark office with huge computers whirring. Tell me about where you work.

SF: It's not big. It's probably 12 by 12 or so. It's actually in a church near where we live [in the Mount Airy section of Philadelphia]. One entire side of the wall is nothing but bookcases. It's mostly baseball books, from floor to ceiling, and a lot of computer books, and some business books as well. I have a complete run of Sporting News Baseball Guides, from 1946 to 2006. A fairly complete run of Baseball Registers as well. I have probably 12 baseball encyclopedias of different vintage and different flavor ... just a lot of reference materials that I refer to when somebody writes in and says you have an error on this page.

SI.com: So all the books, the encyclopedias, are they the final statistical word? Are they the official record?

SF: That's one of the things, I think, that people don't realize -- just how many errors there are in the official record. [Historians] were looking through large ledger pages, and adding them up every day, and keeping cumulative records. And sometimes they just got off by a column, and put the guy's RBIs in his sacrifice bunts column. I just got an e-mail from somebody who found like 83 different RBIs from 1928 that weren't assigned to anybody, and updated the records. Even the league leaders in some of those earlier seasons aren't quite right. It's always a bit of a moving target.

SI.com: Any baseball memorabilia in the office?

SF: I'm a Red Sox fan, so I have a poster of Fenway up on the wall. And my whiteboard with all the projects I'm hoping to get done in the next few months.

SI.com: How do you determine which stats to use on the site and how to make both the statheads and the casual fan happy?

SF: There's always a very fine line. I don't know that there's necessarily a huge amount to be gained by going into the really, really heavy duty hardcore Sabermetrics statistics. You're going to lose a lot of the audience when you do that. So I've tried to present things in a way that I've felt an average fan who reads the paper, who follows the game, a way that even if they don't have a complex understanding of Sabermetrics, that they could still get something out of it.

We recently added a neutralize stats button on all the player pages. What that does is it takes the player and it tries to convert their stats into what you might consider an average season. For instance, Helton, his stats are obviously affected dramatically by playing at a very high offensive level and playing at Coors Field. [The neutralize stats button is] a fairly complicated Sabermetrics technique. So, rather than trying to explain to every user how these park factors work, or how they should adjust it, I try to present it in a format that's going to be fairly easy for them to make comparisons ...

SI.com: Not to get personal or anything, but do you consider yourself a stats geek?

SF: Well, I think by definition, doing the site, I have to be a stats geek. Certainly, I've read most, if not all, of the [Sabermetrics] abstracts. I read a lot of stuff about that. I don't want to discount any of the work by scouts, or people who are in the more observational studies. But, I have a PhD. in mathematics [University of Iowa], and I know statistics. I've created a few statistics as well. I feel I want to keep an open mind, and that's probably more where my interests are.

SI.com: You don't live far from Citizens Bank Park in Philly. Do you go to many games?

SF: Probably 15 or 20 times a season.

SI.com: What do you like to watch when you go?

SF: I like to sit up fairly high behind the catcher, and I really like to watch how the outfielders track the ball. I try to watch the fielders, what their first steps are. Things that you don't see on TV. The fielder is always in motion before the camera gets to them. I think that gives you a very poor view [on TV] of what defensive ability actually is. Those first two steps make a big difference in who's good and who's not, defensively.

SI.com: Do you keep score at the game?

SF: Not so much. My wife actually ... sometimes she'll keep score just to keep herself amused.

SI.com: Do you root for the Phillies?

SF: I've had playoff tickets the last four years now. I'd like to eventually get to use them. I really enjoy watching [Ryan] Howard and [Chase] Utley play. And I'm excited to see what [Cole] Hamels does this year, as well. But, deep down, I pull for the Red Sox to win.

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