The man behind the numbers (cont.)
Posted: Tuesday February 6, 2007 3:54PM; Updated: Wednesday February 7, 2007 10:58AM
SI.com: How is it that you're a Boston fan?
SF: My joke is that it's park factors. I grew up in Iowa, and the Red Sox were always the top batting team when I looked in the Sunday paper. I was a big Wade Boggs fan growing up, and I tried to get my on base percentage as high as possible when I was in Little League and high school baseball.
SI.com: Nothing says future stats geek like a 10-year-old kid who knows about the importance of on-base percentage.
SF: My first favorite player was Rickey Henderson, so I would get in a deep crouch and try to get on base by any means necessary. I knew that was probably important fairly early on.
SI.com: Name the one current player you'd start a team with?
SF: I'd probably go with Johan Santana. Joe Mauer might be up there as well, because he plays catcher. To be honest with you, if I knew that Alex Rodriguez could play a good shortstop, I still might pick him. At third base, he's not quite as valuable. But he's still a great player.
SI.com: Most overrated player in the big leagues, statistically speaking?
SF: The stathead community, the whipping boy for most overrated -- and this is only in one aspect -- would be Derek Jeter because of his defense. I would probably go with that.
SI.com: Yet Jeter is near the top of the league in many offensive categories, even in Sabermetric terms.
SF: I think he's actually underrated offensively. It's just his defense. I think, if a fan at a game really watched it and compared the two shortstops, they would be able to see a difference. They would see that the opposing shortstop -- especially if you're looking at somebody like Adam Everett -- is taking two nice, short, quick steps to the ball before Jeter really gets going. That's just my opinion. Certainly, the Gold Glove voters disagree.
SI.com: Most underrated player?
SF: Historically, Tim Raines comes to mind. I think Bobby Abreu is a little underrated. He's certainly not underpaid.
SI.com: OK, so when I'm firing these quick-hitters at you, what statistics are you considering?
SF: I'm looking at runs created and adjusted OPS.
SI.com: So if you're a regular baseball fan, that's what you should be looking at, as far as some of the non-mainstream statistics?
SF: If you're trying to pick the best players of all time, it's very important to adjust for the context of what the player played in. I would look at adjusted OPS -- OPS-plus. That compares the player to the rest of the league (you take the pitchers out) and also adjusts by park factor. And ERA-plus is the same sort of idea. It's the ratio of the pitcher's ERA to the league ERA. I think those two numbers give you an idea of how good a player was, on a rate basis, compared to the players in the rest of the league.
The other statistic that I think is often underrated is age. For instance, you compare the Mets' two great young players, [Jose] Reyes and [David] Wright, to Utley and Howard, the Mets players are quite a bit younger than the two Phillies are. To me, that indicates that they're likely to have a higher peak than the Phillies guys. Right now, they're pretty close -- though, neither of [the Mets] matched what Howard did. But if you give them a couple more years to grow, a couple more years to get to their peak ages of 27, 28, 29, that's going to allow them a little more room to improve than what the Phillies guys likely will have.
SI.com: What stats should we throw out?
SF: I would say RBIs are probably up there. If you go to the player game log pages, I actually list how many RBI opportunities the players have had. I suspect that tracks pretty closely to the leaders in RBIs each year. On the pitching side, I would probably go with win-loss percentage. I try to downplay, in my mind, the stats that I feel are dependent on how good your teammates are. Those are the common ones I think statheads pick on.
SI.com: What sites do you look at that aren't baseball sites?
SF: There are a lot of Web 2.0 blogs that I follow, like Techcrunch, or Mashable, or paidcontent.org. There are a few political blogs that I follow as well. When the elections roll around, my production drops pretty dramatically. And the trading deadline is the same thing. It's impossible for me to get anything done around the trading deadline because I'm constantly refreshing to see if any trades have taken place in the last 30 seconds.
SI.com: Give me a part of your site that you'd like more people to know about.
SF: If you go to the yearly team pages, I have a list of every starting lineup that the team used in that season. Not only the starting lineup from the defensive standpoint, but also the starting batting order for that team. I also have, for the franchise history, the most common starters at each position listed. That's kind of neat, where you can see how the third basemen for the Cubs have changed every single year over the last how many years, and how some positions seem to have a lot of stability in some franchises, and some don't.
SI.com: What's new on the site?
SF: We've launched a new area of the site called the Player Index. Thanks to the guys at Retrosheet, who just do tremendous work, there's now 50 years of play-by-play data available to the public. I've created a series of tools that analyze this data, so you can do things like see a list of every double that Tim Raines hit in his career. It will show you the pitcher, it'll show you the inning, it'll show you the runners on base, in many cases it will show you where he hit the double to. You can do things like find the last Mets first baseman to have three home runs in a game. You can find the youngest player to ever have four stolen bases in a game, in the last 50 years. Taking this data set, which involved almost 8 million plays, and generating outputs from that has been a big task for me in the last year.
I'm looking at adding some minor league stats, probably in the next three or four months. And then just filling in places where I have gaps after that. Being able to do this fulltime has really kind of unleashed a lot of ideas that before I didn't think I had any chance of getting done. It's been exciting.
SI.com: OK, finally, your site has dealt with historical statistics, everything up to and including the past season. Any plans on incorporating current year statistics into the site, so that we can go see a player's stats, or a team's, up-to-date?
SF: That's on my list of things to do this year. The thing is, I've planned to do that the last two years and not gotten it done. But I'm confident I'll get it done this year.