In December 2003, at Baseball's
Winter Meetings in
There was seemingly nothing unique about Mejdal, as there were plenty of other people at the Meetings with the exact same objective; to find someone willing to give an unknown a chance to work in this game they had followed for so many years.
For Sig, it wasn't meant to be. At least, not in the way he intended at the time he expected. Along came this crazy writer and as they say, you can read the rest in the book.
Part One of this interview will focus on Mejdal in Fantasyland, while Part Two will cover Sig's work with the Cardinals.
Sig, what brought you back to fantasy baseball after being away from it for ten years?
Nothing but Sam. Running into Sam in lobby of the Marriott Hotel and then him looking for someone to help him with his book, plus paying the person, and offering what looked like a neat experience. It seemed like a great excuse to spend a whole bunch of my waking hours doing baseball research or struggling with questions all in the hopes of improving the fantasy team.
Did you go to the Winter Meetings expecting to get a job in fantasy baseball?
No, no way. I was there with some very tentative meetings planned with some GMs at the Winter Meetings and I was in the middle of what I would call stalking them. I was waiting in the lobby for one to walk from the elevator to the front door so I could say "hi" to them again.
You can imagine it is difficult getting your foot in the door. I had been writing unsolicited proposals, different marketing documents. But, there was very little to do for much of the day. There were reporters there. So, I was talking to them and Sam was one of them. He was in the very early stages of starting his book and was looking for somebody to help him, so that was the connection there. I had no interest in getting into the fantasy world.
It sounded like great fun and probably I realized it was going to give me an excuse to spend much of my day working on baseball questions. And, I imagined these questions and the answers that I would come up with must be useful for anyone as I was trying to get associated with a major league team. Some of this work could have been used in my unsolicited proposal writing stuff.
It was probably a good excuse to not pick up a contract in the real world. Even though he was paying pennies, it was still work and it was an excuse not to look for real work.
Were you surprised at the lengths Sam went to try to win?
You know, I think maybe perhaps when I look back on it all, or when I read the book and how he describes it so well… But, I think when I was working with him, it was like little baby steps. "Oh, wow, you have access to the GMs" or he'd get to bounce that question off the manager or you get to try your best to get some inside information. So, when it was going on, I didn't think it was all that extraordinary. It was a guy who had access to the GMs and he sneaks in a question or two from time to time.
I guess when I found myself picketing in San Francisco so Jose Guillen would not be benched, I realized something was a little bit off-balance here. And, none of my friends saw me, so that is ok.
What were some of your other favorite experiences during this time?
I had a funny conversation with Jarrod Washburn. I visited Sam in Spring Training. And he said, "OK, Sig, we're now going to the clubhouse to get information that is going to help our team." There was nothing. I mean, what are you going to ask him? "Are you going to play well this year?" There was nothing I was going to get from them.
I was in the clubhouse, I had to think of things to ask him. So, I had the Bill James Handbook and I just found some interesting splits. Jarrod Washburn's success was either with the bases empty or with the first hitter that he sees in an inning. And so, I was asking him about it. He was quite surprised. You know, the conversation went well. He didn't know about this. He was fascinated with it asking me what it meant, what to do about it, all that sort of thing.
I remember Sam looking from a distance like, "What in the world am I getting myself into?" It was a great experience. That guy, even though this is his livelihood, he didn't know of these characteristics. And when he was shown them, he was fascinated with them. He was interested in them. That was neat. That was sort of fun to be talking to the player as a person.
I had never been in a clubhouse. I had to imagine, "Wow, these are baseball players. What am I going to think?" But, when I was in there, it wasn't. These were guys that made their living that way and I had questions for them and they were curious about the questions, too.
There were a few of them, where I
thought "What in the world has happened to my life? What am I doing?" When we went to
There was the case of David Littlefield (Pirates GM) and Doug Mientkiewicz. I remember Sam calling me the day before and asking me, "Why should the Pirates pick up Mientkiewicz?" And I go, "They shouldn't. He is too expensive." He goes. "No, no, I need a reason why they should!"
"Maybe you could make some
argument about the number of ground ball pitchers on their club and their
infield and as a result, how he is going to be tested like Dominik Hasek in
Then, Sam says to Littlefield, "I am working with some engineer from NASA." He replied, "Sig. Oh yeah, I've got his brochure." I had been following everybody for a year and a half by then, so they all knew that was me.
When you signed on with Sam, did you know a book was coming?
Yes, definitely, I knew he was writing a book. I thought to myself, but I never told Sam, "A book about fantasy baseball – who is going to care to read about that?" And then I figured, "Well, that is his problem." I get to do this fun work. I get to have this neat experience. And, the book will come out and maybe I will be mentioned or thanked in the pressers or something and that will be fine. That was sort of my expectation.
The whole angle of the book was news to me. I didn't know the experiences we were having during the season were going to be much of the content of the narrative of the book. I didn't know what he was going to talk about, but I didn't think it was going to be like the stuff that we did, you know?
Given this is a book written about fantasy baseball, it is so good. Sam is such a good writer. Many of the things we did just sound like wonderfully exciting when I read about them. Then I think, "Holy smokes, I was there." His timing. I mean, he really writes so well that I think it is going to be a big help for the book.
Sam delivers razor-sharp commentary on most of the book's characters. He did the same with you, yes?
I am described as a guy who was
wearing the type of tie you wear when you don't wear ties very often. That is a
good description. I come from
You developed a tool that projects performance and manages auctions called Zoladex. Did you start it before meeting Sam?
I developed it specifically for this purpose. Now, the projections of how players are going to do next year, that's nothing that hasn't been done before. For many of the players who have a recent chunk of their playing experience in the minor leagues, Shandler's and Baseball Prospectus and maybe Diamond Mind's projections were inarguably better than mine. We just simply didn't have the budget or the time to buy the minor league data to go through it, so we used that - a combination of Shandler's and Diamond Mind and some of my own to do the projections.
After all that, why did
I think a big chunk of where you finish is good fortune. That undoubtedly there is some skill involved and some of the more skilled persons have an edge, but it is a slight edge. And, it is going to take more than one year of a sample to see that.
Whether we had an edge or not, I don't know. I think we had no surprises. We didn't have any mediocre players who became starters because the guy ahead of them was injured and was now the steal of the draft. We didn't have luck. A good sample of our hitters, they were about all, I think, below projected. I think whatever creates variability when it is the same people participating in the same thing. We didn't have luck that year but in the following year, we won it.
How much better would
I think you get a sense from the book that there were other constraints and desires in the draft that precluded just taking the best players that would score us the most points, but also the guys that Sam was interested in – that had a good story about him. So, many of the guys that we wanted to take, that we ended up with, we were leaning heavily toward taking them before the draft. And it wasn't because they had great statistical projections.
So, that was a bit of a pressure, but after the draft, I was still happy with the team we had. According to the projections, we were as good as anybody. So, even with those constraints, I still would have expected us within that sample to do better. Like I said, I think all these guys know what they are doing and are pretty much playing the same game. That we won one out of two years isn't much evidence that we are better than them. We're playing the same game as them.
Did you also help
Yes, I did my projections again and sent them to him. I didn't attend the draft with him, so I don't know how heavily he relied on them. I think it is safe to say that he relied more heavily on them in '05 than he did in '04.
Don't you find it ironic that he won the league the year after the book's subject season?
I think that is reading a little bit much into what the standings mean. Throw a couple of injuries our way or a couple of disappointing projections and we would have ended up in the middle there. I'd love to say "Aha! This proves that these projections are better than others." But I don't think that is the case.
In Fantasyland, you are characterized as being totally against qualitative methods like observation and intuition in favor of quantification. Is that accurate and if so, why?
I come from the research world, so I think I have a bias toward data-driven decision-making. Because we observe it, because we perceive it, it doesn't mean that it is so. Human decision and human observation have many inefficiencies associated with them. Just like data analysis has its shortcomings, too. So, I think I was data-driven 100% of the time, so I was perhaps a bit of a cynic when they said, "Aha! His Dad says he is going to have a breakout year."
You ask my parents and they probably would be saying the same thing, but I wouldn't want to draft me for this league. So, I think I was always cynical of it – I always questioned it. But, it has value, of course. But, until you can really quantify it, analyze it and separate the truth from the convention, I think you should be skeptical of it. So, perhaps I am painted as a polar opposite or completely on this side, but that's not the case. And now, when I work with the Cardinals, I am able to see firsthand the value of the subjective evaluation.
Others will surely profit from Fantasyland. Have you ever thought about selling Zoladex to other fantasy players?
No, no. As you can imagine, it was put together in a few weeks and it was sort of jimmy-rigged. It would only function with me and a part of the time, I would be figuring out in real-time what was wrong with it. It is quite a ways away. I haven't looked around, but I bet others have stuff that is just as good and more professionally done.
Does it bother you to be characterized in the book as a rocket scientist type?
I guess I have just been inclined for that. Ever since I was a kid, from playing All-Star Baseball or keeping track of statistics, I have always been fascinated with it. Perhaps the skills I got in high school were really driven by baseball. The statistics classes, the mathematical modeling, all my projects were always baseball-related. And the theoretical math was as disgusting to me as it was to anybody, but some of the applications were fascinating to me. And the most fascinating were the baseball ones.
So, this "problem" ended up giving me some skills that were useful in other industries. NASA was one of them.
The book says your hobbies include mountain climbing, surfing and hockey. Those aren't typical for a rocket scientist, are they?
Well, we don't talk hockey or mountain climbing at work too much. The stereotype is somewhat correct, yeah. At NASA, there are many brilliant people for whom this is their life's work but I don't see them on the hockey rinks much. They are inspired by their work and that is a wonderful thing. That is how they got to be the top of their field.
But, when it came to working at NASA or working for a baseball team, there was no choice.
In the conclusion of this interview, subscribers will learn exactly how Sig Mejdal came to work for the Cardinals and delve into his duties with the club.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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