Sig, how did you hook up with the Cardinals?
When I had met Sam, I had already been trying to get into the baseball world for close to a year – six to eight months, maybe. So, I had already contacted all the teams – the GMs, the assistant GMs – anybody who would answer my phone calls.
The Cardinals had already shown some interest and I was actually hoping to meet with them at those Winter Meetings – to meet with Jeff (Luhnow). But, as you can imagine, meeting with me wasn't a priority during the Winter Meetings, so that didn't happen. So, I was already talking with the Cardinals at that point, along with a couple of other teams.
When I say "talking", that might be a little bit better than it really was. It was sort of them saying, "Thanks but no thanks. We'll hang onto it." Or, "That is interesting." Only in the baseball world, could that be considered encouragement. Here, a "No" was a signal that you were making progress, I think.
It took over a year for the Cardinals to hire you after the 2003 Winter Meetings, correct?
There was interest, but I was trying to take advantage of that interest and not forget them and keep at it. So, I was continuing to write unsolicited proposals about how you can make sense of Division I data or player evaluations or quantifying the dollar values of players – that kind of thing. I kept up with nice, little, somewhat-professional reports. And, there was interest.
Then, it must have been a year later, at the next Winter Meetings, where we agreed they would hire me as a consultant for three months on a temporary or trial basis. Then, if all went well, a full-time position would be in store. It was probably a year before they said "OK".
What responsibilities does a "senior quantitative analyst" have?
I would describe it as evaluating and projecting players strictly from a statistical standpoint. Gathering the data, cleaning the data, trying to remove the biases in the data. Building the models to get at their pitching, their hitting, their fielding, their baserunning. And then come up with worthwhile projections from that.
Are you involved in major league analysis or minor leagues, also?
All of the above. But, I think it is safe to say that the further away from the major leagues, the more players there are and the more willing they are to complement their current methods with this somewhat-new methodology or with the work I am doing.
How much of your focus has been on amateurs, rather than players who are already professionals?
That is where most of it has been. It has been making sense of Division I and Division II and Division III college numbers and projecting likelihood and impact of making it to the major leagues from the data that they generated so far.
What is your take on the ongoing debate about drafting high school versus college players?
Not on specific players, but certainly I have access to the data on how college players in general have done and how high school players in general have done. Like I am sure you have seen those studies. They are consistent with what I see. Historically, college players have outperformed high school players, given where they are taken in the draft.
Are you using any of the tools you developed with Sam? If so, which ones?
Good question. Some of what I learned in the projections, like what was important or what statistical techniques and different regression techniques that came up, trying to squeeze all I could out of the major league data. Some of that experience and knowledge, I still have with me. It comes in handy.
One of the things that made Fantasyland so surprising is Sam's willingness to discuss his fantasy teams with baseball traditionalists. I would never have the guts to do that. When you were hired, did Luhnow know of your involvement in the book?
No, I don't think he did. Sam Walker had contacted him a time or two during the season before I was working here. So, I think he knew there was this Wall Street Journal writer writing about fantasy baseball and this guy Sig was helping him and it was the same Sig who was sending him unsolicited proposals. But, I never talked to Jeff specifically about it.
I am not going to talk about being in a fantasy book to people in real baseball. It doesn't score points. It takes away points, I think.
Is this a full-time 9-to-5 job with the Cardinals?
Yes, 9-to-5 and beyond.
How is your input used by the team?
The decision-makers in baseball operations, Walt (Jocketty), Mo (John Mozeliak) and Bruce (Manno) are aware of the stuff I have done and have access to it. Now, how much it is used when they make their decisions, I don't know. You'd have to ask them. They have access to it and I present them with it. But that is it. When they are making their decisions, I am not involved. I am not around.
But, it has made an impact on the draft. I was here only six or seven weeks, so you have to consider that. "Who is this new guy and why should we trust the numbers?" But, despite that, I could see it having influence on the draft, especially later in the draft.
One of the underlying themes of Fantasyland is the inherent conflict between the stats guy and the scouting guy. How do you see that playing out in the real world? Is it like Moneyball?
No way, no way. First of all, I didn't know anything about the baseball front office. I had read Moneyball. It does a wonderful job of characterizing the merits or the value of the statistical methodology. But, its portrayal and characterization of the "old school" people, if you will, is way off, terrible. It is inarguably inaccurate.
These are intelligent, thoughtful, hardworking people. They are not the Mr. Magoos that Moneyball characterizes them as. When I came here, yeah, I was worried about how I was going to be accepted or treated. Would I be considered a threat or what?
Literally, we are on the same team. They have done nothing but treat me well – with open arms. We have had a lot of talks about the models, where they have given me suggestions.
"Have you considered the difference between the Saturday and the Friday night starters and the team with the poor schedule that does play the better teams that is normally on the Wednesdays when they don't see it? How about the cold weather teams?"
So, a lot of things that I didn't know that weren't in the model are now in the model because of their input. It is safe to say that they all want the best for the Cardinals. And if this methodology has something to add, then they are welcoming it.
I think that everybody is concerned that if you are too stats-heavy, you are going to be doing more harm than good. But, at the same point, if you ignore this information, then it is a missed opportunity.
How do you find that balance point?
I do it in a data-driven way. I think there is enough data of what the guy's statistical rating would have been in the past. And, you could go through the archives and get the scouting report and you can see what would have been in a retrospective way. What would have been the optimal way to weigh these two methodologies. A lot of my time is spent on that, too.
With Tout Wars, the goal was clear and relatively immediate. In real baseball, especially in player development, it is not the case. How does that affect your approach?
Right, the immediacy isn't there.
You draft your Division I player from a mediocre school and you don't find the
results until three, four or five years later. That's the facts of it. But, I
guess when you've been here long enough, your effect is every day. You are
having someone from a draft class perhaps getting promoted, getting demoted,
getting released, whatever. But, right now, the successes and failures is
whether a guy gets promoted to High-A or Double-A, whether he makes the team,
whether he makes Baseball
How will you ultimately measure success with the Cardinals? Is it when your guys become major leaguers?
From a personal standpoint, that
will be wonderfully rewarding. But, if I wanted to measure success of the model
in general, I would look at how it has evaluated all the players and not just
the ones we happened to draft. Whether the dozen we got exceed expectations or
don't isn't the measure of success of my value or the model. I get a great
thrill seeing guys that might not have ended up in our organization if it wasn't
for my work, playing in
With Sam Walker, you had significant influence with the ultimate decision maker. With the Cardinals, those making the calls are farther away organizationally and perhaps less statistically-oriented. How do you deal with that?
It should be that way. Tout Wars, and fantasy baseball, is just a compilation of statistics. And it is immediate. How they are going to do in the immediate future. In the next six months, how is this guy going to hit? Does it matter about a subjective measure of his range or his arm? It is just about how many doubles this guy is going to hit. So, it should be heavily statistical.
But, when it comes to real baseball, no. You have 19-year-old kids or 22-year-old kids who have a lot more growing to do, who may have vulnerabilities in their swing that as the level increases, that are going to show themselves. There is a whole wealth of information that doesn't show itself in the box score and the season statistics you need to consider.
But, for fantasy baseball at the major league level, these guys have been playing for half a decade. So, we have a lot of data on these guys that there isn't a whole lot more you can squeeze out based on how smooth their swing is or something.
Have you spoken with your competitors from other major league teams to discuss techniques or share data?
That is a good question. I haven't really thought about that. I have had some interaction with the guys, but never about what they are doing or "Do you want to do this together?" It is probably the competitive advantage thing that would keep us from sharing much about it, though.
There have been times when I have wondered whether the A's or the White Sox or the Blue Jays would be interested in sharing the cost of getting this data. Once we have that data, we have an advantage over the other 28 teams. And, even the one team, while we might have that same data, we might analyze it better, so we do have an advantage over them.
One thing that I do in that area is the recent drafts. I look back at performance in the past drafts to try to tease out which teams are statistically-oriented or leaving suspicious clues that they are looking a guy's performance more than other teams. Because, if there is an inefficiency here, an opportunity, the more teams aware of it, the less the opportunity is. That I am curious about and make an effort to try to find.
Is being a consultant with the Cardinals your ideal baseball job or if not, what is?
It is ideal. My whole life has
The owner is a believer in this. They are not doing it just out of curiosity – to put a big toe in the water and test things out. They are believers in this and are integrating it into the decision making to some degree. They seem to be committed to doing this, not just curious and trying it because they've heard about it.
It is a great opportunity. I don't think the St. Louis Cardinals are going away. And hopefully, the desire to incorporate this methodology isn't going away, either. So, I am in early on what just seems like the ideal situation. I am not entering a system that has already been in place for half a decade. It is exciting. I get to make many decisions of how we should do this, what data we should get, how we should spend our resources and that is wonderful.
Sig, thanks for your time. Let's sit down and have a cold one when the new ballpark opens and talk some more about this.
That sounds great. I love this stuff. It is fascinating to me. I could talk about it forever. And that someone is curious about it; I will share what I can.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at email@example.com.
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