Baseball Questions, Answers, and Musings With David Pinto
David Pinto has been writing Baseball Musings, one of the most widely read baseball blogs, since March 2002. David was the lead researcher for ESPN's Baseball Tonight for ten years, and he also hosted Baseball Tonight Online on ESPN.com. He is currently on the professional staff at the Center for Intelligent Information Retrieval at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
David is originally from Bridgeport, Connecticut but now resides in Western Massachusetts. He has an A.B. and a C.S.S. from Harvard University.
I had the privilege of interviewing David during the past week for the third installment of my series this off-season with the best writers and analysts in the baseball blogging world.
RWBB: How old were you when you began watching baseball games?
David: I was 9 years old. By a bit of luck, my baseball watching coincides with the start of division play in 1969.
RWBB: Who was your favorite team back then?
David: I was a Yankees fan when I was young, although in 1969 I rooted for the Mets as well.
RWBB: Ahh, the Miracle Mets. What a year.
David: Yes, I could have gone either way that year, but I stayed with the Yankees mostly because of their history. My dad was a Yankees fan, but I remember him calling in sick so he could watch the Mets in the World Series that year. They were still playing day games then.
RWBB: Who do you root for now?
David: I root for good organizations now. I really liked what Cleveland was doing in the 1990s, signing their young stars to long team contracts. That protected them from the salary inflation of the 1990s, so they were able to keep a good team together for a long time.
RWBB: Which organization do you think is the best run today?
David: There are a few I really like. The Braves and the A's have known what they were doing for a long time. The Braves do a very good job of addressing their weaknesses every year. If you look at that team through the 1990s, they are always replacing one or two people, and invariably they are dropping a weak link for someone stronger. The A's under Alderson and Beane have understood the statistical analysis of the game. The Yankees do a great job of team management, where Cashman, Michael, Torre, and Steinbrenner work together extremely well.
RWBB: When did you become interested in baseball statistics, research, and analysis?
David: I was always interested in stats. I'd read the league leaders column everyday. I remember making the connection between lots of walks and runs scored while watching Willie Randolph play for the Yankees. I really got into it when I started playing Strat-O-Matic baseball in college, and realized I had to take a lot of stats into consideration to be successful. Finally, when the Bill James Abstracts became available, I was totally hooked.
RWBB: Do you play fantasy baseball or simulation games?
David: I have in the past, but not right now. I've been in a few Strat-O-Matic leagues over the years. And I used to play the Bill James games when I worked for STATS, Inc.
RWBB: Speaking of Bill James, did you work with him in any capacity while at STATS?
David: I worked with Bill on a game that was used on the Big Mac CD Encyclopedia.
RWBB: Many of us view James as the father of sabermetrics. Do you share that belief?
David: No. He was the one who popularized it. There were people before Bill who did similar work, but they never got the national exposure he did. Bill is a great writer and does a tremendous job of explaining these theories and formulas so everyone can understand them. Because of that, he reaches a very large audience, so it just seems like he started it.
RWBB: If you had to name names, who would you be inclined to give the most credit to?
David: I'd have to go back and check my history books. But there were certainly people who had these ideas in the 1960s.
RWBB: How has your degree in computer science helped you the most in terms of your baseball interests?
David: When I was hired by STATS, Inc., they needed someone who could get up to speed quickly. I had quite a bit of database experience which helped. Many of the data structures and algorithms I learned getting my degree I applied in building software at STATS.
RWBB: Are you interested in the statistical analyst job with the Mets?
David: Yes, I am. I would be interested in that kind of job with any team.
RWBB: I understand you talked to the Mets directly. Were you given any consideration for the job?
David: By the time I contacted them, the job was filled. They were very nice about it and did not discourage me at all.
RWBB: What would you like to be doing professionally longer term?
David: I'd like to either be working for a major league team as an advisor to a GM, or blogging professionally.
RWBB: Now that you mentioned blogging, how do you find the time to post as many entries as you do on a daily basis?
David: I type really fast. Also, since I now have a wireless network at home, I can be with my family and blog at the same time. At work, I'm on the internet all day, so it's not hard to fire off a quick post if I see something interesting.
RWBB: What did you learn keeping score for Project Scoresheet?
David: PS didn't teach me that much. Later scoring for STATS, where we kept every pitch, I was surprised at how many strikes were taken strikes. I was also surprised at how much more my head is in the game when I'm scoring. If I just sit as a fan, I can't remember what happened two innings ago.
RWBB: What did you do as head of research at ESPN's Baseball Tonight?
David: I had two main jobs. The first was to come up with interesting graphics for the BBTN show, as well as helping the talent out with any numbers they needed. The second part of the job was writing game notes for the remote telecasts of games.
RWBB: What was the most rewarding thing you did at Baseball Tonight?
David: I remember having written notes for a Cardinals playoff series (I don't remember the opponent, but it was the NLDS), and Chris Berman and Buck Martinez based their whole preview piece on those notes.
RWBB: That must have felt good. Any embarrassing moments you wish to share while at ESPN?
David: I had the wrong year for Babe Ruth's 60 HR season on a graphic at the all-star game. So the whole country is watching, and the graphic is wrong.
RWBB: Doh! What do you think of Peter Gammons?
David: Peter is a good friend. He's the most well-connected reporter I know. He's always on the phone, and I don't think there is a GM or agent who won't return his call. He's very smart, very competitive, and very knowledgeable about the game.
RWBB: What's your take on Rob Neyer?
David: Rob is also a good friend, and he's my favorite baseball columnist. He doesn't accept the conventional wisdom without being able to prove it. He's not afraid to use sabermetrics in his arguments, so I tend to trust his opinions over others I read.
RWBB: Which publications or online resources do you value the most?
David: I have access to STATSPass, which is an SQL based interface into the STATS database. Baseball-Reference.com is also a great source of information.
RWBB: Baseball-Reference is one of my favorites as well. What area do you think is the next frontier for statistical analysis?
David: It will be getting away from the heuristic methods of Bill James toward a more probabilistic approach.
RWBB: You've begun to do some work on defense, which you have called probabilistic model of range. Please explain what that means.
David: Range is the Holy Grail of baseball stats. We all have a feeling for what range represents, but it's really difficult to pin down with a number. Plays per game, plays per nine innings, and zone ratings were all attempts at measuring range, and they all have their flaws. UZR was the first probabilistic model that I know of. It looked at the probability of making a play in a particular zone (area) on the field. Mine is similar to that, although I eliminate the idea of a zone.
Basically, there is a probability distribution of balls put into play. The normal position of fielders should be where those probabilities are densest; in other words, the shortstop should stand where the most ground balls are hit in his area of responsibility. Ground balls hit in the densest region should be easier to field because that's where the SS is usually standing. So if you field a ball there it's no big deal, everyone does that. But as you move left or right from the region of highest density, the balls are more likely to get through for hits. So a SS who consistently fields those balls well should get more credit than someone who doesn't. So the probabilistic model of range tries to model these probabilities and assign them to fielders based on where balls are hit.
RWBB: What conclusions have you drawn from your research thus far?
David: I have not drawn any conclusions yet. It's still too early in the development of the system. I think it's going to become clear, however, that pitchers do have some effect on balls in play going for hits.
RWBB: Voros McCracken seems to think otherwise in his Defense Independent Pitching Stats (DIPS). Yet, there appears to be some evidence suggesting a pitcher's success is not totally random outside of strikeouts, walks, home runs allowed, and team defense.
David: It's not random, but it's pretty close. As a first approximation, McCracken's system works very well. We should be able to model this as well, eventually.
RWBB: What do you think is the most overlooked aspect of the game by most general managers today?
David: I don't think they spend enough time on the bottom of their rosters, players 22-25. I don't see many teams filling those roles with players who complement their starters (the great fielder to replace the one with stone hands, for example).
RWBB: Let's talk about a few current issues. What is your stance on steroids?
David: I think it's overblown. I believe there is a big difference between someone who abuses them and someone who uses them for a short time to build muscle quickly. You can't just shoot up with steroids and get big. You have to work at it. My guess is that the weight work gives these players most of the benefit; if they did the intense weight work without the drugs they would still see a huge improvement. If someone wants to use them in the off-season for a couple of months to build quickly, I don't have a problem with it because they would get there without the drug eventually. I worry that players don't use them properly, however, and that the misuse is ending careers early. But this is nothing new, as any numbers of players over the years have had their careers shortened by some kind of drug abuse.
RWBB: Do you think Bud Selig is doing a good job as commissioner?
David: I don't like the whole idea of Bud Selig as commissioner. He has a huge conflict of interest. 1994 was a disaster, and it was his entire fault for trying once again to break the union rather than take the players on as partners. Most of the other things he's done (interleague play, the wild card) are gimmicks. MLB has not done a good job of marketing the game under his leadership.
On the good side, he's kept Pete Rose suspended until now.
RWBB: It sounds to me like you're an anti-Pete guy.
David: Yes, I've never been a big Pete Rose fan. I found him obnoxious as a player, and the more I learned about his personal life the less I liked him. I get the feeling he's this generation's Hal Chase, so the longer he's out of baseball, the better.
RWBB: How do you feel about unbalanced schedules?
David: I liked them when you had two divisions of six teams each. But now, it's such a hodgepodge, you have no idea how many times one team will play another. But without the imbalance, I think you'll get a situation like we had in 1994, when Texas looked like it was going to win the west with a losing record.
RWBB: I wonder how these writers who refuse to vote for certain players as the league MVP would react to a situation in which such a team finished in first place?
David: They'd have a field day. But they couldn't use the excuse that the player didn't perform in a pennant race.
While I was against the way contraction was attempted two years ago, I actually think six team divisions are the right size, and 24 teams would be perfect for the majors. I would really like to see six MLB teams and six big minor league cities form a super minor league. The league would not be a farm system, but the salaries would be lower and (one would assume), the players would be in the neverland between AAA and the majors. My guess is a lot of minor leaguers fall out of the system in their late twenties due to the fact that they haven't made the majors. This league would give them someplace to play and allow lower payroll teams to compete and have winners.
RWBB: Well, David, we now know the recipients of this year's MVP Awards. Give us a couple of predictions for the MVPs in 2004.
David: My guess is that Alex Rodriguez will have the numbers to be MVP for another five or six years. If Jorge Posada can repeat 2003, he may very well win it. In the N.L., I think this was Barry Bonds last MVP. Look for Albert Pujols to start winning them, and it won't be long before you hear "future Hall of Famer" attached to his name.
RWBB: Do you care to guess as to which teams will wind up in the World Series?
David: No idea here. Teams haven't even finished remaking their rosters yet. Philadelphia got a whole lot better with Billy Wagner. They have a new stadium, and last year's bad luck will even out a bit. I'd look for them to at least make the playoffs. I'd also look for Toronto to be better. They've already improved their pitching staff, and they still have a great offense.
RWBB: Thank you, David. We'll all be following your comments this winter and throughout next season. Your daily entries are enjoyed by us all.
Check back next weekend for an interview with Will Carroll, Baseball Prospectus author and Baseball Prospectus Radio host as well as proprietor of Will Carroll's Weblog.
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