Q&A with Dave Studenmund: The Hardball Times Baseball Annual
Dave Studenmund and I broke into the baseball blogosphere at about the same time in 2003. We became fast friends and have provided guest columns for each other's sites or books. As destiny would have it, I've actually known Dave's older brother Woody for much longer than six years. You see, Woody, my older brother Tom, and I first met in 1975. The three of us had teams in the Greater Los Angeles APBA Association, meeting in face-to-face competition once or twice annually from the mid-1970s through the early- to mid-1980s.
If not for the roll of the dice (so to speak), I may not have met Woody, who is also a charter member of the Northeast League, the longest-running baseball table-game league, way back when. But I'm glad I did. I learned a lot about APBA through my association with him and have continued to add to my knowledge of baseball via my friendship with Dave. While growing up, the Studenmunds spent their summers in Cooperstown. Dave and Woody both have bricks with dedications inscribed at Doubleday Field in Cooperstown, and I was able to take photographs (here and here) of them during my trip to the Hall of Fame last spring.
Dave has been involved with The Hardball Times site since its formation in 2004 and has been producing The Hardball Times Baseball Annuals for the past five years. These books have become an indispensable part of my baseball library, and I eagerly await the newest edition each year just as I once did with the Baseball Abstracts.
Well, I received the 2009 version a couple weeks ago and have enjoyed it immensely. I've read most of the articles and leafed through the multitude of statistics contained in the book. I plan on spending more time this winter digesting the stats in even greater detail. In the meantime, I had the good fortune of chatting with Dave about the latest Annual. Grab a cup of coffee and pull up a chair.
Rich: Congratulations, Dave. The Hardball Times Baseball Annual has become the 21st-century version of The Bill James Baseball Abstracts of the 1970s and 1980s, combining timeless commentary with insightful analysis and innovative stats. You know that I'm a big fan of the Baseball Abstracts so comparing THT Annuals to the Abstracts is big praise indeed.
Dave: Wow, Rich. Thank you. Yes, that is high praise. And, since we're in the online world now, you won't have to abstract the Annuals in the future. Good thing, huh?
Dave: Obviously, the Abstracts were our model. The biggest difference in what we're doing is that we don't have Bill's voice in the Annual -- in fact, we don't have one consistent voice in the Annual. I like to think that we've turned that into a positive by recruiting the best baseball writers we know, from the general media and from the Internet and blogging world.
There may not be a new Bill James, but there are a lot of terrific writers out there, and we've made the Annual a showcase for them. At least, that's our goal.
Rich: You've called this year's THT Annual the best ever. What compels you to make that claim?
Dave: Over the summer, we ran an online survey to get feedback from readers of the Annual, and we made some specific changes to the Annual in response. Obviously, the articles are the biggest reason people buy the Annual, so we increased the content from 32 articles to 40. We changed the format of the Division Reviews (we call them Division Views now) to allow more commentary from the writer, and less need to "cover" events. We also focused our statistics section better than in the past. Got rid of the leaderboards and some extra stuff, and focused on our unique batted ball stats.
Rich: Tell us about some of the writers you recruited this year.
Dave: I think the lineup of writers for this Annual was the best yet. We had two tremendous articles from Craig Wright, for instance. Craig is a well-known sabermetrician and a great writer, and the Annual really benefited from his two pieces. Joe Posnanski and Tim Marchman also contributed to the Annual for the first time. And I'll stop there because I think we had a lot of great essays from fantastic writers, and I don't want to be accused of singling anyone else out.
Rich: One of the staples of the Annual is your "Ten Things I Learned This Year." Let's talk about a couple of them. Thanks to you, I learned that the change from 2007 to 2008 was the biggest one-year age decrease in major league history. What's at work here?
Dave: The biggest factor was the resignation, forced or otherwise, of some great older players like Barry Bonds, Mike Piazza and Roger Clemens. The Giants got over three years younger last year by jettisoning Bonds and having Tim Lincecum post a dominant season.
The success of the Rays and other young teams, such as the Twins, was another factor in the youth movement. The Twins, by the way, also got much younger because of the Johan Santana trade. Just about every team got younger. It was amazing, really. This trend has been building for a couple of years, but it exploded in 2008.
Rich: While Major League Baseball players are getting younger, teams that boast lots of young players don't get the respect that perhaps they should. Do you think Tampa Bay's success last year will help change things?
Dave: Well, I would like to think so, but who knows? There is a deep, steadfast belief in the value of veteran talent. It's understandable, but it's overdone.
When you read that the Yankees "lived or died" with young pitching last year, you see that the emphasis on veterans will continue. I wonder, really, is young pitching really that much more variable than old pitching? Injuries did the Yankees in last year, but somehow their young pitchers got blamed, at least in some columns I read.
Rich: Speaking of Bonds, Piazza and Clemens, Joe Posnanski wrote about the Hall of Fame Class of 2013. Controversies or not, this class, which also includes Craig Biggio, Sammy Sosa, and Curt Schilling, is one of the best ever. Maybe the most talent since the inaugural class of 1936 when Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, and Walter Johnson were elected.
Dave: Yes. Bill Chuck, who writes the daily Billy-Ball column, was the first person who mentioned this, that I know of. It seemed like an obvious subject to tackle in the Annual, and Joe seemed like the perfect person to cover it.
It's amazing when you think about it. If not for the pall of steroids, you would see a fantastic Hall of Fame class in 2013. On the other hand, if not for steroids, I don't think all of these players would have retired at the same time.
Rich: Poz also added Pete Rose as a bonus seventh inductee. Rose was mentioned two other times in The Hardball Times Baseball Annual. Do you think he belongs in the Hall of Fame?
Dave: No. It seems like a pretty straightforward judgment to me, clearer than any judgment related to steroids.
Rich: As it relates to Piazza, Craig Wright contributed "Piazza, Hall of Fame Catcher" as one of his two fine articles.
Dave: Yeah, I love that article. Craig actually originally wrote it for his subscribers (you can get a regular article from Craig during the year from his website, the Diamond Appraised...I recommend it highly), but he added the extra bit about Piazza's defense for the Annual. I thought he delivered a good argument that Piazza really made his pitchers better, even though he hurt them with his throwing arm (a topic that was well-covered by Tom Tango in last year's Annual).
Rich: Rob Neyer wrote a well-researched piece about "Trades of the Midseason," comparing the CC Sabathia and Manny Ramirez deals to those of yesteryear (including Carlos Beltran in 2004, Fred McGriff in 1993, and Rickey Henderson in 1989, to name three during the past 20 years). A fourth, Rick Sutcliffe in 1984, went on to win the NL Cy Young Award with the Chicago Cubs. There were also a couple involving the Alexanders: Grover Cleveland in 1926 and Doyle in 1987. Both of these midseason acquisitions carried their new teams into the World Series. Although many of the big midseason trades took place before the advent of free agency, I can't help but think we will see more of the CC and Manny (and even Mark Teixeira) type deals in the years ahead.
Dave: You're probably right, Rich. This also seemed like a natural subject to cover, given what an impact CC and Manny had on their teams, and Rob seemed like the natural guy to cover it. Sometimes, when I ask someone to write for us, I'll just say "write whatever you want." Other times I'll ask them to cover a specific subject. I hadn't asked Rob to write about a specific subject before, but this seemed right up his alley.
The insight that Rob brought is that these two trades weren't quite as unique as they seemed during the year. Given baseball's rich history, I should have expected that.
Rich: I always enjoy Steve Treder's stat facts that are attached to each of the team sections. Heck, those 360 tidbits are almost worth the price of the book.
Dave: We've always had a lot of stats in the back of the book, and I've worried that most readers won't plow through them and understand what they say. To me, they're full of gold. So I sent an email out to THT's writers last year, asking if they'd be willing to write stat facts for a team or two. Steve stepped up and said he'd be willing to do them for all teams! You could have knocked me over with a feather, because that's a time-consuming task.
He did so well, that I asked him to repeat them for this year's Annual, and he did it happily (and well!). Steve and I are the only two people who have been involved with THT continuously from the very beginning. It's a joy to work with him.
Rich: Let's discuss some of the advanced stats used in the Annual. You claim that Base Runs is the best run estimation formula, better than Bill James' Runs Created. It seems to me that there is a tradeoff between the simplicity of the original RC formula and the accuracy and complexity of something like Base Runs. Call it fast food vs. fine dining, if you will.
Dave: Yes, I struggle with the "simple vs. correct" issue all the time. I loved the original Runs Created formula. (In my head, it's simply OBP times total bases. I used to use it all the time when the best stats in the world were the Tuesday and Wednesday stats in USA Today.) But James hasn't used the original Runs Created formula in years. If you're going to run with a complicated formula, Base Runs is better.
Rich: Win Probability Added (WPA) is gaining more acceptance, partly due to the fact that Fangraphs is publishing this information in real time. It is my feeling that WPA does a great job in measuring a player's contribution to his team's probability of winning and that more emphasis should be placed on this metric in voting for individual awards at the end of the season.
Dave: As you know, I'm a huge WPA fan. But I'm more of a fan because of its unique perspective, and the way it tells a "story." WPA is the quantification of the game story. I actually invented those WPA game graphs that Fangraphs runs, and I'm pretty proud of them. I think they're the perfect use for WPA.
Rich: Wow, I knew you were Mr. Baseball Graphs but hadn't realized that you invented those WPA game graphs. Good job.
Dave: Thanks, Rich. When it comes to individual awards, I'd consider WPA as well, primarily because of their "story" value. Many MVP writers want to reward the "story" of the season and WPA is one of the best stats for capturing that.
By the way, I owe a big thanks to David Appelman of Fangraphs for contributing his WPA stats to the Annual.
Rich: With James in mind, he created Win Shares a half dozen years or so ago. You have taken Bill's creation a step or two further with Win Shares Above Bench. Please explain these differences.
Dave: You know, Bill has updated Win Shares, though he hasn't published anything about it yet. In particular, he's added Loss Shares to the system, a very important change. If you think about Win Shares, you realize that you've got to know Loss Shares too, to really get the full picture of a player's value. It's related to playing time -- a player who racks up more Win Shares in less time played has been more valuable. Loss Shares fill in the playing time picture.
That's the same thing Win Shares Above Bench does. I take the total plate appearances, innings in the field and innings pitched by each player and translate those into "games" (from a Win Shares perspective). Loss Shares is simply my games calculation minus Win Shares.
Win Shares Above Bench is the number of Win Shares above a certain winning percentage (usually around .350, though it varies for starting pitchers). So WSAB achieves the same thing that James' Loss Shares achieve.
Bill has posted a couple of Win Shares and Loss Shares totals in articles on his site. For one player (Alan Trammell, I think), he had the exact same figures I had. For another player (Ozzie Smith?), we differed a bit, but we were close. That made me feel good about WSAB.
Rich: John Burnson's Playing Time Constellations made another appearance this year. The book devotes ten pages to graphs for every major league team. With 30 seconds of reading and understanding how these constellations work, one can easily see who played what position throughout the season for each team in the majors.
Dave: Yeah, that's another one of my favorites. John does great things with graphs, and I think the Playing Time Constellations are a perfect use of graphics. We list games played at each position in the Annual, but John's constellations graph who played where and WHEN. It's a dynamic chart, capturing the dynamics of the season. I don't follow every team as well as I'd like to, and things like John's constellations fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge. I really appreciate John's contributing those graphs to the Annual.
Rich: The Batted Ball Results may be my favorite. I don't need to know much more than the batted ball hitting and pitching stats, especially in conjunction with strikeouts and walks as a percentage of plate appearances. Give us a couple of good examples of how this information can enlighten the masses.
Dave: I'm pretty proud of the batted ball stats -- though I don't really know how well they're read or understood. I appreciate your feedback.
They're a whole 'nother way of looking at baseball stats, but I think they're simple to read and understand. As you know, the hitters' lines and pitchers' lines are formatted exactly the same way, so the format consistency should help a lot, I think.
Just using the Cubs as an example, I see that Aramis Ramirez was 31 runs above average creating runs, but 11 of those were the result of plate discipline and only 10 were the result of flyballs. That's a big turnaround for the guy, and I don't know if it bodes well for his future, particularly because he's an extreme flyball pitcher (48% of batted balls were flies).
Another example: Carlos Marmol had a great year, 26 runs "allowed" less than average. That's primarily because only 10% of his batted balls were line drives -- the major league average is 20%. That's a remarkable record. He was -16 in line drives alone. I wouldn't expect him to repeat that next year, though he'll still probably be better than average at "not allowing" line drives. In 2007, 16% of his batted balls were line drives.
Rich: I noticed that Sisyphus received a couple of shout outs, which gave me an opportunity to brush up on my Greek mythology. Is there anything Sisyphean about The Hardball Times Baseball Annual?
Dave: Every year, when I send the final PDF out to ACTA for publication, I swear I'll never do it again. Creating the THT Annual is a huge process. It begins during the season and pretty much consumes me from mid-September to mid-November. For the first month, I pore over the stats and graphs. I think there are over 250 tables of stats and over 40 graphs. I create each one and typeset them.
The second month is spent working with the writers and editors, then typesetting the articles. It's a mess, but I've got a lot of people helping push that rock up the hill. I've got to specifically mention the book's editors: Bryan Tsao, Joe Distelheim, Carolina Bolado and Ben Jacobs. I think you know that THT edits all its online articles too, and that doesn't stop while we create the book. Those guys are doing double time.
Rich: I know it is a matter of economics but perhaps you can explain why readers should order THT Annual from ACTA Sports rather than Amazon or other online booksellers.
Dave: The publishing business is not a high-margin business. We create the book mostly for the thrill of it, but we also hope to raise some money to support the site. And we don't make much money at all when people buy the book through Amazon. The difference between the Amazon price and the ACTA price goes almost exclusively to THT, to pay our costs and our writers. So buying from ACTA is a way of supporting THT. This is only true, by the way, if you use the link on our home page -- not if you go directly to the ACTA site yourself.
I know that not everyone can afford to support THT in this way, but please think about it.
Rich: As a contributor, one can call me biased. But I truly believe THT Annual offers all baseball fans -- from the casual to the most advanced -- an informative and entertaining book that will provide countless hours of enjoyable reading this winter and beyond. Do you have any final thing to add?
Dave: You said it well, Rich! One thing I've noticed is that we haven't gotten a lot of coverage on the Internet, at least not compared to previous years. Perhaps we've gone overboard and recruited too many Internet writers to the book -- so they can't blog about it because that would be a conflict of interest! Ah, the price of success.