MLB 2011 Exclusive: Interview with Baseball Prospectus Editor Steven Goldman

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MLB 2011 Exclusive: Interview with Baseball Prospectus Editor Steven Goldman

Steven Goldman is the editor-in-chief of BaseballProspectus.com and the New York Times bestseller Baseball Prospectus 2011: The Essential Guide to the 2011 Baseball Season.

Now in its 16th edition, this book offers "deadly accurate PECOTA projections" for more than 1,600 players to go with scouting reports on teams, players, prospects and managers. It's considered an industry leader in the rapidly growing field of baseball statistics and is read by front offices across the country.  

Goldman recently took the time to speak with me about the new book and what fans and scouts alike can expect for the upcoming season.  

 

Bleacher Report: What got you into sabermetrics in the first place? How did you come to be the editor for Baseball Prospectus?

Steven Goldman: I first got into sabermetrics as a young teenager reading Bill James (the father of sabermetrics). I picked up his 1985 abstract and for me that unlocked a whole hidden game within the game made up of numbers and history.

It was fascinating to me that there's a long continuity of players and that they're all somehow interrelated, so I devoured every baseball book I could find. I realized that what gives numbers meaning is not just what players are doing, but what comparable players have done before.

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I started off doing sports writing for the New York Sun and the YES Network. I grew up in New Jersey so I was always a big Yankee fan and decided to also start the 'Pinstriped Bible' blog and wrote about the Yankees and sometimes the Mets.

In 2005, I wrote a biography on Casey Stengel and for whatever reason it got the attention of some guys at BP and they contacted me and asked me to be their Rob Neyer (a disciple of Bill James). I told them 'I can't be your Rob Neyer, but I can be your Steven Goldman.' I co-edited the 2006, 2007 and 2008 BP annuals and now here I am.

 

B/R: What's the point of this book?

SG: Baseball Prospectus is something that is read in every front office in baseball. It's read by fantasy baseball fans and casual fans and pretty much everyone in between.

But we don't want this to just be a dry reference, something you read once and throw away. We want it to be something people hold on to and look back on. We want it to be something people can argue with—not an end-all, be-all for baseball statistics but at least a major part of the conversation.

 

B/R: What are some of the differences between this year's version and past versions?

SG: We changed the way stats are presented so the book is a little more condensed this year. Past editions were massive, so we wanted to make the book trimmer without reducing content. So we increased the amount of writing we do on players by about 10 percent, and reduced the amount of stats we offer by about 10 percent.

We eliminated some pitching stats because we had better ones that were more accurate and because we wanted a streamlined product. It's an ongoing process, though. Colin Wyers is our statistical guru and he's in currently reevaluating all our stats to see what we can improve.

 

B/R: What are some of the current challenges facing sabermetrics?

SG: The big issue is with how we evaluate defense because there's a lot of bias in the data we have, particularly with each ballpark's scorer. Until we get a system like PITCHf/x to track how fielders position themselves and move, defense is going to remain very subjective.

Right now, most defensive metrics rely on assumptions of what would have happened to the ball and where the fielder should be, rather than what actually happened in the game. So what we tend to do is look at several different defensive systems to try to get an overall picture of what's happening.

Marc Serota/Getty Images

Two other areas that need some work are bullpen building and managing. For relievers, there's very little predictability because typically we're dealing with such a small sample size. For managers, we'd like to be able to gauge how much impact on team performance a manager actually has.

 

 B/R: How does PECOTA (Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm) work and what are some of its strengths and weaknesses as a metric?

SG: PECOTA, invented by Nate Silver in 2002, works by running comparables to predict a player's future performance. The system knows every player who has ever played baseball and the context in which they did it (their age, weight, size, etc). So we use this information and look at a player's career arc to see how they progressed to determine both a short-term and long-term outlook.

Most projections give you just a snapshot of what a player might do, but PECOTA gives you percentiles on the best-case scenario and the worst-case scenario and where in between the player would likely end up. So what we present in the book is actually a weighted mean projection (one right in the center) that we feel is the most likely scenario.

However, it's a conservative program because it's looking for regression, so when a player has a peak season the system assumes that it's a fluke and not an actual upgrade. This leads to some players being underrated.

J. Meric/Getty Images

 

B/R: Is Albert Pujols really worth the kind of money (10 years, $300 million) that he's asking or do the projections say otherwise?

SG: Players of his stature have maintained their value really well to an advanced age, so he's less of a risk with that kind of contract. However, you can't bet on that. It's still a huge financial risk. It's not smart to be on the hook for that much money to a player that old.

Teams today rationalize spending that kind of money by eating the last three or so years of the contract and prorating the early years, but either way it's not a smart business decision.

 

B/R: How much of a difference will playing at Fenway Park make for new Red Sox slugger Adrian Gonzalez?

SG: Moving to anywhere but Petco would've given him a huge boost. Adrian should've been an annual 30-HR guy. Playing in a harder division may hold his numbers down a bit, but you can't underestimate the impact Fenway can have.

 

B/R: Derek Jeter had one of the worst seasons of his career in 2010 and still roped the Yankees into giving him $51 million. What's in store for Jeter in 2011 and long-term?

Leon Halip/Getty Images

SG: Jeter projects to perform roughly the same as he did in 2010. The problem he had last year was a reduction in bat speed that prevented him from being able to lift the ball off the ground, so he hit nothing but grounders. Not all players can play well into their 40s, and it would be a big surprise to see him maintain his pre-2010 production.

As far as defense, he really struggles going to his left. He's never been a particularly strong defender and he's only going to get worse at this point. He could shift position, but his bat won't be good enough to carry him at anywhere but shortstop. I think he'll retain enough of his value this year, but the Yankees are going to have to face the issue of where to put him sooner or later.

 

B/R: Does the addition of Cliff Lee give the Philadelphia Phillies the best rotation in the history of the game? Who's the X-factor?

SG: It's hard to compare their staff against other eras, but obviously on paper they look really, really good. Cliff Lee still has to show that he can come back from that injury and Cole Hamels still hasn't peaked yet. Roy Oswalt also has some work to do if he wants to legitimize his Hall of Fame candidacy.

 

B/R: The Kansas City Royals traded away their best player (Zack Greinke), but the return they got gave them the best farm system in all of baseball. Could they actually be good one day?

SG: The problem with prospects is that they don't always perform the way you expect. But there's every chance that if they can give some of those guys a shot at the jobs then in a year or two the Royals could be a reasonably credible team. Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer both look like potential All-Stars.

 

B/R: Give me one player or team that is going to surprise people this season.

SG: The Orioles could be a .500 team if their pitching is consistent. They really improved their offense. I'm also excited to see what Adrian Gonzalez does outside of Petco and what Carlos Santana can do in a full season for the Indians.

 

B/R: One player or team that will disappoint?

SG: The Blue Jays aren't quite ready to make the kind of noise that people think they will. The Rays are also going to fall off because they lost their entire bullpen in free agency. But they have some great pitching prospects and outfielder Desmond Jennings, so they have a chance to surprise some people.

Josh Hamilton won't be the same 'Superman' kind of player, especially since he's so injury prone. Also, a lot of people are assuming Jeter will bounce back, but he won't.

 

B/R: What is the future of sabermetrics?

SG: Before everything was about working with an imperfect or incomplete set of tools to infer what happens on the field. But now with special tools like PITCHf/x and HITf/x we can know exactly what happened.

That'll open up a whole new world for sabermetrics. The numbers can't be disputed anymore. The future will be objective, with a realistic description of what's happening as opposed to just interpretation.

 

For more information on Steven Goldman or the book, please visit the official Baseball Prospectus website.

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