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July 11, 2014

Overthinking It

Forever Changes

by Ben Lindbergh


I know where I was when I got the email: sitting in the Georgetown cafeteria between classes, eating lunch alone. It wasn’t the only time I soloed the delicious cuisine at Leo J. O’Donovan Dining Hall in the middle of the day during my senior year—not because I was bad company, but because I was the only one of my friends who was still paying for a meal plan (food preparation isn’t my strong suit). To pass the time (and to try to look less forlorn), I’d usually bury my face in a book, glancing up only occasionally to stare at the cafeteria worker who went by “Bone” and sometimes stormed around the room with a football helmet held under his arm, looking as if he was dodging invisible linemen. Lately, however, I’d had something besides books and Bone to distract me: a direct pipeline to Baseball Prospectus.

I’d been a BP research assistant the previous summer and had transitioned to intern when I went back to school, at which point I was added to “Chatter”—a now-defunct listserv that pinged everyone at BP, as well as some alumni and outsiders with ties to the staff. In late October of 2008, where our scene is set, I hadn’t been back at school long, and I still hadn’t acclimated to the idea that messages from writers I’d read and admired for years were ending up in my inbox, as if by some behind-the-scenes screw-up at the local NSA surveillance station. This was just before BP became BBWAA-certified, when the staff was still widely regarded as an assortment of “outsiders.” Still, I’d never felt closer to baseball’s beating heart. An email from work was a source of excitement. I willed my phone to flash.

On this day at the dining hall, it did, to notify me of some Chatter from Joe Sheehan. Joe was looking for a list of diamond-in-the-rough relievers whom the Mets might pursue for their bullpen, going the Grant Balfour/J.P. Howell route that had worked so well for the Rays instead of paying big bucks for a free agent like Brian Fuentes or Francisco Rodriguez. Sensing an opportunity to ingratiate myself, I spent the next hour looking for pitchers who (I replied) fit the “high K rate/high ERA/good minor league track record mold, aren’t especially young, and might be an improvement in control or a change in role (or league/park) away from value.”

Joe liked my list and picked out a few pitchers who he thought “could be the next Al Reyes”—that was kind of a compliment then—which made my week. With some prompting from Steven Goldman, I pitched a longer piece on finding free bullpen talent. Joe gave me the go-ahead, and when I recovered consciousness, I got to work, grinding out each word until (after an eternity; I Overthought It even then) I had something to send to Christina Kahrl.

Her verdict: It was too long, and the tables were too big (two things my editors still say), but she was going to run it—and I was welcome to submit more in the future. I felt like Ralphie wielding dual Red Ryders.

I didn’t know when the big day would be, and I didn’t want to keep asking for updates, so I operated under the assumption that the article would be up aaaaaaany second now. If anyone is still wondering why traffic spiked at BP during the first week of December 2008, I can explain: It was the Firefox extension that I'd ordered to refresh the site every 30 seconds. I even took the drastic step of getting up each morning (which, while making my schedule, I’d gone to great lengths to avoid) to see if my article had appeared. For days, it didn’t, so I repeated the routine, drifting in and out of sleep, unable to distinguish between the times when I’d actually gotten out of bed to check the site again and the times when I’d merely dreamed I was doing it.

To recap: I was a senior in college, and the thing that was keeping me up at night was my anticipation of the publication of an unpaid article about baseball on a sabermetrics website. I may have had a problem with priorities.

Eventually, the article went up. One of the ways we improve as professionals and as people is by studying where we went wrong in the past. Plus, this wouldn’t be a BP piece without a table of stats. So here’s how my top 10 free-talent reliever picks from that piece performed from 2009 on:

Name

IP

ERA+

WARP

Chris Britton

DNP

DNP

DNP

Jason Bulger

99

117

0.4

Fernando Cabrera

6.2

47

-0.1

Francisco Cruceta

DNP

DNP

DNP

Lee Gronkiewicz

DNP

DNP

DNP

Tom Mastny

DNP

DNP

DNP

Juan Salas

DNP

DNP

DNP

Dennis Sarfate

23

91

0.1

R.J. Swindle

6.2

27

-0.3

Ehren Wasserman

DNP

DNP

DNP

I might have done better picking fringy relievers at random. Six of my selections never pitched in the big leagues again, either because GMs refused to recognize my genius or because I wasn’t one. The four who did pitch netted 0.1 WARP.* On that inauspicious note, my baseball-writing career began. At least I’ll always have my honorable mention of Edward Mujica.

I’ve buried the lede under my embarrassing BP origin story because I wanted to give you some sense of how important a part of my life Baseball Prospectus has been. After college, I left BP to take a team internship for a year, which was long enough to learn that I’d be better off on the internet (which I might’ve known sooner, if I could’ve seen how that table would turn out). When the internship was over, I came back to BP, and I’ve been here ever since. Now that you know how excited I was to say hello, you can imagine how hard it is to say a sort of goodbye. This is my last day as editor-in-chief, and my last piece for BaseballProspectus.com (this time, mercifully, I can press “publish” myself—no need to auto-refresh). In 2012, I signed up for a two-year tour of duty, and now that it’s complete, I’m stepping down to start a new gig as a staff writer for Grantland, where I’ve been an occasional contributor since last year.

I say "sort of" goodbye because unlike a lot of people who’ve moved on from Prospectus, I won’t be cutting ties completely. I’ll continue to co-host Effectively Wild with Sam Miller—What, you thought we’d quit with the Ryan Webb/Matt Albers games-finished-without-a-save streak still alive?—and contribute to the annual, which (along with Rob Neyer’s work at ESPN) was my entrée to a new way of thinking about baseball. I’ll also draw upon plenty of BP-powered research in my work at Grantland (at least some of which will find its way to your browser, I hope).

Speaking of Sam: I’m pleased to announce that he’ll be taking over as editor-in-chief, effective immediately. As a writer, Sam has a Darvish-ian repertoire and Zobrist-ian range, which you know if you’ve been reading him here over the past few years. He’s an astute analyst and reporter, and he’s also one of the people most likely to make me laugh. It’s very rare to find someone who can do both funny and serious so well, and who sees the sport (and the world) in such an original way. While the rest of us are watching the game, Sam realizes that sometimes, the fan in the front row is the real story. He’s going to be great. He’s also going to be annoyed at me for saying so, because he’d probably prefer to smash modest expectations than to have to top high ones. Too bad. He was my first choice as right-hand man and my first recommendation as a replacement, and with him at the helm, you’re not going to notice that there’s been a change at BP, unless it’s a change for the better.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve tried to preserve BP’s sense of irreverence, keep our content on the cutting edge, and more closely integrate the site with the rest of the sabermetric community. I think we’ve gotten better at both beer and tacos. Between Dan Brooks, Russell Carleton, Harry Pavlidis, and talented recent recruits Robert Arthur and Noah Woodward, the statistical wing of BP is as robust as it’s been since I started, and the skilled Prospect Staff Jason Parks has assembled has far eclipsed any of BP’s previous efforts in that area. Bret Sayre has done a similarly fantastic job of beefing up our offerings on the fantasy side. I’ve already included a table, but now I need a graph. This is a count of the pieces of content (articles, blog posts, and podcasts) published at BaseballProspectus.com in each year of its existence.

I’d like to think that we’ve brought you a better BP. I know that we’ve brought you a bigger one.

(I’ll pause to mention that if we were to graph the price of a BP Premium Subscription over the same span, it would be a perfectly flat line. Please consider supporting the site by subscribing, which, unlike everything else in the world, costs the same as it did a decade ago. Since I’m shilling for a place that no longer pays my salary, you know I’m being sincere.)

I’ve edited more than a few Baseball Prospectus farewells, and I've read most of the ones I wasn’t around for. If there’s one thing they all have in common, it’s an acknowledgement that one of the best things about being a Baseball Prospectus staffer is the access to super-smart colleagues. Since I left an actual Baseball Operations department and returned to BP, I’ve worked with most of another Baseball Ops department that didn’t yet know it was one. It’s an embarrassment of resources for a writer—and, I hope, for a reader or subscriber. With an email or instant message, I can reach someone who’s seen any prospect I might need to know about, or who can contact a scout who recently sat on that prospect’s series. BP has a pitching mechanics expert and a swing mechanics specialist. It has a handful of people who can coax any piece of information out of any available data source. And, most importantly, it has writers who can convey that information without making you want to skip to the last few lines. Few sites have as long a track record of melding math and innovative analysis with the whimsical and weird.

The other best thing about BP is you, the readers, who set a standard in your comments, tweets, and emails that few other communities can equal. In the greatest baseball book, Bill Veeck wrote that “Every baseball crowd, like every theatre audience, has its own distinctive attitude and atmosphere.” That’s true of some baseball websites, too, and this is one of them. I’ve learned a lot from your feedback, and because you were always willing to go along for the ride, I never felt restricted in what I could write. After all, I’ve seen what Parks gets away with.

The exit music is starting, which means it’s gratitude time. Thanks to Steven Goldman, in particular, for taking an interest in me as a research assistant, bonding with me over the Beatles, encouraging me to write, and making me better at it. Thanks also to Christina, John Perrotto, Kevin Goldstein, Dave Pease, and tireless leader Joe Hamrahi for allowing me inside the store and eventually entrusting me with the keys. Your faith in me means a lot.

Thanks also to the SQL and R stars I’ve tormented with research requests over the years (not that I plan to stop now): Bil Burke (who always made me wonder “Why one “l”?), Dan Turkenkopf, Mike Fast, Colin Wyers, Max Marchi, Rob McQuown (whom I may have bugged the most), Andrew Koo, Bradley Ankrom, Ryan Lind, Dan, Harry, and Russell, who’s managed to raise a family and hold down a day job in between dashing off lengthy answers and articles in response to my incessant emails and topic suggestions. There are a lot of questions I couldn’t have answered—and worse, wouldn’t even have bothered to ask—without the help of the people in this paragraph.

Thanks to R.J. Anderson, Marc Normandin, Jason Cole, Jason Wojciechowski and Neil deMause, among others, for being my go-to GChat sounding boards and sanity checks (and in R.J.'s case, for tackling so many transactions); to Derek Carty, Stephani Bee, and Daniel Rathman for their tireless late-night editing; to Zachary Levine for filling in on the podcast and explaining odds; to Jay Jaffe, for his early encouragement; to a long list of interns who’ve saved me many hours at inopportune times; and to Brian Kenny, for giving internet analysts the same prominent platform that in the past was afforded only to former players. I’ve already named half the staff, so I’ll stop there, but I’ve enjoyed knowing many more of you. You know who you are (which is a clever way of covering my bases in case I forgot someone, which I almost certainly did).

At Grantland, I’ll be joining former BPers Jonah Keri and Rany Jazayerli, not to mention Christina, Keith Law, and Nate Silver under the larger ESPN umbrella. The continued poaching of BP personnel is, of course, a compliment. The company has always functioned as a farm system, and when someone swoops in to pluck away an author, it’s both a sign that the site is still offering something that most others aren’t, and a chance to infuse the BP brain trust with new blood. Although the turnover is sometimes sad, it makes me immensely proud that BP authors are now sought out not only by mega-media outlets and as statistical analysts, but as scouts. Having seen the traffic and subscription stats stay strong after previous departures, I know for a fact that BP is bigger than any one author. Hack off an appendage, and the other parts glom back together, T-1000-style, until the whole is as strong as it was before.

My predecessor closed his farewell with one of the best songs by one of my favorite songwriters. Maybe we can make that a tradition. I can’t do better than “Days,” so I’ll settle for a simple (sort of) goodbye.

*My mother says that the most successful people she knows are also the most willing to admit their mistakes. So, there, mom: Look at all my mistakes! I must be a success.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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