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March 24, 2009

State of the Prospectus

Spring 2009

by Nate Silver and Kevin Goldstein

Baseball Prospectus is a small business run by a handful of exceptionally dedicated but utterly overworked individuals. This is occasionally exasperating, but has more often been exhilarating; we're always facing new challenges and have grown accustomed to learning on the fly. It does mean, however, that we do not have a lot of redundancy in place. When someone leaves, or has to pull back on their contributions, whether because they've become a father or joined a major league front office or decided to pursue another business opportunity, it is not a trivial matter to replace them.

It was barely a year ago when I launched FiveThirtyEight.com, a political number-crunching website that I expected to receive a few hundred hits a day and occupy perhaps five hours of my time per week. Since then, thanks to a combination of being in the right place at the right time and making a few lucky predictions, the site is accumulating both many degrees of magnitude more traffic than that, and occupying a much larger fraction of my time than I could have ever anticipated. I feel very, very fortunate about all of this; indeed, there have been many moments, such as upon appearing on Stephen Colbert's show, when I felt as though I'd won the nerd lottery. However, as you've undoubtedly noticed, these other opportunities have meant that I've been able to devote less of my time to Baseball Prospectus.

Fortunately, we are a team of clutch performers, and Kevin Goldstein and Dave Pease have somehow found the hours to step up their contributions and keep the company running smoothly. Without the dedication of these two individuals, and others like Christina Kahrl, Joe Sheehan, and Will Carroll, I'm not sure that BP could have continued to exist in its present form. Kevin is now our Managing Partner, and he should be your primary point of contact for any and all business-related inquiries.

Other processes have not been as smooth, particularly the production of the PECOTA cards this year, which took far longer than is acceptable. The delays in the production of the PECOTA cards were 100 percent my fault, and came in spite of, not because of, the hard work of folks like Dave and Jeff Pease, Bil Burke, and Clay Davenport. For this you have my profound apologies. It may help to tell you a little about how the sausage is made. Production of the PECOTA forecasts is an exceptionally labor-intensive exercise. Some of the reasons for this are unavoidable. We have made an enormous number of improvements to the system over the years (this year, for instance, retrofitting the Davenport Translations database all the way back to 1980), but each of the improvements has added a layer of complication, requiring more and more data to be cleansed, merged, and managed, and making the process of producing the forecasts more cumbersome.

However, another reason why PECOTA has tended to be burdensome to produce is because it's a program designed by a non-programmer (me): a lot of the code is poorly written, and very little of it is automated. More problematically, because the code is not well documented, I was probably the only person on the planet who knew how to sift my way through it. Thus, its timely production relied on my pulling 100-hour weeks and getting really hopped up on Red Bull and reheated Thai food, something I was strangely happy to do in the past, but simply didn't have the ability to do this year.

I realize that most of you don't care about this; you just want to see the damned PECOTA cards already, and be quick about it! But the reason I bring this up is because we've now begun the process of standardizing, documenting, and automating PECOTA, and devoting more and better computing power to it, all things that we should have done many years ago. Once this process is complete, the upshot is that we will be able to produce the PECOTA cards not just on schedule, but ahead of the schedule that you were used to seeing in years past, while also better integrating it with our depth charts and the other products in our Fantasy portfolio.

In transitioning my management responsibilities to Kevin and Dave, and in working with our tech team to automate the production of the PECOTA cards, my objective has been to free up as much of my time as possible for writing, which has always been the part of the job that I've enjoyed the most. Although I probably will not be able to write about baseball with the frequency that I once did, I do hope and expect to continue writing about baseball regularly, both here and for our partners at ESPN.

In the meantime, we appreciate that in these economic circumstances, plopping down 40 bucks on a subscription to a baseball website may not seem like the best use of your resources. That said, we have never raised our prices, and we operate on a very conservative budget, so those subscription revenues go directly toward improving your experience at Baseball Prospectus by recruiting new writers, developing new features, and improving site usability. While we are always indebted to your dedication to Baseball Prospectus, we are especially so at times like these, as we know how much harder many of you are working to provide for yourselves and your families. Smaller and smarter companies are holding up better in the face of the recession than larger and bulkier ones, and thanks to all of you, we have been no exception. We look forward to continuing to share our love of baseball with you for many years to come.

-Nate Silver
Chicago, IL
March 22, 2009

As part of Nate's stepping back and my stepping forward into the Managing Partner role, I was asked to also provide a comment for the state of the Prospectus piece. It's a strange position for me, at least on a writing level. When it comes to my Future Shock column, I feel I'm at my best when I'm getting information from others and relaying it to our readers. I don't have that luxury this time. I have no phone calls to make, or sources to mine. Nobody is scouting us and our universal grade-20 across-the-board tools (hey, at least we're grinders with makeup that is off the charts), and my lack of a safety net has left me staring at a black screen on my laptop in this hotel room in Seattle for far more time than it's had me writing. Besides, I have a World Baseball Classic final to divert my attention.

When looked at it from another angle though, I have nothing but safety nets all around me. My position is Managing Partner, with an emphasis on the second word in that phrase. Prospectus Entertainment Ventures is a small(ish), owner-operated company with a lot of partners. I'm just the guy sitting in the driver's seat on this bus, and luckily I bring with me a pre-baseball life of executive-level work in the internet and entertainment sectors. At the same time, plenty of people are helping with the steering and the gearshift.

This offseason was not without it's fair share of bumps in the road, of course, especially with PECOTA, as Nate mentioned above. Nobody here at BP is happy with how that turned out, but more importantly, many of our customers were unhappy. To make up for it, all fantasy customers who signed up on or before February 26th (when the issues occured) have had their fantasy subscriptions bumped up to full subscriptions, giving them access to all of the premium features that come with it. We hope that you enjoy all of the outstanding content you now have access to, and accept this as our mea culpa-it's not going to happen again. In fact, the steps we're taking to ensure a smoother delivery in the future will actually improve the product on a groundbreaking level.

The main purpose of my note however, is to look forward. I really can't begin to describe to you how much I love this place. I think we are better than anyone at what we do, and I'm excited about the future of this company as we strive every day to retain the title. We have plenty of exciting features and additions in the works, as our editorial team looks for new ways to cover the game (and we have some new faces, with more on that soon), while our technical team is working harder than ever to bring our data and analysis to you in a new, more usable, and more enlightening way. The season hasn't even started yet, and we already have many things to be excited about. Once again, our big annual, Baseball Prospectus 2009, has hit various bestseller lists, and we've embarked on our deepest, most ambitious tour ever to support her, with outstanding crowds at every stop. In addition, we already have game-day events over the first part of the season in St. Louis and Chicago, with hopefully more to come. We're also thrilled about our new partnership with ESPN, one that exposes our unique view of the game to a whole new audience, while also allowing us to ensure that every piece we produce for ESPN's Insider offering is always available to our existing subscribers.

Nate put my e-mail address in his portion, but I'm repeating it here: kgoldstein@baseballprospectus.com. That's the address everyone has, as there's no super-secret "real" e-mail, and while I don't always have the time to respond to every message I receive, I can guarantee you that I read each and every one. Our subscribers are our greatest asset, and we value you and your thoughts immensely.

You'll be hearing from myself, from Dave Pease, and from others over the next few months as we introduce some new features to Baseball Prospectus, but in the meantime, if you ever have any feedback, you have a direct line to me.

-Kevin Goldstein
Seattle, Washington
March 23, 2009

P.S. That slider that Yu Darvish just threw was filthy, but the run that crossed the board makes me want to bear down on this game. I'll have more on Darvish in an upcoming scouting notebook, and let me assure you that I'm not dialing back my writing role in the least; I'm just adding more time around it, and the enthusiasm I have for the future of this company gives me the energy I need with plenty to spare.

Nate Silver is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Nate's other articles. You can contact Nate by clicking here
Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

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