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Chat: Sam Walker

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Welcome to Baseball Prospectus' Thursday February 23, 2006 1:00 PM ET chat session with Sam Walker.

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Sam Walker is a writer for the Wall St. Journal. He's also the author of the forthcoming new book Fantasyland: A Season on Baseball's Lunatic Fringe.

Sam Walker: Hey, everyone. It's Sam Walker, the author of Fantasyland, a forthcoming (March 2) book about my rookie year playing in Tout Wars, the expert Rotisserie league. Ready when you are...

bctowns (Chicago, IL): Sam, A softball for the start of the chat: what's the new book about? As a tougher followup, if the title is an accurate description of your view on fantasy players, what makes you think fantasy baseball is on the fringe? Seems to me to be pretty mainstream, to the point that MLB is trying to license it as a revenue stream. Thanks for chatting.

Sam Walker: In 2004, I took a year off from my job as a sports coluimnist for the Wall Street Journal to devote all my time to competing (and trying to win) Tout Wars, one of the nation's toughest expert Rotisserie leagues. The idea was that I'd use my access and contacts in MLB to try to win by getting better inside information than my competitors, who mostly evaluate the game with numbers. By the time it was over, I'd spent about $50,000, bothered a few dozen managers and GMs, got to know some of the ballplayers on my team, and learned some pretty humbling lessons about trying to project player performance. I'd also come within a few feet of a total physical and emotional crackup, but that's another story. As for the "lunatic fringe" comment, I didn't mean that as a dig or as a way of minimizing fantasy baseball. It's definitely mainstream now. I used "fringe" because I was really looking into the most completely devoted and obsessive corner of the fantasy world. And frankly, "lunatic" was probably one of the only ways to describe some of my behavior.

dianagramr (Brooklyn): Hiya Sam .... 358 hard-cover pages on a fantasy baseball season? Does that include pictures? :-)

Sam Walker: I can see it now. "Here's me poring over my draft sheets!" "Here's me watching the Mariners game when I really should be sleeping!" No, there aren't any pictures in the book. But there's a photo gallery on my Web site, fantasylandthebook.com. You may see some familiar faces there...

Will (Watertown, MA): How does one become a participant in an "expert Rotisserie league"?

Sam Walker: Very good question. Tout Wars was established in 1998 by Ron Shsndler as a place where people who made some or part of their living engaged in fantasy punditry or the baseball information business could play each other in a private league. There's no prize money in Tout, it's really a way for people who "tout" players to put their theories to work and compete for bragging rights. But the competiton is pretty heated and the hours people devote to it are shocking. It's actually a pretty accomplished group. By my count there are now eight Tout Wars participants who have beed tapped to serve as scouts, executives or analysts for Major League teams. One of them is Keith Law of the Blue Jays, who you may know as a BP alumni. In my case, however, since I'd never played Rotisserie before, I had to take another tack-- I basically whined and begged until they gave me a spot.

Dennis (Newark): How has fantasy sports impacted coverage of the actual game? Even though I'm a huge fantasy player, I'm annoyed when the espn bottom line shows that Ichiro is 0-0 tonight just because fantasy owners care about that instead of what is actually happening in the game.

Sam Walker: If you'd asked me that question before 2004, I would have agreed with you. Most traditional "team" fans don't want to hear a bunch of fantasy pablum in the middle of a real game. But after my indoctrination in Rotisserie, I have to say that I found myself yelling at the television whenever Baseball Tonight jumped into its NL highlihgts (I was in an AL league.) I think the solution is coming. There are a lot of smart people with a lot of money looking at ways to customize the TV experience for fantasy players, so that they can mainline the information they need without bothering everybody else. There's one prototype game in the works that would allow you to see your league stats on the screen and even remove a starting pitcher from the game BEFORE his manager does. Hopefully, that will clear up the schizophrenic effect you're talking about.

Jay Ludwig (Berkeley California): Has fantasy baseball extended beyond the major leagues? I'm imagining fantasy teams made up of players from the farm leagues, from college baseball, [?] little league? And how about the international reach of the fb? Are there groups playing fb in Japan, South and Central America?

Sam Walker: You wouldn't beleive some of the derivations out there. You've probably heard of ultraleagues, where there are something like 50 scoring categories including holds and passed balls. There are minor league leagues, where the trick is to sign the best players who are NOT likely to get called up. But it's going way beyond baseball and football. There's fantasy cricket in the UK and I found a fantasy Sumo wrestling league in Japan that has participants from 37 countries from Poland to Nigeria. But what realy cracks me up is the way it's starting to spread beyond sports. Something like 900 people play a game called "Fantasy Supreme Court" where the goal is to pick the outcome of all the cases on the High Court's docket before the term begins. There's a fantasy league where you try to pick public figures who are likely to die in the coming year. It's getting a little ridiculous.

The James (Lake Hopatcong): I'm in a league with some fanatics. Me? I pick up a magazine the day before the draft, and usually clean up every season. Where's the balance between statistical analysis and common sense?

Sam Walker: I know there's a line there, and that the two disciplines are both important, but I'm probably the LAST guy who can tell you where to draw it. While writing the book, I went to the furthest extremes in both directions. To cover the stats, I hired Sig Mejdal, a NASA biomathematician and sabermetrician to advise me (Sig is now working in baseball as senior quantitative analyst for the Cardinals). We built all kinds of crazy models and did all sorts of data manuipulation to try to get an edge. Some of it workked well, some of it was pointless. We discovered that players who have a religious conversion tend to generate 2 fewer runs the following season. I'm not sure what you do with that... On the other hand, I spent the equivalent of about three months on the road that season using my press access to meet ballplayers and scout them in person. I even went to Winter ball in Puerto Rico to look for sleepers. Sometimes this taught me that the numbers can be obscured by some pretty elementary stuff. Matt Lawton's dad told me that the reason his son had such a lousy 2003 season was because his shoulder was so mutilated that he couldn't physically hit pitches on the outside corner, and often didn't even offer at them. If you saw Sidney Ponson arrive to camp looking like he'd eaten an entire donut factory, you probably would have opted to pass. And from the first time I talked to David Ortiz about his approach to hitting in Fenway, I knew I was going to draft him (which I did) and I knew he was going to have a big year.... Here's what's really odd: in 2004, I spent $50,000 on scouting and research and didn't win Tout Wars. Last year, I spent two days preparing, had a baby in May, and spent most of my free time just watching games on the couch. I won. What does that tell you?

The James (Lake Hopatcong): I'm in a league with some fanatics. Me? I pick up a magazine the day before the draft, and usually clean up every season. Where's the balance between statistical analysis and common sense?

Sam Walker: I know there's a line there, and that the two disciplines are both important, but I'm probably the LAST guy who can tell you where to draw it. While writing the book, I went to the furthest extremes in both directions. To cover the stats, I hired Sig Mejdal, a NASA biomathematician and sabermetrician to advise me (Sig is now working in baseball as senior quantitative analyst for the Cardinals). We built all kinds of crazy models and did all sorts of data manuipulation to try to get an edge. Some of it workked well, some of it was pointless. We discovered that players who have a religious conversion tend to generate 2 fewer runs the following season. I'm not sure what you do with that... On the other hand, I spent the equivalent of about three months on the road that season using my press access to meet ballplayers and scout them in person. I even went to Winter ball in Puerto Rico to look for sleepers. Sometimes this taught me that the numbers can be obscured by some pretty elementary stuff. Matt Lawton's dad told me that the reason his son had such a lousy 2003 season was because his shoulder was so mutilated that he couldn't physically hit pitches on the outside corner, and often didn't even offer at them. If you saw Sidney Ponson arrive to camp looking like he'd eaten an entire donut factory, you probably would have opted to pass. And from the first time I talked to David Ortiz about his approach to hitting in Fenway, I knew I was going to draft him (which I did) and I knew he was going to have a big year.... Here's what's really odd: in 2004, I spent $50,000 on scouting and research and didn't win Tout Wars. Last year, I spent two days preparing, had a baby in May, and spent most of my free time just watching games on the couch. I won. What does that tell you?

David (Chicago): Sam, congrats on your 2005 ToutWars title. What did you do differently in your championship season as compared to your rookie year? Will the book include an epilogue covering 2005?

Sam Walker: Thanks. I touched on this in the last post, but I don't want to minimize it completely. A lot of my success was good fortune and surprising pitching (Cliff Lee, Mark Buehrle, Chris Young, Paul Byrd) but I think my exhaustive study of the previous season helped. Basically, I deconstructed the entire league in 2004 and figured out three or four little strategies people had used to prosper. I list them on my web site, if you're interested. And no, I didn't have room for anything but a brief mention of the win.

Josh (Palm Beach): This might be in the book, but what kind of scoring system do you use in Tout? Seems like if somebody would be doing something with fantasy scoring that was new and different, it would be there. I've always been amazed at how man progressive-thinking stat people still base their fantasy lives around 5x5 roto. Jose Reyes is a second round commodity, actual contributions be damned!

Sam Walker: Sorry, everyone. I'm having some Internet slowness on top of my general writing slowness. Thanks for the question, Josh. The Tout system is the traditional Rotisserie 5X5. I know it sounds sort of Neanderthal to keep playing that format with all these disgraced and dishonored stats, but after researching the origins of the game, I've become the staunchest supporter of the old AVG and RBI and ERA categories. When Dan Okrent came up with the rules for Rotisserie, he didn't think of it as an exercise in player evaluation, he thought of it as a competition to build the best possible TEAM. To pick those categories, he looked at the standings from the NL east over four years. Basically, he tallied up how each team in that division had done by every available statistical measure at the time (remember, this was 1979 and VORP hadn't been invented yet). Then he looked to see which of these factors were most common on the best team in the league. In other words, he wanted to know which categories corresponded best to teams that actually win a lot of games. Sure, there are better ways to measure player performance, but that wasn't the point of Roto. The point was to create a way to simulate being a GM and constructing a team... And it really does work. As an experiment after the 2004 season, I took all the teams in the majors and ranked them by Rotisserie points just to see what would happen. If you're interested, try it yourself and see how the standings compare. In that year, the Red Sox were the class of the field and the Roto standings correlated almost perfectly with the real ones. So I still think the old rules are still valuable... And maybe even more fun. If you're trying to predict a guy's RBI total or a pitcher's wins, you have to do a lot of research about the players around them and the tendencies of the manager and everything else that factors into it. I see Roto as a chance to slip off the lab coat and put on the Hawaiian shirt and lampshade. Or maybe the turban and the crystal ball. But I still think it's the best way to get a feeling for what teambuilding is really like.

Will (Watertown, MA): Do you identify exactly who is managing your competition in the book?

Sam Walker: Yes, It's all in the book. You can see the roster on Toutwars.com and see updated photos on my site. The AL was a pretty tough group. We had Joe Sheehan, who you may know (and who manhandled me in the trade market), Steve Moyer of Baseball Info Solutions--the editor of the Bill James Handbook and a consultant to several Major League teams, Ron Shandler of Baseball HQ, Matt Berry of Talented Mr. Roto, and Jason Grey of Mastersball. I'm leaving a lot of people out, but you get the idea. These guys have more than 200 years of collective Roto experience. And Moyer has Bill James on speed dial.

luckypierre420 (providence, ri): sam, your book sounds really interesting to me, as i'm someone who used to play fantasy baseball religiously and had to quit it cold-turkey because it was taking over my life. anyway, you alluded to your website; what's the address? thanks, jake

Sam Walker: Sorry, the site is:

FANTASYLANDTHEBOOK.com
That's funny, I've been hearing from a ton of people who tell me they had to give it up Rotisserie for various reasons. No divorces yet, but I'm sure that's coming. While writing the book, my assistant Nando and I interviewed hundreds of Roto players from around the country and asked them to tell us their best stories. We packaged up the top 20 and put them in the book as little lead-ins to the chapters. It was enormously tough to whittle them down. One of the finalists was a Florida league that created an elaborate system to make sure no transactions would be missed in the event that a hurricane hit and knocked out power at the deadline. The hurricane did hit, and some of these guys had their roofs torn off, but they didn't miss a single transaction. I also found one guy who literally owes his life to a minor thumb injury to Magglio Ordonez in 2001. The level of fanaticism was way beyond anything I'd imagined. (That is, until I experienced it myself.)

dmaybee (Virginia): Hello, In your research for your book, I often wondered do the baseball players themselves know or follow their own stats. Do they analyze thier own statistical performance?

Sam Walker: Some do, some don't. I remember trying to ask Orlando Hudson something about his contact rate once and he sort of jumped backwards. He put his hands up to his ears and said "No stats! Stats are the devil! I don't want to hear any stats until the season is over." When I asked Aubrey Huff a really long and carefully reasoned question about his plate approach, he said "My philosophy is pretty simple. See the ball, hit the ball." Then he went back to his newspaper... But most players are pretty keyed in. If you tell them, for instance, that their batted balls were becoming outs at a freakishly large rate, or if they had a much higher BA with two strikes than they do when the count is in their favor, they almost always know this already, intuitively. I heard a lot of clubhouse conversations about the "moneyball philosophy." Players realize that it's a good idea to learn the quantitative side in order to survive in the game. I noticed that Curt Schilling made a reference to VORP recently, but I guess we all know that he's a quant guy.... One thing that surprised me is that a huge number of these guys play fantasy sports, so they're aware of the way that they're perceived in that world. Major leaguers are strongly discouraged from playing fantasy baseball (for obvious reasons) but there's a fantasy football league in every clubhouse. At spring training, I had a talk with Randy Winn, who plays in a bunch of fantasy leagues. So I asked him a hypothetical question: if he was in a Rotisserie league, would he draft himself? I won't tell you what he said, but it pretty much summed up the odd direction the game is headed in.

Matt (Charlotte, NC): Hey Sam, I just read the book and it's fantastic. Once the book comes out, are there any players or management types who you aren't looking forward to seeing again? Have you and Troy Percival kissed and made up yet?

Sam Walker: I don't think Troy and I are going to be doing lunch any time soon, I'll say that. I really have no idea how the players and GMS will react to the book. I spent the most time with David Ortiz, Jacque Jones, Bill Mueller, Doug Mientkiewicz and Miguel Batista, so I hope they get a kick out of it. I've sent them books, so we'll see. Sidney Ponson is still mad that I traded him, so maybe I'll steer clear of him at Cardinals camp.

massie (stone mountain, ga): Sam, What are the best ways to bring in the casual baseball fan to compete in a Roto league? I have little problem securing 12+ team football leagues at work, but I cant get half of that for baseball.

Sam Walker: Yeah, that can be a problem. Almost as big of a problem as burnout. Obviously, fantasy football is a simpler game that requires less time and a lot fewer brain cells. To do Roto right, even in a mildly competitive league, you have to behave, at least sometimes, like an obsessive nutcake. I think your best bet is to try to use some kind of bribe. Maybe beer or hypnosis or a Czech runway model jumping out of a giant cake? If they show up to the auction, that's half the battle.

Co-worker (St. Louis): So what do you really think of Sig? :)

Sam Walker: Hmmm. I wonder who sent this one? I love Sig, wholeheartedly and unabashedly. Sure, we had some pretty vicious fights during the season. No, I wasn't happy when he used my radar gun to test the speeds of seagulls flying over the ballpark instead of Bartolo Colon's pitches. It's also true that there were several times I wanted to fasten him to a tree with duct tape when he started talking about "positional volatility" and "Markovian models." But the fact is, he's a world-class statistician and he taught me things about baseball that I never would have known. I'm a little scared of what he's going to do for the Cardinals now that he's working for them. Look out.

geehal (LA): Did you find that you found real baseball less fun or different after fantasy?

Sam Walker: What shocked me about the fantasy experience was the way it changed my whole attitude toward baseball. It gave me a whole new set of pet peeves. Sportscasters who can’t pronounce obscure player names--that drove me insane. Situational hitting by my players made me nuts. And after I wound up with Mariano Rivera as my closer, I was shocked to hear myself CHEERING for the Yankees every now and then. But the main difference was that I could turn on a game, any game, and immediately find some compelling reason to watch. I wrote in the book that most years, I would have had to be stricken with rubella to watch five entire baseball games in April. But as soon as I started playing Roto, I was frustrated that I couldn’t watch five games in April at the same time. It definitely brought me back to baseball in a more passionate (thought not necessarily healthy) way.

Sportswriter76 (Baltimore): Hi Sam. I'm really looking forward to reading your book. As an aspiring sports writer, I was wondering how your plunge into Rotisserie Baseball's darkest depths -- and your subsequent chronicling of it -- has affected the way you do you job, and the way you look at sportswriting as a genre.

Sam Walker: Before I started covering sports, baseball was my favorite. When I started writing about it, I realized that it's also an amazing canvas for jorunalism. I cover all major sports at the WSJ, but I always looked forward to spring training more than the others. But about three years ago, I hit this nasty stretch where it seemed like every baseball story I wrote was about steroids or bloated contracts or the assorted adventures of Bud Selig, and it was starting to take a toll on my feelings for the game. At the ALCS in 2003 I was in the Yankees clubhouse after Game 7 and I literally got pushed up against Aaron Boone, who'd just hit that homer to end it. He had a bottle of champagne in one hand, a can of beer in the other and a crazy-ass grin on his face. It was a pretty surreal moment and I should have felt something right then, but while it was happening all I could think was “Dude, please don’t dump that champagne on my head.” That’s when I knew I had to do something to erase all the cynicism and reconnect with the game. I decided to play Roto because all the Roto players I knew were like methadone patients—-they couldn’t care less about anything but the outcome of the next pitch in the next game. If terrorists had blown up Fenway Park during a home run trot by Manny Ramirez, these guys would all be thinking the same thing: Does he still get credit for the run? Basically, I wanted a glass of whatever the hell these guys were drinking...In terms of writing the only downside is that I now know so much about the minutiae of baseball that it's hard to see it with fresh eyes anymore. Something that's a really interesting story to 95% of baseball fans can seem old hat to me since I've heard about it a few times already. It's something I struggle with. But in general, I think all sportswriters should be required to play fantasy. Not just to keep up with the player pool, but to remember that it's a GAME and that it's okay to feel your pulse race once in a while.

Bob Loblaw (purgatory): I care less about my favorite team since I started roto, how about you?

Sam Walker: Well, my favorite team is the Tigers so that should just about answer your question. In 2004, I actually made a nod to my boys by picking up Dmitri Young. Naturally, he broke his fibula on the second day of the season and torpedoed my team. I'm still partial to Tigers prospects. I want Justin Verlander on my team more than I can tell you. But I'm pretty sure that winning Tout Wars last year will be a greater thrill to me than the next Tigers world championship. I'll let you know in 2046 when that happens.

Anthony (Long Island): Did Stefan Fatsis's year-long pursuit of professional Scrabble expertise inspire this project? I absolutely loved "Word Freak" and it sounds like your book is a similar effort.

Sam Walker: Stefan's book was a tremendous read and it did a lot to open up the market for this kind of experiential book. I'd say that his experience, and the works of George Plimpton, were a sort of underlying model. But the idea of trying to "manage" my fantasy team in real life came to me organically. I can't remember exactly wwhen, but I'm pretty sure there were some beers involved.

Will (Watertown, MA): Great chat! Will you be doing any in-person book discussions/signings a la the Prospectus "pizza feeds"?

Sam Walker: Thanks, Will. Okay, this is it. I have an NBA column to write. Thanks for all the questions. I'm going to be doing some readings and posting the details on my site, fantasylandthebook.com. THe book comes out on March 2 and my next event is a reading at Barnes & Noble in New York (675 Sixth Ave. in Chelsea) at 7 PM on March 7. Hope to see you there!

Sam Walker: Thanks!


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