Interview: Eric Seidmanby John Beamer
June 23, 2008
Eric Seidman of Statistically Speaking and an occasional contributor to The Hardball Times has just released his first book called Bridging the Statistical Gap, which you can buy here. In a few weeks' time you should also be able to pick the book up at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Anyway, as you've guessed, Eric's achievement of publishing a book is worthy of an interview, so here goes.
John Beamer: You've been around the baseball blog for a year or so, can you outline a little bit about yourself, how you got interested in baseball and why you decided to write a book?
Eric Seidman: I've been around the blog for about a year but I had actually been doing some "studies" of my own for a couple of years prior, in order to help me with fantasy leagues and just to better understand some of what I was watching. I intuitively understood, from an early age, that terms like "soft batting average" meant the BA did a poor job of assessing the skill level and so I strived to learn better ways to evaluate or analyze players.
In terms of my background, my father was an Emmy-award winning Phillies/Sixers television producer so I grew up in a sports household. I played growing up and all the way through high school, also, so baseball has always been a big part of my life. I was always interested in the numbers, though. I would stand out from my friends when we were 11 or 12 because I hated when my players in video games had unrealistic slash lines; I didn't like when it was 80 games into a simulated season and a guy like Mike Lieberthal was hitting .490.
I knew he would never do that in a real season, and I guess I understood without truly understanding that he was a prime candidate for video game regression. From watching so much baseball I even developed an "ability" to quickly turn fractions into decimals due to batting average. I scared my third grade teacher one time, a day I vividly remember, because she put a series of 12 fractions on the board and, in about two minutes, I told her the batting averages of them all. She was shocked and I had no idea why; to me it was perfectly normal to know that 4-11 is .364 or that 5-17 is .294, etc.
Despite all of this baseball I got more involved with screen writing, developing quite a name for myself at my young age. I don't mean for any of this to sound cocky, so I hope nobody reads it that way, but I figure it's interesting to know more about me considering that's the point of an interview. Rather, I've just worked very, very hard since the age of 15 to better myself in all my areas of interest.
Others went out and got drunk; I worked. I won a film festival for best overall screenplay at age 18, finished in third place at age 19, was hired to write two independent scripts at age 19, had a script optioned by known producer Fred C. Caruso (Blue Velvet, Casualties of War) at age 20, and Brett Ratner (Rush Hour, Red Dragon) flew me to Miami and executive produced a short film of mine last year when I was 21.
Still, though, baseball was always my biggest passion, and so when I started to get involved with blog sabermetrics, friends of mine commented "What took you so long?" It's a constant learning process and I don't consider myself an expert, by any means, but rather someone who loves baseball, loves numbers, and works really hard not just to understand them but to make them understandable by others.
John Beamer: Can you tell us a little about the book and what type of fan it is aimed at?
Eric Seidman: I decided to write a book because there is a vast gap between statheads and the more casual fans... and there really does not need to be. I've come to understand that most people are intimidated by statistical analysis because they think everything involves complex mathematical formulas. That could not be further from the truth.
Sure, complex formulas are needed at times but something like FIP is not complex and it is a tremendous statistic. The same can be said for WPA; these are extremely effective numbers that really dive deep into the truth of what we're actually seeing and you don't need to have a Sig Mejdal NASA resume in order to figure them out.
I wanted to write a book that someone without prior knowledge of advanced analysis could pick up, read, and understand not only the history behind certain numbers but also why they are effective and more effective, perhaps, than the current barometers. Instead of presenting it in a "for dummies" format I actually conduct and explain, in-depth, analyses; that way readers are learning while simultaneously seeing examples of how to use the statistics.
Examples of what I discuss are why batting average isn't really effective, how saves can be misleading and better ways to evaluate closers, the idea of clutch hitting, and cross-era comparisons. There is much more to the book, as I tend to get off on tangents in it; a chapter might focus on something direct but then branch out to discuss various other somewhat related stats.
Due to this, stat-heads are not my target audience. The book won't give MGL or Tango sabergasms but it will teach those intimidated by sabermetrics that they have no need to fear the truth; that the truth is much closer than they think. Andy Dolphin summed it up best in a conversation I had with him, saying that he, Tango, and MGL had a decision to make with regards to their target audience. You can't please everyone; you'll either alienate statheads or you'll alienate casual fans. He said they went one way, I went the other way.
My goal in statistical analysis is to help people understand what they're seeing, not necessarily have an edge and be smarter than them. I hope the book can serve as a conversion factor of sorts, turning those intimidated by sabermetrics not necessarily into full blown statheads but rather people now open-minded to the idea of looking deeper.
John Beamer: So you're very much aiming your book at the casual fan but you peddle most of your work through more stats-minded websites like Statistically Speaking, Hardball Times and Baseball Prospectus. What's your plan to reach your chosen audience?
Eric Seidman: Well, writing for the various websites gives me exposure but also allows me to branch out and explore new territory. For instance, at Statistically Speaking, both Pizza Cutter and I have a schedule to do one research-heavy piece and one lighter piece per week; here at THT I lean more towards the historical aspects of baseball, which really interest me; at Prospectus I'm doing Pitch F/X work; and at Fangraphs I write daily columns profiling players and their tendencies.
Regardless of where I write, or what I write about, the one constant is breaking everything down. No matter where I write I try to explain my reasoning and methodology as openly and honestly as possible, mentioning when I mess up or have a bad idea as well as when metaphorical light bulbs go off. This allows me, and everyone else who similarly breaks everything down, to reach a wider audience. More casual readers won't be intimidated because they'll understand the process of reaching the conclusions and, in doing so, realize that a lot of it is merely common sense represented by numbers.
I plan on sending copies to local newspapers for review as well as reaching the television stations here in Philadelphia about potential talk show appearances to help get it out there. Since the target audience might not be the same target audience as, say THT or Prospectus, it's important to find the outlets that more casual fans "hit up" and get it mentioned there.
I was lucky enough to receive a ton of great feedback and blurbs from many well-known writers/analysts across the blog—as well as a great foreword—which not only meant a great deal to me personally but should also help others, unsure of what they might get themselves into, understand this book could potentially help.
John Beamer: How would you compare the book to something like BP's Baseball Between the Numbers, which is aimed at more casual audience? Is it similar to that in style and approach?
Eric Seidman: It seems like the two big guns out there are The Book and Baseball Between the Numbers. Mine is neither, and I have no delusions of grandeur that it will ever be along the lines of them, and this is not me sucking up or giving a "I'll do what's best for the team" type answer in a post-game interview. Even though Between the Numbers is aimed at a more casual audience I still think you need to have some knowledge of statistics to get the most out of it. With mine you can come in knowing nothing other than you like baseball and perhaps want to know more.
There are generally two ways to attack a stats book; make it a "for dummies" book wherein you just explain what everything is, or make it strictly an analysis book, conducting studies and examining the results. What I tried to do is combine the two. I conduct studies throughout but break everything down to the point that you don't even need to know how to calculate ERA or BA before you pick it up. I wrote it with my bubbe (Yiddish for grandmother) in mind; I would always question whether or not she, who knows nothing about baseball, could read it and understand what I'm talking about. If not, I explained and broke things down further.
John Beamer: I'm sure you learned a ton of interesting stuff researching and writing your tomb. Can you enlighted us as to some of the biggest surprises you came across?
Eric Seidman: Well, in terms of surprises in the process, I learned that writing a book is REALLY HARD. I've written 120+-page screenplays and edited manuscripts that take a lot of my time and energy but, my Joba was this process difficult. Not only did I have to figure out the best way to write for the target audience but I had to find interesting topics that they could benefit from learning about and then make sure I didn't step on anyone else's toes/work. The great thing is that I was able to plug the work of many people throughout.
I didn't want readers to think I'm the only credible source on a subject and, since there is so much great work out there, it was rewarding to be able to mention a Cyril Morong article, or Studes's WPA tool, or something Gassko came across. It's very important to me for the casual fans comprising my target audience to know there is a wealth of information out there.
John Beamer: My understanding is that you're self-publishing this book. Can you tell us a bit about what took you down that road and how you will define success for this project?
Eric Seidman: Yeah, I am self-publishing through Lulu. I had spoken with Tango about The Book and he directed me towards Lulu a while back. Similarly, Geoff Young spoke wonders about the self-publishing site. Geoff was a big help in understanding how everything worked with it. I have a tendency to get involved with many things at a time and it becomes difficult to always evenly distribute my energy and so I didn't want to finish the book and then lose my zest towards it and brush it aside.
I wanted to finish it, revise it, work with my editor, continue revising and, when done, get it out there. Self-publishing seemed to be the best route and, since Lulu allows the book to be sold on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, it didn't seem to be as drastic of a dropoff to having it sold in stores.
Success...hmm...well, going in I knew this wouldn't be a real moneymaking venture. Just to shed some light on it, based on the amount of pages (the 240-250 range), the size (6x9) and having black-and-white pages with a color cover, if I sell a book at $14.95, I stand to make somewhere between 1-2 dollars per book. Amazon and B&N would then take a good portion of those royalties due to offering the wide exposure. Clearly I'm not doing this for the money as it'll be a bonus if I walk away with even enough to fill up two tanks of gas in the first 6-12 months.
The last line of my first chapter, titled "The Great Batting Average Debate," I think sums up my definition of success best—"Though the ultimate goal in explaining all of these methods is to change some minds, I will consider this chapter a success if batting average advocates can at least admit better alternatives exist, regardless of whether or not they immediately embrace these other methods."
Just hit Control-F and replace 'chapter' with 'book' and 'batting average' with 'traditional barometers' and that's my take on success.
John Beamer: Yeah, book writing ain't necessarily a route to riches that's for sure. One question on statistical analysis—where did you pick this stuff up? Did you do it at school, teach it yourself? And would you consider yourself a statistical black belt?
Eric Seidman: I had always been fascinated with both baseball and numbers, even when I was younger, but unfortunately there aren't many outlets for that growing up in school. I was able to keep myself motivated in stats classes or other math classes by using baseball as my examples. I picked up on things a variety of ways: in classes, on my own, through convos with professors, convos with other statisticians or sabermetricians, etc. I would always take what I was taught in a class and apply it to baseball.
Most people I knew told me that statistics classes were not baseball statistics classes, and that what I learned would be different, but I would always ask myself "how does this apply to baseball?" We would learn about standard deviations and I would think about teams and their runs scored or W-L and how some might over/underperform, things like that.
I do not consider myself a black belt, no. I consider myself very knowledgeable and someone who has the willingness to learn and be taught each and every day. This can be a cynical business/field/whatever you call it and, just like with screen writing, it's important albeit hard at times to separate someone's comments regarding your work from someone commenting about you specifically.
I do my best to take everything in stride, though, and if someone points out that I made a mistake somewhere or presents better ways to conduct similar analyses I'm always open. I feel like I know a lot but enjoy learning more. I've done statistics reports for non-baseball entities and am familiar with numbers, what they tell us, how to use them, but I'm more of a baseball numbers guy than a strict numbers guy.
John Beamer: I know you've also got another book in the works. Care to tell us a little more about how it came about and when we'll see it?
Eric Seidman: The other book I have in the works is tentatively titled Pitching For Grandpop and it is the dual story of the career of former star pitcher Bucky Walters and his grandson's quest to get him enshrined in the Hall of Fame. It is not a piece of propaganda designed to garner tons of support for Bucky, but it is an incredible story all the way around; not only is Bucky's career incredibly interesting and too-oft forgotten, but what his grandson has done and been able to accomplish with regards to Cooperstown is pretty unbelievable too.
It came about after my Why Cy? article was posted here in February; his grandson, Jeffrey, contacted me to let me know that all the pitchers with three-plus hypothetical Cy Young Awards were in Cooperstown except for Bucky Walters. That led me to research his career and get my hands on tons of documents about Bucky, from Jeffrey, the Reds Hall of Fame, and more. It was a pretty cool feeling having the Reds HOF conduct research for me.
I'm still finalizing the outline with Jeffrey and then we plan to approach publishers later this summer. Probably something for the end of next year if things go according to plan.
John Beamer: You've chosen the Bucky book and the 101 book for specific reasons. Are there any other aspects of the game where you have a real passion that you'd love to write a book about?
Eric Seidman: I read an interview with Buzz Bissinger (yes the blog-hater himself) following the Costas Now program in which he mentioned he did not like being "cornered" as a sportswriter. He had done a ton of other writings that were equally important. I definitely consider myself a sportswriter but I am interested in more.
Something I've wanted to write a book about for a while now is my experience in making the movie with Brett Ratner. It's a pretty remarkable story that some 21-year-old kid just randomly gets a phone call at 2 a.m. one day from one of the wealthiest directors in Hollywood, asking him how much money he needs to make a movie because the script is fantastic.
I've also had something in mind with regards to following a team during spring training and writing a book based on that; though I have a feeling it might not fly with many if not all teams, and I don't want to be one of those sensational writers that relies on "gossip" for success.
Ideally I would love to continue statistical analysis for websites and turn that into a profession somehow while writing more historical pieces in the form of books.
John Beamer: Let's turn our attention away from the book to the 2008 baseball. You're a Phillies boy (grrrrwwwwww spit—I'm Braves!)—you must be pretty please with how things are shaping up? Who do you consider the biggest threat in the NL East?
Eric Seidman: It's a VERY odd feeling, to be honest, with the Phillies getting out of the gate without a 9-14 record or something along those lines. The last 5-6 years it seems they start slow, get ridiculously hot, and then JUST miss the playoffs. Last year they got in on the final day of the season and, honestly, I didn't care that they got swept.
I finally got to see them win the division/make the playoffs, and that was good enough for initial satisfaction. Now I want more, though, and they look very good. Coming into the season Adam Eaton was a huge question mark but he actually leads the Phillies in quality starts (or did until Hamels' last gem).
As far as the NL East goes, I felt the Braves were the biggest threat coming into the season but, with all due respect to your boys, I just cannot see a rotation consisting of JoJo Reyes, Jair Jurrjens, Jorge Campillo, and some combo of Carlyle/Bennett doing a ton of damage at this point. Smoltz is gone, Glavine's hurt and not effective when healthy, so it's pretty much Hudson and then just hope it's not a one-run game. Not to say the young Killer J's aren't talented but I don't think I'm alone in thinking they can carry the Braves to the playoffs.
The Mets have underperformed, without a doubt, but I still fear them due to the head-to-head match-ups. If they sweep the Phillies in a three-game series that could rejuvenate their season. The Marlins are a great offensive team, but I think they're a couple of years away from being a major threat. I ultimately see the division going Phillies, Mets, Braves-Marlins (either tied or very very close), and Nationals far off.
John Beamer: What is the stupidest thing the Phillies have done in 2008?
Eric Seidman: Somewhat tough since they've done a lot right this year, but I will say that I really hated how they handled Cole Hamels' contract situation in the offseason. The guy wanted maybe 100-200k more than his 400k salary and the Phillies wouldn't budge. Granted, they don't have to do anything, but it seemed like it would've been a good move to reward one of the best pitchers in baseball who is making 1/20th of Adam Eaton's salary.
John Beamer: And what's the most surprising thing you've learned about baseball this year?
Eric Seidman: The most surprising thing I've learned is that players can just decide to change their name pronunciation whenever they feel like it. I refuse to call him Erik "Baydarr." Absolutely refuse.
John Beamer: Before we wrap up I have to take a page out of Chris Jaffe's book and ask you some non-baseball related questions. In your opinion, what's the greatest rock'n'roll album of all time?
Eric Seidman: Are You Experienced? by Jimi Hendrix, Texas Flood by Stevie Ray Vaughan, Appetite for Destruction by Guns n Roses, and From the Cradle by Eric Clapton.
John Beamer: What's the most overrated movie you've ever seen?
Eric Seidman: Hands down, Scarface. Wasn't a terrible movie but definitely not worth all the hoopla that surrounds it today. I guess athletes keep it alive due to their love for it which, I think, stems from the whole rags to riches story, but that was an example of an extremely popular movie that I just kind of shrugged my shoulders after seeing, wondering what the big deal was all about.
John Beamer: Do you have any non-sports related hobbies?
Eric Seidman: I'm a street magician and blues guitarist as a hobby, and other than that, with the combination of screen writing and sports writing (and a real job), a lot of times I just enjoy being in bed relaxing, with a nice Diet Mountain Dew in my hands.
John Beamer: Do you have any personal TV guilty pleasures?
Eric Seidman: Well, The X-Files was my favorite show of all time, which I guess wouldn't help shake the notion that since I work with numbers I'm a nerd. Recently, fell in love with House, which is like the X-Files of medical dramas; seriously, guy gets his own division, solves cases nobody else can, so many parallels.
John Beamer: What's your dream car? What's the dream car you can reasonably afford?
Eric Seidman: I just graduated school and got a 2008 Altima, which is great, but still confuses me because it has no key; I just push buttons. When I turn the car off it takes me a couple seconds to remember I don't have to pull a key out. I've never been a car enthusiast, that's more my mom's hobby, so whatever she suggests. Ultimately, whatever gets me from point A to point B with the least amount of bird-poop is fine by me.
John Beamer: What do you like on your pizza?
Eric Seidman: My favorite type of pizza is a White-Steak pizza. It's a white pizza with the steak from a steak sandwich on it; delicious. Goes quite well with the aforementioned Diet Mountain Dew.
Thanks to Eric for agreeing to this (lengthy) interview. His book, Bridging the Statistical Gap, is available right now. It is recommended for more casual fans or those not already involved in sabermetrics (not so much for those already firmly entrenched). Buy it here.
John is an unashamed glory supporter having followed the Atlanta Braves since 1991. He blogs the Braves at Chop-n-Change. He welcomes comments, criticisms and suggestions via e-mail