THT Interview: John Dewan

If you’ve looked up Zone Ratings or line drive information, or used the Retrosheet file format, John Dewan has improved your sporting life. If you’ve read online boxscores or real-time line scores, John Dewan has improved your sporting life. Heck, if you’ve looked at baseball stats, John Dewan has improved your sporting life.

John joined forces with Bill James and others in the early days of Project Scoresheet, a 1980’s effort to gather baseball stats and make them available to the public. He moved on to become President of STATS Inc., which was sold in 2000 and is now jointly owned by News Corporation and the Associated Press. John is now an owner in both Baseball Info Solutions, a baseball statistics company, and ACTA Sports, a publishing company.

John and I had lunch recently. Here’s what we discussed…

Dave: Let’s start by chatting about your time after you left STATS Inc. How did you get from there to here?

John: Well, I continued doing Stat of the Week, the radio show that I’ve been doing every week for 15 years on WSCR. That’s been fun, and I was actually getting support from STATS at the time to do that. But then when Steve Moyer approached me about starting Baseball Info Solutions in 2002, I started using BIS data to support the show.

Dave: So are you a part-owner of BIS?

John: Well, I’m the primary owner, the main owner. There are other owners. Bill James is an owner and a few more as well.

Dave: How did ACTA come along?

John: Well, I actually approached STATS about buying back their publishing division because I really enjoy the publishing business. And I honestly knew that they were going to discontinue it. I knew that profitability was such an overriding priority for them and that the publishing profits weren’t going to be big enough for them. Personally, I’m happy with those profit margins; I’d love to have those profit margins.

But despite the fact that they eventually stopped publishing, they wanted more money than the business was worth and I couldn’t justify paying what they were looking for.

Then, one day out of the blue, I received a phone call from Greg Pierce, the co-publisher of ACTA Publications. We were part of the same church, though we didn’t know each other that well. He said “I know that you were in the business of statistical information and you sold your company. I’m looking for advice on the selling side: I have a partner who’s looking to get out, and I’m trying to figure out how to sell his portion of the company.”

And I said to him, “Well, I know someone who’s interested in potentially buying into your company. Me.” ACTA was only in the business of religious publishing at the time. They were looking at traditional ways of selling the stake, such as approaching other publishers, but they had a hard time finding someone who would buy half. So we worked out a deal in a few months.

I really liked the fact that they are a small company. I believe in small companies. I believe that a small company can focus on doing a really good job with a few products, providing tremendous customer service. When I was at STATS, it was a lot more fun when we had 20 employees than when we had 100.

Dave: So the two companies kind of came together for you?

John: Right. When Greg and I were initially talking, I told him that I was interested in eventually getting back into sports publishing. And Greg is a sports fan. We were both coaching little league teams at that time so we both had that common interest. Hence, our new book The Ballgame of Life, which is geared towards coaches and parents of little leaguers.

Then STATS discontinued the Bill James Major League Handbook. They continued with other books for a while, but they have folded their data into the Sporting News Baseball Register (which also includes data from BIS). The Register also has a number of components that originally were in the old STATS Scouting Notebook.

Really, Bill James invented the whole concept of the Major League Handbook. He approached me in STATS around 1989 and suggested we publish a book that comes out right after the season is over. There had been a tradition that baseball books have to come out in March. Bill thought it didn’t have to be that way and I was very intrigued by the idea. So when STATS discontinued it, I called Bill and said “Hey Bill, this book is too valuable not to have out there. Would you like to do it in conjunction with BIS and ACTA Sports?” He said yes right away.

Dave: How involved is he with the Handbook at this stage?

John: He works with us on it every year. We plan the new content together and he writes some of the limited amount of writing that we have in the book. He also works extensively on the hitter projections…

Dave: And you dragged him into the pitching projections, right?

John: (Laughing) No, I wouldn’t put it that way. I’d say he had very little to do with our pitching projections. If you read the book, you know about that.

Dave: Will the Handbook continue on an annual basis?

John: Oh yeah, there’s no question about that.

Dave: (plugging hard) Along with the Hardball Times Annual, of course…

John: No question about that at all! It’s a valuable addition to our ACTA Sports lineup.

Dave: Well, golly, you mean it? Ahem. Anyway, have you basically recreated STATS with BIS and ACTA today?

John: You know, I never thought of it that way but maybe that’s kind of what’s happened. The key was that I enjoyed publishing and having data is always great, as you can appreciate. When Steve approached me about the new company, I was pretty content with using STATS at the time for my radio show, though I had no other commercial rights to the data. But Steve wanted to get back in the business, and I enjoyed the business.

Dave: Steve worked at STATS?

John: Yes, Steve was in charge of operations at STATS for many years. His job was to make sure that all the data came in and went out without anything being missed. He had done such a great job for me at STATS, there was no doubt he would get it done with BIS. I had no doubts about going into business with Steve.

Steve wanted to collect data with even more depth than we ever had at STATS, and I’m all for that. He had actually approached me at STATS about some of these ideas, but we had never had the wherewithal to do all of them. So we decided we were going to go for it with BIS.

Dave: What are some examples of the greater depth?

John: The pitch type and location, and the hit locations are the keys. Recording every pitch type and speed, and the location based on pixels on a computer screen. On batted balls, we’re also down to pixels on a screen to pinpoint the location of the batted ball.

Dave: Compare that to STATS for me.

John: If they’re still doing it the same way we used to, they have about 26 zones across the field (letters A-Z). That works well, but we wanted to get more precise. So we have 262 vectors fanning across the baseball diamond.

Dave: How do you achieve that level of precision?

John: We have video scouts. Their job is to review video and make sure that everything is logged properly. When they do that, they have the ability to rewind and make sure that things such as pitch location and batted ball locations are recorded properly. All the work takes place in our office in Pennsylvania.

Dave: Who does BIS sell to? Who do you think of as your target markets?

John: Major league ball clubs are our biggest focus. We really want to do a good job for teams and become known as the company that has the best information, cares most about the information and knows how to put the information together to make it meaningful.

The Fielding Bible is an example of that. We started putting that together for teams in 2003, thinking “How can we utilize this tremendous database that we have and make it as useful to teams as possible.” That’s a very important market for us.

Dave: And where do public sites like The Hardball Times fit?

John: Getting information to the public is important as well. That’s how I started in this business. I started working with Bill James on Project Scoresheet because baseball information wasn’t publicly available and he said “Well, let’s just do it on our own.” I became the director of Project Scoresheet after I first read about it because I believed in it too and I wanted to be involved in the data collection. I love the data, and that’s important to me.

I think it’s fantastic that there are places like Retrosheet where information is available to the public.

Dave: How do you balance wanting to sell to major league clubs against wanting to make the data public?

John: As best we can.

Dave: I’ll quote you on that. But, seriously, it must be difficult to take The Fielding Bible public and sell the data to clubs at the same time.

John: Well, a couple of points. First, having the book available for the public accomplishes our goal of trying to make this information public. But it also accomplishes our goal of establishing credibility with the teams, both for BIS and me personally. I think it’s already proven itself, and more teams are interested in working with us on fielding.

We mention in the book our “Defensive Misplays” and “Good Fielding Plays project, which is something we’re just now making available to teams, and it’s really awesome information.

Dave: Can you explain that a little more?

John: Well, there are a lot of misplays in a baseball game that don’t get counted as an error, such as missing the cutoff man, misjudging a flyball and taking the forceout at second on a sure double play but flubbing the throw to first.

We have 54 different misplays that we’ve coded. We reviewed video of every single play in the 2005 season and coded all the defensive misplays. We also have 24 categories of good fielding plays, such as a scoop by a first baseman, or a tremendous diving catch.

Dave: So you did this for every team in 2005?

John: Yeah. After the season, we went back and reviewed all the videos of all the games. Imagine how much time that took! We found some very interesting things. For instance, in The Fielding Bible, we mentioned Derrek Lee as someone who doesn’t show up well in our plus/minus system. Well, he does show up as one of the first-base leaders in good fielding plays, such as scooping out throws. He was second in the National League in good fielding plays. The guy who was first was Albert Pujols, who got my “Gold Glove That Should Have Been” in the book.

Dave: And it’s been received well by the ball clubs?

John: Definitely. The guys at BIS did a tremendous job, and they also put together an unbelievably good presentation for the clubs. A number of them have bought already.

Dave: Who do you compete with? STATS?

John: I don’t like to think of competition. I like to think that we’re out there doing a good job. If STATS is doing a good job too, good for them. If they have a good product, that’s great. A lot of people are very cutthroat about competition, but that’s just not my nature. In fact, the book publishing business, especially the Christian book publishing business, has a very cooperative tone among publishers. It’s the way I like to do business.

I want to see everyone be successful. I’m not looking to make BIS successful at someone else’s expense. You know, if they do good work then they should get credit for it. So, yes, we’re competitors, but they do good work. And so do some other companies in the business.

Dave: Does MLBAM do this sort of thing?

John: I don’t know much about MLBAM, except that they have a pretty cool website. There has been talk of cameras on top of stadiums, which would allow you to measure positioning of players. It would be nice additional information but I don’t think it’s really necessary.

To me, if a guy makes a good fielding play, the key is that he made the play. Either he made the play or he didn’t. So if he made the play because he has tremendous speed, or he made the play because he got a tremendous jump on the play, or he made the play because he has great positioning, I see that as just making the play or not. It all comes out.

Dave: Some people feel that the positioning credit should go to the coaches as well as the player, so there would be value in separating positioning from quickness.

John: Well, there’s some merit to that, but again, when a player makes a play he should get credit. Maybe you can make the case that the player wouldn’t do as well with another team. Could be.

Dave: Back to the issue of selling your data…

John: I like seeing information available to the public. But we have to make a living, and it is very, very expensive to collect the data the way we collect it. We go through an entire season and re-review everything so we’ve got to find a way to pay for that.

Dave: How many people work for BIS?

John: Steve knows that better than I do. I believe there are less than ten full-time employees but a bunch of people who work for us on a part-time or independent contract basis. We do try to limit the number of video scouts that we have, because we want to have the very best scouts. It’s important to us to have the best guys doing as much as they can.

Dave: Let’s switch gears. In the beginning of the Fielding Bible, you say that it was Bill James’s idea to publish the Fielding Bible. Can you tell me a little more about how the book came about?

John: As we mention in the book, Bill and I have been discussing fielding for years. Right around the time Bill starting working for the Red Sox I came up with a new system to analyze fielding based on in-depth data from Baseball Info Solutions. I shared the system with Bill. He liked it and suggested I convert it to a plus/minus technique. That’s how the Plus/Minus System got started. Bill then asked us to develop a series of reports that the Red Sox would be interested in. This became the team version of The Fielding Bible which we’ve produced for the last three years.

Last year Bill suggested I do a version to be made available publicly. He actually wrote the introduction before we even starting working on the book.

Dave: The Plus/Minus system seems like a big advance over Zone Rating, which you created about twenty years ago. Do you see it replacing Zone Rating, or is there still a reason to look at both systems?

John: While the Plus/Minus System is an advance on Zone Ratings, the zone rating system is still useful to look at as an additional reference. Ichiro is a good example. He fell to a ninth place ranking among all right fielders in plus/minus with a +7 in 2005, but he was number one in zone ratings. It’s one of the reasons I felt that his Gold Glove for 2005 shouldn’t be questioned. The more references there are, the better picture you get. Just like hitting. We can go ahead and look at OPS (On-base Plus Slugging) but it’s still useful and interesting to know how many home runs and RBI the man had.

Dave: I noticed that Ichiro caught a lot of balls both in and out of his zone, according to your stats. But it appears that the key to his lower ranking in the plus/minus system was the difference between his raw plus/minus score and his enhanced plus/minus score. Could you talk about the difference between the two?

John: Ichiro had a +6 figure in the basic plus/minus system and +7 in the enhanced system. That means that he made 6 more plays than would have been made by an average right fielder in 2005 saving a total of 7 bases for his team. The +6 basic figure ranked fourth among regular right fielders while the +7 enhanced number ranked ninth.

What it comes down to is that the other five right fielders who passed Suzuki in the enhanced system ranking took away more extra-base hits than Ichiro did.

Dave: I know that the Plus/Minus system accounts for the vector of a ball, as well as its speed. You also state that the system includes the depth of a flyball for outfielders. Did you split the field into zones to do this? I don’t mean to get too technical, but how specific were the “depth zones” for outfield flies?

John: In addition to vector and speed, every flyball and line drive is measured based on the distance from home plate. 248 feet. 322 feet. One-foot increments.

Dave: Wow. That is very detailed. Don’t you get some wild swings in average outcomes when you look at fly balls on that level of specificity? For example, how many flyballs are softly hit to vector 185 exactly 241 feet from home plate?

John: We looked closely at the detail to see whether it requires aggregating. For example, we did plus/minus figures based on larger areas and compared them to the ones based on the smallest areas. We determined that it wasn’t necessary to create bigger “zones”, but we may look at this further in the future.

Dave: Something else you mentioned in the book that I want to ask. What’s a fliner?

John: A fliner is pretty obvious once I describe it. There are line drives and there are fly balls. When you watch a baseball game, you know a line drive when you see it; same thing for a fly ball. But some balls are hard to characterize. Was that a flyball or was that hit hard enough to be a liner? Did that have too much of an arc to be a line drive? Or was that a fly?

So those balls that you want to question are going to be called “fliners” this year. The bottom line is that line drives get to the fielders more quickly than fliners, which get to the fielders more quickly than flyballs. That will be an important distinction to make from an evaluation standpoint.

Dave: In our original Hardball Times Annual, Robert Dudek watched a number of games and tracked the amount of time a ball was in the air. He set aside the distinction between a line drive and fly ball, and just tracked time in the air and the general zone a ball landed in. Has BIS ever looked at the amount of time a ball was in the air?

John: We haven’t and it’s an interesting idea. I’d love to see a copy of the article. It makes sense. If you take time in the air and the exact area the ball landed in, you’d have everything we try to capture with line drives, fliners and flyballs.

Dave: I’ll send it to you. Are you going to publish the Fielding Bible next year?

John: Good question. I don’t know. It was a lot of work and when I finished writing it, I was certain that I would never publish another book like that again. Within a week or two, I felt better, but I don’t know. Maybe we’ll do it every three years.

Dave: Speaking of three years, some guys have wild swings from one year to the next. Aaron Rowand and Todd Helton are two examples.

John: Actually, I was surprised at how consistent the findings were. For instance, Mike Lowell received an “A” in handling bunts every one of the three years. I don’t think the Plus/Minus system is any less consistent than other baseball statistics. There’s also the issue of limited sample sizes, and that’s why having three years’ data is better than having one. The way the three-year numbers came out made me pretty happy.

I was worried at first that the numbers wouldn’t make sense. But when we looked at the three-year numbers in particular, the ratings made a whole lot of sense intuitively. You do get the outliers, and you wonder geez, can this be? How does Derek Jeter, who won two Gold Gloves during the three years, come out so poorly? How good is this system?

That’s why we looked at that issue so closely. We had to find out why Jeter ranked so low in our system.

Dave: And Bill James wrote a great article about that specific issue.

John: It was awesome. He did a great job with it, and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate his contributions. He made a huge difference.

Dave: (Looking in the book) So, Edgar Renteria. In 2003 he was 23rd, he was eighth in 2004 and he was 26th in 2005. Do you guys have any clue what happened?

John: He wasn’t just bad in the plus/minus system. His defensive misplays were horrendous last year. Just a lot of bad fielding. Maybe the change of scenery in Boston affected him. I’d have to take a closer look to see if there was anything we could pinpoint.

Before the season, you would have thought of him as one of the better shortstops, and he just had a bad year. It’s like the .300 hitter batting .240. You think, “What happened?” Well, he just had a bad year.

You know, in general, the Gold Glovers came out pretty well in the defensive misplays data. Even Derek Jeter was pretty good, which makes me think there’s really something in this data.

Dave: Any other improvements planned for the system?

John: We’re working on infield flies and line drives. Bill and I have been looking and wondering if we are undercounting the impact of infield flies a little bit. For instance, this is one area in which Derek Jeter excels. Over the last three seasons, he was the best shortstop at handling balls in the air. But, he was +15 over the three years, which is not a huge number compared to the -79 he had on grounders. So we’re reviewing the technique that we’re using and wondering if maybe he’s not getting enough credit for balls in the air.

My hypothesis is that we might be undercounting a little bit, but not by much. Maybe 20% or 30% at most.

The addition of fliners to the data will be a huge element. I was really happy with how the outfielders came out in the Fielding Bible; I couldn’t believe it. I expected them to come out worse than the infielders.

Dave: In terms of consistency?

John: Yes. I wound up agreeing with the Gold Glove outfielders more than the infielders.

Dave: A number of people feel you shouldn’t give too much credit to infielders because 99% of infield flies are caught.

John: Well, in the plus/minus system, you don’t get credit. If a ball is caught, that’s the whole definition of the system. It doesn’t matter who catches the ball, either. If a shortstop catches a fly that a third baseman catches 100% of the time, he doesn’t get credit for that catch.

Dave: So you don’t just compare outs by position, you compare all outs.

John: Right. It’s kind of silly, but our shortstop database will include balls hit down the rightfield line, just in case one of them manages to catch a fly over there.

Dave: Do you make any adjustments for shifts, such as the Ortiz shift?

John: Not right now, but it is something we’re looking at. It’s an important element, and I think it’s going to become more important. I frankly don’t think that teams shift enough.

Dave: Is this another area in which managers are just too risk-averse and not wanting to try something new?

John: Well, there’s a large human element to this game. People have made the case that A-Rod should play short and Derek Jeter should play third. But shortstop is the number one position on the team. It’s where the captain of the team usually is. And Jeter is “The Guy.”

In a situation like this, the human element has to be taken into account. The Yankees did that. You’ve got to consider the human element, each players’ makeup and what’s important to them. Jeter will be a better leader of the team if he plays shortstop and that’s an important factor. Does it overwhelm the numbers? No, not necessarily, but it can and, in this case, it did.

Dave: Sabermetricians get blamed a lot for focusing only on the numbers and ignoring the human element.

John: Well, being 51 years old, doesn’t hurt either. You kind of learn some of these things as you get older. You find it isn’t just about the numbers. You get experience in life and you have to be able to relate to people as well. There’s an important element of being able to relate to your players and not just running the team based on the numbers.

Dave: Man, you’re old!

John: How old are you again?

Dave: Gasp, cough. (Turns off recorder)

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