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An interview with former Mets stat guru Ben Baumer, Part 1

Former Mets' statistical analyst shares insight on his time with the Mets, his view on sabermetrics, and his newly released book.

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Professor Benjamin Baumer, now a professor of statistics at Smith College, spent eight years in the Mets organization as a statistical analyst. One of his recent baseball-related projects is openWAR, a package in the statistical language that gives an open-source calculation of Wins Above Replacement, which is available on Github. Baumer, along with fellow Smith professor Andrew Zimbalist, has also recently released The Sabermetric Revolution, a book that revisits Michael Lewis’s Moneyball and assesses the state of analytics in the game today.

Professor Baumer was kind enough to take part in an interview with Amazin’ Avenue. Below is the first part of our interview, which deals with Baumer’s time with the New York Mets.

You were brought into the Mets organization in 2004 and left in 2012. What was the adjustment like for your first season? How did your role evolve over the years?

The Mets, like most teams at the time, never really had anyone working full-time on statistical analysis, so there wasn’t any statistical infrastructure in place when I arrived. Moneyball had just been published (in 2003), and so they were probably ahead of the curve in hiring someone to do statistical analysis. However, I don’t think they had many fixed notions of what they hoped to get out of that person. This was great for me, because it meant that I had near-total freedom to do what I wanted. On the other hand, there was nothing in place, so I had to start from scratch. This was both a blessing and a curse.

One of the first things that I did was to set up a MySQL server to store statistics, and start working on a web front-end to display what I wanted. I realized quickly that the easier I made it to see the statistics that I wanted, the faster I could answer questions and the more valuable my analysis would be. Within a few months, I had other members of the baseball operations department accessing my server on their own, and things really took off from there. By the time I left we had multiple dedicated servers running multiple websites fed by dozens of databases accessible to hundreds of users.

As far as my role, maintaining the aforementioned statistical infrastructure was always a priority and took a lot of time, but TJ Barra (Manager of Minor League Operations and Baseball Information) was able to help out with that after he was hired, and Joe Lefkowitz (Coordinator of Baseball Systems Development) is extending that infrastructure now. That part didn’t change much, except that the scope of what we were doing and how many people depended upon it only increased over time. On the one hand, my role as a statistical analyst changed naturally with the regimes.

I was hired by Jim Duquette, but I was still in my first season when Omar Minaya become the GM. Jim was obviously interested in my input, but it wasn’t immediately clear that Omar would be. To his credit, Omar engaged me in a conversation about statistics on his first day on the job, and he was one of my biggest supporters over the years. Even though statistics was not the prism through which he naturally understood the game, he always valued my input and would always consult with me before making a major decision. Sandy Alderson has command of sabermetrics in a very different way, and had I stayed with the Mets I think my role probably would have expanded, but Ian Levin (Manager of Baseball Analytics) is continuing that work now.

What was the transition from Minaya at the helm to Alderson for both you and the organization? Was the organizational philosophy different? The day-to-day protocol? The personnel?

I think most people would be surprised at the extent of the similarities between the Minaya and Alderson regimes, at least when I was there. The changes in personnel at the top are well-documented, but much of the front office staff was the same (John Ricco, Adam Fisher, Jon Miller, TJ Barra, Ian Levin, and me). There is no question that Omar and Sandy view the game differently, but they are both trying to make the best decision possible based on the best information they can get. Both of them are incredibly well-connected, passionate about baseball, and always thinking about their next moves.

Right. Like you’ve indicated in the past, there are a bunch of moving parts, and it requires a lot of forward thinking and improvising. I’d imagine that environment would sort of make them converge. I think there is a temptation to paint Minaya as sort of the old guard and perhaps reckless, but there were distinct advantages that he brought to the table. Can you comment at all on how they viewed players on the scouting side? Obviously, Minaya was a phenomenal scout in the Dominican Republic, and Alderson was never a scout.

I’m glad you asked about that! That is probably the biggest difference between the two. Omar is a former player turned scout, and he cut his teeth scouting. Ultimately, his personal evaluation is going to color any decision that he makes about a player. Most people working in baseball are like that—including analysts like me. [I can’t scout, but I do trust my own evaluations of players.] On the other hand, Sandy is neither a scout nor an analyst, so I get the sense that his decisions are really not based on his own personal evaluations. So both Sandy and Omar have a similar process that leads to a decision: They try to collect as much useful information from their advisors as they can; but the way that they weight that information in order to make a decision is different. Omar, like just about everybody else, is going to—subconsciously or otherwise—also include input from his own evaluation of that player. But it always seemed to me that Sandy was able to remain very impartial when weighing the evidence. That may be Sandy’s greatest strength as a GM.

Omar’s greatest strength is his ability to read people and the market. Early in the Johan Santana sweepstakes, when all anyone was talking about was the Red Sox and the Yankees, Omar told us that he was going to fall in our lap, without having to give up our top prospect (Fernando Martinez at that time). Nobody believed him, but over the next few months it played out pretty much exactly as he said.

(photo credit: George Napolitano/FilmMagic)

As someone who worked in the front office, what was your relationship with coaches, players, and scouts? Were you relatively isolated or did you interact or collaborate with them often?

I didn’t interact much with the players. I would see them around, but I’d be surprised if more than a couple knew my name. On the other hand, I spent a fair amount of time with the coaches and scouts. When I started, Rick Peterson was the pitching coach, and he had very specific statistical information that he wanted from me. We had a great deal of interaction over those first few years as we built up the advance scouting reports. Rick was always very inquisitive and his attention to detail was remarkable. More than once he found mistakes in the reports I had created for him that would trace back to a not-so-obvious bug in the code I had written.

There were certainly some scouts who weren’t interested in statistical analysis or what I was doing, but they were in the minority. —Ben Baumer

Manny Acta and Dave Hudgens were also particularly interested in statistical information and open to thinking creatively about new ideas. For whatever reason Jerry Manuel and I always had a great relationship, even though it was adversarial at times. He’s a bit old-school and loved to give me a hard time, but always in a good-natured way.

There were certainly some scouts who weren’t interested in statistical analysis or what I was doing, but they were in the minority, especially as time went on. When I first started, Bill Livesey and Al Goldis took me under their wings and I learned a lot about baseball from them. Bryan Lambe was my scouting godfather in that he actually took me on a few advance scouting trips and showed me the ropes. Like most people whose playing experience tapped out in high school, I knew very little about scouting when I first started working in baseball, but I learned a ton from those guys, Sandy Johnson, J.P. Ricciardi, and others.

At this point I feel like I understand scouting, but I also know that I can’t really do it. And this comes after having tried to scout, and having the opportunity to learn from the best teachers, but it just isn’t the way that the game makes sense to me—I’m not able to pick up on all of the things that a good scout does. And for this reason I have tremendous respect for the people who are able to scout well. They provide invaluable information to their teams.

It’s funny that you mention isolation, because I’m now part of a group called "Isolated Statisticians" that is comprised mostly of statistics professors at small colleges who have few or no colleagues on campus. But in that sense working for the Mets was far more isolating. I never felt isolated socially, and our front office was always a very collegial group, but I was isolated professionally in the sense that there wasn’t anybody else working on the same problems as me. Moreover, I also couldn’t talk to the people who work for other teams that were working on those same problems! So there really wasn’t anywhere to go for help. That feeling of having to do everything by yourself was tough at times. But that really only applies to the more technical parts of the job. There were lots of situations in which I collaborated with others in the front office, and we were a pretty inclusive group for the most part.

Okay, last question in this part, and then we’ll move on to the second of the three, which is openWAR. What inspired the move into academia after eight years with the New York Mets?

There was a lot of thought that went into this. The first thing is that academia was always something that had been attractive to me, but I never had the opportunity to be a full-time professor until I finished my Ph.D., and that didn’t happen until May of 2012. Working in baseball is not for the faint of heart. It can be magical—there are spectacular moments where you are simply dumbfounded to find yourself doing what you are doing (e.g., listening to Willie Randolph tell Rickey Henderson anecdotes, being in meetings with Rickey Henderson, walking to a helipad in the D.R. with Pedro Martinez and David Ortiz, etc.). Feeling like you are part of a winning team that millions of people care about is an incredible feeling that you just can’t get in most jobs. But there a lot of long hours, at nights and on weekends, and everyone who works in baseball pays the "baseball tax."

Feeling like you are part of a winning team that millions of people care about is an incredible feeling that you just can’t get in most jobs.

For me, a big part of it was time and task management. What I like best about my job now is that I have near total freedom over my own time. I basically do whatever I want every day, year round. This is not to say that teaching is easy. Most of those days, that means I’m in the office early in the morning, working and/or teaching all day until late, and then I spend a few more hours at night prepping for class in the evenings. Working on weekends is also now pretty much a given. So the total workload is no lighter (and may even be heavier), but sometimes I’ll play basketball at 12:30 on a Wednesday, or run errands at 10 AM on a Tuesday, and I don’t have to miss work, ask permission, or feel like someone is keeping track of my hours. Most jobs don’t offer that kind of flexibility, and that has become really important to me.

I also work on whatever I want now. That was also true with the Mets to an extent, but I was part of a team and the team had a common goal, with direction coming from the top. Now, I’ll succeed or fail based on my publication and teaching records. There are very real consequences—tenure and promotion are not easy to get. But I’ll have a say in what I teach and how I teach it, and no one will try to dictate what research problems I tackle. Again, this freedom is really valuable to me.

But in a larger sense, I’m not obsessed with baseball. I love baseball! I can talk about it and watch it for hours on end, even days on end. But there are other things that I find interesting and like to talk about. After a while I could see that the people who really succeed within baseball are truly obsessed, and I mean that in the most complimentary way. Baseball is not a job for them—their lives are just intertwined with it. The game is so competitive, and there are so many people eager to do the work, that you can’t reach the top without giving yourself over completely to the game. Some people are lifers (I met a lot of them), but I’m just not one of them. I have the best of both worlds now, because I can spend as much time thinking about baseball as I want, and still be able to contribute something professionally, but I don’t have to devote my entire life to it.