Interview With Beyond the Box Score's Bill Petti

We're pleased to have brought back the BtB interviews, which focus on a certain writer in particular for each segment. Having already completed a discussion with Justin Bopp Satchel Price, it's time for another cup of coffee with someone else from the fantastic 16-headed monster, Bill Petti. Enjoy!

1) Can you talk about what inspired you to become a sabermetrician and focus primarily on advanced statistics?

Well, it sort of happened by accident. I'd always played around with statistics like most baseball fans. I came to the saber-party late relative to some friends of mine that were well versed in Bill James, etc. It didn't really get going until grad school where I had more free time to explore different subjects and tinker with different methodologies. I was a writer with a bunch of professors I befriended at a blog that focused on political science and international relations. Most of the other writers were baseball fans and fans of James and Neyer so every once and a while we'd write about it as an off-topic post. I fiddled around with a few ideas there, but really it was more of a private thing. Once I left grad school and started working I picked up Moneyball at a friend's suggestion and it was all over. I know as much as anyone that Moneyball is not the perfect representation of sabermetrics (or what really happened, for that matter), but the value for me was in the philosophical perspective of looking for objective knowledge in support of building a better mouse trap, regardless of what might be thought of as "settled knowledge". After that I was hooked and decided I needed to dig into the actual literature/websites.

It wasn't until last year that I started thinking about writing specifically about baseball from an advanced statistical perspective. I did some work with my best friend who is a baseball coach and instructor and does some great work with a little league in Newark, NJ. He asked me to do some analysis of his players (young guys, probably 12-13 years old) as he wanted to give each one specific feedback at the end of the year. With all small N caveats I took a look and we actually came up with some interesting findings that helped guide each player on what they should work on in the off-season. The analysis leveraged a lot of advanced stats and perspective, and after that I got the itch to give it a shot with MLB. I was a reading all the major sites, including BtBS, and noticed you could write FanPosts. I published my analysis and visual about the league over the past decade and after that Justin reached out to me about coming on board. 

I can't thank Justin enough for extending the offer. It's really been a blast getting to know everyone here and within the saber-writing community. I've only really been immersed in the literature on advanced statistics for about the past year, so luckily I didn't crash and burn on the big stage.

2) Talk about your love of the game. How did you get in to baseball?
 

I've been a baseball fan ever since 1985, the year that Dwight Gooden put together one of the greatest individual pitching seasons and arguably the greatest for someone his age. My Grandfather was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan and my father was a Mets fan, so my fate was pretty much sealed. That being said, it was a great time to be a Mets fan and getting to watch Gooden pitch at that time was just amazing. He was hypnotic and seemed almost godly. He wasn't just good, but his mechanics were both elegant and explosive at the same time. It made a huge impression on me. My first year in little league was 1986 and I did everything I could to mimic the Mets. I wanted number 16 like Doc, I changed my batting stance all the time trying to look like Strawberry, then Hernandez, then Carter. Baseball became a constant, a foundation for me during a time of my life where there was a lot of ups and downs. It was something that I could bond with my father over, and that was a big deal. I don't want to get too into it, but suffice it to say my father had a lot of demons that he struggled with and our relationship suffered as a result. But whatever ups and downs there were we always had baseball to come back to and, trust me, that meant a lot.

Luckily for me, my son and daughter have both taken to the game. It's something that I look forward to sharing and experiencing with them. My son is 2 and is already hitting peas off a tee, so that bodes well. He clearly already understands how line drives fuel batting average on balls in play and how that fuels overall performance, so I am doing my job on both the skill and mental aspects of the game.

I also love baseball for what it teaches us about life in general. I recently wrote a piece about bucketing outcomes and it's sort of my first attempt to describe the biggest lesson that I've learned and continuously apply based on baseball and sabermetrics. Any outcome in life is the result of a weighted mix of individual talent and effort, environmental conditions, and plain old luck. The trick is recognizing what the mix is for any event and then judging/acting accordingly. I think we need more of that in every domain of life.

3) Regarding the game, how have your viewpoints of the game changed overtime.

I think like most people in my age group that may have come to sabermetrics late, your view of the game is definitely affected. On the one hand, you come to some of the more general conclusions like RBI's and Wins for pitchers are pretty irrelevant stats (or, at least, not that informative). You get more crabby when GM's or managers make personnel decisions that are contra to what more advanced analysis would suggest is optimal or at least the safer bet. But for me one of the more revelatory things was thinking back to when I was in little league or playing high school ball and thinking about how coaches judged talent and how that affected the playing time and futures of different players. Path dependence is a powerful thing, and when it comes to athletes the path is firmly set in youth leagues and high school. So often we find coaches that have no more sense about what makes a good ballplayer than the players themselves. They use their own heuristics, often flawed and untested, to determine what players are worth investing time in and what players are bench material. When you judge players by their "looks" or physical make up and by more traditional stats you can certainly get some things right, but you also pass by kids that really have the talent and skills to contribute to the team. I look back and think of players that didn't get the attention or accolades they should have as a result and it's a shame. 

My hope is that I am self aware enough that I won't make the same mistake when I inevitably coach my son or daughter's team.

 
4) What are some of your goals going forward as a baseball writer?

You can probably break those down into two categories: 1) Realistic and 2) Shoot the moon. Realistically, I would like to build a decent following where I am producing work that's genuinely insightful and entertaining. I do this for two reasons: it's fun and it's a helpful way for me to try out some new things and sharpen my writing skills. I am a consultant for a living and the trick there is not only to conduct some really insightful analysis for a client and help them solve their problem, but to be able to effectively communicate what you did, what you found, and what they should do about it in a clear, concise, and compelling way. That's not an easy thing to do and more people get it wrong than right.

Writing at BtB (and Amazin' Avenue) allows me a space to essentially practice on a regular basis while investigating and discussing something that I love. It's also a nice ego boost when lots of people read what you write and comment on it. We are, of course, a recognition-seeking animal.

As for Shoot the Moon, it would be great if at some point I was asked to contribute to moonlight for a big time national/global publication (again, the ego thing). Of course, the bigger dream would be to work in a front office (player personnel, strategy, etc.). But that ship likely sailed long ago. I'm 34 and have never worked in baseball, so I'd peg my chances at slim to none. There are some exceptions, but I am not Bill James or Sean Smith.

 
5) Who are some of your favorite writers, sabermetricians and graphic designers out there?

General Writers: I love fiction writers like Neal Stephenson and Graham Greene. I don't get a chance to read as much fiction as I'd like, but I am trying to be more conscious of it. Tim Harford is hard to beat when it comes to economic discussions and applications of economics/social science to actual issues. Felix Simon is also pretty good here as well. I recently fell in love with Nassim Taleb. He's a little surly, but his views on outcomes and randomness are fantastic and insightful. Someone that most readers won't recognize is Robert Jervis. He's a political scientist at Columbia that focuses on international relations and security. Jervis is a unique writer, in that he has a firm grasp of analytical techniques but doesn't really use them in his own analysis. He's more of a synthesizer and theorist that uses historical examples and cases to flesh out his points. He has a tremendous grasp of literature across the social and hard sciences and is great at integrating insights from it all. If I stayed in academia, he's someone I would have tried to model my approach and writing style after.

Sabermetricians/Baseball Writers: Besides all the great folks we have on the masthead here at BtB, I really enjoy Tom Tango, Joe Posnanski, and Rob Neyer. Those three for me are folks that I have tried to learn from. Tango is the most analytical of the three and is still able to convey very technical arguments to a larger audience. Neyer is sort of the next level of popularization as he has the analytic credit, but has done a fantastic job of making concepts easy to understand, applying those concepts to news of the day, and building a solid bridge between the analytical community and the more casual fan. Posnanski is just a phenomenal writer. Full stop. That being said, he understands advanced concepts and leverages them were appropriate. His articles aren't about the statistics, but he uses them as appropriate to further his already strong narratives. All three of these guys are great, but they are great in different ways. I think if you can learn different things from each, mix it up with what you do best, you can't help be get better as a writer.

There are so many talented guys out there now, too many to list. Bill Baer at Crashburn Alley is great. All the fellas at Amazin' Avenue are fantastic. Colin Wyers at Baseball Prospectus is hard to beat for damn smart analysis and appropriate snark.

Not sure about the graphic designers, outside of our own Justin Bopp. I don't really follow any one in particular. I try to check out as many visualizations as a I can across disciplines to get a sense of what works and what doesn't. Sites like Flowing Data and I Love Charts are great for that.
 
6) In the same subject, what is your strongest suit? What makes you the great baseball guy that you are?

Well, I don't know if I am great. There are much smarter folks out there than me with much larger audiences and followings. I'm more of what you might call a generalist or tinkerer. I am likely never going to develop the equivalent of the next FIP or DIPS. What I think I am pretty good at is understanding the advanced statistics out there and applying them to specific questions. Theorists and experimental folks get all the glory when it comes to discovery, but practitioners--those that apply that knowledge--are equally as important in my view. You need both to move forward and not everyone can be both--it takes a different kind of talent and skills, a different wiring, to do both in my view.

Being a generalist means I can pull together insights and information across a large number of domains (social science, sabermetrics, visual arts, etc) and make something productive out of it. I think that's an area I am better than average. Being a tinkerer, I can take something that others smarter than I have created and tinker with it, improve it around the margins, maybe apply it in a way they hadn't thought of, and create some kind of insight from it.

I also think being self-aware enough that even my best analysis is prone to error is helpful. Some may view it as hedging, but I honestly think you have to be humble enough to understand that even your best work could be wrong. That doesn't mean you don't take a stand or have an opinion, but rather that you are open to criticism and other points of view. And when and if you are proven wrong, admit to it and reexamine your initial position and how you got it wrong. People will probably learn more through that than anything else you might write.


7) In your opinion, how have advanced statistics changed the game over the years?

It's interesting to trace the evolution of advanced statistics over time. It's not as linear as some popular accounts make it out to be (at least, as far as I can tell). There has always been a battle between qualitative (scouting and visual assessment) and quantitative evaluation. They've both been used, but the weights afforded to each have certainly ebbed back and forth over time. Even once you establish that the quantitative should play a prominent role you then see battles over which quantitative measures to use. What should count more? What actually captures qualities and abilities that matter? That's not something that will end, and it shouldn't. There should be no sacred cows, especially in a competitive environment. Otherwise things get stagnant and you stop evolving and improving. 

I think right now you have advanced statistics in their most prominent role--in terms of importance and visibility--in the history of the league. Like with most organizations, it starts from the top down. As front offices have embraced different stats and approaches so too have more managers and players. It's not everyone, but I think you can hear the difference as some players and managers will actually discuss advanced stats openly with reporters (e.g. BABIP, FIP, etc.). Right now you see different players being given a chance or valued in ways they might not have in the past. But it isn't universal across the league and it changes year to year in some cases. Teams are generally stealing and bunting less, sure, but we still see variation by team. Advanced stats had something to do with that, but so did Earl Weaver and the DH.

Of course, the stats that people focus on today could be different 10 years from now. I think generally the importance on them is here to stay, but what stats and approaches become most prominent will change as people keep searching for that new inefficiency or niche to exploit. Adaptation and selection. One of the few constants in our world.
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