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Analytics: Going behind the numbers in baseball

By Stephanie Storm Akron Beacon Journal (MCT) • Dec 17, 2015 at 5:55 PM

CLEVELAND — One carries degrees from MIT and Stanford. The other from the University of Illinois.

One grew up a Boston Red Sox fan. The other cheered for the Chicago Cubs.

These are not facts about players competing for a spot in a starting rotation or even top prospects in a minor-league system. Yet, their mathematical abilities might be just as valuable to the Indians.

These two, Keith Woolner and Sky Andrecheck, crunch numbers as the two key members of the Indians’ behind-the-scenes analytic department — another way they seek to find a competitive edge to help translate into more wins.

Whether the Indians are evaluating their players, looking to perfect their game-by-game strategy, or pursuing possible trades, Woolner, 45, and Andrecheck, 32, are involved. And with technology playing an ever increasing role in baseball, their statistical manipulation is used in many ways.

When Woolner’s tenure with the Indians began seven years ago, his 4-year-old son Sagan quickly learned that team loyalties could be discarded as easily as a pair of pajamas.

That lesson came late one night at a Super Bowl party the Woolners attended along with other Indians staff members. Before the car ride home, Sagan was to change into his bedclothes so he could doze off in the back seat along the way.

“ ‘How come I don’t wear my Red Sox pajamas anymore?’ ” Woolner said the tired youngster asked innocently. “At first, the room went dead silent. Then everyone started busting up laughing.”

Luckily for Sagan, not all Tribe employees start out as Indians fans. Many form their initial allegiance to the team in the area in which they grew up. For his dad, that was the Boston Red Sox.

“I started with the Indians in May of 2007,” said Woolner, the Tribe’s director of baseball analytics. “A couple of months later, we’re in the playoffs against the Red Sox. During (the division series), my family and friends kept calling me up and asking, ‘Oh, you must be so torn. Where are your loyalties in this series? Who are you rooting for?’ But it was easy for me. Once that first paycheck cleared, I knew where my loyalties were, and I was OK with that. Turns out my loyalty can be bought — that’s something good to know about yourself.”

Woolner’s self-deprecating humor aside, his role with the Tribe is far-reaching. His work — anywhere from developing logarithms that produce software that analyzes player performance to developing a new set of criteria that can be utilized in scouting potential draft candidates — makes him essential to a majority of the decisions the Indians’ front office personnel make.

“When you come to work for a major-league team and you have a connection to the team that’s not just rooting for them, but actually being a part of putting the team on the field, there’s a much greater sense of personal investment,” he said. “It was important to me coming in that I wasn’t going to be that weird guy in the corner kind of working on stuff who maybe they’d listen to. I wanted the ability to have my work help and influence important decisions.”

It’s the reason why making a living in baseball appeals to Woolner.

“A lot of the techniques we’re using were developed in other industries,” Woolner said. “The novelty is applying what’s worked in the pharmaceutical, insurance, energy or manufacturing worlds and applying it to sports.”

For Woolner, who grew up in New Hampshire, his earliest baseball memories began in the mid-1970s, watching replays of Carlton Fisk’s home run in the 1975 World Series.

Woolner’s family moved to Florida for a while during his teens, but he eventually made his way back to the New England area, attending college at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and earning degrees in mathematics with computer science and another in management.

In 1986, the Red Sox were back in the World Series, rekindling Woolner’s interest. Falling in love with baseball again stuck with Woolner from there on out. He moved to California for his master’s degree and later worked for a number of companies in the Silicon Valley.

“I found an online baseball discussion community at rec.sport.baseball that had a number of people who were kind of pushing the game’s (statistical analytic) envelope a little bit,” Woolner said. “It included a guy named Bill James, who I’d never read before, but who began to open my eyes to a different way of thinking about the game of baseball.”

Woolner increasingly became engaged in James’ famed Baseball Abstracts work and soon became a regular contributor to the growing online sabermetrics community, submitting articles to the then-fledgling website Baseball Prospectus. Soon, his hobby was taking up as much time as his real job of developing software for several business startups.

“No matter how interesting the technology or how novel the application, it was hard to get truly passionate about helping another business improve (its) profitability or run more efficiently,” Woolner has previously written about his jump to baseball. “The work was intellectually stimulating, but not emotionally engaging. What did engage me was baseball statistics. I spent a lot of my free time reading online forums devoted to baseball and I discovered that baseball statistics had moved far beyond the stats on the back of the baseball cards I grew up with.”

Woolner’s claim to fame before joining the Indians was developing the runs-based statistic VORP (an acronym that stands for Value Over Replacement Player), which is widely recognized by the sabermetrics community as a key component in the analysis of a baseball player’s performance and market value. Woolner’s VORP is a cousin to the current en vogue sabermetric term WAR (Wins Above Replacement).

“They’ve extended VORP in some ways,” Woolner said. “They have some different ideas about certain aspects, but in the end, we’re all trying to get to the same place: not measuring versus an average player. Because an average player is a very valuable commodity in baseball. If you have an average player at every position, you have an 81-win team and there’s a lot of teams that look up at 81 wins every season.”


Nerds. Techies. Stat geeks.

Regardless of how these sports number crunchers like Woolner were once viewed, there’s no doubt they’ve made an increasing impact.

As Woolner’s workload increased, so did the need for the Tribe’s analytic department to grow. In addition to part-time assistant Jason Pare, a young up-and-coming sabermetrician named Sky Andrecheck joined the Indians as a senior analyst.

“I used to love to play fantasy baseball,” Andrecheck said. “But it’s kind of frowned upon when you work in baseball. But that’s OK. What I do for a living is like real-life fantasy baseball.”

By the time Andrecheck hit the sabermetrics scene, baseball’s stat geeks were routinely making the jump to join major-league front offices.

“Seventy percent of the work I do is long term — algorithms and projection,” Andrecheck said. “The other 30 percent of the time we’re working on more specific transactions or potential moves with a player.”

Because the Indians consider their analytic department to be key in gaining a competitive edge, specific details regarding Woolner and Andrecheck’s work could not be discussed.

“Maybe we get a call from a team and they’re interested in a player and they’ve got some kind of deal in mind, the question comes down to Sky, myself and all of the scouts, ‘Do you like anyone in their system?’ ” Woolner said. “Or, ‘What do you think about the player they’re offering?’ Or, ‘We’re considering making an offer to another club about a particular player. What do we have on him? Where are the trends going? What do we think he’s going to be like in three, four, five years?’ There’s that, as well as helping prepare arbitration cases and even looking at game strategy, like having (manager Terry Francona) know when the best time to steal a base is.”


Long before the popular 2003 book “Moneyball” made mainstream the Oakland Athletics’ story of bucking baseball’s time-honored scouting system and outsmarting the competition by using complex statistical analysis to determine the makeup of their roster, these so-called nerds, techies and stat geeks did their labor-intensive number crunching in relative obscurity.

Oh, how times have changed the past 10 years.

All 30 major-league teams have at least one employee whose job is to focus solely on baseball analytics, with many clubs now operating a multi-person department. The Indians can’t afford to put the kind of resources into the growing trend that, say, the Red Sox do, but they have been among the leaders in recognizing and accepting how significant analytic work can be.

“For us, it’s been a continual evolution,” Indians General Manager Chris Antonetti said. “We’ve always looked at the analytical side of the game and tried to use that information by factoring it into our decision-making. There have been members of our staff in baseball operations that even pre-dated me doing some of our analytical work. We felt we could take advantage of some data that was out there to help us augment our decision-making.”

In the Hollywood movie version of “Moneyball” in 2011, there’s a famous scene in which the club’s old-school scouts sit on one side of the room and the intimidated analytic geek on the other as they argue over a player’s value. It’s old school versus new school baseball strategy.

“When ‘Moneyball’ came out, it popularized the notion that there was sort of this stats versus scouts dichotomy,” Woolner said. “I think that is false. We may come at it from different areas of expertise with different sources of information, but we’re all trying to get to the same place. And if there’s something that works by combining the expertise of someone who’s been in the game for 40 years and seen thousands of players and sees something special in this 18-year-old kid on a high school field, you can’t discount that.”

The good news for analytics is that the amount of information becoming available in the game has increased tremendously. A big reason for the growth is the advent of PITCHf/x systems, in which cameras mounted in all the major-league parks, and some in the minor leagues, trace the track of a pitch’s velocity and break from the moment the ball comes out of the pitcher’s hand to the time it runs into a bat or smacks into the catcher’s mitt.

“There are about a million pitches per season in the major leagues,” Woolner said. “That provides a wealth of raw information that can be sifted through to determine if there are trends and characteristics of a pitch that make it more effective. ... Perhaps in all that there’s a player that can be identified who’s maybe undervalued, or one we could go out and make a big deal for.

“Ten years ago, I never thought I’d work in baseball. Now, it’s such a growing field, you just never know. One day a baseball GM might start in analytics and work his way up to the top the way they do now through player development.”

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