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Baseball Prospectus finds niche
Earlier this month, Baseball Prospectus writer Nate Silver speculated to a reporter that, on paper, it would make sense for the Minnesota Twins to sign Barry Bonds. Silver made clear he believed the Twins would be unlikely to sign Bonds, and he had no evidence that the Twins were actually interested in the controversial slugger.
But within hours, the idea of linking Bonds and the Twins became one of the hottest topics in the Hot Stove League, and tasty fodder for rumor blogs. The interest underscored how intense and uncontrolled the offseason baseball conversation can get, but it was also a major revelation for the staff at Baseball Prospectus: People care what they have to say.
Writers at Baseball Prospectus, which publishes books, articles and a subscription Web site, always have operated outside the mainstream, offering up non-traditional analysis of baseball and blowing holes in commonly held beliefs about the game. Seeking "objective" analysis about the game, they've helped to expand the use of statistics, moving beyond basic numbers like runs batted in, batting average and earned run average to introduce an alphabet soup of new terms like VORP, WARP3 and MLVR. (Explanations of these statistics are available at baseballprospectus.com.)
But in the last year or so, the group's contribution to the baseball conversation has grown in prominence. Writers like Will Carroll and Joe Sheehan now frequently appear on ESPN and MLB Radio, a Baseball Prospectus column is now a regular feature in Sports Illustrated, and mainstream sportswriters are turning to Prospectus writers for quotes and opinions.
"More people are starting to pay attention to what we have to say now," says Silver, an executive vice president with Baseball Prospectus, who said he was stunned to see his comments about Bonds picked up by ESPN.
Baseball Prospectus began more than a decade ago as an annual book, featuring columns and unique statistical analysis on every major league team and nearly every player. The Internet age allowed the organization to form a Web site, and then staff members expanded the book publishing business, introducing tomes like "Mind Game" about the 2004 Boston Red Sox and "Baseball Between the Numbers," a collection of essays that seek to answer some of baseball's most puzzling questions.
Recently, the group has started a series of upgrades to its Web site, adding a blog and expanding its database of sortable statistics, which remain its bread and butter. And they've also branched out reporting on major events, rather than just offering opinion and analysis. New writer Maury Brown recently dissected the latest baseball labor pact and long-timer writer Carroll has provided daily dispatches from the winter meetings in Orlando, Fla.
"Baseball Prospectus is an outlet that certainly has brought the use of objective analysis to a place of prominence in the baseball industry," said Brown, a former chairman of the business of baseball committee for the Society of American Baseball Research. "Being added to the staff has been a great experience as it places one in an environment of never wishing to rest in the pursuit of baseball knowledge."
A new book project is also in the works. The group declined to reveal the topic because the publishing deal was still being completed, but Silver said it likely will be a historical narrative, marking a slight departure from previous works.
To be clear, Baseball Prospectus hasn't changed its focus or philosophy. Instead, the rest of the world is gradually becoming less dismissive of their work. The success of Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane (whose non-traditional approach to talent evaluation was profiled in Michael Lewis' 2003 book "Moneyball") and the use of statistical analysis by the Red Sox and other teams have helped bring attention to Baseball Prospectus' way of thinking.
But Baseball Prospectus is still hardly the Bible in pro baseball circles. The enormous contracts given to non-superstar players this offseason, for instance, have caused several writers there to cringe.
A look a the voting for this year's award for MVP from the Baseball Writers Association of America also underscores this point. The gap between the Baseball Prospectus writers and the official vote for American League MVP was especially large; while the BBWAA selected the Twins' Justin Morneau, Baseball Prospectus writers collectively listed him as 11th in their in-house vote. Baseball Prospectus also criticized the selection of the Phillies' Ryan Howard for NL MVP, endorsing the Cardinals' Albert Pujols instead.
Silver said members of Baseball Prospectus have lobbied for membership into the BBWAA, and the association is now debating whether to allow certain web-based writers and to join. But even if that doesn't happen, it's clear that Baseball Prospectus is moving off the margins.
"I think, in general, people are moving toward our way of thinking," Silver said. "We just want a place at the table."
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