An Insider's View of the World of Baseball Statistics

A head's up: this post isn't about the Baltimore Orioles, but is actually a lot more personal to me as a person, and I hope interesting to the casual baseball fan. But if you came looking for Orioles analysis or discussion, I'm not your guy today. Sorry!

You maybe didn't notice it, but for as much writing as I tried to do over the offseason about the Orioles in this corner of the internet, I've been mostly silent for the last couple of weeks. Part of that is that I've been dealing with writer's block, but a far larger part of it is that I moved and started a new job two weeks ago, and I've just been busy. My first thought about this new job was to just keep 99% silent about it in this space, but then I felt weird about it, like I was hiding something from you all, and then I couldn't really justify not talking about it outside of not wanting to look like a high-and-mighty braggart (which, I'm sure a lot of you would say I've horribly failed at anyway, which is true).

So, anyway: I work for Baseball Info Solutions. You might have already heard about them. They're an increasingly well-known name in the baseball world for the work they do collecting and analyzing baseball statistics. In particular, in the blogosphere they're known for their defensive work, the flagship of which is the plus/minus system. I want to share a little bit about how BIS does its work with you.

I walked into my job interview on a rainy Tuesday. It was the day after a gorgeous Opening Day in Baltimore. If you had asked me how much more unexpected the day turned out to be than what I had anticipated, I would have none. None more unexpected. The office is in a tiny town, there's no sign out front, you'd never even know that there was a business like this right here if you didn't know where to look.

I walked in, and the first thing I saw was a poster of Frank Robinson circa the late 60s, and I relaxed. Then I noticed how small everything was. This is very much a small business. Again, I thought: you'd never know that this was a company working closely with major league teams and other clients (including perhaps the best place on the internet for baseball analysis, fangraphs.com) by looking at it. But it is.

The heart of what Baseball Info Solutions does is recording every single major league and minor league game, by hand, using scorecards kept from watching live games as well as an exhausting use of DVRs and TVs. It comes in two waves: the scoring done live is not unlike the scoring a lot of folks do at the games, and then the next day every single pitch and hit is charted and plugged into the database.

It's absolutely an exhausting looking operation. In the Bill James Handbook, which BIS helps produce, the President of BIS, Steve Moyer, wrote "I doubt anyone watches more major league baseball over the course of a season than these guys". I don't think it's even reasonable to question it. Nobody COULD watch more. They watch and re-watch and re-watch it all.

I sat in with one of the video scouts who was charting the Arrieta-Sonnanstine matchup from a few weeks ago. He sat there for what felt like a minute a pitch, rewinding and re-watching, trying to discover if that was Sonnanstine's fastball or his cutter or his slider. And watching and rewatching the place that B.J. Upton caught that fly ball, trying to mark it exactly. I believe he sat there for nearly 5 hours charting that one game, fast forwarding through the commercials and time between pitches.

All of this information goes into the central database and is used to generate statistics (any stat you can think of that isn't proprietary to someone besides BIS). The Plus/Minus system is their flagship defensive metric. It works pretty simply, actually: Every ball that is hit a particular hardness and to a particular spot is either fielded or not fielded, and we compare a specific instance to all of the other times a ball was hit to that spot with that hardness, and then give or take away points based on that comparison.

I'll give you two examples. 1) A routine ground ball hit right to the normal shortstop position, let's say that's successfully fielded 95% of the time (it might be, it might not be, I'm just grabbing a random high number). But in our example, Jed Lowrie bobbles it and can't convert the out. So he gets -0.95 points for that play because he failed where 95% of shortstops do not. 2) A screaming line-drive is hit to shallow right field, which is only fielded 23% of the time. Nick Markakis makes a heroic diving grab (which would be totally Birdland), so he get's +0.77 for that play.

I don't really go out of my way to read a lot of the criticisms of advanced baseball stats anymore, but when we talk about defense in particular I know the usual counter-chorus is "I watch all of the games, I know a lot more than some computer does about how good Derrek Lee is", and I can't help but think, well, if that person who said that was to design a company and a system for judging defense, he would do exactly what my bosses, John Dewan and Steve Moyer, have done.

Meanwhile, I'm now a part of the BIS family, and I'm really thrilled. Personally, it's always been an incredible struggle for me to feel motivated and passionate about my work as a young adult, but now I think I've found a place that really feels like a home base - that really, as stupid as it sounds, feels like a professional extension of Camden Chat. And it's my hope that my new professional situation allows me the opportunity to share some professional insight (and I don't mean my own) on the Orioles and their own ongoing struggles with you.

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