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Playing by the Numbers

Sports wouldn't be sports without the mountains of data collected by the reporters of STATS.



It's a sunlit afternoon at Wrigley and you're keeping score. Sammy Sosa lines a single to centerfield. You write "1B" in a square to the right of his name and draw a short diagonal to indicate his progress around the bases, thus documenting the event in the runic language of baseball. But upstairs in the press box at least one observer has a more complex vocabulary to describe the hit.

"M150H. That'd be a line drive to center," says 56-year-old Jean Berken, a veteran baseball reporter with STATS, Inc. "If a ball is hit I have to indicate where it's hit, how far, and how hard. M150H. It goes like this: M is a particular zone on the field, straightaway center. We divide the field into zones, A through Z. 150 is the distance in feet, just behind the bag. The H means it was hit hard. You keep charts on the propensity of how a batter hits the ball."

Berken has followed the Atlanta Braves since 1987 for STATS--Sports Team Analysis and Tracking Systems--a company headquartered amid the aging factories of Morton Grove. She's one member of an army of STATS reporters who cover every game in each major professional team sport with extraordinary granularity and precision. In so doing, they've irrevocably changed sports in America.

In 1985, STATS was a three-person firm operating out of a bedroom in the CEO's home. Today it's a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation with 100 full-time employees and 500 freelance reporters. They sell data to an array of teams, agents, and media conglomerates. The extent of their information gathering might seem excessive to ordinary fans, but it's incredibly useful to anyone who needs to scout an opponent, acquire players on a strict budget, or say intelligent things during a TV broadcast.

"I've been with the company for, um, 11.6 years," says Allan Spear, STATS's director of sports operations. He oversees the company's reporter network as well as the hierarchy of machines and people that check the data. "For each game we have one reporter in the press box and two others watching on TV. At the end of the game we compare electronically and verify every item. Within minutes we have perfect data. Perfect. Most of our people do multiple sports. We have testing in place for them, we have standards. Not everyone is cut out for this."

But Jean Berken is. "A long time ago someone said to me, 'Jean, you like baseball so much you oughta keep score.' The first time I did was at a Dodger game at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in 1978. After the game, I got the score sheet signed by [Dodgers manager] Tommy Lasorda," she says.

"But that was nothing like keeping score for STATS. For just the pitches alone we have 16 codes. A strike can be a swinging strike, a called strike, a fouled strike, a bunt strike. Many different codes." She's like an Eskimo discussing snow. "John Dewan recognized these little pearls were out there, not being recorded."

Dewan is a baseball geek. He's also STATS's former president and CEO. (He left the company in 2001, a year after he sold it.) "It began with three of us working part-time after our regular jobs supporting two clients--the White Sox and the Yankees," he writes in an e-mail interview. "At the start we were a software provider to major-league teams to collect their own data at a detail level. In 1987 we decided that instead of being a software provider, we needed to collect our own data to become a data provider as well."

Dewan didn't abandon baseball when he left STATS. "I had a recent meeting with a GM with my new company, Baseball Info Solutions, regarding fielding statistics. Bill James and I have developed a new statistic for fielding that has gone over well," Dewan writes. James is a longtime STATS collaborator whose statistical research has upended the conventional wisdom of baseball. Eventually James landed a job with the Boston Red Sox, and the Red Sox, not coincidentally, are the franchise buying the newly developed Dewan/James metric. "It's called Fielding Plus/Minus and tells how many outs above league average for his position a fielder is," explains Dewan. "For example, Andruw Jones [of the Braves] is the best center fielder in baseball, with plus-20 outs above the average center fielder."

In addition to reshaping franchises through sophisticated analysis, Dewan's work has enabled the explosive growth of rotisserie (or fantasy) sports. "At the start of STATS I didn't believe in fantasy games," he writes. "But our first full-time employee, Carmen Corica, did. He said I should comanage a team with him for a year and see what it was like. I did that and got hooked. It was clear that not only was it fun, it also forced you to learn more about the game and the players."

What may not have been immediately clear was the filthy amount of money in it. An estimated 30 million people now participate in fantasy sports, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, and most of them pay for the privilege. Fantasy's been estimated as a $100 million industry.

"Fantasy's hot right now," says STATS senior vice president Stephen Byrd. "Thirty-five percent of [our] business is revenue from our own fantasy products or from operating games for media companies, or from licensing data to fantasy gaming companies. But probably more like 50 percent of our revenue is what it is because of fantasy. Fantasy is driving fan interest in sports and in our data. When I first got here, the leagues--the NFL, Major League Baseball--they all denied fantasy existed. Then they said it was gambling and tried to shut it down. And then they said it's not gambling and they all promoted it. Now the leagues want to control it."

Byrd estimates that the fantasy sports industry is still experiencing double-digit growth two decades after its emergence. "What we don't have anymore are a bunch of people running in our front door waving cash, like we did in '99 and 2000. Back then everyone was going to have the next big sports Web site. We did the Internet electronic scoreboard on AOL way back in '94, when that was a pay-per-minute service. People were just camped online watching scores. We were driving their revenue. Pennies every minute across millions of users. Now we're doing real-time scoring within fantasy games for companies like Yahoo."

STATS's influence isn't limited to the Web. "Those are our numbers you see on-screen for CBS, Fox, WGN," says Byrd. "We also do research to support those broadcasts. We write game notes to make the announcers sound smart. Hopefully we'll have some new things to go on air with, with Fox TV. Maybe the concept of red zone in baseball. Teams either can or can't close the deal, just like being inside the 20 in football. You can come up with something analogous in baseball. How do teams or players perform when there's a specific scoring opportunity?"

Such gimmicks might satisfy casual fans and sate the rotisserie crowd, but unless your fantasy league keeps track of M150Hs, you're seeing only a fraction of the information collected by STATS. The teams devour the rest.

"We have a long-standing relationship with STATS that dates to the mid-80s," says Dan Fabian, director of White Sox baseball operations systems. "They perform statistical research for trades, scouting, trend analysis. When we've had arbitration cases, they've been in the room with us. Literally in the room." (STATS also designs custom reports for sports agents. "Sometimes our data is on both sides of the negotiating table," says Byrd.)

"We use a lot of different things that STATS provides," says Fabian. "Defensive data. Pitch data. What certain players do on certain counts. There's a lot we can do now without sweating the research. In the last year they've provided more specific game-scouting data." The nature and design of that data actually emerged from a brainstorming session between the White Sox and STATS. From the data evolved a product dubbed "STATS Scout," an effort to merge the best aspects of qualitative observation and quantitative analysis.

"It's pitch-level stuff, outside-the-box-score information," says Byrd. "We give you the type of pitch, the location, the velocity, using a fairly sophisticated 15-by-15 grid. We get the velocity off the broadcast and track about five different kinds of pitches. We have teams paying a lot of money for that info because it gets married up to a piece of video for each pitch. For example, teams can go and look at all 0-2 curveballs that were hit to right field by a given player."

Or the White Sox can look at all two-strike curveballs that Joe Crede didn't hit anywhere. STATS Scout is, at least conceptually, a way to complement traditional scouting techniques with in-game minutiae.

But in the end, numbers are a pretty cold thing. Anyone who came to STATS probably arrived a fan of baseball, not simply the data it's always churned. John Dewan is a longtime White Sox fan. Allan Spear has an autographed poster of former Cubs second baseman Manny Trillo hanging in his office. Stephen Byrd acknowledges an allegiance to the Cubs, and not just because he's trying to market STATS's products to them. Jean Berken was a Braves diehard back in the 1950s when she, and they, resided in Wisconsin.

"I was ten when they won the World Series back in 1957," she says. "My grandfather lived with us. He sat in the basement saying 'Oh, Henry!' whenever Hank Aaron hit a home run. We got our first TV to watch them.

"My mom's a Braves fan, too. She's 83. She lives across the street from the Detroit Tigers' training camp. Last year we went to about 12 games. We can't wait for spring training."

Berken is now in Florida recovering from surgery related to a degenerative joint condition. She'd be utterly miserable if it weren't for this: "Right out my window I'm looking at a baseball diamond."

Former pitcher Bill Lee once said, "In baseball you're supposed to sit on your ass, spit tobacco, and nod at stupid things." His era was the 1970s, when baseball insiders adhered to flawed axioms and myths. Today it might be said that in baseball you're supposed to sit on your ass, examine spreadsheets, and nod at correlation coefficients.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.

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