Statman Begins: Keith Woolner and the Indians

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Unless you hang around the interwebs seeking out sabermetric info, are a loyal Baseball Prospectus reader or have glanced at the Indians’ front office list, you might not know the name Keith Woolner. His title: Manager of Baseball Analysis & Research.

The casual fan is more likely to know fellow Baseball Prospectus alum, fivethirtyeight.com writer and veritable pop-culture stat star Nate Silver, than the guy analyzing stats for the Tribe. And that’s fine. There’s no reason for Woolner to be in the public eye. But for Tribe fans, for baseball fans, it might be helpful to know how the Indians’ head stat analyst interacts with the rest of the team.

It’s not really breaking news that the Tribe would employ someone like this. Anyone who has listened to GM Mark Shapiro or Assistant GM Chris Antonetti knows that the front office is inclined to the kind of analysis made mainstream in Michael Lewis’ Moneyball. The Indians have long been an organization that was tied to the sabermetric community (sabermetrics is the statistical and mathematical analysis of baseball records) — among the first not only to embrace the idea but to hire someone like Keith Woolner.

Their connection back in 2007 was fortuitous. Woolner, who had worked in software development and marketing while writing for Baseball Prospectus for 10 years, was at a company that had just faced a round of layoffs. “And so I kind of said, I’ve been doing this baseball thing for quite awhile now, and there’d been a couple of people that had managed to get into the front office of some teams,” says Woolner. “I used those as a way to ask if any teams were looking, and [Indians’ director of baseball operations] Mike Chernoff responded and said he’d like to talk to me.”

As it turned out, the Indians were looking for someone just like Keith. “We had been looking to fortify our effort in analytics, and we were looking at a broad range of avenues to do that,” says Antonetti. “We became aware that Keith was exploring his options, and we believed the ability to bring in someone like Keith, with his expertise, intelligence and background, would enhance our efforts.”

That expertise would include two bachelor’s degrees from MIT — Mathematics with Computer Science and Management Science — a masters in Decision Analysis from Stanford and his time at Baseball Prospectus, where he started writing part-time and ended managing their statistical databases, overseeing research and development, and leading programming teams. Oh, and he invented VORP (Value Over Replacement Player), one of the most influential and commonly used tools for measuring player performance.

In May 2007, lifelong Red Sox fan Woolner began his work for the Indians. At that time, he estimates that no more than a half-dozen teams had hired a full-time analyst. Even now, his gig is still relatively unique. “I would say we’re talking a third, a third and a third,” says Woolner. “There’s a third of the teams that have embraced analytics to the level that you think is appropriate, but hopefully we’re still ahead. There’s a third in the middle who have done it to some degree, and maybe talk to some people on a part-time basis but haven’t found the need to invest more fully in the area. And there’s a third that are waiting to see if the two-thirds ahead come up with anything before they commit. But even those teams are doing something. It’s just they’re not at the bleeding edge.

“The Indians have been very open to the input that I would have to give. They ask for my opinion on a number of moves, be it trades, an offer or whether they’re thinking about promoting a guy or a contract. My role is to be a source of information.”

Antonetti echoes that sentiment: “He’s an important contributor to the decision-making process. We try to make balanced, informed decisions. He has an area of expertise, and we look for him to provide his opinion and then use that information together with our other data sources, other information sources, our medical staff, psychological evaluations, to make the best decisions we can.”

There are some areas in which Woolner provides opinions that are at least mildly surprising. For instance, manager Eric Wedge seems like a by-the-book kind of guy. But Wedge has sought out Woolner’s opinion — though, of course, Woolner can’t go into specifics — when asked about hypotheticals involving perhaps moving a player from shortstop to third, or from the leadoff spot to third in the lineup.

“I only have experience with one front office,” he says. “But from what I’ve been told and believe to be true, there is more receptivity here among the coaching staff, Eric and so on, to whatever’s going to help them get the right results. If that comes from a statistical approach, that’s OK. If it comes from a psychological evaluation, that’s fine too. But so often you think of old baseball guys who dismiss anything a guy like me had to say, and that hasn’t happened. I’ve had conversations with Eric and the coaches, and they’re at least willing to listen, which is half the battle.”

So what has Wedge asked about? Moving a player from shortstop to third, maybe? Sliding another guy from the leadoff spot to third in the lineup, perhaps? “Umm, they have asked for input in different situations. I’ll just leave it at that,” he says, laughing.

All right, so he can’t talk about specifics. That’s part of the deal. This information is proprietary with good reason. Any little semblance of a competitive edge in gathering talent or signing players is vital when you’re a small-market team unable to pay New York or Boston prices. That dichotomy between public and private is perhaps the biggest difference in Woolner’s work from his Prospectus days. The saber community is just that, a community. Part of the attraction is how ideas are dissected, improved, tweaked and evaluated. Now, anything Woolner produces is kept in a small circle.

“A lot of the work that I have done I think is really cool and I would love to say, “Hey, look what I found,’” he concedes. “On a personal level, it would be gratifying, but having it be a little bit of a secret that could be a competitive advantage and might help win the World Series would be pretty cool too.”

The other main difference from his former life as a part-time writer for BP is the emphasis on the future. Yes, everyone loves a good debate about who was the MVP in a certain year, but priorities and interests change when you’re involved in decisions on whom to sign and who to play.

“The work I do now matters in a way it didn’t on Prospectus. Before, right or wrong, if people were reading, that was a win. Wins are very different when you’re actually playing games. Here, there’s less emphasis or interest on evaluating the past. Here, the past in some senses is only useful in that it informs the decisions you’re making in the present about the future.”

Which is what Woolner is mainly involved in — decisions in acquiring, promoting, trading and drafting players. And the kind of things he and the front office pay attention to probably wouldn’t surprise most readers familiar with Woolner’s previous work. “Age, strikeout rates, contact rates — the kind of things you expect to go into a model do go into it.”

It’s not just results on the field that Woolner is concerned with either. When it comes to free agents, the players who demand multi-million-dollar and multi-year deals, the behemoths who take up a chunk of a mid-market team’s payroll — Woolner has to evaluate whether such a player’s presence on the field makes his contract economically viable. “It could be looking at models and figuring out, if we bring in this guy, what will ticket sales do? How much revenue is that going to bring in and will it offset the costs? So, in particular for the higher-priced guys, I’m involved.”

There’s not much in terms of data, however, that the team wasn’t already collecting before Woolner’s arrival. Any difference is in the application. The Indians had created Diamond View, a tool to organize all the information about a player — stats, medical history, injury reports, scouting information, psych evaluations — that was well-known in the industry. When they hired Woolner, they were looking for a way to augment the application of those numbers and bits of information. “They had recognized the opportunity in exploiting analytic approaches alongside scouting and other traditional sources of information,” says Woolner. “They didn’t need much convincing that there was value in doing this, just that I was the right guy.”

And the question coming from the other side of the table was whether the team was the right fit for Keith. Even for an organization so in tune with what he was doing, was he going to be heard?

“I wanted to have an opportunity to make a difference,” says Woolner. “I didn’t want to be shuffled off in a remote corner of the building. Your biggest fear coming in is that you’re not going to be taken seriously. And that hasn’t happened.”

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