Minor league stats take leap forward
by Will Lingo
September 19, 2005
you're holding in your hand may have the most accurate end-of-season minor league
A bold declaration to be sure, but we've been to the source and have seen the
way stats were collected this season. And we were impressed.
For those of you who haven't followed the minor league stat soap opera day by
day, we had our third official statistician in three years this season. After
Howe Sportsdata (now Sportsticker) had the contract for years, Minor League
Baseball awarded it to the Sports Network for the 2004 season.
Major League Baseball then decided to take over responsibility for minor
league stats in the latest renewal of the Professional Baseball Agreement, the
contract between the major and minor leagues. After doing so, it hired MLB
Advanced Media, the spinoff company that runs MLB.com among its many other
projects, to collect the minor league stats.
Minor league teams, already feeling uneasy after a season of statistical
upheaval following years of stability, became even more skeptical after hearing
how MLBAM wanted to gather the stats.
Even minor league teams, which aren't always on the cutting edge of
technology, recognized this as a step back. They have scored games by computer
for years, transmitting the resulting statistics to the company that compiled
them--whichever company that was.
Now they could score games however they liked--still by computer, or by
hand--but MLBAM would gather the statistics by getting the play by play called in
by phone every half-inning.
Step Back Is A Step Forward
On its face, the method doesn't make much sense. You're making the process of
gathering the stats much more labor-intensive, and much less efficient.
Until you actually see the process in action at their offices in New York. MLB
Advanced Media hired a roomful of people to work their phone bank and do the data
entry as teams called in their stats, and gave these people hours of training to
make sure they did it right.
And that's why they're gathering stats this way in the first place: to make
sure it's done right. When any organization that gathered stats by computer did
it in the past, it simply accepted a team's data feed each night and went back
and made corrections as needed.
MLBAM wanted to gather the stats half-inning by half-inning so it could catch
mistakes when they happened, and so it could have its own employees watching over
MLBAM technicians worked five or six games a night, staggered as much as
possible, and followed the audio of each game in addition to taking phone calls
from the ballparks. Their job was to enter the stats accurately and seek out
potential errors and inconsistencies as they cropped up.
So if a team incorrectly called in a run as unearned or credited a batter with
an RBI when he shouldn't really get one, the MLBAM technician would talk to the
team about it and try to fix it. If there was a disagreement about a scoring
decision, it got passed on to a supervisor, who resolved it.
Many more mistakes were likely avoided before they could ever be recorded, and
many beyond that were fixed not within days, but within minutes. So while this
system could evolve into teams doing pitch-by-pitch stat gathering over time, for
the near term the phone method is here to stay.
Passion For Stats
That's not to say this season hasn't been without its growing pains. We
haven't been able to get all the statistics for our Website that we've wanted,
and there have been the inevitable details of working together that can only be
smoothed out with time.
But what's most important is that we have a minor league statistician that
cares passionately about getting the numbers right. We could see it in their eyes
and hear it in their voices, and in the end we could see it in their work, which
is where it matters most.
We heard several stories, which unfortunately we can't repeat, about MLBAM
going to the mat to tell teams there was one correct way to gather and report
statistics, and that's the way it was going to be done.
Keep in mind that we're still not sure who the Midwest League batting champion
of 2004 was. The official statistics say that it was Peoria's Brendan Ryan, who
batted .322. But some argue that it's Cedar Rapids' Howie Kendrick, who batted
.367 but didn't have enough plate appearances to qualify. We're frankly not sure
because we have no way to know exactly how many plate appearances he had last
MLBAM is working on that, and we're trying to help, by building a
comprehensive database of all minor league stats from at least the most recent
seasons. That will happen down the road, but we can at least be confident that
this year's numbers are right.
And in the long run, minor league baseball has a stat provider that wants the
numbers to be right and wants gathering and disseminating them to be a process
that becomes better and more efficient every year. That's more important than
anything else--and the best news we've heard in years.