roto rooted

in a vague sense, sam walker's Fantasyland has become the st louis cardinal version of Moneyball. the book, which came out last year, tells the story of walker's travails in the 2004 version of Tout Wars, the uber-fantasy league created by ron shandler. shandler, you may recall, served as an adviser to the cardinals that season; he's a central character in Fantasyland. another central figure, sig mejdal, now crunches numbers for jeff luhnow's team in the cardinal front office. so in an indirect way, Fantasyland drops some telling hints about what's afoot within the st louis organization at this moment.

the book is now available in paperback and comes highly recommended. walker, who won the NL Tout Wars in 2005, has shifted to the AL side and will be participating in the auction next weekend in new york city. i tore him away from his preparation last week for about an hour to talk about the cardinals' evolution as an organization, the world series, and the broader issue of fantasy baseball's influence on real baseball. many thanks to sam for taking the time to talk things over.

What's different or updated from the hardback?
Nothing. I made some factual corrections, there's a few of those, and there's three pages of reviews; it's got a different subtitle, because the publisher wanted to get "fantasy baseball" into the subtitle, so we changed it. The subtitle now is, "A Sportswriter's Obsessive Bid to Win the World's Most Ruthless Fantasy Baseball League." Otherwise, it's exactly the same. I thought of doing an afterword about how I won the next year; I wrote a couple of versions of it, and at the end of the day I just felt like the book is a closed circle. I felt like an afterword was getting in the way. And of course the deadline was bearing down on me, and in the end I just wasn't sure so I decided to not put it in. I didn't have time to decide if it would add anything to the book. The story of that season is that I spent so much time groping in the dark. I probably knew more about major-league baseball players than anybody that year. I mean, I'm not being boastful. Obviously, GMs knew more about these guys on a lot of levels, but they're basically concerned with their own players and farm systems. In terms of general knowledge, I had access to a lot of information ---

You had access to the astrology charts, too.
That's true. But you know, I didn't know how to play the game, and that's why I got my butt kicked.

I don't know, 8th place in that league --- that's a respectful showing for a first-timer.
Given the advantages I had, I think it was pretty humiliating. But the year I won was a completely different experience. A lot of that knowledge really carried over to the second year, and I knew how to play the game. I still think the most valuable thing anybody can do --- I went back and did this enormous post-mortem on the entire season. I went back and looked at every team's strategy, what everybody did, the transactions they made, and I figured out within the context of that league what works and what doesn't. And I basically cobbled together all the things that worked and did those the next year. I loaded up my middle infield, I got 20-home run power at every offensive position, I got improving starters with good bullpens behind them, and I put it all together. In the end I got a little luck on my side, but I won pretty convincingly.

I didn't want to plot that in the book [as an afterword], because here I am groping around and concluding that these guys are so much smarter than me ---

Yeah, an afterword would undercut that storyline. People who haven't read this book yet will be amused to know that the crucial rookie mistake you made at the 2004 draft was to buy Sid Ponson.
I was just trying to throw players out for a price closer to their value, because I thought that was kind of the cool thing to do. I think that happens in real baseball, too. I felt a lot of pressure to fit in. I think GMs go through the same thing. I think there's a pressure to not do something stupid, or to try to fit in. And here's an example where I was so anxious to get Sidney Ponson out there and have someone other than me spend a lot of money on him that I really blew it. I had a bad approach, and I think it was transparent what I was trying to do.

I learned a lot about tactics there. When you're playing Rotisserie, you have to price-enforce, and you have to bid up players that you don't necessarily want because you need to draw money out of the table. But at the same time, you really have to think about your poker face, and you have to do sort of erratic things once in a while to disguise your true intentions. I didn't realize how much of it is a chess game and how easily your moves can become transparent.

We really didn't endure the worst of Ponson, because we traded him when he was really slumping, so in the end it wasn't the worst thing for the team. But it did keep me from buying other players I wanted at the auction. And that's the thing. Matt Lawton --- Matt Lawton had an all-star year, and I knew it, but I couldn't get him because I'd wated dollars on Ponson. That's where it was really pretty deadly.

The knowledge that spending a dollar now on the wrong guy can burn you later because you don't have that dollar to spend on the right guy --- every big-league team is doing that same calculation, in a sense. When I talked to Art McGee, we got into a discussion about how some of the ideas that are being put into practice in real front offices might have bubbled up to some extent from Roto ball --- some of the bidding strategies, some of the analytics. Do you think Roto ball has had any influence over how real baseball is managed, or are we just completely nuts?
You wouldn't want to overstate it, because there are some things about the structure of baseball that don't translate. But there are a lot of parallels. It's hard to say what influences what. I will tell you that Bill James and Baseball Prospectus, and all these people who are out there changing the culture of baseball and the way players are analyzed --- the whole bunch of them: If it wasn't for Rotisserie baseball, I don't even know if any of them would have gotten started. Bill James --- not only did Dan Okrent [the inventor of Rotisserie baseball] discover Bill James, but Lee Eisenberg, another of the founders of Rotisserie, gave him his first job, which was writing a baseball preview for Esquire, and Peter Gethers, another of the founding fathers of Rotisserie, was Bill James' editor at Ballantine. These guys made Bill James; they made him everything he is. Bill James was hatched over that draft table. He was an idea that these guys hatched. The audience for his books, his sales numbers --- the market for all that information was people who wanted to do better in their fantasy leagues. Those people were buying everything and anything they could get their hands on. And the more different and outlandish the thinking was, the more interested they were, because they figured the other guys in their league wouldn't know about it. So that drove so much of this innovation. The fact that it's all making it's way to the front office --- I don't see how you don't draw a straight line between 1980 and the first Rotisserie draft, and all this innovation that's happened since. People in baseball would roll their eyes at that, but there's no disputing it.

One of the things you're seeing now --- and Billy Beane has talked about this --- the market for free-agent pitchers is much tougher than it used to be, because everyone has now figured out how to value wins and strikeouts properly. Because people weren't valuing them properly before, and you could still see incredible discrepancies. But now the market's tightened up. That's all because --- whether they admit it or not --- almost every front office has someone back there saying, "Well actually, the numbers say this." I don't think you can divorce the fantasy game from that. I think they're one and the same. When you talk about the free-agency era in baseball, I think the biggest catalyst for change has been fantasy baseball.

The funny thing about Rotisserie, it really is a serious exercise. Scott Boras has a fantasy league for his arbitration team that's mandatory. You have to play. A lot of people realize that it's a really smart intellectual exercise. If you took every player in baseball and considered them a free agent every year, and you go through and you have to put a team together, it's about building teams. It's an exercise in team building. And that's really what a general manager does. So Okrent and Waggoner and these guys invented this incredibly rigorous, intellectually deep exercise. But the thing about all these guys is that they're kind of goofy. They made fun of themselves, and they had this we're-a-bunch-of-knuckleheads mentality, even though what they were really doing was revoluationary. So fantasy early on got this bad --- and probably deservedly so, it got this very dorky reputation. It was a very dumb, dorky thing. That's how they put it out there in the world, and that's the image that stuck. And it still sticks today. There's so much derision if any mention of fantasy baseball comes across a general manager's lips, even though they owe a lot to it. It's such a big part of baseball, yet it's got this reputation --- I don't know if it'll ever change --- that it's this fantasy dork at the party who won't shut up about Armando Benitez. You just want to go away and hide under the sofa, and he won't let you go. And that's fantasy baseball. But it's really so much more than that.

click "read more" to continue reading

Are you still the same Tiger fan that you were growing up?
Yeah.

And how'd you feel about the way things went in the World Series?
It was hard to see. The second half of the season was tough, and then the playoffs gave me a lot of hope, but I kinda had --- I was nervous about the team, and I was nervous about their approach at the plate in the second half. I was really worried about Leyland keeping it all together; it just didn't seem like one of those teams that had an identity. I know that's a fluffy thing to say, but I didn't think they'd figured out who this team was yet.

Then going into the World Series, I got so fired up about it. All the numbers said the Tigers are going to just destroy the Cardinals, and I just had this sinking feeling. I knew that something was going to catch up with them. I didn't think it was going to be the fact that the pitchers couldn't field their position . . . . . that was crazy. That was the difference in the Series. I just couldn't believe it.

The thing that was heartening about it was it kind of proved the one theory that I think I've found in Rotisserie that really does transfer to baseball. The thing that I found with Sig's help through all those studies of the 2004 season was that the key to having a great Rotisserie team is that you gotta have a few breakout players, guys who play way above their value. You can't have any big injuries to any of your stars. That was more than half the battle. If you had those two things going for you, you had a really strong chance of winning. I think the same thing's true with baseball. The Tigers are a perfect example of a team that was able to thrive in those two ways. So many incredible performances, and no real big dramatic injury.

And the Cardinals, ironically enough, were like the complete opposite of that. Their closer went down, their #2 starter went down, Edmonds was hurt all year, Eckstein got hurt and wasn't the same afterward.
I still can't believe they won.

Yeah, I know. I can't either, to be honest with you.
I can't believe it. Look at the pitching. I mean, where did Weaver come from?

You mentioned the Tigers' approach at the plate --- they were the perfect team for the Cardinals to pitch to. The Cardinals last year didn't have guys who could get away with a lot of strikes in the strike zone, but they thrived if they could get guys to chase outside the zone or swing at a pitcher's pitch. And the Tigers were that type of team.
It's so funny, because all the numbers --- there's another example of the holes in a lot of statistical theory. Because all these people ran that World Series with simulators and accounted for all kinds of variables, and in all those simulations the Tigers came out as the better team. But if you watched that World Series without knowing anything about what the simulations said, I think you'd have been shocked to find out that the Tigers were supposed to win in 5 or 6 games.

But even if, in the simulations, the Tigers won 75 thousand series and the Cardinals only won 25 thousand --- and that would be a huge margin --- the Series we saw might have just been part of that 25 percent slice. It's all a matter of probability, and the improbable came up last October.
This is one of the things that drives me crazy about Rotisserie and a lot of baseball analysis now. Everybody's trying to figure out what the known quantities are. There's a weird level of trying to project, "Here's what's likely to happen." But really, the thing that makes or breaks baseball teams are these anomalies. It's the guys who come out of nowhere, it's the injuries. So really what makes the difference between winning and losing are the things that are almost impossible to predict. That's what makes baseball great. We gotta celebrate the extent to which the game is unknowable.

I think the Cardinals used that to their advantage --- we talked about this on the blog throughout the playoffs. The Cardinals had nothing to lose. Everybody wrote them off because of the way the season ended and because of their injuries; on paper and by the numbers, they weren't supposed to win. So their attitude was different than in previous Octobers. They just went out and played. I wonder if they'd have played with the same lack of self-consciousness if they'd won 95 games instead of 83.
Well, it was fun to see the Tigers back in the Series. I didn't go away bitter. I was a lot more bitter about Michigan losing to Ohio State.

There's this great quote on page 121 of the hardback version of Fantasyland: "The object of Rotisserie baseball ultimately comes down to: How to predict everything that's going to happen in the upcoming baseball season, down to the last run scored, and use this knowledge to humiliate others." That rang true for me, because there's too often a certain smugness among the stat crowd. I love the stats, and I think they can be really revealing --- but why is the humiliation piece in there, do you think?
There was a shift somewhere. Bill James definitely would go after people. He had a crotchety, cranky side, but he was very funny --- a funny writer and a really smart thinker. Ultimately you could tell that he believed in human frailty, and human frailty and inability to understand and comprehend was kind of the central tenet of Bill James. His premise was like, "We don't know anything," or "How do you know anything?" That was the question, how are we really capable of knowing anything. And that's been turned on its head now, I think, by the stats crowd. And frankly, I'm sick of it. I am so tired of this sense that you can find a perfect metric and that that's really the answer. A lot of this stuff is just common sense. The argument about VORP, for example, Value Over Replacement Player. Murray Chass wrote this piece and he blasted it, and it was very Andy Rooney. I don't know why, when people get to a certain age and they've been doing something for a certain number of years, some switch goes off in their brains and they decide that anything new is ridiculous. VORP is just common sense. I know it sounds stupid, and I know these guys don't exactly always offer it up with a spoonful of sugar. So I can see why that would make you resentful if you were Murray Chass and you'd been doing things a certain way. But a player's value versus the baseline value at that position --- that's just common sense. That's a great way to look at it.

There's nothing revolutionary about that approach. A lot of this stuff just boils down to common sense. I think the problem is that they're selling it with this attitude of, "You're not capable of understanding this unless you're as smart as we are." And the absurdity is that any great idea is simple, and any revolutionary idea is a simple idea. Look at history. Anything that really resonates with people and changes the way we think is a simple concept. It's sometimes so simple, you smack yourself in the forehead. And that's what has really happened here. It's really that baseball has been improved by a lot of very simple concepts that people are finally becoming accustomed to. But the problem is that if you read some of this stuff and the scathing nature of it, you'd think that the nerds are storming the Bastille and throwing out all of the traditionalists. It's a bunch of crap. This is just kind of the natural evolution of the game, but it's all coated in this really absurd jargon.

Which is part of that whole humiliation piece.
Right. It's just part of baseball. Everyone has this weird desire to humiliate. The scouts have a desire to see the stats guys humiliated, and they have humiliated them. And then the stats people, the outsiders, really want to humiliate the guys who played the game and who continue to run it like a fraternity. And it carries over into Rotisserie, because you have those different perspectives --- you have people who are really fantasy people, and people who fancy themselves as serious analysts. And there's a deep desire to humiliate on both sides of that.

Maybe that's what drives innovation. Maybe you need two sides. I think maybe the best way to get people to come up with new ideas is because they want to humiliate someone else.

And they're afraid of being humiliated themselves, too --- the fear of being exposed as an imbecile. The fear that after you've been pontificating, it will be revealed that your head was up your ass the whole time.
(laughs) Yeah.

When Bill James started doing this, he was a complete outsider. So when he was calling people out as imbeciles and so forth --- there's a different power structure when you're doing that as this lone voice in the wilderness. You need people to pay attention to you, so you word things very strongly. Now the stat guys have become insiders, and they have a certain amount of power, and when they humiliate from that seat of power it comes across differently. It comes across a lot uglier. It's almost like the dogma of the past is being replaced with a new dogma --- or at least there's a danger of that happening.
I think it's definitely happening. I think the rate at which it's happening and accelerating within some organizations is really surprising to me. But you know, it's hard to say that you can run an organization without any kind of dogma. Any institution takes on a personality, and it usually flows from the person at the top. For a long time in baseball, I think the owners never really asserted themselves. I know you had Steinbrenner, and there's a few obvious exceptions, but I think the owners took a benevolent-dictator approach and let their baseball people run the show. And I think the problem with that was that you got this fraternity where a scout could never be unemployed, because someone would pick him up, and coaches bounced around, GMs bounced around. There were these owners above the whole thing who weren't paying that much attention, and then there was this very tight fraternity that formed below them that was running baseball. And that fraternity kept a lot of people out and created an arrogant culture; that's what the stat guys were saying about them.

But now you're getting the opposite. You look at an organization like the Red Sox. John Henry [the owner], by his own admission, deferred everything to the baseball people, even though he was a Bill James disciple --- he played a lot of fantasy games. He had very set ideas about how you value players, but when he bought his first baseball team [the Marlins] he believed what he was told: that he didn't know how a baseball team works in reality, the ideas he'd acquired were all just theoretical. But ever since he bought the Red Sox he's really asserted himself and turned the organization into something else. Having Bill James and Eric Van and Tom Tippett and Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer and all these guys who are highly quantitative --- I think they do run the risk in practice, if not in perception, of seeming like they're using slide rules to solve problems that are inherently human problems, personnel problems --- human resources issues, if you will.

The thing that really sticks out to me is that you have to have a blend. You have to be able to have both sides. You have to have different kinds of voices. You need to hear other perspectives, even if you don't act on them. The best example of a GM who has really mastered this of late is Ken Williams in Chicago. He is one of my favorite executives in all of sports. He's a very smart guy, and he's got people around him who are quantitative. He's covered that flank very well. He's got people who can step in and do the things that he's not great at. But he also maintains a connection to what he learned playing the game and what he learned coming up through the scouting system and the farm system. So he's a perfect example of someone who's got both flanks covered. But what makes him great is he wants to win. That's one of the things people forget. You gotta have this compulsion to win now. This is a real problem with the statistics. Even the Red Sox last year; if you looked at the subtler messages and signals that the team was sending, it was clear they were already thinking to next year. They didn't expect to have a great team. I fully believe that they went into the season thinking, "We're not going to contend for a championship this year; it's next year that we've got to worry about." I think that comes with stats and a certain clinical approach to the game. You're able to just say, "Look at the numbers, the numbers aren't adding up," and that kind of trumps the idea of just walking into the locker room, looking around at these guys, and saying, "He can do it, and he can do it, and he can do it --- we can do it."

Right --- let's just take our chances. The numbers may say one thing, and we're not going to ignore what the numbers say --- but we'll go ahead and take our chances anyway.
Take your shot every year. The funny thing is, after all of Moneyball, and as bad as Ken Williams may have come out looking in that book, the real inefficiency in baseball that season was the trade deadline. Williams figured out that you could get pretty much anything you want for not that much at the trade deadline, whether you're contending or not. He was so aggressive in trading up and moving people around that he really took advantage of that. You look at the players they got on waivers and deadline deals, they did phenomenally well.

So it doesn't matter if you're using numbers or you're using old-time baseball superstition --- if you're really burning to win, that seems to trump both approaches. You need some old-time tobacco-spitting guys and some really smart nerd-types running around too. Trying to get them all to work together seems like the real challenge.

If I had to choose one team to cover right now, I think it would be the Cardinals. I think it's a fascinating time for them right now, because they are at this weird bridge. They've had incredible success, but I think they're at a crossroads in terms of where they're going. They're doing a lot of interesting stuff. There's a very progressive, forward-looking, intellectually curious part of the team, and then there's a very old-fashioned, traditionalist, nothing-new-under-the-sun side. They're coexisting pretty peacefully, but I feel like that whole organization's gonna be vastly different in a few years.

What's interesting is that La Russa used to be considered back in the 80s to be in the avant garde of statistically savvy managers. He came up when Bill James was just getting attention and introducing unorthodox ideas, and La Russa was thought to be a little more progressive about doing things that were not orthodox. I guess the older you get, the more you become identified with the old way of doing things.
Did you read Three Nights in August?

Yeah.
What'd you think of it?

Well, it was enlightening because it showed me how much of this can be personality driven. There are factors that come into play that have nothing to do with logic. When you realize that you're talking about human beings that have to interact on a day-to-day level, sometimes it's gonna come down to the fact that one guy just doesn't like another guy. And it's not gonna matter what the stat sheet says, that guy's not gonna get the benefit of the doubt, and some other guy who by the numbers has less ability is gonna get the extra chance because he's the right fit, personalitywise. I mean, there was a little bit of pap in the book too; or maybe a considerable amount of pap.
Or a lot of pap.

But there were some good nuggets, too.
Yeah, I felt the same way. I think Buzz is a great writer, but he doesn't really know baseball backwards and forwards, and that was kind of clear from time to time. He was a little breathless about things that are not that new. But I thought it was a nice antidote to the Moneyball thinking. I still am pissed about Moneyball. I think it was a good book, it was a great read, but it killed my story list. I had two or three years' worth of great stories about the statistical revolution in baseball. I figured I had all the time in the world. Then all of a sudden, Moneyball comes out, and it's like --- what??? Now everything you write is kind of a Moneyball follow.

One of the reasons I wrote Fantasyland was because newspapers keep trying to cover sports like news. I just think their approach is totally wrong. They seem to have forgotten about the entertainment value and the conversation value of sports. I think because the sports editor is always in the Page One meeting and he thinks, "Oh, this is a newspaper." But the biggest problem I had was with this incredible disconnect between how a player is portrayed in the media and what they're really like. So many times you would meet the guy, and you would be like: "Oh, I get it. I see what's going on with this guy; it's clear and obvious." You can read a thousand articles in the local paper about this guy, and even profiles, and it wouldn't get really at the core of who the guy is. I don't know why that is. It's not like you have to offend the guy if you're honest. Obviously, if you're a beat writer you pay a big price for offending a player, but I think there are so many ways to get at a guy's character without offending them overtly. Or offend a few guys once in a while.

Even the cameras don't usually capture players very honestly, because they know they're on camera and they're censoring themselves.
That's one of the things that attracted me about writing it was because I figured I could pick a few of these guys and really get into who they are. It's like when that whole Doug Mientkiewicz thing with the baseball, the last out of the 2004 World Series; I mean when they asked him about it and he called it his retirement fund, he was fucking around. And of course the Boston media took it totally literally, you know. And Shaughnessy knew he was fucking around. Everybody knew it. But it's a better story if they pretend to not know it.

The St. Louis beat guys I think actually get it a lot more than the writers in some other towns.
Yeah, I love Derrick Goold. Really upbeat guy, and he's young. He's not a sabermetrician, but at least he's aware of that world. He's not spiteful of it.

He likes to dabble in it, actually.
I don't know why beat writing doesn't just become blogging. It's idiotic that you have to sit there in the press box after a game, write up what happened, and file the story. Come on, we all know --- we don't need a game story. It's hard for us --- I mean, I'm sitting here in a newsroom, and every day we're asking ourselves, "What do we do now? How do we cover Wall Street?" I wish I knew the way forward, but I can't figure it out. I think the problem now is really just access. The Journal's got a great brand, but we're behind this firewall, so we're kind of irrelevant online, and it kills us. We've sold a lot of our --- not our credibility, but we've sold a lot of our relevancy. But what do you do? We can't give our stuff away. There's a lot of stuff you can get for free online that's crap. I think the thing is, you Google something and you get 4,000 sources for it. And I do it too --- I'll click on those links, and I'll read them. And I don't know who's writing it, and I don't know if it's any good. There's such a volume of information that people get what they think is information but they don't really know whether it's good or not.

That's gonna be the next step of this --- people are going to have to be their own editors and their own bullshit detectors and become much more savvy in weighing who's the source and what's the credibility, and how do I fit this into context and decide whether or not it passes the smell test.
Yeah.

Thanks very much for taking the time to talk this over with me. I really enjoyed the conversation.
Sure, I enjoyed it.

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