Tag Archive | "Baseball Info Solutions"

John Dewan: Actuary Extraordinaire!

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As baseball has evolved over its long, rich history, statistics have assumed increasing relevance, becoming nearly as hallowed as sacred relics in the hearts and minds of fans.  As a young boy, for instance, I was acutely aware that Cy Young had achieved 511 wins, that Joe DiMaggio had a 56-game hitting streak, and that Babe Ruth had distinguished himself with 714 home runs.  Of more recent vintage are records that many dyed-in-the-wool fans know, including the facts that Cal Ripkin played 2,632 consecutive games, that Nolan Ryan struck out 5,714 batters in his distinguished career and that Pete Rose surpassed Ty Cobb to finish his playing days with 4,256 hits.

Fans are not the only ones enrapted with players’ statistics.  Today, managers of ball clubs scrutinize statistics, utilizing that data to create strategies and make in-game decisions calculated to enhance the probability of victory.  While much attention has been paid to offensive statistics, defensive statistics have long lagged in detail and perceived importance.  As a 34-year partial season ticket holder for the Philadelphia Phillies, you can understand, then, how thrilled I was to hear John Dewan speak at a recent meeting of the Actuaries Club of Philadelphia.  John, you see, is a pioneer in the field of baseball statistical analysis.

Over 80 attendees shared my excitement: a vast improvement over earlier meetings attended by as few as eight actuaries!  But, thanks to the introduction of continuing education credits and a hard working group of volunteer board members, we now average over 100 people per meeting.  And, this level of participation enabled Salwa Raven, our pension chairperson, to take the bold initiative of inviting a non-traditional actuary to serve as our after-dinner speaker on May 13th.  Thus, did we secure the services of the actuary-turned-world-renowned baseball statistician John Dewan.

Of the 120 members who attended the meeting featuring two hours of workshops, cocktails, dinner and an after-dinner speech, more than two-thirds remained to hear John’s stimulating presentation.  I myself had, earlier in the evening while manning a relatively quiet registration desk, pondered what questions I might ask of our speaker – questions that might suggest my intimate knowledge of baseball while not making me appear to be foolish.

During John’s multi-media presentation, Baseball: It’s All in the Data, he shared with us that when he was 12 years old, he had dreamed of becoming the statistician for his favorite baseball team, the Chicago White Sox.  Responsibilities encroached upon that dream as John matured, leading him to a successful career as an actuary.  In 1987, just five years after receiving his FSA credential, he made the decision to leave the profession.  Determined to balance his dream with the need to generate an income, John went on to develop the most timely and comprehensive computer database in sports.  This goal led to the formation of Sports Team Analysis and Tracking Systems, Inc., known widely as STATS, Inc.

During John’s tenure as President and CEO of STATS, the company was recognized as one of the nation’s 500 fastest growing firms.  Its accomplishments attracted the interest of and subsequent purchase by News Digital Media, an affiliate of Ruppert Murdoch’s News Corporation and Fox Broadcasting.

Despite the sale, John remained driven.  He now heads a company called Baseball Info Solutions (BIS). Focused totally on baseball, the business collects, analyzes, and disseminates the most in-depth data in the industry; it boasts more than a dozen major league baseball teams as clients.  John Dewan is also a published author.  His latest works are The Fielding Bible and The Fielding Bible – Volume II, both of which broke ground in the analysis of baseball’s defensive statistics.

To illustrate his approach, John opened his talk with a video showing a series of defensive misplays in which no error was ruled on any play. He explained that traditional defensive baseball statistics do not take these plays into account, since no error was meted out.   BIS’s method is to use video scouts to review every major league baseball game.  Via the company’s game scoring screen, every play is entered into a computer.  The location of every batted ball is converted into two measurements: distance (one-foot increments from home plate) and vector (there are 360 vectors starting from home plate, of which, 90 are in fair territory).  The video scouts also chart each batted ball in terms of velocity (soft, medium, or hard) and type (ground ball, line drive, “fliner,” fly ball or popup, and bunt). 

Using this data, John developed his plus/minus system: the key to calculating defensive runs saved.  In his presentation, John used the vector 205 as an example for shortstops. He said that 26% of the time, shortstops convert grounders softly hit to vector 205, to outs.  If a shortstop makes this play (out made) he earns a +.74 (1-.26).  If the play is not made, he gets a -.26.  Add up all the pluses and minuses for every play the shortstop remains on the field, and you have his plus/minus number.

Using John Dewan’s system, what do fans learn about the meaning of runs saved?   Well, we learned that Franklin Gutierrez (centerfielder for the Seattle Mariners) had the highest runs saved in 2009 (32), while Orlando Cabrera (who split the 2009 season between the Minnesota Twins and Oakland A’s) had the lowest runs saved in 2009 (-33).  Over the last three years, Chase Utley (the Philadelphia Phillies’ second baseman) had the highest runs saved, with 61.  Before becoming aware of John’s system, I would have never guessed that Franklin Gutierrez was the best defensive centerfielder in 2009 and that Chase Utley was the best defensive player over the last three years!  Applying John’s system for defensive statistics, any fan can understand who the top defensive players are in each position.  I will leave the more astute actuarial analysis of John’s defensive statistics to those actuaries willing to take the time to read and analyze The Fielding Bibles, in which his methodology is explained in greater detail.

At our meeting, John also touched upon his years as an actuary, the development of his companies, and other interesting stories.  For example, STATS, Inc. was contracted by a national broadcasting network to provide interesting statistics for the 1987 National League Championship Series.  Danny Cox of the St. Louis Cardinals was the starting pitcher for the series’ first game.   STATS provided the statistic from the regular season, showing that opponents batted .268 against Cox for his first 70 pitches of the game and batted .345 for the 71st pitch and upward.

Vin Scully, the play-by-play announcer for the telecast, mentioned the statistic as Danny Cox threw his 70th pitch.  Danny’s 73rd pitch was a line drive double, the 74th pitch was a long home-run to left field, the 78th pitch was a sharp single to right, and the 81st pitch was a line drive single to center.  At the 82nd pitch, Scully went nuts, hooting, “What a statistic! This is unbelievable!”  The expression “timing is everything” certainly fits this situation. 

After the 45-minute presentation, John Dewan was good enough to devote another 15 minutes to a question and answer session for zealous baseball fans that earn their living as actuaries.

If your organization is seeking a speaker to provide something both entertaining and valuable at your next meeting, I heartily recommend that you contact world-renowned baseball statistician and fellow actuary John Dewan.

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