Touring the Bases with…..Craig Wright
Craig R. Wright was the first of what today would be called a “Sabermetrician” to be hired by a major league baseball team. He was the primary author of “The Diamond Appraised” (1989), and with Texas Rangers play-by-play announcer Eric Nadel has done a radio pre-game show called “A Page from Baseball Past” since 1984.
Seamheads: What area was your training and education in, and how did that prepare you for your baseball-related career?
Craig Wright: I come from a family of teachers and went to college with the simple goal of becoming a high school English teacher. I majored in English and Sociology with a minor in Education. I did my honors thesis in sport journalism and during my senior year wrote a baseball column called the Hot Corner for a small syndicate based in Pennsylvania. My scientific training came out of Sociology, and I think it was helpful to get that training in a soft science as opposed to scientific fields that deal more often with evidence that tends to be more concrete and quantifiable, as in Chemistry and Physics. The science of baseball is largely a soft science.
Growing up I had always liked science. I maxed out the available science classes in high school when I took the Advanced Physics class as a junior. Rather than have a year without a science class, I took the same class again as a senior. I also had a long-time fascination for detective stories and at one point I considered pursuing a career in forensic criminology. I started to combine those interests with baseball back in my freshman year in high school. Taking a scientific approach to the study of baseball remained a major hobby of mine for the next 13 years until it became my profession. That was my real preparation and training for my baseball career.
SH: How did your first hiring by a major league team come about?
CRW: There were no jobs remotely like that in baseball, so it first had to be created in my head. In high school I was in an APBA baseball league, a fairly realistic odds-based tabletop game using players from the previous major league season. It was a carryover league, so learning how to better predict the futures of players was quite valuable. I had already done a lot of work from various angles on that subject, and that really helped my APBA team. It hit me one day that the major league teams were not doing what I was doing. They didn’t know some of things I had learned; if they did, they would not make some of the mistakes they tended to repeat over and over. So there I was at 16, maybe 17 years old when it hit me that I had something of value here, and if I ever chose to, I could make a career out of it.
In my mid-twenties I sent some of my material to Bill Veeck, and he sent me a couple encouraging notes in return. I even made a trip to Chicago where I met with Veeck and Roland Hemond to talk about some of my research. At that time I had a desire to contribute to the game, but I was ambivalent about how to do it.
I made the choice to pursue this type of career in baseball early in 1980. I sent letters to the 26 teams explaining to them the unique position I had in mind. They all said no. I then made a folder for each team and placed in it a research idea that I thought would be of special interest to that specific organization. I called them my hook projects, and made them the focus of my baseball studies. In itself that was a good experience because it really got me thinking about which ideas might have the most practical value for a team. As I went along, I would look for the right opportunities to again approach a team, but this time armed with their hook project. I routinely sent out a new prospectus with the relevant hook whenever a new owner or GM came in.
When Eddie Chiles bought the Texas Rangers, I sent a study on the impact of the thermal environment on the Rangers. I never heard from Chiles, but I got an interested response from the copy I sent to GM Eddie Robinson. We began corresponding and I started sharing ideas from the other folders. I never tried to hold anything back. I wanted to impress on Eddie that I was not trying to sell these individual ideas. They were just examples of what I could bring to a baseball organization. I was trying to sell him on adding a different perspective to the decision making process of the organization. After the players came back from the strike of 1981, he hired me on a one-year trial. About eight months into the trial he felt I had proved my worth and made me a regular member of the organization.
SH: Your role was obviously ground-breaking. How would you describe acceptance within major league baseball of both yourself and your research?
CRW: It was slow and frustrating at times, but given the newness of it all, that was understandable. Figuring out the areas where I would be allowed to help was a part of the job, a way to focus my efforts. I didn’t feel overly restricted by that. There were so many ways to contribute that I always felt like I had plenty to do. And I got to see the gratifying and steady progress in the types of decisions I got to be involved with. I don’t know if Fred Claire (Dodgers GM) remembers this but I still have my notes from our original meeting, and one of the things in there is that he did not want me analyzing minor leaguers. He didn’t really believe my approach could be used in that area. But I’d sneak in a MNL assessment here and there, and it eventually became very routine for him to use me that way. He’s done two interviews in recent years where in looking back at our ten years together he specifically praised my ability to analyze minor league players.
At a personal level I was pretty pleased with the acceptance I felt. There was initially a lot of resistance to accepting the value of what I brought to the table, but that didn’t mean we didn’t get along. I honestly believe the great leveler of tension was simply this: we had in common a love of the game. There were always going to be exceptions, but for the most part I was treated very well. I have some great friendships that go right back to the earliest days of my career. When Alan Schwarz interviewed scouting director Sandy Johnson about our relationship in those early years, Sandy said, “I didn’t want to pay attention to him”. But in the end I liked having him around. You respected his love for the game, and he had very strong and valid opinions on players. That tended to be the way it worked out as folks got to know me and worked with me.
Oddly enough, some of the least welcoming people when I started out were some of the beat writers covering the teams. This was true both locally and among the visiting press. They seemed to me to be more protective of tradition than the baseball men. There were a few beat writers that I think were rooting for my failure and would have tripped me going out the door. But among most of the baseball men there was the more open-minded practical view of “We’ll wait and see if you can help.” I felt they were giving me an opportunity to earn my position, and that’s all I wanted.
SH: One of the men you mentioned working for was Dodger GM Fred Claire. Was Claire one of the ‘early adopters’ of sabermetrics among GMs?
CRW: In the area of player evaluation, yes, unquestionably. By today’s standards, his reliance on the use of the science of baseball in that area might be considered pedestrian, even conservative. But back then his attitude was quite revolutionary. He listened to my explanations and arguments with a very open mind. He had a wealth of traditional advisors he relied on a great deal and I often was on the minority side of a decision, but I always felt like I got a fair hearing from Fred. I did appreciate that a particularly compelling argument would register with Fred, and I also felt like he had a little scorecard going in the back of his head, and I was steadily gaining as the years went along. As I proved myself, he gave greater weight to my recommendations and sought my opinion in a wider variety of cases.
A huge example of how open-minded Fred was came in the fall of 1994 when he told me I could do the job of a GM and do it well. He encouraged me in seeking an interview for a GM opening in St. Louis and served as a recommendation. So did Tom Grieve and Sandy Johnson, but Fred was the one who first saw that as a possibility for someone with my background. That would not seem odd today, but back then which is even before this Moneyball nonsense it was truly off-the-charts radical.
SH: What accomplishment within baseball that you’ve had are you most proud of, or that you think had the most profound long-term impact?
CRW: I certainly didn’t get into it to be a pioneer, but I came to appreciate that aspect. I’m proud to have shown that this perspective has a place in the professional game and that I helped advanced its acceptance.
I’m proud that I carried my weight. I have an absolute sense that I earned my position, my salary. That is a very, very good feeling in the value system I was raised in. I’m proud that in those 21 years, every GM who worked with me on a year-round basis sought to renew our agreement, and that includes two GMs who inherited me. There were only three times my contract was not renewed and each time it involved a new GM coming in who decided not to give me a try.
I was particularly proud that I did not lose an ounce of business in the wake of the strike of 1994. Teams were gushing red ink and cutting jobs right and left or replacing people with someone new who would do it cheaper. A lot of people who started off their front office careers right about the same time as I did had their baseball careers ended in that period. It was a time of tough testing for how you were valued.
As far as a specific element of my work having a long-term impact in the game, I imagine that will be my convincing folks about the need to manage carefully the workloads of pitchers in their formative years. That has had, and will continue to have, the greatest breadth of impact. That came about in part because it was widely disseminated by being in the public domain in a book.
SH: On that subject of managing workloads that you wrote about in The Diamond Appraised, a lot has been studied and written on that subject since then. Have you changed any of your original conclusions about managing pitcher workloads?
CRW: I’ve obviously learned more in the decades since. As far as the things I actually wrote about in those three chapters, I was fairly careful in my wording to distinguish what I felt most certain about and to provide a lot of leeway on the things I was not. I can’t think of anything of major consequence to change except to be more certain on some points and to add new information.
I’ve just recently written quite a bit on this subject in The Diamond Appraised baseball column, including my utter dissatisfaction with the current practice of pitch limits and how I believe most teams would be better off to just stop this practice and return to the days of relying on the pitcher’s self-report and the observations of manager, pitching coach, and catcher to determine when to pull a pitcher. Even at the player development level where I strongly encourage teams to exercise care with pitchers in their formative years, I am pleased at the acceptance of the basic principle but am appalled at what most teams think is in line with that principle. In their actual practice, I think they are preventing pitchers from building durability while also employing a strategy that I believe raises the risk of damage to the shoulder, even though they think they are doing the opposite.
SH: You’ve used the phrase “scientific approach” to baseball to describe your work. What is the difference between using a scientific approach to baseball versus using statistical analysis?
CRW: Statistical analysis has very real role in most scientific inquiry, but it is quite possible to focus on statistical analysis without taking advantage of what makes scientific inquiry so effective. Left to stand alone, statistical analysis tends to limit truth and understanding only to certainties that can be expressed in its language. Science is geared to work more productively with uncertainty, and truth and understanding can be pursued, comprehended, and used in ways that are not dependent on the language of statistical application.
Analysis of any kind is a tricky business and its heavy practitioners, particularly those with a statistical bent, tend to lose sight of its weaknesses and let their allegiance to the method blind them to what they can learn or know outside of that small circle. Statistical analysis can easily become a trap that costs us the humility that should come from the cold hard truth that reality is so complex that it is remarkably easy to lose grasp of reality while in the midst of analysis.
By definition, analysis is the process of breaking a complex topic or substance into smaller parts to gain a better understanding of it. It tries to isolate things and relationships in a way that makes them easier to study and hopefully helps advance our ability to understand, but it is in itself a very artificial and incomplete view, and thus vulnerable to mistaken conclusions and even gross errors.
In science, the important counterbalance to an analytic perspective is a synthetic one. Synthesis has its own weaknesses, as it can be based on no more than our understanding of the whole, which is, in itself, limited and incomplete. But for all its own flaws, the synthetic perspective is the most important test of what we learn from the extremely artificial world of analysis. Synthesis serves, in part, to evaluate the conclusions of analysis against the background of our current understanding of everything we connect as relevant to the question at hand.
It seems to me that good science is based far more on synthesis than analysis. The theoretical process which is so crucial to science and the advancement of our knowledge is driven far more by synthesis than analysis. I tend to be at my best in that area. I have more of a philosophical bent, putting more energy into trying to figure out what the key questions are, and weaving things together by starting more from the outer sphere of thought and moving toward the practical center of, “Okay this is where we should go from here.” Is there statistical analysis going on in that movement? In most cases, yes, a huge amount. But analysis is never driving the bus of the inquiry, and as a scientist I am not going to limit myself to just evidence that lends itself well to statistical analysis, nor am I going to let statistical analysis define what is the best answer. I’ve said it and written it many times, statistical analysis is too often taken for being science itself rather than a tool of science.
I know the difference I am talking about seems very narrow and subtle to a lot of people. That’s why there are tons of folks who know my work and still insist on describing me as a statistician or statistical analyst. But in my mind I do see a gigantic difference, and it is one that I think served me and my teams much, much better than if I had been, in fact, a statistical analyst.
SH: What prompted you to write “The Diamond Appraised”?
CRW: Bill James suggested a couple times that I write a book, and that’s what eventually got me first considering it. Then Tom House approached me with a book idea that one of the major publishers was interested in doing. The timing was good. It was a year before my consulting business really started to boom, and I had also gone through a breakup in a personal relationship that was hard on me, and I was looking for an extra project that I could really throw myself into. I’m not one to say timing is everything, but it was a big factor in this case. If it had come up just a year or two later, I would never have done it. No time.
SH: Former major league pitcher Tom House was a contributor on The Diamond Appraised. What were the insights that Tom provided for the book as a former playe that maybe you wouldn’t have had?
CRW: That’s not the kind of thing I would be aware of because it was already in play for me long before the book. Understand that at that point I had already had roughly seven years of working full-time in MLB interacting with a lot of former players both professionally and as friends. I’m a pretty observant guy with a good dose of curiosity. It was also helpful in my job to better understand the perspective of players and former players. I was quite motivated to better understand the way former players tend to see things and how their experiences as professional players affected them. Against that background, the involvement with House on the book was an incredibly small part of my education in that area. But it was good for the readers to hear these things expressed directly from a former player and current pitching coach. I wish there had been a lot more of it in the book, and that had been the original plan.
There was one section where Tom’s perspective as a former player really did surprise me and that was his forgiving view of Pete Rose allowing his pursuit of the all-time hit record to influence his use of his personnel as a manager. I understood what House was initially arguing, but I truly thought I could win him over by appealing to the respect a professional baseball player would have for the sanctity of playing to win. Didn’t happen and I’m still surprised by that.
SH: You have both a radio show and newsletter called “A Page from Baseball Past.” Can you describe the content you look for in doing those?
CRW: This is the 27th year I’ve been researching and writing that story series. The basic principle is to simply tell a good baseball story that is also true, and with due diligence to try and get the facts right. The final key component is to keep it brief, not to overwhelm the readers with a research article but to simply tell them a story in a couple of pages. It is meant to be more entertainment than education, but I’d consider it a failure if it weren’t also gently teaching the readership about the history of the game, which is in part learning the cultural history of our country.
My grandfather was born in 1884 and passed in 1988. He had a lot to share, and his stories were how I first learned about the history of the game and became interested in it. Those stories taught me a lot, but really, first and foremost, they were interesting stories. That’s how I want a Page from Baseball’s Past to work.
I’ve particularly enjoyed doing the text e-version, which is in its third year and has an enthusiastic and rapidly growing audience. (Subscribers receive the stories as emailed PDF documents.) This format allows me to do so much that could not be done with the radio show, like adding charts, pictures, and interesting research notes.
SH: Do you try to keep up with the latest advances in sabermetric thought? What are your favorite baseball analysis blogs?
CRW: That would be a pretty immense task even if you tried hard, and I don’t. I like hardballtimes.com, insidethebook.com, billjamesonline.net, and baseballprospectus.com. Those four sites are fairly well known, but there are other more obscure ones I’ve found enjoyable with interesting content, such as baseballmusings.com.
SH: You’ve talked about having a distinct vision of where things should go from here in the application of the science of baseball – a vision that may be too radical for the baseball establishment at this time. Could you give us a short summary of what that vision entails?
CRW: I usually write about 40-50 pages when a team asks about this, but I can do short in talking about a couple aspects of that vision without getting into details. One is that an organization should institutionalize a process for the development of better ideas and working on their implementation. We have organized the scouting of players and the development of players. We should take a small part of the budget and organize the scouting of ideas and their development. It’s really no different than what other businesses have done very well with in creating a department of research and development. R&D can benefit from direction and organization like anything else.
We are also approaching the tipping point when we can start to productively involve the science of baseball in player enhancement work. That theoretical capacity was there from the beginning, but it was mostly a hands-off area for sabermetricians because it needed such a high degree of cooperation from field level personnel – manager and coaches. The necessary level of cooperation wasn’t likely to be there at a level sufficient for practical success. That’s changing. Approached the right way and with the right personnel we might be able to get off the ground a general program that 25 years from now will be fairly standard around the game. A great way to kick the competition’s butt is to be the first to go forward with a right idea. It’s worth the hassles that inherently go along with being the first.
Involved with both of those ideas would be a goal of changing how that baseball organization perceives itself, which is really a huge part of making it possible to reap the full benefits of integrating science and baseball. I call that changing the frame, and just as with anything else, you can strategize through how to move that along, to make it happen.
SH: What would be a couple of specific examples where involving the science of baseball in player enhancement work might soon be a reality?
CRW: You really want to emphasize the might in saying, might soon be a reality. You can be right on the cusp of something for a long time before someone actually steps forward as the first.
Player enhancement work is simply about improving the return from players that you already have or plan to acquire. It breaks down into two classes: improvement by coaching and improvement by handling. You might have a hitter with promising power potential and the data suggests he is not taking advantage of the ball-strike count the way a mature, experienced slugger does. Do you simply cross your fingers and hope that evolves with maturity and experience or do you study what might be most beneficial to juice the process along and work with him on that in spring training?
You have a pitcher who has been noticeably less effective out of the stretch position versus the windup. This often is a mechanical issue sometimes, particularly for RHP, related to working too hard to contain the opponent’s running game. Might we make a goal in spring training to try and straighten that pitcher out to a level that is the best combination of correcting a weakness without totally giving up the strength in the other area? You have a batter with a relatively significant problem performing in his 2-strike plate appearances? Why? As you work through that, you may find many potential causes that are in fact coachable. Maybe you have a pitcher with a history of poor finishes, and in his formative history and aging profile there is good reason to believe this pattern relates to a fragile, compromised shoulder. Can we adjust his workload and use guidelines that will enhance his chances of remaining productive through the season?
Or to be very specific, say you are the Seattle Mariners and you are considering having two veterans switch sides of the infield to take on new positions after being ensconced at one position for several years. What might scientific research be able to add to that decision in the weighing of the risks? (I actually mentioned that as an issue for the Mariners in my pre-season picks this year, arguing that they were playing with fire in having Chone Figgins and Jose Lopez switch positions, pointing out that it could screw up the hitting of both players as they tried to adjust to a new position on the other side of the diamond. I don’t think it is any accident that both players are having the worst offensive season of their careers and that has essentially knocked the Mariners out of contending at the level so many expected.)
In any group of 25 players, there are going to be many potential points of player enhancement through special coaching or handling. Determining those points is only a small step in making such a program work, and perhaps the easiest part. The true tough part is the nuts and bolts of getting those points worked on in a productive manner, which of course involves getting field personnel working closely and confidently with folks they are not used to working with directly, except at the field personnel’s initiative and direction. That’s the real hump to get over, but I think we are getting to the point where something like this can be worked out with some reasonable orchestration. With time I believe it will be a standard organizational exercise that will not only will bear immediate fruit in that area but go a long ways toward €œchanging the frame of how the organization sees itself and the degree to which it accepts a sabermetric element as part of its identity. I’ve given a lot of thought as to how to best to get the two camps engaged, and in a manner that allows the strengths of both to be used in this worthy pursuit.
SH: Today you seem more focused on baseball history than contemporary baseball analysis. What do you see yourself doing going forward from here?
CRW: Since retiring from my career in MLB, my time is naturally allocated quite differently. But I obviously still spend a lot of time with baseball, writing several hundreds of pages a year including some contemporary analysis. I’ve still got some chops. A recent long article commenting on Nolan Ryan’s thoughts about the use of pitchers today got a nice response from a former GM who called it, “one of the best baseball articles I have ever read.”
As far as future plans, I have only one. To wake up each morning with my home in Montana.