November 17, 2019

Mark Simon: The Numbers Guru

July 12, 2011 by · 2 Comments 

Advanced baseball statistics are a growing movement that seems to expand on a daily basis in terms of new measuring tools and new adherents. For some reason, baseball, more than any other sport, has always been appealing to the masses when it has come to statistical analysis. People have come to want more than just who got the wins and who hit the home runs. Statistical advances allow us to view the games and the players differently. Even those who still value such “archaic” stats like RBI and pitcher wins still enjoy debating with stat heads about the right way to view the game.

I have come to love the inside game of baseball. With all the numbers and trends that are available, there is always something new to consider. A classic example for me is J.D. Drew. I have always found him to be a nearly unwatchable player with the outward passion of a mortician. However, a variety of metrics prove what a valuable player he has been throughout his career (with the exception of this current season), proving that the naked eye is not the end all, be all of evaluating baseball players.

There are many writers and researchers out there who work with baseball statistics, but it can be difficult to present something to the public that is both informative and entertaining. One of those who is able to reach this balance is Mark Simon, a researcher, writer/blogger, and podcaster for ESPN. His job is essentially making statistics as accessible as possible for all consumers, while also making it cutting edge and new for more seasoned baseball folk. When he is not producing written material, Mark is often one of the behind-the-scenes guys who is responsible for all the factoids and statistics that make ESPN productions into the unique brand that you see, hear, and read every day. He is also a prime contributor to ESPN New York for material on the Mets and Yankees.

If you haven’t checked out some of Mark’s work, I would encourage you to do so. A good place to start is by going to http://search.espn.go.com/mark-simon/. The amount and scope of research that he turns out on a regular basis is astounding, but all part of his job. I have to admit I am completely jealous, as I would love to have a job like Mark does. If you all keep reading this blog, maybe I will be there one day. I at least had the pleasure of having him answer some of my questions, and found out a little more about what he does and the value of advanced statistics.

Mark Simon Interview:

Can you please go into a little bit more detail about the work you do at ESPN concerning research, writing, etc…?: I’ve been at ESPN since 2002 and was a researcher on Baseball Tonight from 2004 to 2010. My current job title is Baseball Research Specialist, which covers a lot of different areas. My sister gave me a good analogy to sum it up … she said I’m like a Managing Editor of baseball information content for our group– ESPN Stats & Information. We produce a ton of content– you see those sorts of things in the graphics on shows like SportsCenter and Baseball Tonight, on our game telecasts, in stories on ESPN.com, or hear it on ESPNRadio etc.

That’s a simplified description. I interact with a lot of different people and groups. Our big priority is education — making sure our talent and production teams are fully educated on the stories they are covering from an information perspective.

A good example would be when Derek Jeter got hurt. We had an info packet out within about 90 minutes that covered the story from a lot of different perspectives.

I also do two other things of note. I write for ESPNNY.com, mostly on the Mets and Yankees, occasionally dabbling in other subjects. I do 3 pieces or so per week during the baseball season, and cover all sorts of topics– stats, history, personal experience.

I also co-host the Baseball Today podcast with Eric Karabell at http://espn.com/podcenter I’m on Monday’s and Friday’s. I was a regular guest on the show last year and I was shocked at the response I got from being on it. It was very flattering.

Basically Eric and I take the approach that “Baseball is cool” and we talk about all sorts of things– history, advanced stats, the experience of being a fan. We really try to encompass all the things that make baseball fun to follow

How did you first become interested in baseball?: My dad had a big influence on that. I was a big reader and liked math more than a lot of 5-6 year olds probably do and my parents bought me lots of baseball books. I was a TERRIBLE Little Leaguer (.250 BA in my best year), so I stayed into the sport by reading. I bet I was the only 8-year-old on my block (grew up in NYC) who read both “This Date in Mets History” and “The 1982 Bill James Baseball Abstract.”

Other big influences would be baseball cards, and the games– Strat-O-Matic, and Micro League Baseball.

Did you have a favorite team and/or player growing up?: I have been a Mets fan since around 1981. My first favorite player was their then-closer, Neil Allen, whom I recently got to interview for a feature story celebrating his career, with the idea that “the guy who got traded for Keith Hernandez was actually a good Met.”

Neil was very nice to me at a baseball card show. I decided to stay loyal and I’m glad I did. The only other player in the “favorite” stratosphere is Edgardo Alfonzo.

How did you become interested in baseball writing and advanced statistics?: I’ve wanted to be a sportswriter or broadcaster since I was around 7 or 8. I have tapes of me calling Micro League Baseball computer games, and “Baseball Preview Newsletters” I did as a little kid

“Write it down” has always been a big theme in my life. Sportswriting is my way of channeling that interest in a positive way.

The advanced stats thing was a strong interest from when I was little and read the Bill James books, even though I didn’t understand them. I’ve been interested in that stuff for a long time, though, and that was heightened when ESPN started to put a higher priority in using them in storytelling.

My big thing is making it graspable for fans of all ages. The way to do that is specific examples and explaining how these new stats answer questions that fans have been wondering for more than a century.

Do you have any tips for those who may be interested in breaking into baseball writing?: Yes. If you want to become a writer, you should begin in any way you can. Hook on with a school newspaper or media outlet. Or start your own blog and do writing exercises to sharpen your skills (My favorite game of all time is … The people who influenced my baseball interest most were …) Find the subjects you are passionate about and tell stories about them. That will develop your skills as much as any class.

The other thing I tell people is to make sure they are well-rounded. Know the history, the economics, the stats, the rules, the personalities etc. The more you know, the better.

What one baseball stat do you think is about to “break out” or is the most effective measuring tool?: The one that has gained the most traction at ESPN this season is Wins Above Replacement and I think it’s because it’s a simple concept. You want to evaluate how good a player is– you can’t add his batting average and fielding percentage. That’s silly. But you can look at other factors and how they impact winning.

Fangraphs has its WAR and Baseball-Reference has one as well. But in truth, everyone has their own WAR.

My dad and I were talking about this the other day. He was talking about why he thinks no one in baseball is better now (than Jose Reyes), and what he was doing was processing all the factors he values…he puts a higher value on speed (and triples) than you or I might…and he thinks there is a “fan popularity” impact for every player.

In his mind, he’s smushing all those factors together, just as the Fangraphs version and BB-Ref versions do. His version is personal. He and I don’t have to agree. But it makes for the most fun kind of baseball discussion.

What current mainstream baseball stat do you think is the most worthless or outdated?: This is a hard one for me because I think there is value in almost every stat (even pitcher wins and batting average tell you something, even though they may tell you less than you think they do ). I’ll reserve the right to remain silent on this one :)

Why do you think so many people are obsessed with baseball stats; compared to other sports and interests?: Baseball’s style lends itself to that. It’s a long game with limited action, but lots of strategy, and a game whose present is very relatable to its past. The numbers aspect of the game is not that complicated to grasp, so people gravitate to it naturally. At the moment, it’s easier to embrace than the numbers for the other sports.

Andrew Martin is the founder of ‘The Baseball Historian‘ blog where he posts his thoughts about baseball on a daily basis. He can be reached at historianandrew@gmail.com.
 


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