It’s a fairly well-kept secret that the author more or less in charge of the best baseball annual in the nation works here in Chicago.
“Although I am sort of the team manager, in a sense, it’s a very loose rein I run on,” says Chris Kahrl, sitting down in the Billy Goat one night last month. “It’s basically a good-natured bunch of guys, and we just kick each other to write about baseball.”
Kahrl writes for and largely puts together Baseball Prospectus, which in its four years has established itself as the heir apparent to the Bill James Baseball Abstract. The Abstract, originally put out in the 70s as a mimeographed, spiral-bound newsletter, became a major phenomenon in the 80s, opening the baseball world to intelligent, detailed analysis of statistics such as on-base percentage, ballpark differential, and lefty-righty platoon advantage–topics now recognized as basic baseball vocabulary that only 15 years or so ago were the province solely of people derided as “stats hounds.” James announced he was “breaking the wand” about a decade ago, and though he has continued his baseball analysis with books on the sport’s history, managers, and Hall of Fame, nothing filled the annual void left by the Abstract until Baseball Prospectus hit its stride a couple years ago.
Though James’s Abstract started out as the work of a lone wolf in a mimeograph age, while BP was from the first a team effort nurtured over the Internet, they have similar origins as self-published baseball books. BP founder Gary Huckabay was asked about five years ago by an agent who’d read him on the Internet if he’d be interested in writing a baseball book. Huckabay happened to be acquainted with some guys who’d been working up fairly detailed baseball statistical analyses over the Internet since the late 80s. They set to work putting their material together, but by the time they had gathered it into a manuscript after the 1995 season the agent had disappeared.
“We had put in the investment in time,” Kahrl says, “and we said, ‘Why don’t we go ahead and do a book?'” They published it themselves, “basically done at Kinko’s, and we sold 500 copies.” From that start, however, they found a publisher (now it’s Brassey’s) and developed a solid reputation. After clearing “a little bit of money, but not more than enough to buy a pizza per guy” last spring, they expect to make a reasonable if still unspectacular profit this year.
“It was fun because we’d never actually met,” Kahrl says. “None of us knew each other. We only knew each other from the content of our ideas. It was the only criterion in determining who got in and who was going to be a Baseball Prospectus writer. So we started out with 5 guys and now it’s grown into 11 guys and it’s probably going to keep going from there.”
Kahrl says BP is governed according to “a strict meritocracy. If anybody does good stuff, we’re going to use it. So we look at it as all of us are replaceable. And all of us have something valuable to say. With that as our motive, none of us can sit still, because none of us really owns anything in this project. We really are very socialist, in a sense, because we really are just trying to write a good baseball book and go from there.” They constitute their own review board. “It’s good because we push each other,” Kahrl says, “but we can be pretty hard critics of each other too.” Some of the longer essays have clear authors but in keeping with the socialist ideal the individual team entries go unsigned. “I think we all feel comfortable with the idea that we all are responsible for this product,” Kahrl adds. Huckabay left his baby behind this year to concentrate on other things, though he may return. The result may be a book a little less witty, a little less biting–“none of us is as funny as Gary is,” Kahrl says–but the project’s been even “more collegial” by design, with Kahrl, whose day gig is sales manager and assistant editor of publications at the Oriental Institute in Hyde Park, tying much of it together over the fall and winter to meet the spring publication date.
BP is probably most forbidding to the average fan in that the statistics it lists for each player over the last few seasons aren’t the statistics he actually put up. For instance, a fan picking up a copy at the local bookstore to check out Sammy Sosa’s marvelous line from last season will read that he hit not 66 but 67 home runs. What the BP database has done is convert all stats into a fairly uniform system that accounts for the vagaries of ballpark differential, league strength, and the big-offense or low-offense nature of the seasons, allowing a better comparison from year to year and from league to league. Giving Sosa 67 homers indicates that, far from being a fluke, his season was actually a little better than it seemed. (Mark McGwire, by contrast, was given an even 70.) In effect, a player’s stats are refracted through a prism that makes it easier to see his real strengths and weaknesses. What’s the ultimate payoff? By subjecting minor-league players to the same sort of rigorous conversion system, BP has proved itself over the last three years to be the best publication at forecasting the success or failure of phenoms arriving in the major leagues. It was James who did the first solid analysis of how minor-league stats foretell major-league success–a concept pooh-poohed at the time by scouts who liked to talk about intangibles, but more widely accepted now that guys like Daryl Boston who “look good in a uniform” have proved themselves less capable than guys like John Kruk who have great stats and a high on-base percentage. BP has picked up where James left off. What’s important to both James and BP is the concept that baseball stats aren’t an end in themselves but a profile of a player in numbers.
“I think there’s a descriptive element there to the numbers,” Kahrl says. “I think any fan is going to look at the numbers and try to start developing a mental image. Put Tony Womack’s numbers on the page and you’re probably going to develop an image,” in this case a picture of the Arizona Diamondbacks’ leadoff man as a sort of Maury Wills or Bert Campaneris. By taking a player’s statistical progression and comparing it to the careers of similar players–a tactic, again, first developed by James–one can project his future. Such projections are widely made now, and BP has proved to be one of the more accurate users of the method.
What’s refreshing about this year’s BP is the way the writers gladly eat crow when wrong. Last year BP forecast a major decline for Andres Galarraga as he went from hitter-friendly Coors Field and the Colorado Rockies to more pitcher-friendly Turner Field and the Atlanta Braves. Instead he had one of his best seasons. “OK, we blew it,” begins the new Galarraga entry, which goes on to philosophize, “That’s why baseball is such a great game: even the greatest truths can be wrong from time to time.” Last year Kahrl decried both Sosa and the Milwaukee Brewers’ Fernando Vina as overrated because of their inability to draw walks. But both came to spring training determined to work on that shortcoming, and both became all-stars.
“Fernando Vina is personally my big turkey,” Kahrl says with a smile. “I was absolutely wrong about Fernando Vina. And I think that what Fernando Vina did last year–and what Sammy Sosa did as well–it’s one of those things when a player says, ‘I think I’ve figured it out. I think I need to get on base more often.’
“As a statistical analyst, your first instinct might be to scoff at that and say, ‘Oh, that’s just lip service.’ But when they do that and actually make the effort on the field and they really do break through…when a player says that he actually wants to do something and then does it, I think that says something about future lines of inquiry for analysis.” Even a statistical determinist has to allow for free will now and then. Of course, Sosa and Vina would never have been pressed to raise their on-base percentages if James hadn’t shown 15 years ago how important it was to offense and if publications like BP weren’t still hammering at it today.
The current BP crusade involves “pitcher abuse points,” or the statistical analysis of which pitchers are likely to suffer from overuse. BP accurately forecast the breakdown of several New York Mets phenoms who, because of policy set by the macho Dallas Green when he was in charge of their minor-league development, were overworked at a young age. That makes Kahrl eminently qualified to comment on Kerry Wood, who was closely monitored by BP last season. Kahrl is remarkably mild in his criticism of Cubs manager Jim Riggleman.
“When you look at Kerry Wood, you really do have to take your hat off to Riggleman in terms of what he did,” Kahrl says. “Wood never pitched with less than four days’ rest. If there was a point where he probably pushed him too hard, it was probably right there where Jeremi Gonzalez went down, and Wood would no longer get occasionally five days off between starts. He was going out every five days, and then there was that game at the end of August–August 28, when the Cubs won 9-2 against the Expos, I think–a totally meaningless game that he left him out there. That was his 133-pitch game.
“Again, it’s a relative thing in terms of workload. You go back to ’71 or ’72 and Vida Blue is a 21-year-old throwing 312 innings–and he’s screwed up for a good time after that. Riggleman did not screw up. By the standards within baseball, Jim Riggleman was exceptionally cautious and did an extremely good job.” What’s an acceptable workload for a young pitcher? That’s a subject BP is still working on.
Kahrl writes “about one-third of the book,” including the entries on the Cubs and the White Sox and most other midwestern teams from the Cleveland Indians to the Saint Louis Cardinals. In addition to the stats, he scouts at major- and minor-league parks in the region, as well as via television and by game tapes sent to him by other BP writers. His criticism of the Cubs’ management is much less measured than his criticism of Riggleman’s use of Wood. He calls team president Andy MacPhail and general manager Ed Lynch “morally bankrupt” for their “cynical” push for a largely symbolic wild-card playoff spot in order to save their own jobs a year ago. With Wood out for the season and the same aging cast back otherwise intact, Kahrl’s not excited about the team’s prospects. “I’m still pretty hard on the Cubs,” he says. “If everything breaks right for this team, they might finish as high as second, but it’s a lot more likely you’ll see them in fourth.” He’s more open-minded about the Sox and general manager Ron Schueler’s attempts to build a team slowly over time. “Two or three years down the road, we’ll see how it turns out,” Kahrl says. “But I think it is finally the time to start judging what Ron Schueler has done. This is the team he built as opposed to the team Larry Himes built.” He is eloquent in his criticism of Jerry Manuel’s leaks-to-the-media style of motivating players, and of course he points out that many of the team’s problems are self-inflicted, with its hardball contract-negotiating tactics chasing away free agents while its hard-sell approach at Comiskey Park discourages fans from actually coming out. “Talking during the game at Comiskey is a real chore,” Kahrl says.
If that’s speaking as a south-sider, it’s only by osmosis. “I was originally a Californian,” Kahrl admits, “but I came here for college in 1985–University of Chicago–and stayed all along. I don’t surf and I don’t ski and I don’t tan well. I grew up on a ranch. So I just wasn’t a good Californian. I’m the rarest of birds in that I’m an ex-Californian and I don’t mind. I’m actually happy about it.”
Unfortunately, he probably won’t be a Chicagoan for much longer. His wife ends her residency at Loyola next year and heads off to Washington, D.C., for a fellowship at the National Institutes of Health. Kahrl figures to follow along; a straight-gig day job is easier to drop than a medical fellowship, after all, and by that time the Montreal Expos may have been transplanted to the D.C. area, giving him a new team to identify with. In the meantime Chicago can brag that an author of baseball’s best annual is working in its midst.