Monday, March 19, 2007

Everything You've Ever Wanted to Know About Baseball Prospectus (But Were Afraid to Ask)

This one's a little bit personal and more than a little self-involved, so if you're just here for the baseball you might want to come back tomorrow.

I got news Saturday that Baseball Prospectus 2007 hit (or will hit, I've never quite figured out how this works) #9 on the New York Times Bestseller list, in the "Paperback Advice" section, as of March 25. Apparently, this reflects how well the book sold through March 10. Saturday was March 17, by the way. Confused? Me, too!

More certain (but certainly not less confusing) is that this means that all the authors of BP2K7 (as we like to call it) are best-selling authors. Including me. This was unexpected (apparently, this is Baseball Prospectus's best-ever showing), and it came on the tail of some big changes in my life.

So the last few weeks, I've been dealing with the ups and downs of being a BP author. On the up side, at the end of February, I was interviewed for Japanese television, a story about the Yanks/Red Sox rivalry and Daisuke Matsuzaka. The opportunity was sent my way by BP colleague Neil deMause. It was pretty cool: the crew came to my home, and did a detailed interview in which I talked about the Yanks' and Sox's finances and payroll advantage, explained the luxury tax, and gave the Yanks an extremely slight edge going into the season. Then they asked me for action shots of me at my computer, which you can see above. Sadly, the interview will only air in Japan; if I'm able to get my hands on the footage, I'll be sure to share. But it was weird being interviewed on TV, particularly since they were interviewing me...and Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe.

That's a weird feeling. Ryan's been one of the top sports writers in the country since I was in high school, if not earlier. How'd I become the next name they pick out of the hat?

On the down side of all this, came the news just after BP was released that four players were missing from the book--and two of them were from my chapter, including the one that people would be most likely to miss, Seattle third baseman Adrian Beltre. Now, as one of my editors, Christina Kahrl, made clear on BP's Unfiltered Blog, if wasn't that we forgot about Beltre or anything. The team working on BP2K7 had a really cool web-based interface that we used to submit and edit our work, rather than emailing dozens of Word files to each other. From what I understand, something went wrong in that interface, causing the entries on Beltre, Wladimir Balentien, Bob Wickman, and Hernan Iribarren (how's that for a bizarre random sampling of players?) to get lost on their way to the publisher, and so none of those guys made it into the book.

These things happen. The first Baseball Prospectus annual, back in 1996, was missing an entire team, the Cardinals. As was the case back then, we're trying to make the inconvenience up to people--this time, by making all the information from the entry, plus quite a bit more, available to the public by making all four players' PECOTA cards available to the public for free (you can click on any of the player names above to see what those PECOTA cards look like, and the comments that should have been in this year's annual). Still, it sucks because a) a bit of work, by myself and others, went into those comments, and it sucks that they didn't get into print, and b) there are plenty of people who will buy the annual but never see Christina's Unfiltered post, or know that they could get the missing entries online. To all those people, I am very deeply sorry.

Even without Beltre (and Balentien), it's still a great book, and I'm still proud of the Seattle chapter, which is where I made my contribution.

Still, I'd only just gotten over the waves of nausea that the missing players caused me, when another hubub erupted, having to do with my chapter. This one was simultaneously more annoying and far less substantial. Someone took one of the players comments as a personal insult against one of his friends, and decided to make a giant public stink about it. The post about this no longer exists, but the Baseball Think Factory thread on that post can be found here, and another post from the same website giving the denouement of the whole affair can be found here. All in all, I guess the firestorm took maybe six or seven hours one afternoon and evening. It didn't help that I got to the party late, by which time there were many, many comments at both the site in question and at BTF, accusing me and my colleagues of all manner of ugly and scurrilous conduct.

The worst part is, people took great umbrage over the fact that the person who wrote the comment in question (me) was anonymous, as a result of BP's policy that team chapters and player comments are written by the Baseball Prospectus Team as opposed to any particular author. To understand why that policy makes sense, you have to understand how the book writing process works. There are chapter authors, each responsible for writing the team essay and a number of player comments. Each author decides--with the able assistance of BP's resident prospect expert, Kevin Goldstein--which players he'll write about, and who will get a full comment or just a single-sentence Lineout comment. Kevin will also give input on the minor leaguers, ranging from the incredibly detailed to a simple "big fastball, no command."

Then it's off to deal with the blank page, but even that isn't a solitary process. Writers have the backup of BP's technical staff and internal mailing list, where they make requests for statistical queries, often drawing commentary and suggestions from other members of mailing list. By the time all's said and done, the research is collaborative enough that if you had to attribute all the individual contributions, something like "based on research by Ben Murphy with suggestions from Keith Woolner, and a verbal smackdown about historical context from Jim Baker..." by the time you got through with all the shoutouts, you wouldn't have much wordcount left to actually say anything.

Once all the research is done there's the writing, and after the writing, our editors get their thing on. Sometimes their influence is relatively small, just covering up the fact that the writer doesn't know when one should use "that" as opposed to "which", or that he doesn't have any idea about the proper use of the semicolon. In other situations, they're streamlining the text, making it more readable, adding jokes, and trying to make the whole thing read less like a dozen different authors writing in their own voices, and more like a chorus singing in a single key. Sometimes the verbal surgery they perform is radical--in one 120-word player comment I submitted, the editors kept only two of my words, re-writing everything else. Those words? "Hamster wheel."

So the point is, it takes a village to write a player comment.

This comes into play in the weird internet argument I was talking about before. The problem was, I wrote a comment about longtime Mariner Raul Ibanez, in which I looked back at BP's 2004 comment about Ibanez, in which the Mariners' signing Ibanez away from the Kansas City Royals was labeled a waste of money, and pointed out that the previous comment had turned out completely wrong: Ibanez stopped his decline, started playing like a completely different person, and was a bargain over the course of his contract. At the end of this, my editors appended, for humorous purposes "...the guy who made that comment isn't with us anymore."

Someone assumed that this last part was a dig at former BP author Derek Zumsteg, who did the Mariners chapter for several years, including 2004. The only problem with this theory was, well, that the Ibanez comment in 2004 wasn't in the Mariners chapter--it was in the Kansas City Royals chapter, which was written by someone else. I knew that when I wrote the comment (although I'll admit that I forgot for a while in the post-accusation shock period; I thought the guy who'd accused me of being a miserable person was right, and that my memory was wrong). I have absolutely no grudges against either Zumsteg or the person who actually wrote the comment (to the contrary, they're two of my favorite writers). The idea wasn't to get a dig in on anyone, it was to take accountability for a prediction that turned out wrong--one that lots and lots of people, and not just at Baseball Prospectus, shared.

Anyway, all of this comes up because as of today, I'm outed from my Seattle chapter anonymity. I did a Baseball Prospectus Radio spot for today previewing the Mariners' season--ironically, in connection with a piece Zumsteg wrote for Baseball Prospectus's Hope and Faith series. With any luck, my own Hope and Faith entry--on the Tampa Bay Devil Rays--will be up on the site later this week. On Thursday night, I'll be at Columbia University and on Saturday afternoon I'll be at the Yogi Berra Museum in Montclair, New Jersey, signing copies of Baseball Prospectus 2007 and talking baseball (details can be found on BP's events page). Feel free to come by and have your book signed. If you've happened on a copy of Bombers Broadside 2007, I'll gladly sign that, also.

Heck, if you bring a printout of the Adrian Beltre or Wladimir Balentien PECOTA cards, I'll sign those, too.

[UPDATE: fixed typo]

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

In college I shouldn't have put my name on papers in which I synthesized a lot of data from other sources. I could have explained to my teacher about my policy of not putting my name on my papers, "To understand why that policy makes sense, you have to understand how the paper writing process works." We know that BPro writers rely upon one another; it's obvious from the book. So it's silly to suggest that the essay or comment author would have to give credit to half the BPro staff.

I don't know nothin' 'bout no book writin' process, but I'd guess that the choice as to who among the multiplicity of BPro authors to trust is a decision made by a comment author. And to the extent that the writers are reaching conclusions in the comments or essays, those writers are writing on their own behalf and not as Baseball Prospectus' team of experts. At least the occasional defensive comments on the site by some disavowing the predictions of other authors suggest as much. Ultimately, by signing his or her name, the comment author allows us as readers to judge the credibility of their comment. It does the reader a disservice not to reveal who wrote what.

DJ said...

It's strange to get an anonymous comment about how BP's team chapters should be signed. Also, I don't quite understand what you mean when you say "I'd guess that the choice as to who among the multiplicity of BPro authors to trust is a decision made by a comment author," so if you'd like to expand on that, I'd be in a better position to respond to you.

As to the rest of what you wrote: Your college comparison isn't quite apt. In almost any writing, you synthesize the thoughts of others, with proper citation. But when I went to college, if you wrote a paper as a group project with several peers, you all signed the work. On the other hand, if you decided to take an individual assignment and get some outside help writing it, then turn it in as if you'd written it by your lonesome...that tended to get people in trouble.

There's at least one comment in my chapter which--as I mentioned above--I had no input in writing. It's a pretty good comment--is it fair that I should get credit for that? What about all the other substantive input (by which I mean, actual text, not background material) that the editors, Kevin Goldstein, and others put in?

From a reader's perspective, I can understand that you want to know who wrote what. Before I wrote the book (or regularly for the website), I used to ask Christina Kahrl why the chapters were unsigned. From a writer's point of view, I like seeing my byline as often as possible. But from the publication's standpoint, I understand where they're coming from. (Actually, I just thought of another reason why non-bylined chapters are a good thing, but it's a bit involved, so I'll deal with it in a follow-up post.)

Tangotiger said...

If you decide that you won't byline, then you can't say "the guy who wrote that...".

Either the entity that wrote it is "Baseball Prospectus" or it's an individual.

And that means that everyone on BP stands behind every single word in the book that is not bylined.

Most people outside of BP think this is a ridiculous way to operate. You can present your argument for the next 10 pages, I can present it in 1 paragraph, and if you take a poll of existing BP readers, I'll win.

DJ said...

Tango:

"...the guy who wrote that" line was not meant literally. Literally, it wasn't true. It was just a joke line, one of thousands in the book, and one that I think would have been recognized as such in probably 27 out of 30 team chapters.

As one of the people whose name is on the title page, I stand behind every word in the book. My schedule doesn't allow me to get to the West Coast for the book tour; Rob Neyer and Maury Brown will be doing at least one book signing in Mariners company. I think it's safe to say that regardless of my byline, they as BP writers would be held accountable for things that I wrote, just as I'll be held accountable for things written by other team members--bylined and not--when I make publicity appearances for the book.

As for what makes sense to our readers...for the longest time, you published all your work under a pseudonym. To many people, that didn't make sense, either. As a reader who enjoys your work, I always respected your decision to write as Tangotiger rather than under your given name, even if I didn't agree with it. And I guess that's my one-paragraph argument.

DJ said...

By the way, in the second paragraph above, I meant to say Mariners "country" (they're appearing in Portland, IIRC) rather than "company."

My name is Derek Jacques, and I approved this message.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, the following is a bit long and scattershot.

First, as to the anonymous comment, it seemed the easiest way to post. It's rhetorically effective for you to point out such things, but doesn't really address the substance of what I wrote. I'm not a book author. You can respond to me or ignore me based on the merits of my arguments.

Second, even though a writer is getting information about a specific player from a bunch of different sources, the writer is still drawing his or her conclusion about the player or team. To the extent that the writer is drawing a conclusion, he or she is adding something to the process. The choice of which bit of information to rely upon is ultimately the authors'. That's what I meant by the multiplicity of sources comment above.

Third, the college paper comparison is apt. The papers I wrote weren't just bare restatements of the facts or the arguments of others. They were evaluations of those arguments from which I would draw conclusions. It's the conclusions that I draw that, while relying on a bunch of sources, were my own and made the paper worth writing at all.

If the player comments and essays were as long as college papers, then it might not matter so much whether they had a byline. But the truth is, the player comments and even the essays aren't long enough forums to provide for much of the argumentation or reasoning that led to their conclusions. If they were, the reader could make determinations as to the merits of the comments on their own without the need for a byline (though bylines would still add something even then).

As to citations, if we as readers already know that you rely on other BPro authors, then that obviates the need for citations. It'd be nice if everything were cited, since it would give the reader more information as to how the conclusions were drawn, but that might be unrealistic.

The pseudonymity of Tangotiger is a bit of a red herring, too. If providing an opportunity to evaluate the credibility of the author is part of the reason behind a byline, then it only requires an author to maintain a consistent persona.

Ultimately, it's your bestselling book, so you can do what you want with it. I'd imagine it'd be a pain in the ass to note the places in which non-chapter authors wrote comments. Those pragmatic considerations, while not particularly satisfactory, make a lot more sense to me than the "principled" response about the collaborative process. There are too many BPro authors with too many different perspectives for that to satisfy.

Tom said...

Just re-found this. There's a difference between a pseudonym and being a gang of 20.

My pseudonym represents me as an individual. This has been the case for untold thousands of writers since forever. This is not the issue. I don't really care if "Derek Jacques" is the name your mother gave you, that you gave to yourself, that your friends know you by, or whatnot. Your name or handle represents you as an individual.

But not byling the chapter at all, implicitly using "Team Of Experts", which itself is a collection of 20 people is a choice you can make. What this means is that you cannot then make the throwaway joke that was made. Since BP has decided to treat the team chapters as being writting by a single entity, it can't then choose to say that there's a subentity.

I can't say "my evil half wrote that", if I wrote something I later regretted. I don't have the luxury to split myself into subentities.

So, either you write as a single entity, or you don't. There's no subentities.

DJ said...

Tom:

With all due respect, that's hogwash. When someone writes under a pseudonym, they're making a subentity for themselves. If no one knows that Tangotiger is your handle, you could easily divorce yourself from anything you wrote that you regretted. Heck, you could even obtain another handle, and criticize/praise yourself--as some people have done. When someone uses a pseudonym anonymously, there's no way of knowing if you're dealing with a single person or a gang of 20, 40, or 100, so that distinction is rather empty.

In your case, you made a decision to create an alias for yourself, and to not tie that handle to the identity the rest of the world knows you by. Many people would rather have known who you were, so they could check your credentials, try to find any writings you may have done under your given name, and to "judge the credibility" of your work (as the previous anonymous poster put it). Personally I didn't give a darn that you worked under an alias because a) I enjoy your work, and b) what right do I have to decide how you present yourself to the world?

Baseball Prospectus made a similar decision. They're not implicitly using the "Team of Experts," joint identity, they're doing so explicitly. It's not my preference (again, I like seeing my byline in print as often as possible) or even a decision I understood terribly well prior to actually writing for the annual. That's one of the reasons why I wrote this post, to give people an idea of what the process of working on the annual is like, and why there are no bylines. I wasn't making excuses--nor do I feel that any excuses are owed--I genuinely thought that people might be interested in how the process works.

What I don't understand is why, if I accept that I'm writing as part of a team with no individual byline for my contributions, anyone else should care. It's a decision by the company as to how they want to present their comments and team essays to the public, just like your previous decision to adopt a pseudonym. Your subentity argument is a red herring, since no one was claiming that there was a "subentity"--as I said, the joke was not meant to be taken literally, was not an attempt to distance BP from the previous team-authored comment or claim that someone had been ejected from the group. I believe that readers would have understood it as self-effacing humor, precisely because of the team-authored nature of the comment, had someone not stepped in and falsely claimed otherwise.

You seem to either not understand me or not believe me on that last point. If it's the former, and you want to discuss this further, feel free to drop me an email. If you think I'm lying, then there's nothing I can do for you.

Tangotiger said...

I really ought to bookmark this thread, as I only catch up to it every two months!

***

"Tango" would not be a subentity, because the entire universe of my writing outside of my paying job is as "Tango" or "Tangotiger". You are correct that that would not necessarily be the case, but in my case, it is.

***

"was not an attempt to distance BP from the previous team-authored comment "

The intent may not be there, but, perception is reality. How people perceive things is how they end up becoming. As large a contingent as there is that see it as "self-effacing" would see it as "throwing someone under the bus".

***

As to your statement here:
"You seem to either not understand me or not believe me on that last point."

I do understand it completey. And I do believe you entirely. But, those are not the only two choices.