Interview with Sean Forman, founder of Baseball-Reference.com
Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Joe Nathan made the All-Star team, the club is white hot, and the Central Division just got a whole lot skinnier with the departure of longtime Twin-killer C.C. Sabathia to Milwaukee. Behind each of these facts lie the unwavering truths found in baseball numbers. For my dollars, and certainly for many of you, gentle reader, the premier source for dissecting the stats behind the stories is Baseball-Reference.com.
Just a decade removed from tracking minor leaguers at the IowaFarmReport.com and creating the website for the University of Iowa Math Department, Iowa-native Sean Forman now presides over the collectives sites parented as Sports Reference, LLC, the most celebrated, utilized, and, well, referenced of which is Baseball-Reference.com. Forman began the site in 2000 and two years ago left his assistant professorship in Math and Computer Sciences at St. John's University in Philly to run the site on a full-time basis. The site prides and professes itself on the statistical tenets of being Useful, Fast, Embracing the Medium, and Fun. In short: To settle a baseball bet, this is where you go.
Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with Sean about the site. Here is a portion of our conversation:
Judd Spicer: I've read that you're an Iowa native. Twins fan?
Sean Forman: For some reason, I'm not sure why, I grew up a Red Sox fan. I think it's because they always had the highest batting averages. I tell people I'm a Sox fan because of Park Effects. The area I'm from in Western Iowa has some Royals fans, Twins fans, Cardinal fans. Not too many Cub fans.
J.S.: So no special treatment for our Midwestern club on the site?
S.F.: Unfortunately, no. I've actually never been to a Twins game at the Metrodome.
J.S.: For a technical idiot like me, can you explain how all those numbers get onto your site?
S.F.: There's a historical database that can be downloaded at Baseball-DataBank.org. I call it the bones of the site. The basic numbers are all in there. From there, it's updated at the end of the year. We also buy stats from a provider of in-season updates, which happens every morning. From there, it's basically dozens and dozens and dozens of programs that work through the database and manipulate the numbers in different ways. At this point, it's fairly automatic. I get a text message every day that the site's updated.
J.S.: What's your favorite stat and why?
S.F.: For batters, on-base percentage is what I look at to see who's a valuable player. It's what separates the good players from the truly great players. On the pitching side, I think ERA does a fairly good job overall, actually.
J.S.: Any favorite individual player or performance you've most enjoyed historically?
S.F.: I've always been a big fan of Rickey Henderson. He's a guy who was phenomenal at getting on base at a tremendous rate, and stealing a ton of bases. That kind of baseball has gone by the wayside.
J.S.: What the craziest stat inquiry or site-related inquiry you've gotten?
S.F.: I get e-mails every once in a while, 7 or 8 times a year, from people wondering why their Grandpa isn't on the site. Invariably, it's because Grandpa was fibbing about his baseball career. I actually had a woman call me one time because she wanted to know if So-and-So had played pro ball. I'm guessing she met him at a bar the night before and fed her a line about being a professional baseball player.
J.S.: With Sports Reference hosting football, basketball and hockey sites as well, how far will you ultimately reach out? Is there a Ladies Figure Skating-Reference or Bullfighting- Reference on the horizon?
S.F.: Actually, we're launching an Olympics site, probably this week. It will be at Sports-Reference.com/Olympics. My wife's very happy there will be swimming results on the site. Where there are compelling data sets, we've, to some degree, created a process where we can put those on the web.
J.S.: There have been countless times when I've visited your site to address something very specific, and ended up getting beautifully lost for two hours and been late for dinner with my gal. Please tell me I'm not the first person to tell you that.
S.F.: Oh no. That's a common complaint/appreciation we get. I take a fairly simplistic approach to web design and want to put as many links out there as possible so users can have their questions answered before they even realized they asked.
J.S.: Do you still take pleasure in reading the newspaper baseball box score? Is there still a place for them?
S.F.: Yeah I do. Often I'm checking to see how my fantasy players did. But those tell a certain story about the game. On our site we do the day's boxes with our own twist, like looking at pitchers inning-by-inning, or by each hitter's at-bat. But I'm still a Philadelphia Inquirer subscriber, and check the boxes every morning. I'm always a little sad the day after the World Series when there aren't anymore box scores in the paper. I miss those when they're not in there. So it's something that I look for every day.