When Giancarlo Stanton, Major League Baseball’s home run leader, was diagnosed late last month with a broken bone in his hand and proclaimed out of action for at least six weeks, Miami Marlins fans didn’t need to be told they were screwed, but an objective way to convey a level of actual screwedness? Ah, this surely can be done.
It took less than a minute for Daren Willman to run the numbers and throw the exit velocity charts up on Twitter. On one side was Stanton, with a wide scattering of red and pink dots to show how fast the ball came off his bat – often at 110 mph or more – and track the many baseballs he’s murdered this season. On the other was his replacement, aging superstar Ichiro Suzuki, whose spray of exit velocity dots was much bluer, to not only show how much slower he’s hit the ball this season, but also to more accurately denote the general mood of Marlins fans these days. Stanton was ranked No. 1; Ichiro was 231. Even if you hate advanced stats, you could take one look at this tweet, with its two charts and Willman’s brief description, and understand right away what the data means. For anyone who has dabbled in advanced metrics, this is the endgame.
This is also a realization on the promise of advanced Sabermetrics that is built on the gobs of PITCHf/x data collected from MLB games. It’s a movement kick-started by sites like Baseball Prospectus and Fangraphs, companies like Sportvision and Baseball Info Solutions, and people like Nate Silver and Dan Brooks, who is an experimental psychologist by day and proprietor of BrooksBaseball.net in his off-hours. There are Twitter bots that automatically track the pitches that screw your favorite team. And MLB can’t figure out how to fix its arcane blackout policy, but its Statcast technology, which tabulates exit velocity among other things, is giving us a deeper understanding of players’ talents and shortcomings.
Willman’s site, Baseball Savant, is a step above others. Fully operational since the start of the 2013 season, it started as a repository to search PITCHf/x data but also to look at spray charts, i.e. where batters hit the ball onto the field of play. Willman has always placed an emphasis on visual representation of stats, much in the same way Brooks Baseball shows strike zone maps. “I didn’t want to do exactly what other sites were doing,” he tells me. “There’s no point in that.”
Those early spray charts were proof of that philosophy, as was the feature that first got his site noticed. After toiling in relative obscurity for the 2013 season, Willman introduced a new feature during the following Spring Training that showed how many miles a team would be traveling during the 2014 season. Deadspin wrote it up and before long, concurrent visitors to Willman’s site had jumped from dozens to nearly 10,000. “Holy shit,” he thought. He was also just glad the site never crashed.
Baseball has always been a big part of Willman’s life. He grew up rooting for the Houston Astros and going to the old Astrodome. He played baseball until he was 22. Through junior high, he played with future MLBer David Murphy, currently a backup outfielder and designated hitter for the Cleveland Indians. Murphy was always the star, but Willman was good enough to play all through college as an outfielder at Division III Texas Lutheran. He majored in computer science and spent a couple of years working for a local web developer when his older brother got him a job doing the same thing for the Harris County District Attorney’s office in downtown Houston – right across the street from Minute Maid Park, the present-day home of his beloved Astros. They also happen to be one of the most analytics-savvy teams in baseball. And with the second-best record in the American League, you could say they’re almost criminally good at what they do.
Nine years after taking the job, Willman’s title is chief software architect, and he oversees a staff of three programmers responsible for web development for some 5,000 law enforcement officials. He and his wife live in the suburb of Spring, outside the city; Willman’s mother-in-law watches the little one there during the day. (His father-in-law, weirdly enough, owns a local fencing company that constructed the foul poles at Minute Maid Park.) But after coming home and some family time, Willman checks on his operation, which is really just his laptop. He pays $40 a month in cloud-based server costs. He makes no money from the site, save for what people donate through PayPal. And every night, new data is automatically uploaded to the site. “I wasn’t going to do the site if it all had to be a manual process,” he says. “With a young child, it’d all just be too daunting.”
Willman says he started the site because he was “bored” and wanted to somehow get back into baseball. If Baseball Savant can show off his coding chops enough to land him a job in baseball, he’d think about it, but relocation is probably out of the question. In reality, it could probably only be to work for the Astros, who know that he exists. General manager Jeff Luhnow follows him on Twitter and Houston’s director of scouting, Mike Elias, once emailed him to suggest some features for another baseball site Willman runs, one that focuses more on the minor leagues.
If he ever wants to see the stadium, Willman only has to get up from his desk and walk to his floor’s windowed conference room. And while it would potentially be a dream gig, Willman recognizes that a job in baseball could mean the end of Baseball Savant. “What’s cool is that people see what I do now,” he tells me. “If I worked for a team, nobody would see it and I wouldn’t be able to tell anyone about it, so I don’t know if that’d be more fun or not.”
Now in its third season, Baseball Savant has become an indispensable site for baseball writers and knowledgeable fans. Willman says it should attract some 2 million page views by the end of this season. He’s created sister sites for NBA and NFL stats, and he says his next project might be something related to college baseball. But he knows where his audience is, and Baseball Savant will continue to evolve as MLB tracks and releases new and more interesting data sets.
And as long as there are curmudgeonly baseball lifers concern-trolling over new analytics, there will be Willman, to literally show them how misplaced their fears are.