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.