A Q&A with Travis Sawchik of FanGraphs on his jump from a traditional newspaper, writing a book and why all journalists should understand how to use data

Every week we will run a Q&A with a wonderful reporter to talk about what’s right and wrong with journalism, their interests and random other stuff. Some are friends. Some are just people whose work we really respect. Some cover sports. Some don’t. Hopefully all will be interesting.

This week, it’s with Travis Sawchik of FanGraphs. Travis spent a few years covering the Pirates for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, but now he’s killing it over at FanGraphs, bringing a mix of data analysis and traditional reporting to a website that traditionally has focused on statistics. Here, we discuss the importance of mainstream journalists understanding how to use data, the future of FanGraphs and where this era of Big Data is going next.

If you want this Q&A delivered in your inbox every week and before everyone else, sign up for the -30- newsletter here and get the scoop. Or get it on Facebook and give us a like!

The questions are in bold. The answers are not.

1. We start all our Q&As in the same way–at the beginning. So: How did you break into journalism, and what led you to where you are now? 

I followed what was a traditional route, a path I am not sure exists any longer. After graduating from Ohio State in 2002, I spent a lot of time at FedEx-Kinkos printing off copies of articles, personalizing cover letters, scattering them off throughout the country in manila envelopes. I chose journalism later in my college career. I wasn’t savvy or aware enough to land a significant internship, so I started out at the bottom, covering preps for a small daily newspaper in Rocky Mount, N.C. The idea way back at the turn of the century was sort of like minor league baseball, to try and advance up the chain to larger markets. I moved on to Myrtle Beach and later the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier, which was my first big break as it allowed me to write for a 100,000-circulation newspaper and cover a major Division I beat (Clemson football/basketball/baseball). I was there four years, which included the first full three seasons of the Dabo Swinney era.

All along, though, baseball was a passion, and I was particularly interested in the sabermetric side of the sport. I subscribed to Baseball Prospectus and have BP annuals dating back to 2006. I always wanted to write about baseball, but it’s tough to land a baseball beat position. So I was fortunate after nine years in the Carolinas to receive an opportunity to cover the Pirates and Major League Baseball for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. I was a hybrid baseball beat/enterprise guy four full seasons (2013-16). I covered about 100 games and was tasked with much of the Sunday enterprise content. In January I began working full-time at FanGraphs. 

 The model I followed, moving up the newspaper chain, I am not sure it is really viable any longer, given the state of the industry. The collapse of the print newspaper hit very close to home last fall as the Tribune-Review ceased its printing operation in most of Pittsburgh and the company had a number of layoffs. I felt fortunate to retain a job, but it also felt like I needed to find a new platform from which to write about baseball. Today, if feels like the Wild West out there, but I’d like to believe there will always be a place for quality reporting, storytelling and analysis. 

2. Your move to FanGraphs was a fascinating one and appeared to mark the start of a new era for the site: combining its already strong data analysis with real reporting from an experienced journalist. What do you think your hire says about where FanGraphs is going, and what appealed to you about the job there?

I don’t think FanGraphs is trying to go mainstream, but I do think it is appealing to a larger and more diverse audience than it was five or seven years ago. FanGraphs wants to grow and has grown. Data analysis will always be the foundation of the site, but data-based reporting has a place there, too, I believe. We are a website focused on analysis but also understanding — and understanding of process — so I think reporting can help there and the evolution is a natural one.

3. So you’ve been crushing it over there, producing a string of fascinating stories. Perhaps the most memorable is your ongoing series into baseball’s fly-ball revolution and the wholesale changes currently happening to the swing. What drew you to this topic, and what continues to interest you about it? What has the response been, both from folks inside baseball and the general readership?

That’s very kind of you. The air-ball revolution is fascinating to me for a few reasons. For starters, it seems like pitchers — evaluating their stuff through location, velocity and movement via PITCHf/x — and defenses (i.e. shifts and alignment) had the advantage early in the Big Data era. I think the data edge was one reason why the run environment was so depressed just a few seasons ago, Now with Statcast launch angles and exit velocities, it seems like hitters have some data tools with which to fight back. 

The other interesting element that you’ve written about, Jared, are the private hitting instructors outside the game.  They are an outside group fighting traditional hitting orthodoxy, which is always an interesting contest of wills and ideas. 

Basically, it just seemed like an interesting story that could be having a real impact along with what might be a juiced ball. The response inside the game has been mixed. There is still a fair amount of pushback within major league clubhouses from my experience, particularly from the hitting coaches employed there.  But I’ve come across some players that like seeing the message out there.  I’m surprised by the number of players that read FanGraphs. Joey Votto, Zack Greinke and Daniel Murphy are among the players I’ve encountered that check out our humble website.

4. In a media landscape where access to baseball players continues to shrink — and almost certainly will shrink further as time goes on — how important is it for the modern baseball writer to be literate in analytics and data analysis? How much resistance do you think still exists among the average baseball writer?

Being literate in analytics is, as you rightly note, is important in this era where access is becoming tighter. We have less access to players, fewer opportunities to ask about what is going on out of the field, so we require other means to evaluate performance and understand decision making. I think what has hurt the media-reporter relationship, also, is the technology and social media. Every smart phone has a video recorder that will record any misstep. 

As for the other point, there was quite a bit resistance from a segment of writers when I entered baseball writing in 2013. I was criticized for using fancy stats. But I have seen that resistance among writers dissipate each season. Writers that once scoffed at using WAR and FIP in analysis are now using Statcast readings in game stories. We’re reaching a greater acceptance level in regard to new-age stats, or perhaps what should simply be known as “better stats.” I think that acceptance level is a good thing. But I do think it’s important how you employ numbers; you don’t want to overwhelm people with them or use them just to use them. I find it best to use them to explain a process or phenomenon.

 5. Hey, you wrote a book a couple years ago! It’s called “Big Data Baseball,” and it’s a great look at how the Pirates went from being pitiful to being really good. Ever since “Moneyball” came out in 2003, it seems every team has tried to capture that magic formula, with varying success. What do you think the Pirates did that made them different and successful, and how did you go about outlining that in the book? How do you write a book that stands out among the crowd of books about baseball’s analytics revolution?

 That’s very kind of you, gents. The Pirates’ edge in 2013-15 was more communication and collaboration (and Andrew McCutchen) than anything else. They basically had the same access to information, and much of the same information, that other teams did — it’s just they were able to promote better buy-in and get more data-based concepts onto the field. The Pirates were the first club to have an analyst, Mike Fitzgerald, embedded with the team on the road. It helped break down barriers. Coaches and players would come to him and Dan Fox, who led the analytics department, with questions they had not considered. That collaboration helped not only get coaches and players to buy into defensive shifts, but to have the effect enhanced by sequencing and pitch type philosophies from coaches. That helped lead to record ground-ball rates.  It was top-down and bottom-up communication. Now, the Pirates did buy into pitch framing early (signing Russell Martin after the 2012 season), and they drilled beyond Francisco Liriano’s and A.J. Burnett’s shaky surface numbers to find value, but I think the lasting lesson of the book is that of the importance and value-adding nature of collaboration. 

Finding hybrid front-office staffers that are comfortable in the clubhouse and with spreadsheets is key. Open-minded coaches are a must. And like with anything, I think we’ve seen a number of clubs copy-cat the best practices.

6. One thing that has stood out in recent years is MLB’s effort to jump into the analytics fray. The league started Statcast and is clearly trying to take back a piece of the pie from all the amazing blogs and websites out there studying and analyzing baseball statistics. It’s good data, too! As an independent journalist, how do you reconcile wanting to write about data without simply promoting the MLB propaganda machine? What should be MLB’s role as analytics continue to become the mainstream?

 At FanGraphs, we’d love to see all Statcast data become available  — and BaseballSavant has a ton of wonderful data and tools — but I also understand that MLB pumped a ton of cash and man hours into the Statcast project, and they want a return in the investment. I personally do not feel like I am playing into the MLB propaganda machine when I cite Statcast data any more so than I do when I cite a player’s on-base percentage. At the end of the day, it’s not a perfect arrangement, but the information is giving us a better understanding of performance. Information wants to be free, right? So I suspect the public will have more and more access to the information. 

7. August Fagerstrom used to work for FanGraphs. He recently announced that he took a job with the Milwaukee Brewers as a baseball operations analyst, making him the latest writer to make the jump to the inside. He joins a large, successful group of folks from places like Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus who have had great careers with major-league organizations. Why do you think teams view analytics writers as assets? How much of what you do every day do you think applies to what teams are doing? Would you ever consider such a jump?

I find this trend to be interesting, too. I asked Indians GM Mike Chernoff — who has hired a number of writers — this very question for The Athletic.

“The Baseball America hires, it was not a plan to go hire Baseball America people. We found exceptional people,” Chernoff said. “It’s probably more a credit to Baseball America and the type of people they are hiring. Guys who are really passionate about the game doing incredible work there and willing to put in unbelievable hours to continue doing that work. They had a very open- and learning-oriented mindset. I think writers often have that mindset.

“In any job we are hiring for, we are looking for passionate, curious people.”

I’d like to think many writers are curious and passionate. I would like to think I am curious and care about what I do. You hope it is an informed curiosity that leads to asking the right question, which is so important. 

I think some of what I do applies to what teams are engaged in in their front offices: Why or how is this working? What is the next big thing? Where might there be hidden value? Is there another way to think about this?  Asking those types of questions, I think, has a lot of cross-over what teams do. I create plenty of heat maps, too.

 8. If you could, what would you change about how baseball — and especially baseball statistics — are covered and written about?

I still think there is too much focus on the game story and game coverage in an era where every game is televised or streamed on the web. I think game coverage must be thought of differently. I think one danger of, say, Statcast is overwhelming people with information. We don’t need to know the exit velocity and launch angle over every ball in play. We don’t need to know the win probability at every point in the game. Everything in moderation, even stats.

 9. In addition to your work at FanGraphs, you’ve also done some writing for The Athletic, a new subscription site that has launched in several markets. That means you work for one free outlet and one not-free outlet. Why do you think those models work for the particular outlets? What other differences have you noticed in terms of strategy or approach between the two?

The free model works for FanGraphs since it has become a trusted analytical brand and draws significant traffic, along with a relatively lean but industrious full-time work force. The size of our “newsroom” and the lack of a print product makes FanGraphs’ model much different than much of traditional media. FanGraphs does needs clicks and content. The Athletic is eschewing advertising and a focus on clicks and is solely based on subscriptions. Like FanGraphs, The Athletic is seeking smart analysis, but it is also more of an outlet for traditional journalism and reporting. Basically, The Athletic is covering the same local pro beats that newspapers and other outlets have always done. We believe people will spend 10 to 20 minutes to read a well-reported, well-written piece even in the age of Twitter. The bet is as traditional outlets decline in some regional markets, people will want to pay for smart, thoughtful sportswriting. I think we are seeing it work in Toronto and Chicago. The Cleveland site has been well received from what I have been told and experienced. They are models at polar opposite ends the spectrum, but I think each model can succeed  because  they are serving specific audiences with leaner staffs. I hope they work. Society benefits from paid journalists.

10. You’re still a Pittsburgh guy as far as I’m concerned. Primanti Bros.: Local institution or gross mess?

Can it be both? I’m not a fan of many of the sandwiches, but they have an impressive amount of craft beer options on draft. So even if you’re not into french-fry covered sandwiches, there is something there for you.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s