What follows is Part I of a projected three part interview with Chronicle columnist, Zachary Levine. For those of you still unaware, he's the Chronicle's "Unofficial Scorer." He has a regular Sunday column and daily updates at his Chron.com Blog. These updates include Live Blogs for every game, excellent statistically orientated analysis of the team and players, and even some mind bogglingly hard trivia questions. Zachary was gracious enough to entertain my questions via phone for nearly an hour and I thank him for his time, insight, and generally enjoyable conversation about baseball. This is the get to know you part of the interview.
Crawfish Boxes: You obviously utilize a lot of statistics in your articles and blogs, and the article you wrote on Bolt and Phelps hinted at a strong physics background. What is your education background?
Zachary Levine: I was a math major in college. The physics is not really my thing, it was just some spur of the minute research. I took one physics class in high school; really enjoyed it, but it was never really my thing. For the [math] major there were [counts out the courses] about 8 courses that were required and then there five electives (so you had to have 13 for the major). So I tried to take as many of the electives as possible in statistics. So I’ve taken...I’d say four or five statistics courses, because I kind of new that whatever I did, I didn’t really want to go into the theoretical aspects of mathematics or academia -- or really whatever being a professional mathematician encompasses. I wanted something with a little bit more...I guess the commonly used term is “real-world application.” So I thought statistics was the way to go. I was into math way before I was into sports writing, or anything like that. I pretty much grew up knowing that math was what I was really into and the writing came much later.
CFB: So your career plan didn’t necessarily entail sports writing?
ZL: No, I went to college knowing that I was going to be a math major and really without much of a plan for what to do. I had always been into sports (both playing and watching), but I wasn’t until I tried for the volleyball team -- that was actually my best sport when I got to college -- didn’t make the team (had a really bad try-out) and I needed another extra-curricular activity just because I didn’t want to study through all of college. I did a lot of work, but didn’t want to make the only part of the college experience, so I went to the school newspaper. I thought it would be a good way to stay involved with sports even if I wasn’t a player. I was a writer, then I was a columnist, then I was editor, then I was back to being a columnist...so it all took off from that.
CFB: So from there you went to the Chronicle or did you did you have to do some...uh...
ZL: Yeah. I was an intern at the Chronicle in 2005, between the sophomore and junior years of college. Then, in 2006, before my senior year of college, I was intern for MLB.com. I covered the Philadelphia Phillies for the summer. And so in 2007, after I graduated (which would be about 16 months ago) I was hired by the Chronicle and I started July of 2007. So it’s been a year and a month.
CFB: So when you got to the Chronicle, did you immediately pitch them your statistics heavy column?
ZL: We did it together, because it was sort of...everyone...we all decided that it was (and it came up in serious conversations and in jokes) so rare to have some to with math background in a writing field -- it’s just sort of a weird combination -- so we tried to take advantage of that. The first thing that started was the blog. Which started about...probably no more than 3 or 4 weeks after I got there. Once we did the redesign of page two in January, it became a Sunday column as well. It was a mutual decision. It wasn’t like I presented them a sales pitch or anything like that. It’s just something came up in a bunch of conversations.
CFB: How do feel a statistics heavy blog -- and especially the column in the paper -- have been received by Houston readers?
ZL: Definitely mixed. I think there’s a lot of people who appreciate it as complement to what the beat writers are doing and what our columnists are doing. If anyone’s just reading what I’m doing, they’re getting a very bad picture of sports, because for anyone to think that statistics tells the whole story -- or the tiny part of statistics that I present -- tell anything close to the whole story, they're definitely not getting anywhere close to it. But, I like to think of what I do as a sort of just a complement to what everybody else is doing -- the actual covering of the Astros’ beat or whatever sports the statistics are talking about and a complement to the opinion pieces that we write all the time too.
CFB: I know you do some stuff with the Rockets’ statistics and the Astros, of course. What kind of sites or books or information to do you use to get your ideas to write a stats heavy column?
ZL: It’s more that I have a lot of research tools that I use. A lot of the ideas come from my own head or conversations or simple things like reading box scores. I use RetroSheet and Baseball-Reference for some of the historical data and I use Hardball Times a lot for some of the more advanced statistics. The problem that I face in doing what I do, is that I have to balance the use of statistics with sort of the overuse of really advanced statistics. I can’t lose people. Our Sunday paper goes out to...whatever our Sunday circulation is, and I want it to be interesting to people already take an interest in sports statistics, but I want it to be accessible to everybody. I sort of try to tone down the level of advanced statistics that I’ve been using or give a good explanation.
CFB: For evaluating hitters, what’s your favorite statistic to look to?
ZL: My favorite one to look to, I guess, is OPS. It’s simple enough that you can explain it to people and people can understand it. Something like EqA or some of the other ones, I think, sometimes lose people. But OPS has sort of become a common enough term in the “Baseball Dictionary” to a lot of -- I don’t want to say really casual fans, but a lot of regular fans -- and it still tells very a close story. There’s still a high correlation between team OPS and team offensive success and it’s higher than...say batting average.
CFB: What about for pitchers?
ZL: Pitchers are tough. I have trouble using one for pitchers, because I can use OPS against. For pitchers and for hitters, I like to use...Baseball-Reference’s plus statistic, which adjusts for ballpark, league, and era, for both OPS and ERA. I like to use the plus stat. For pitchers, I find that if I use ERA to much it can very misleading with things like a guy gives up an error and then gives up 5 more runs and they’re all unearned. For instance, I think it’s Wandy Rodriguez, at least in one outing at the beginning of the year, he gave up a ton of unearned runs and he’s looked better than he has based on ERA. But then if you use something like OPS against, your not taking into account that if he has a high OPS against, but a low ERA, it means he’s doing well as a situational pitcher -- usually. So I usually have to try and find a balance and I have trouble using just one stat.