Among the many new faces within the front office is Mike Fast, a PitchF/X guru and former writer for Baseball Prospectus and The Hardball Times. Fast has joined the Astros to provide a more forward thinking approach to making baseball decisions.
In this interview, he discusses how his life has changed, how the process of his hiring took place, how PitchF/X has evolved and more.
The Crawfish Boxes: How has your life changed going from blogger baseball analyst to Houston Astros baseball analyst?
Mike Fast: The biggest way that my life has changed is that I am moving my family to Houston. Moving with four kids is a much bigger operation than it was when I was single. But I’m excited about moving to Houston, and among other benefits it means living close to my brother.
Aside from those sorts of things, it also means a lot fewer public conversations about sabermetric ideas. I still love the online baseball discussions, but I have to be more guarded about discussing things that can benefit other teams. I have to conduct most of those conversations in private now, but I still thrive on input from other scientists, researchers, thinkers, and innovators in the baseball community.
In addition, I have the opportunity to test a lot of theories (either my own or from other people) that I thought about as an outsider and to do the legwork to make practical application of them. Jeff and Sig and the whole staff of the Astros have been very supportive and interested in innovation and trying out new ideas. I’ve also gotten a lot of good input and ideas from discussions with the coaches and others in the organization.
TCB: What’s your typical day like and do you get the opportunity to watch many of the Astros’ games?
Fast: A typical work day involves some combination of four things. First, I like to start the day by catching up on articles from various sabermetric and Astros-related sites.
Second, I spend a significant portion of my time querying our databases and building models of one kind or another. We have data on amateur players, minor league players, and major league players, both from this season and historically. We use that data to build models that help us assemble the best team and best farm system we can.
Third, I work with Sig and Ryan and Heather to develop our information strategy and with other people in baseball ops to get the coaching staff or scouting organization the data they need in a format that is most helpful to them. Right now that takes the format of a lot of phone calls, but once I’m in Houston in a couple weeks, more of that will be face to face. Those discussions range from very tactical topics about how to get an edge against our current opponent to very long range discussions of ways to collect novel data.
Fourth, I do try to watch as many Astros games as I can. I was in spring camp for a week and spent quite a bit of time at the minor league fields getting familiar with our players and meeting our minor league player development staff. When I’m in Houston, I certainly want to be at the games when I can. I have found that I learn a lot from personal observation of baseball games, particularly when I’m looking to see how a player or a team behaves in a given situation. There is a myriad of complexity within baseball and something new to learn from every game. I enjoy the conversations at the games, too. And nothing is more fun than being at the ballpark when we win!
TCB: Was your hiring as a baseball analyst something that materialized out of the blue or was there some sort of networking involved in the process?
Fast: It was some of both. In one sense, it came completely out of the blue for me when Sig emailed me in January. But in another sense, it was the result of a lot of networking and help from friends around the industry. I wouldn’t be in the position I am now if it were not for the generosity and assistance of a long list of people going back several years. I really enjoy being part of the sabermetric community and the baseball industry, and I am grateful to all the people who have shared their research, their writing, and their time with me, either directly or indirectly through books and articles.
For the last couple years, I had been discussing with my wife that my future career probably lay in baseball. I say we had been "discussing" it. Really, it was more of her telling me that’s what she saw and me coming around to recognizing that she was right.
Last fall I started to get serious about looking into opportunities to work with a team. Since the winter meetings were in Dallas, and I lived in Austin, it was a great chance for me to visit the meetings. I was blown away by the kindness of all the people there who were willing to spend time talking with me, to give me advice, and to offer their encouragement. One of the people I met in Dallas was Sig. At the time, I had no idea he would end up in Houston, and that I would, too, but here we are!
TCB: How did your experience writing for Baseball Prospectus prepare you for your current role with the Astros?
Fast: Certainly my experience at Baseball Prospectus was great preparation for working for the Astros. The staff and the readers there offered a lot of encouragement and challenged me to grow and improve. Colin Wyers and Dan Turkenkopf and many others always had good feedback on my ideas and fresh ways of looking at baseball problems. Working for Baseball Prospectus also provided the opportunity to interact with media and other baseball people at a national level, which was both good exposure for me and good preparation for learning how to shape and communicate my ideas effectively.
I also give a lot of credit to the places I wrote prior to that. The Hardball Times was a great opportunity for me, too, and one could not ask for a better friend and mentor in baseball than Dave Studeman. I learned much about communicating information graphically. I also owe a lot to the editorial staff both at the Hardball Times and Baseball Prospectus. Editors are some of the most valuable and underappreciated parts of the baseball writing community. Learning how to think carefully and express and support an argument is a valuable skill for which I have had many good teachers, going back to my English teachers in school.
And of course I should mention Russell Carleton (a.k.a. Pizza Cutter) who gave me my first big break as a writer for the StatSpeak blog at MVN and is a good friend on top of that.
More than anything, I am blessed by all the people I can count as friends from my journey in baseball. Hopefully that will continue with the Astros, and if my first few months are any indication, it has.
TCB: What work of yours caught the eye of Jeff Luhnow and the Astros?
Fast: I don’t know. You’d have to ask Jeff and Sig for a specific answer to that. But I know in broad strokes at least a couple things that got their attention. Well, first of all, obviously my work with PITCHf/x and HITf/x and other new data came to their notice.
But beyond that, I am very excited about Jeff’s emphasis on our player development system as a university where we apply the best teaching and training methods to help our players excel. We have a common vision for how we can use new data to help our players grow and succeed.
I also have a strong belief in the value of good communication, and I know that was noticed by Jeff and Sig. I enjoy listening to others, and I consider it a real privilege to benefit from the wisdom, years of experience, and clever insights of the coaches and other members of the organization. One of my main goals with analysis is to make the results clear and useful to others. That’s usually an iterative process, and I find that I understand my own work better when I engage in it. It’s not unusual for me to think I’ve studied some topic and know it pretty well, but when I have to explain it to someone else, that uncovers the weak spots in my analysis and the areas where my grasp of what I did is shaky.
Jeff has established an empowering and encouraging environment all throughout the Astros organization, and that fosters that kind of healthy and mutually beneficial communication. Sig has also been a great boss on that front, and I’m excited about what our analytics team has already accomplished together in just a few months.
I know that my technical skills and background are important to the Astros, but our common vision for the new frontiers we can tackle with baseball data and the ways to best accomplish that were also a key part of making me a good fit in the organization.
TCB: What player in the Astros organization are you excited about?
Fast: I’m still getting to know the team and the farm system, though every week I’m getting a little further along. So my answer may have changed if you ask me again a month from now! But at the moment, I’m really pleased with Lucas Harrell’s first start of the season and the progress he made in spring training.
For whatever reason, I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for pitchers over hitters. Maybe that goes back to the days as a kid where I’d throw the ball against the back step for hours trying to get it to bounce back just the way I wanted. In any case, I’m fascinated when pitchers remake themselves. If Lucas Harrell can throw hard with good command of his sinking fastball like he did in his first start against Colorado, he’s going to go from a guy trying to make the last spot on the roster to a force to be reckoned with around the league. The possibility for that kind of growth and transformation is what gets me excited about showing up at the office and the ballpark.
TCB: What’s the biggest way Pitch F/X data has evolved since it was introduced? What part of the data do you think is most misunderstood or misused?
Fast: The biggest evolution has been in our understanding of the game. We have learned a lot about the craft of pitching and how to quantify and measure it. We are learning about the chess match between the pitcher and the batter and nuances of how that unfolds. We have learned a lot about the strike zone. There is a lot of potential down the road to apply this information to reducing injuries and improving the consistency of pitcher mechanics. I wrote in more detail about this in a chapter I wrote for Extra Innings, the new book from Baseball Prospectus.
More than anything, the introduction of PITCHf/x seems to have unleashed an ever-increasing of avalanche of data about the game and opened up the possibilities for quantifying new things. We certainly know more about what we don’t know than we did five years ago. I’m inclined to agree with Bill James that a hundred years from now that what we don’t know about the game of baseball will still exceed everything we have learned in the course of baseball history. Maybe that’s true of other sports, too, I don’t know, but PITCHf/x and its cousins have convinced me it’s true of baseball.
Where there is data, there is always the opportunity to misunderstand and misuse it, and I’ve done at least my fair share of that. Back when I was with the Hardball Times, I wrote a little article on the topic of misusing PITCHf/x data, entitled "The Internet cried a little when you wrote that on it." Those are probably still some of the most common mistakes made with that data.
TCB: What is your prediction for the Astros team in 2012?
Fast: Those who have known me for a while know that I hate being pinned down on predictions for the future, whether for a player or a team. I do, though, enjoy the process of learning how to develop prediction systems. Colin Wyers and I had a lot of good conversations about that over the years as he was improving and updating the PECOTA projections at Baseball Prospectus. Sig and I have had a lot of good conversations about the projection systems we are working on for the Astros. You can look at Baseball Prospectus or any number of other sites to see how many games they project the Astros should win or how our players are expected to perform. Of course, I hope we do better than that, and we’ll do all we can in the front office and on the field to make that happen. We are committed to developing a consistent winner in Houston, and I’m excited about being part of bringing that about.
That’s my long-winded way of weaseling out of giving an answer to your question.
TCB: The coolest thing you’ve gotten from the Astros organization so far?
Fast: A paycheck? There’s nothing like that first big league check with "Houston Astros Baseball Club" right across the front of it.
But also the encouragement and inspiration of Sig and Jeff believing in me, listening to me, and valuing my work have meant a lot. I’ve felt for a while that I’ve been given the gift of seeing possibilities with baseball data that many other people don’t see. It’s very affirming to be entrusted and encouraged to carry that out alongside people who have a strong track record of success and respect in the game.
TCB: Thank you for your time Mike. We look forward to seeing your hard work reflected in this organization.
Mike has got one of the more interesting twitter feeds to browse, if you're not following him you should be. He's got great insight and he's very engaging. You can follow him at @fastballs.