Under Billy Beane, the Oakland A's won by scraping together undervalued assets. Since the rest of baseball has started valuing assets properly, the A's are having a harder time. The same thing is happening to baseball's leading propeller-heads.
When it launched on the Web in 1997, Baseball Prospectus was a gadfly that hadn't yet caught the ear of the major leagues. Nevertheless, it became a gathering place for sabermetrics' brainy hobbyists: The site laid out the concept of value over replacement player, pushed for teams to do a better job tracking pitch counts, and ran Voros McCracken's breakthrough study that pitchers have little control over the hits they allow.
By the time Moneyball came out in 2003, major-league teams had figured out the value of BP's writers. In 2002, the Blue Jays hired BP's Keith Law as a consultant. Keith Woolner, who invented VORP, left in 2007 to join the Indians, James Click and Chaim Bloom joined up with the Rays, and Dan Fox quit to work for the Pirates. Last year, the entire world realized that Nate Silver was an undervalued asset when he started devoting his genius-power to politics. Two months ago, he resigned as BP's managing partner and announced he'd likely "not be able to write about baseball with the frequency that [he] once did."
Kevin Goldstein, the site's new lead business guy, says the departure of the site's top analytical minds is "a real pain in the ass." He says there are now more than 10 people working for major-league clubs who have BP on their resume. "If someone's really valuable to you, you can usually keep them if you play the money game," he says. "We can't do that because working in baseball is their dream."
Unlike a baseball team, BP doesn't get talented youngsters back in trade when its veterans leave town. The need to find new, cheap, unknown talent explains something as bizarre and seemingly un-wonky as the site's current Prospectus Idol contest, in which 10 finalists are competing to become a columnist.
Along with getting raided by the big leagues, BP also has to compete with a bajillion other baseball-wonk clearinghouses—and the other guys don't charge a subscription fee. One quantitative analyst who does work for several major-league teams told me that BP has less path-breaking statistical material these days than sites like Fangraphs and The Hardball Times. Fangraphs has done more and better work than BP using Pitch f/x, the amazingly rich new data on pitch types, speeds, and location. (BP's former Pitch f/x guru, Dan Fox, is one of the guys who left for MLB. Another f/x expert, Eric Seidman, is now writing for BP along with Fangraphs.) I also heard from several different people that Dave Cameron, who writes primarily for Fangraphs and the Wall Street Journal, is the closest thing on the Web to a proto-Silver—the most-promising young sabermetrician writing today.
Goldstein says that, while he believes BP's writing is better than the competition, Fangraphs has moved the ball when it comes to tech-y tools. He doesn't see it as a problem, however, that BP is no longer the lone port of call for spreadsheet lovers: Joe Sheehan is one of the best baseball columnists anywhere, Will Carroll is the industry's leading injury guru, and Goldstein himself is a respected prospect evaluator. "I don't want [statistics] to be only what we do," he says. "I don't want to be pigeonholed as that, and that's ticked off a lot of people. … There is a certain subset out there who wants us to stick to our roots and talk about the numbers and be more hardcore."
While Prospectus might be losing stathead mindshare, it does still have PECOTA, the player-forecast system invented by Nate Silver. Goldstein emphasizes that the site's subscriber-base and traffic are bigger than ever. The BP gospel has also spread to mainstream publications like ESPN.com and Sports Illustrated, and the Prospectus brand has now extended to include a basketball site and a hockey site. Inspired by Silver's political work, Goldstein and co. are now thinking about moving beyond sports. "I don't want people stealing our ideas, but we've got things in our cooker for the next couple of years," Goldstein says. One clue: "We wouldn't do data on the plumbing industry, because there's not a lot of plumbing fans."