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A Conversation With Football Outsiders EIC Aaron Schatz

Illustration for article titled A Conversation With Football Outsiders EIC Aaron Schatz

My beach books aren't novels about Smith women discovering their sexuality, or biographies about forgotten historical figures, or leadership You-Can-Make-Millions-Out-Of-Your-Home-And-Here's-How. I read the Prospectus books.


The Baseball Prospectus book is the staple of every March — I try to find someplace warm and read it cover to cover, like a novel — and in August, it's the Football Outsiders Almanac. The Football Outsiders' crew's takes are sometimes ridiculous — they love the Rams this year, for some reason — but always well-researched, smart and compelling. I find it the perfect way to prepare for the season; reading makes me feel like I know what I'm talking about, when I really, really don't. It's indispensable. Buy it.


I talked to FO editor-in-chief Aaron Schatz about the book, about the woes of the book publishing industry, the non-split with Baseball Prospecuts (the book is self-published this year, for the first time, and you can't get it in bookstores) and why he's so down on my Buzzsaw.

So what happened with Baseball Prospectus? You're still a part? Or no? Why's the book self-published? Was there some sort of fight? What happened?

We're fine with Baseball Prospectus, actually. Football Outsiders has always been a separate company, so there's no "divorce" or anything like that. We had a deal with them to produce a football book provided
they had a contract with a publisher, but their publisher, Plume, made the decision to no longer publish Prospectus books in sports other than baseball. By the time Plume made this decision, it was too late
for us to go with another publisher. In addition, once we had to do the book on our own anyway, it made sense not to pay for the promotional value of the name "Prospectus." But we are still friends with those guys, we still link to their site and they link to ours, Will Carroll is still writing for both sites, and I want to see them succeed. I especially want Basketball Prospectus to succeed because I think Kevin Pelton is a really good guy.


We have other publishers who are interested in the 2010 book, so we'll have to decide if we go back to standard publishing or do it this way again. Self-publishing gave us an extra five weeks or so to finish the
book, we didn't need to have it done until the end of June, and that was just HUGE from a sanity perspective. My wife is perfectly happy if I never go back to a schedule where the book is due by Memorial Day.

Football Outsiders has had a few staff changes of late too. (I remember when my college pal Michael David Smith wrote for you all the time.) Has this whole process been different than you were expecting when it started kicking in? How has it progressed?


Heh. Well, I started the site as a side gig when I had another job, and the only other people working on it were some of my old fraternity brothers. So yeah, this is a bit different than what I expected six years ago. The site has grown fairly organically, which has led to some of our infamous server issues, but it's also kept me from growing eyes that were far too big for my own stomach, if that makes any sense. I didn't ever want FO to grow too fast and then crash and burn. It's cool that some of our writers have gone on to bigger and better things. I mean, MDS had written on the Web before FO, but it was his work with FO that hooked him up with AOL and gave him the opportunity to do this for a living now, even though that means he can't work for us anymore. I wish more people could work for FO full-time, but that would probably entail taking almost all the content on the site to a subscription model, and I'm just not ready to do that right now. So for now, it's just me and Bill Barnwell.

I've always wondered if you'd start seeing Football Outsiders people working in the NFL the way you see old Prospectus people working in baseball. That doesn't seem to have happened yet, but you see little changes seeping in, most notably with Jim Schwartz, the new coach of the Lions and first real head coach to embrace advanced statistical principles. You've worked with him in the past, right? Is he a referendum on what you guys, and others, do?


Yes, I've worked with Jim in the past, and I hope to work with him in the future as well. I do want to say I would hate to have anything regarding the Detroit Lions become a referendum on what FO does. The
fact is, while FO people aren't working in the league, there are plenty of people in the league who do the kind of statistical analysis that we do. Historically, empirical thinking has always been far better accepted in the football world than in the baseball world. Many more of the management people in football have come from the business world rather than from the playing field. The most statistically oriented organizations in the NFL are probably New England, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. Things have not gone well for the 49ers, obviously, but I think the Patriots and Eagles have been fairly successful over the last few years. So as far as I'm concerned, stat analysis has already proven itself. Eventually, there will be people working in front offices who grew up reading FO. They're already there, it's just that right now they are at the intern level. One of those guys will be running a team in ten years.

The other thing I should point out is that when I started Football Outsiders, the goal was never the better management of NFL teams. It was always the better coverage of NFL teams by the media. The guys in the NFL front offices are smarter than fans give them credit for, and certainly they're smarter than those guys in the booth on Sunday babbling on about how the team is 8-1 when running back X runs for 100 yards. I'm here to improve analysis of the NFL, to make fans feel like they are a) more knowledgeable and b) more entertained. If teams read our work and apply that to managing their franchises, that's pretty
neat, but I'll always see myself as a writer first and foremost.


How mad will you get if I ask you about Kevin Jones? (Note: FO has been predicting stardom for Kevin Jones since he was three years old. It hasn't happened.)

Not that mad. Guys who look good as rookies fall in their faces as second-year players. It happens. All the signs that caused us to project him for such a great second season are still signs that players will improve in their second seasons. If we had a player now with the same stats that Jones had as a rookie, we would probably make a similar projection. Kevin Jones carried the ball 241 times for 1,133 yards, 4.70 yards per carry. Terrell Davis as a rookie carried the ball 237 times for 1,117 yards, 4.71 yards per carry.


To this year's book: I'm not upset that you think my Buzzsaw will flop, because you have figures and research behind it, rather than emotion. (Unlike me.) But don't you think there are certainly things that can't be predicted from past performance? No matter what happened during the regular season, can't you tell SOMETHING about how that team will do from that playoff run?

Sure, there are things that can't be predicted from past performance. That's why we do "mean win projections" based on running the season 10,000 different ways, rather than just saying "Arizona is going to go 5-11." The book says OAKLAND has a two percent chance of winning 11 or more games, for crying out loud. All kinds of strange, unexpected stuff happens in the NFL. On the other hand, when it comes to sitting down and writing the chapters, and doing things like fantasy football projections, we concentrate on what is likely, not what is possible.


I wish I wasn't predicting such a bummer season for the Buzzsaw. I was really annoyed when the projections came out, because the Arizona projection is based on a lot of little things rather than one or two big trends that could be easily explained. I didn't want the Arizona projection to be SO different from conventional wisdom, and I played around with the projection system constantly to try to figure out what variables I was possibly missing that might explain why Arizona should be expected to have another winning season. But there was no way to improve the Arizona projection without making the whole projection system much, much less accurate overall. So we go with what we've got.

The fact is, there just isn't a lot of history of teams that massively improve in the playoffs carrying things over to the next regular season. The 2007-2008 Giants are a big exception, which is what makes them so remarkable. The 2002 Patriots missed the playoffs. So did the 2004 Panthers and the 1981 Raiders.


You seem to imply you think the Rams will win the NFC West this season in the book. A few things have happened since your deadline. Do you still think they're underrated?

Well, first of all, I don't think we imply the Rams will win the NFC West. I think we're pretty clear that we think that Seattle will win the NFC West. The Rams' mean projection in the book is for 8.2 wins, compared to Seattle at 9.9 wins.


I'm concerned about the Rams' early injuries — I mean, without Donnie Avery that team really has an unknown group of receivers, and the idea of Kyle Boller at quarterback gives me hives — but the trends that we identify in the book are still there. The strongest trend in identifying "surprise" teams is still drafting an offensive lineman in the first dozen picks, like last year's Dolphins and the 2007 Browns. This is still a team that is likely to be much healthier and nowhere near as bad in the red zone [as last year]. The NFC West didn't suddenly get any better over the last few weeks — Seattle's dealing with even worse injury issues.

We know that every year some team that has been losing for a couple seasons will come out of nowhere to have a winning season. Everyone wants to figure out how to predict that team, and we're no different. We looked closely to try to figure out what trends pointed to a team about to break out. What we're saying is that St. Louis is the most likely team to do that this year — more likely than Buffalo or Oakland or San Francisco or Detroit or whoever else. We're not guaranteeing a playoff spot or anything. Given how much the Rams sucked last year, they could improve significantly on both sides of the ball and still end up 7-9.


You guys make a very convincing argument that the Broncos are going to be horrible this year. Is there a way for guys to account for 32-year-old maniacs who desperately want to be Bill Belichick?

Wait, is that supposed to be a good thing that leads to wins?

Did you guys ever do any Arena League statistics? Actually, now that I"m thinking about it: Don't you think some enterprising UFL coach could make a name for himself by using FO principles? Like, why not, ya know? It's the UFL.


No, we've never done anything with Arena or CFL. I've thought about doing UFL. It would likely be easy with just four teams playing what, six games each? I'm happy to talk to any UFL coach who wants to speak with me, and we've considered the possibility of a weekly UFL column covering that league, maybe looking at what players might be able to move up to the NFL (or, more likely, move back to the NFL).

In the book, you say if Brett Favre comes back, he's roughly the equivalent of Sage Rosenfels anyway, so it doesn't alter much. Does Michael Vick on Philadelphia change any calculations?


No, he's a backup. Unless Donovan McNabb gets hurt, he isn't going to matter much. Vick's return is more of a news story, whereas Favre's return is more of a sports story, if that makes any sense...

Which movie are you more likely to see: Moneyball, or The Blind Side?

Moneyball, because Demitri Martin is supposed to play Paul DePodesta, and I love me some Demitri Martin.


Note: After this interview, Schatz read Drew's Buzzsaw screed yesterday, in which Drew said, "Schatz was upset the Eagles lost the NFC title game because they failed to prove his metrics correct. But the reason you look to compile interesting stats isn't so that your predictions come true and you look like some big swinging dick. That's Mariotti shit." Schatz had this response:


First of all, I never, ever said I found the Pittsburgh Steelers lackluster in any way. NEVER. Do not besmirch my reputation with Steelers fans! The Cardinals fans are allowed to hate me, but I say lots of good things about the Steelers.

Second, the problem I had last year was not the Cardinals, per se. It was the Cardinals after the 2007 Giants after the 2006 Colts, and so on. It was the trend where the regular season seems to becoming less and less important. It's not about proving my numbers right and it isn't about hating Arizona or wanting Philadelphia to win. Of course the numbers will be wrong sometimes. They just shouldn't be wrong every year, because that would indicate that the regular season is totally pointless, and then the NFL has become hockey. Do we really want the NFL to become hockey?

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