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Brew Crew Ball Interview: Dave Lawson

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You might not know it, even if you follow the Brewers closely, but GM Doug Melvin has a "stat guy." More precisely, Dave Lawson shows up among Milwaukee's front office staff as "Baseball Analyst/Research." After co-writing Essential Baseball 1994: A Revolutionary New Method for Evaluating Major League Teams, Players, and Managers with Norm Hitzges in 1994, he went to work for Melvin in Texas, and he's been part of Doug's team ever since.

What's more, Dave is a great guy. He recently finished this Q&A with Brew Crew Ball, so I'll quit the yammering and get on to the good stuff. Thank you, Dave, for your time and generosity in answering my questions.

BCB: Can you tell me a little bit about your background in baseball research? What got you started down the path of statistical analysis, and what drove you to make it more than a hobby?

Dave Lawson: Like most of us in this arcane business, I'm a child of Bill James. I discovered The Baseball Abstracts back in the eighties...and consumed them like a ravenous coyote. Bill's provocative theories and exquisite writing re-ignited my long-term love of the game as he helped me see it in a way I'd never seen it before--alluring, mysterious, largely unexplored. You might say I began an expedition of my own, into the dark interior of the game.

At the time, I was running a pecan orchard in Alabama. At some point, I read another formative book--The Making of the Atomic Bomb, by Richard Rhodes. It was winter and the orchard required only routine maintenance; there was downtime to ponder other subjects. As a mental exercise, I began to employ the "what if" thinking style of theoretical physicists, applying it to the analysis of baseball. And I made my first discovery: the irreducible atoms of baseball were "bases" and "outs": one positive, one negative. Figuratively, individual games, entire seasons, even careers were increasingly complex molecules that were formed of only these two constituent materials: bases and outs.

Finally, my earlier background in marketing and advertising had taught me how to identify business problems and opportunities, undertake analyses and examine hypotheses, and convert the findings into a plan of action. Before the winter was over, I had learned how to take apart a box score and wring it into a table of "net bases" and "gross outs." I had tested the system on individual hitters and pitchers...major and minor leaguers...and on entire teams and leagues. It appeared to represent an incredibly accurate and highly versatile analytical system--one that yielded actionable results.

By then (the early nineties), The Baseball Abstracts had run their course and I resolved that my "invention"--called TOPR (TOE-per) and TPER (TEE-per)--was up to the task of carrying on the tradition. I enlisted the services of a long-time friend, Dallas sports talk host Norm Hitzges, and we resolved to do a book.

BCB: How did you end up working for Doug Melvin?

DL: Basically, I was broke...and out of work. The owner had "lightened ship" at the pecan orchard and I had moved back to Texas. Norm and I had published the book--1994 Essential Baseball (Plume)--just in time for one of baseball's more infamous events. In the wake of what had been a disastrous season for baseball, Doug was appointed General Manager of the Texas Rangers. My friend and co-author, who was then doing color on the club's telecasts, arranged an introduction for me. Doug explained that, under the circumstances, he had no budget to hire somebody to do what I did (whatever that was). In the absence of any other compelling career opportunity, I volunteered to demonstrate what I could do for the ballclub by working for free. Doug has always been one to quickly recognize and take advantage of bargains.

BCB: Since you've done a fair amount of analysis from both the perspective of a fan and as a consultant, how (if at all) is the type of work you do different as an 'insider' than it was as an 'outsider'?

DL: In many businesses, it can be difficult for a "consultant" to strike a balance between independence and sycophancy. There is the old adage about a consultant being "anybody who has a laptop, comes from more than fifty miles away, and can look at your watch and tell you what time it is." But, with the Brewers, there is no difficulty whatsoever. I'm expected to offer an independent opinion, not go along to get along.

However, by the same token, I believe it is a more informed opinion than most "outsiders" can compose. Because I have listened carefully to--and learned a great deal from--the "baseball people" that so many analysts seem to dismiss. All of us who do what I do would be advised to remember that, before there was a Bill James, there was a Branch Rickey. Much as we might love to massage them, statistics are just one way to evaluate a player or team. The game isn't just numbers, it's flesh and blood, too. Defense, make-up and chemistry are very real elements in the player evaluation business.

At bottom, mine is one voice...among several. And we're all expected to be expert in our particular area of expertise.

BCB: In different front offices, it seems that analysts are deployed in a wide variety of ways, from best deploying players within the organization, to optimizing strategy, to evaluating potential free-agent and trade acquisitions. Can you give me a general idea of where your role fits in?

DL: I've characterized my role as "to quantify that which can be quantified." That can have application to all the situations you described above.

BCB: I couldn't help but think of you when I read an intro to an article in the Journal-Sentinel article that referred to Ned Yost as "never one to spend much time perusing statistical printouts." From interviews I've read and heard with Doug Melvin, it seems like he likes to have a bit more input into strategy-type issues than most front-office folks do. What role do you play in that?

DL: Just because Ned is "never one to spend much time perusing statistical printouts," don't fall into the trap of thinking he makes his tactical decisions solely on gut feel. When it comes to statistics, Ned wants the bottom line--not the whole column of numbers. Like any manager, he's in the business of making decisions--he wants what will help him win a game, what he can use...not what might be "interesting."

Doug is, I suppose, more receptive to a statistical approach than many GMs. But, then, Doug would listen to a recitation of Salinger's Catcher In The Rye if he thought it would help the Brewers find another prospect. Doug is a voracious listener - absolutely the best listener I've ever met. That's a good trait for a GM--it should be part of the job description, because he's going to get input from a lot of different (and frequently differing) sources. As the top executive for baseball operations, Doug's primary responsibility is making decisions--and few would argue against the proposition that he's very good at it.

BCB: What, if anything, is different about working for the Brewers than for the Rangers?

DL: The park effect in Texas is a major consideration...and simply has to be catered to. Miller Park is more of a neutral park that has only some small, relatively subtle effects on how one should put together a team or play the game.

BCB: Before the 2005 season, you predicted, based on a comparison you drew with Robin Ventura, that JJ Hardy would struggle early on in his rookie season but would eventually turn the corner. What might we watch for from the 2006 team?

DL: Well, in the Spring of 2005, I predicted 82 wins for the Brew Crew. I can't say I was disappointed with 81. I believe the '06 version should improve on that--an opinion that is shared by the organization and, I gather, its fans. As in '05, though, I would anticipate that the improvement will be most visible in the second half. We're talking about a young team, one that is still developing. Ain't it fun to look forward to a baseball season?

BCB: To what degree are you involved with decision-making in the organization below the major league level? Clearly the Brewers have an ample scouting department to evaluate young players, but is there a complementary role for you in there somewhere?

DL:Organizationally, I usually caucus with the Pro Scouting Department--working with and parallel to Dick Groch, Larry Haney, Lee Thomas, et al. We all look at the same players--they with their experienced eyes, me with my lines of numbers - and draw conclusions about the progress (or lack of same) among the minor leagues. My reports are filed with theirs, though in a different format, and given the appropriate weight--along with the views of a very effective development staff.

BCB: In the last ten years--heck, in the last two, even--there have been some substantial advances in statistical analysis. Which have most interested you, and which do you think have had the greatest impact? On the flip side, what areas of analysis do you think are crying out for more attention?

DL:In answer to both questions: Defense! It's become chic to say "just because we can't measure defense doesn't mean it doesn't exist." But John Dewan finally did something about the problem. He measured it! Dewan's Fielding Bible has, at long last, given us some data to chew on. In my view, Dewan's work is, in its field, as seminal as James'. It has opened the door to a whole new aspect of the game. Moreover, most of his work can be expressed in terms of bases and outs, which meshes nicely with TOPR and TPER.

BCB: Thank you very much!

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