Who's on First? Who Cares. What's His GPA?
Victor Wang does the math. Seated in an overstuffed recliner in his family's living room, the Bloomington Jefferson High School junior is tossing out terms that wouldn't be out of place in his Calc II class. Coefficient. Correlation. Predictor. He shrugs: He knows he's a math geek and now you know he's a math geek, too. So what?
Besides, Wang is actually talking baseball, not calculus, on this recent Sunday afternoon. He keeps an eye on a TV in the corner broadcasting a Twins spring training game. He likes the hometown nine's chances this year, but he warns that the team can't stumble out of the gate like last season. He sums up some of the team's notable qualities.
"Justin Morneau is a good player, but he's not an elite player," Wang says flatly of the MVP first baseman. "But for a guy who comes this cheap, you gotta have him."
Wang's assessment is more than just the talk of a casual fan. It is the assessment of an obsessive fan and baseball number-cruncher. Wang recently garnered notoriety in the cloistered niche of baseball stat-heads when the New York Times publicized his article for a small baseball quarterly called By the Numbers. In the February 25 Times story, Alan Schwarz prominently discussed Wang's work to explain a statistic.
Suddenly Wang has been swept up in a new wave of quasi-scientists who have been changing the way teams, scouts, and even players look at the game. The movement, known as "sabermetrics" and coined from "SABR," an acronym for the Society for American Baseball Research, has been simmering for more than 30 years. Bill James, the godfather of sabermetrics, has been publishing stat journals for decades. But with the popularity of the Michael Lewis book Moneyball a few years back—and the subsequent success of the book's main character, Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane—an evolution of the game has taken hold. Perhaps only in this new world would anyone pay serious attention to the ideas of a 16-year-old in Bloomington.
A 16-year-old, it should be added, who doesn't even play baseball. Wang, an unassuming, quiet kid, cites the book about Beane as the spark for his interest in sabermetrics two years ago. A bookshelf in his bedroom is now a small library devoted to the quirky world of baseball statistics. Wang claims to be surprised that he's received any attention at all.
His father, Alex, is equally nonplussed. "I'm not a numbers guy," says Alex Wang, who is originally from China. "My wife and I are literature majors. So I guess we're quite happy he's doing well with his math."
If you're not a fervent baseball aficionado, or a student of applied statistics, you may be best off skipping the next two paragraphs.
For even by the malleable standards of the world of baseball stats, where numbers can be manipulated to say pretty much anything, Wang's August 2006 essay in By the Numbers dealt with a rather arcane stat called Gross Production Average. Wang examined all the runs scored by every team since 1960, then referred to a stat called OPS, or on-base-plus-slugging percentage. On-base percentage measures how often a player gets on base, while slugging percentage measures the number of bases for every at bat.
Wang set out to prove an age-old theory: that on-base percentage is a far better measure of a player's value than slugging, and a greater contributor to a team's total runs. In Wang's accounting, multiplying on-base percentage by a coefficient of 1.8 and adding it to slugging percentage, drew the strongest correlation to runs scored. And, voilà! A new stat, GPA, was born.
Trouble is, even by Wang's own account, he didn't really come up with the formula (which includes a final step of dividing by four to get a baseball stat-like number). Turns out the notion and formula for GPA was first floated in November 2003 on a blog called AaronGleeman.com. And Gleeman, coincidentally, lives in Minnetonka.
Wang fully admits that he was piggybacking on Gleeman's formula; the only new bit of analysis he brought was to look at run production as far back as 1960. So Wang was surprised that the New York Times story highlighted what he had published, but made no mention of Gleeman, who originally called GPA the "Gleeman Production Average."
Schwarz says he caught Wang's essay online, and emailed him about the stat. "I contacted him, having no idea that he was a high school junior," Schwarz says. "I thought that made it more interesting for the general reader." (And to be fair, when you're talking about baseball stats, that's not a bad thing.)
Gleeman, a 23-year-old U of M journalism grad originally from St. Paul, says he doesn't feel slighted. "I thought the NYT article was well done and even-handed," Gleeman writes in an email. "I obviously wouldn't have minded being mentioned at some point, but I also don't really claim to have invented anything." Instead, Gleeman acknowledges that others had been working toward developing a stat like GPA before him. Besides, Gleeman notes, "the NYT article featured the Hardball Times prominently, which is a site I co-created and served as editor-in-chief of until late last year."
Minor ownership controversy aside, Schwarz, Wang, and even Gleeman doubt that the new stat will add up to much. "I mostly just thought it combined a bunch of factors into a one-number stat that had the potential to be useful in various situations," offers Gleeman, who in addition to running his website works as an editor for NBCSports.com. "I doubt very, very much that it will ever become a mainstream number."
Wang possesses an even stronger hint of humility. "If I can contribute stuff to the statistics community, that's good," he concludes, sounding like a graduate of the Bull Durham school of media relations. "But I don't want to do this forever. I want to run a baseball team."
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