The M’s stathead is Olkin

DMZ · January 21, 2005 at 6:05 am · Filed Under Mariners 

Tomorrow the Mariners will announce* the hiring of a “player acquisition consultant” or, as this has been long-rumored, a “stathead”. It’s Mat Olkin (note the one ‘t’, please). Standard USA Today head shot appears on the upper right of this page, and I know he’s probably wincing about that.

Olkin’s written a baseball annual of his own (the “Baseball Examiner”) and is the author of some good, meaty work on the relationship between batters, their power, and their ground-ball/fly-ball tendencies (it’s not as strong as you’d probably guess, but yes, ground balls don’t go out of the park). He found that today’s pitchers throw as many pitches as old-time guys, but in fewer innings (duh, right? well, he wrote that in 1998).

Olkin’s one of the STATS Inc guys, who probably sits around and swaps smart emails behind the scenes with Bill James and the cabal of his former assistants (Neyer, Sickels, etc). He’s best known for writing his “Mat at Bat” column for Sports Weekly, which used to be Baseball Weekly when I bought it (um, which shouldn’t be taken as a dig on Mat). His stuff’s run all over the place: “Bill James Baseball Abstract, Baseball Prospectus, Ron Shandler’s Baseball Forecaster, the STATS Major League Scouting Notebook, the STATS Baseball Scoreboard and the STATS All-Time Sourcebook.”

I believe he’s also done work on Japanese translations, though I can’t locate it (unfortunately, trying to hunt down links through Google is a mess in part thanks to those annoying link farmers who mirror Amazon for affiliate money).

Also, check this out. For pitchers, a long time ago Olkin suggested you could estimate ERA as
OBP x SLG x 31 = Predicted ERA

And that actually has more value in determining what future performance is going to look like as actual ERA does.

If you know me, you know I totally dig the easy-to-use good-enough stat like that.

Now, generally the role of these guys is to pipe up with interesting thoughts on player deals. Like if the M’s were thinking about trading for Miguel Batista, he might say “hey look, his K rate sucks. And it’s sucked for a while.” Or suggest minor league free agents worth investigating. Maybe look at Japanese players who are free agents or might be posted, try and come up with some projections. Maybe he’ll spend his time surfing the web and sending emails to people who are insufficently enthusiastic about Mariners prospects. We don’t know really.

In some organizations, these guys have a lot of say. But there isn’t an team in the majors where they’re running the show. Okay, maybe Boston, and even then the ownership steps in on important transactions.

Will the Mariners listen to him? There’s no way to tell. That he’s not going to be living here and hanging around the offices all the time is probably a good indicator he’ll be offering his thoughts from a ways off when the team’s looking for another voice. But I’m just speculating — maybe he’ll end up traveling with Bavasi and be someone they want in every meeting because he’s so smart.

We’ve made some comments here in tip-toeing around this before that Olkin’s not the greatest guy they could have hired, and I regret saying that. In my mind, if Iwas running a team and I wanted to hire a guy to offer input on player acquisitions, I’d hire Gary Huckabay… who’s working for the A’s. So he’s not available. I’d hire Keith Woolner if it was stat-centric, or maybe even Clay, but who knows if they’d even take such a job? I’d hire Dave seven days a week and twice on Sundays if it was something like “stat-informed minor league roaming scouting dude” but they’ve already got a strong scouting organization, so it’ s unlikely that’s what they’re after…

Without knowing what the exact job’s going to be, it’s stupid for me to imply there’s someone out there who’s better for it. I don’t know, and I like Mat and respect his work enough that I should have waited for more information on what the job is, and see how he does.

But, as part of what I wrote in the Mariners chapter of BP2005 (buy it now! $12 freaking dollars!) about this:

[…] for the first time, the team has someone in the big chair who doesn’t simply dismiss innovation in baseball management. Bavasi may not get it but he understands there’s something worth getting.

We don’t know how this is going to work out. But to quote SportsNight —

“If you’re dumb, surround yourself with smart people. If you’re smart, surround yourself with smart people who disagree with you.”

That they’re trying, looking outside the industry hires like Dan Evans and Jimy Williams, people to find a smart guy like Mat Olkin in order to get a new voice in the organization — you have to be happy about this.

Update! The Oregonian is the first newspaper to pick this up, here (warning: faking your own demographic info may be required) John Hunt, you may remember, knows Olkin through Baseball Weekly.

* unless I’ve been badly misinformed, in which case it’ll be announced some other time


56 Responses to “The M’s stathead is Olkin”

  1. Chickenhawk on January 22nd, 2005 10:34 pm

    I have been checking in here at the USSM for about four months now. I have enjoyed the ideas and quality, and once or twice have chimed in.
    However, in the last three minutes of reading, I received two blows, one to each kidney:
    1) after reading post #41, I realized I need to brush up on my stats.
    2) Sickels was my favorite writer on the ESPN site. Will he be available elsewhere?

  2. Zeem on January 23rd, 2005 11:04 am

    When I first Mat in the early 90’s, he was going to law school for the express purpose of pursuing the GM job of the Milwaukee Brewers (and he didn’t even grow up in the Milwaukee area). He’s a good guy and I wish him well, for his sake and ours.

  3. Paul Covert on January 29th, 2005 9:23 am

    Nice article on Olkin by Larry Stone here.

  4. EE on June 13th, 2005 5:51 pm

    Bill Bavasi wanted to hire me before the 2004 season, but I already work for a team in the AL West and have a non-compete clause (with all three of my clients) vis-a-vis other teams in the same division.

    Eddie Epstein

  5. DMZ on June 13th, 2005 6:17 pm

    Ladies and gentlemen, Eddie Epstein, co-author of “Baseball Dynasties” which is a fine book I heartily recommend.

    This is why I don’t want to close old threads.

  6. EE on June 29th, 2005 10:43 pm


    Thanks for the kind words about Baseball Dynasties.

    In case anyone is curious, or even if they’re not, I am working for three major league clubs.