Meet the man who built Pirates' analytics department
By Travis Sawchik
Published: Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013, 11:03 p.m.
There are 18 baseball operation staff biographies in the Pirates' 2013 media guide. Dan Fox's bio appears last and is the briefest. Yet the 45-year-old plays arguably one of the most integral roles in the organization.
Fox never played baseball beyond high school. He graduated not with Ivy League pedigree but from Iowa State with a degree in computer science.
Fox, the club's director of baseball systems development, is the computer whiz behind the curtain. His work has influenced everything from player acquisitions to defensive positioning during the club's first winning season since 1992. But Fox is unlike many of the data analysts to enter the game in baseball's information era.
OSBORNE & ABSTRACTS
Fox was raised in Durant, Iowa, an idyllic Midwestern town covering a square mile and encompassed by cornfields. The son of a banker and homemaker, Fox and his older brother David were involved in everything from church choir to school theater as part of graduating classes no larger than 50 students.
Above all else, the Fox boys particularly were interested in numbers and baseball. In 1981, their father brought home a device that enabled them to merge their interests: the Osborne I computer, the first commercially successful portable computer. It cost $1,800 and weighed 23 pounds and was little more than a suitcase-sized calculator, but it inspired curiosity.
“There wasn't much to it,” said David Fox, lead database administrator for AMC Theatres. “But we learned the programs and tinkered. We combined that with our interest in baseball to help analyze Strat-o-Matic cards (a baseball simulation boardgame) to find out which guys were better.”
There was another revelation shaping Dan Fox during his teenage years: reading. Fox was a voracious reader, soaking up everything from Civil War history to astronomy and theology. But nothing resonated quite like Bill James' Baseball Abstracts, which Fox began reading in the early 1980s.
“Dan has always had a curiosity beyond normal,” David Fox said.
Like Fox, James was different, a baseball outsider. He began writing during third-shift work as a security guard at Stokely Van Camp's pork and beans cannery in Lawrence, Kan. But his sabermetric-based writings inspired thousands to think differently about how to evaluate baseball players.
“The first thing I remember taking from James is he got the left-right splits,” Fox said. “You couldn't find that information anywhere; it didn't exist. I remember thinking, ‘This is something nobody else has, and you can make decisions on it. It's revolutionary.' ”
“We played the 1983 NL season (in Strat-o-Matic),” Fox said. “On the Cubs I had Carmelo Martinez. He batted maybe 120 times that year, but he hit seven home runs. You could put him in the lineup every day against left-handed pitching and he kills it.”
PROGRAMMER TO WRITER
Like James, Fox did not see himself in a baseball front office. Outsiders were not accepted in baseball in the 1980s.
By the mid 1990s, Fox had become a niche celebrity in Midwest programming circles because of his writing and presentations. In 1999, Fox was working for Quilogy, a Kansas City-based consulting company. It was there he met Jon Box, with whom he co-authored a programming book.
“He was different from the typical computer person,” Box said. “Most computer people are strong on one side of the brain but not on both sides. He had the ability to communicate. … For a lot of very smart computer people, the ability to articulate, to put complex thoughts into words is not a strength. It is for him.”
Box suggested Fox begin blogging.
“I started this blog, and I wrote two posts about software development,” Fox said. “Then I wrote an entry on baseball. I thought, ‘This is really a lot more fun.' ”
Fox continued to write on baseball as a hobby, and in 2003, The Hardball Times, a baseball website, offered Dan an unpaid writing position.
Fox continued to write as he moved his family to Colorado to lead technical projects for Compassion International, a Christian child sponsorship organization. It was there that former Baseball Prospectus writer Will Carroll reached out to Fox.
“Since they paid, I said ‘OK,' ” Fox said.
Fox published nearly 100 articles for Baseball Prospectus, an analytical site frequented by influential people in baseball. Fox's work on baserunning still is employed by Baseball Prospectus.
“Listen to Jimi Hendrix and maybe you can play a little,” Carroll said. “But it's not how he played it, it's how he came up with it. Dan came up with perfect baserunning numbers. You just sit back and go, ‘How did you even think of that?' The fact that no one has been able to recreate it is even bigger.”
Fox's first Baseball Prospectus column ran on March, 30, 2006. Its opening lines:
“ ‘Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.'-vNiels Bohr, Danish physicist (1885 - 1962). That sentiment, while especially problematic in Bohr's world of quantum physics, is also more than a bit perplexing in the Newtonian world of Major League baseball. …. Projecting performance accurately is a kind of Holy Grail.”
When Neal Huntington became the Pirates general manager in late 2007, he knew the club had to think differently.
He inherited an organization without an analytics department or proprietary computer system. The Pirates were far behind the baseball industry in accepting and adopting 21st century information.
“We were looking for a computer programmer to be the architect behind our internal, comprehensive computer system,” Huntington said. “We also wanted to go out and get a terrific analyst. Dan Fox's name came up on both fronts.”
The Pirates hired Fox in 2008. His first task was creating the club's computer database, MITT, an acronym for Managing, Information, Tools and Talent. With the click of a computer mouse, the player-information system unified scouting reports, medical and contract information. There are nearly 200,000 professional and amateur players in the database. After MITT was operational in 2009, Fox turned his focus to creating proprietary analytics and offering data-driven analysis, his foremost interests.
Fox's influence as an analyst has reached a peak this season to include:
• Being consulted on nearly every player acquisition decision.
• Supplying the data behind defensive shifts.
• Playing a role in recommending a focus on increasing groundball rates.
• Conducting research on the draft and preventative health practices for pitchers.
The Pirates now have five full-time staffers working under Fox dedicated to data architecture and quantitative analysis.
That the Pirates have accepted Fox's analysis is not a surprise to Dan Ducat, who worked with Fox at Compassion International.
“He had the ability to talk to nontechnical people about technical things,” Ducat said. “He was a tremendous bridge. You don't find a lot of tech people who have that ability.”
Fox does not fit the classic IT stereotype. He is visible. He's often in the clubhouse. He watched video with players during spring training, asking questions. He meets with manager Clint Hurdle before every series, in person or via teleconference, to go over lineups and defensive alignment. Hurdle, an old-school baseball type, has grown to trust Fox.
“One of the things I've always said is, ‘I don't have all the answers,' ” Hurdle said. “It was time for me to challenge myself.”
Fox is different, and perhaps that is why he is one of the game's most influential analysts, a voice Huntington trusts.
“There are lot of baseball people that are closed-minded to analytics, and there's a lot of analysts that are closed-minded to baseball,” Huntington said. “We have some people who are open to both sides.”
Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib
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