04/17/12 12:00 PM ET
The Stats of Life
Baseball analyst Dave Cameron has learned to beat the odds
By Doug Miller / MLB.com
Cameron hadn't thought much about them. As one of the baseball world's most respected statistical analysts at the age of 29, he knew his data. The data said they were easily explained. Quick calibrations had spat out the results: regular blemishes brought on by the swampy, inescapable July heat in North Carolina; the swollen handiwork of the mega-mosquitoes he had battled ever since moving from crisp Seattle all those years ago; simple war wounds from the pointy corners and duct-tape-hewn sides of the boxes he'd been lugging while banging into the walls of the house into which he and his wife, Amy, had just moved.
Cameron's data was made of iron. His data had never let him down.
But Amy didn't buy the data. She almost jumped off the sofa that night as the tired couple unwound before heading upstairs to bed. Her gaze was fixed on the lesions and black-and-blue marks, her greenish-blue eyes aflame. She took a closer look and began to tremble.
The knowledge she'd gleaned from her young career as a physician assistant, the miles walked through the corridors of the Comprehensive Cancer Center at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, the immediate assumption of the worst possible outcome that had coursed through her blood since a childhood guided by caution: It all bellowed from within her. Those spots were not sun rashes or bug bites or cardboard cuts. They were not the laughable soon-to-fade products of an active Southern lifestyle. No, she knew too well what they were.
"Dave, those are petechiae and purpura," she said. "You could have ... "
She couldn't take her eyes off his legs. He couldn't keep her from crying as she said it.
On July 25, 2011, the doctors gave him the numbers: the white-blood-cell count of 48,000, the 8.5 hemoglobin, the 23,000 platelets. They told him that the average age of a person who gets acute myeloid leukemia, which attacks the bone marrow in the human body, is 68. Less than 1,000 people under the age of 30 are diagnosed with it each year.
And then Dave heard the most important number, the one no man, especially one who had built a career based on statistical projections, could run from.
There was a 60 to 70 percent probability it would kill him within five years.
Long before Dave Cameron's analysis became a must-read for the savviest general managers in the Major Leagues and long before he was appearing on the MLB Network and in the pages of some of the most influential sports publications in America, his story started with Grace.
Mark Grace, the tall, rangy 24-year-old first baseman for the Chicago Cubs, wears No. 53. He's approaching the batting cage, preparing to take a few Spring Training swings. He's looking up at the sky. To the left of him, superimposed on the front of the 1989 baseball card, is a gold cup, a trophy for making Topps' All-Rookie Team the previous year.
Dave Cameron was 8 years old and he was staring at the card, but not the glossy red, blue and yellow side. That was pointed at the beige shag carpet of the tiny bedroom. Dave stared at the back, at the tiny digits of card No. 465 -- the numbers of Grace's first Major League season, the one that ended with him finishing second in the voting for the National League Rookie of the Year Award: 486 at-bats, 65 runs, 144 hits, 23 doubles, four triples, seven homers, 57 RBIs and a .296 batting average.
Soon Cameron had memorized the Grace card and every other one in his brother Jeremy's collection. Soon he was fleecing his best friends, Jesse and Tony -- their troika was known as "Three Math-keteers" to their proud teacher at Christian Faith School -- in lopsided trades predicated on those numbers. Cameron was infatuated with the game that corralled all these stats into a living organism of high socks and weird facial hair and double plays inside a big, ugly dome. If he wasn't at the Kingdome, he could be found in his bedroom, huddled in the corner by the radio, because the Camerons didn't own a TV. There, he'd listen to Mariners announcer Dave Niehaus bring it all to life in staccato poetry.
The front yard of the house in SeaTac, the town named for the nearby airport, was a patch of green stuck in the flight path, and Dave and Jeremy could read the digits off the tails of the jets taking off and landing a short bike ride away. At 9 years old, Dave learned how to make money on a paper route, and he learned how to save it by watching the pitfalls that tripped up his colleagues. He told his mom, Paula, and dad, Rick, that he had no use for Air Jordans. Or any other kind of fashion statement, for that matter. It was stupid to spend money on needless symbols of status.
The declaration didn't surprise his parents, who had built an auto parts and repair shop from the damp ground up, banking their income in the good times and making do in the flat-broke times. One winter, Rick needed a wet-and-dry vacuum cleaner but couldn't afford a new Black & Decker, so he went to Value Village, bought a wheezing old nag of a Hoover for two bucks, hooked it to a five-gallon bucket, and reveled in the floor-sucking dervish he had created.
A few years later, Rick needed a table saw, so he took one of his trusty hand-held circular models, flipped it upside down and bolted it to a metal shelf. It was so effective that a carpenter friend borrowed it to do the side-skirting of a mobile home. It was a use-what-you-have attitude in the Cameron household, and Dave took it with him wherever he went.
To the Kingdome, for example. When Dave was still 9, he and Paula sat in the upper deck, high above the third-base line, as the Mariners played the Boston Red Sox. A Boston fan in his 20s sat behind them, chirping through the early innings. Dave ignored it, focusing on how Seattle starter Scott Bankhead was pitching. Paula watched the game only when she was bored by her self-help paperback. Things were quiet until the Sox fan ripped Alvin Davis, the aging slugger revered by local fans as "Mr. Mariner." Dave had heard enough.
He spun around and rattled off multiple bullet points with such speed and authority that the guy had no choice but to be stunned into a submissive hush: Davis had won the 1984 American League Rookie of the Year Award, he had started his career by reaching base safely in 47 consecutive games, he had averaged over 21 homers and 85 RBIs in his first seven seasons.
And oh yeah, if this guy wanted to lay his wrath upon any Mariner, Dave informed him, it should be Rich Amaral, the 29-year-old rookie who was getting written up in the papers as one of the season's feel-good stories. If Amaral was worth anything, Dave maintained, he would have been a rookie a long time before 29.
Paula's book was now stashed back in her purse, and she sat rapt, shaking her head with everyone else. Dave had begged her to soak in this wonderful, intricate, crazy game -- one in which you'd see something different every night. As she noticed fans of all ages tapping her son's shoulder for answers to their questions, she finally understood why.
The mother and son would make it to five to 10 games each season. When they weren't at the ballpark, Dave would construct a game in his head. Rick and Paula would look out the front window on those summer nights when it didn't get dark until way past 9, watching their son run in circles, throwing a ball up, catching it and announcing an entire ballgame with the studied vernacular and inflections of Niehaus, his muse.
The Daves worked in tandem, building the game's tension, making sure to crescendo with the signature call, the ultimate moment of drama: the bases-loaded homer to win the game in the bottom of the ninth. "Get out the rye bread and mustard, Grandma! It's grand salami time!"
In those glorious moments of triumph, looking up at the gray sky, Dave Cameron was sure he could yell just as loud as the planes that roared above him.
The numbers piled up. Dave consumed them. They consumed him.
He'd floor his family by computing his best possible bowling score while walking from the foul line to the lighted table where they'd pencil in the totals. "OK, now it's a 264," he'd say after an open second frame. Then he'd topple eight pins and miss the spare by one. "Now it's a 243."
He had been kicking around on the family computer Rick had proudly bought for $3,000, a 486/DX66 behemoth with one megabyte of RAM. Rick had switched from AOL to Netcom, and that was where Dave found his heaven: the alt.sports.baseball.sea-mariners newsgroup. He would tie up the home phone line for hours, tiptoeing through the outer hallways of the early Internet's already-well-trod baseball rooms, peeking inside, waiting for the right moment to enter.
In August 1995, Dave read a post by a budding statistical analyst, Dave Pease, that detailed why Ken Griffey Jr., the unassailable icon whose poster lived on Dave and Jeremy's wall (next to a hole punched out by a Louisville Slugger during a WrestleMania reenactment), was a below-average defensive center fielder.
Pease was applying the metric known as Range Factor, or the number of runs a defensive player's ground-covering abilities saved his team. But Dave thought he knew what he saw out of the lithe, springy superstar who glided over the treacherous Kingdome carpet with fluidity, climbed the padded walls and dove on the painted concrete without fear. Pease had to be wrong. Signing into his father's account and introducing himself to the world of sabermetrics as a grammatically indifferent "Richard Cameron," the 14-year-old took aim at "DPease" and let fly.
In one post: "Do you watch a baseball game? Have you ever seen a baseball game? EVER??? I think if you did you would have a different opinion about Jr. and his defense."
Minutes later: "OK, this is another point where stats show nothing! Stats, Stats, Stats. So what! Point is Griffey has a gun in CF, he catches more balls than anyone other than [Kenny] Lofton that I have seen, and he is the best player in all of baseball!"
Pease fired back: "No way. He's not even close to Lofton *or* [Devon] White *or* [Marquis] Grissom *or* Darren Lewis *or* Steve Finley *or* Ray Lankford and Derek Bell. ... Instead of making sweeping broadband statements backed up with no logic and all rah rah team spirit, why don't you start counting? Or don't. Because other people already have. And it's been found that Griffey has substandard range. He just doesn't get to that many balls."
Finally, when it became clear that Pease couldn't offer anything beyond numerical findings, an exasperated, Pepsi-addled "Richard" messaged the system operator of the board, Derek Milhous Zumsteg, a self-described "Sometime writer, sometime drinker, sometime hacker, burned-out, 21-year-old slacker."
"Richard" wrote, "Is there anyway [sic] to get DPease kicked out of this newsgroup, you know, make a rule like morons not allowed or something. This guy thinks that stats mean everything, and he is obviously biased against Griffey!"
Zumsteg answered right away: "Well ... I *could* ban him, but I think he's worth keeping on just to see you hyperventilate. Besides, if we had a 'No Morons Allowed' rule, I'm afraid that would mean you couldn't post either."
Dave could handle the occasional cyber beatdown, because on his favorite indoor diamond, that 1995 season was turning into a miracle that would help secure the deal for a future ballpark. The "Refuse to Lose" team led by Griffey, Edgar Martinez and Randy Johnson rallied from a two-game deficit and beat the Yankees in the first round of the playoffs before falling to the Cleveland Indians in the AL Championship Series. Even though the Mariners would miss the World Series, there was a buzz in town, and armed with his newsgroup alias, Dave was part of it and learning more every day.
He realized that Dave Pease was right about his favorite player. Lofton was the superior defensive center fielder because he covered much more ground than Griffey and therefore didn't need to dive.
There was evidence amassing all over the Internet. Rob Neyer, John Sickels, Peter Gammons and the forefather of this growing movement, Bill James, were embracing these views. "Seamhead" websites were popping up. Baseball Prospectus was taking off, with Dave's "slacker" buddy, Zumsteg, involved. Dave couldn't read enough.
By high school, Dave was the catcher on the baseball team and an outspoken member of debate class, more than happy to engage anyone in an argument. His online pursuits had taught him the power of facts, and his fun-loving older brother had prepared him to field insults and deflect them.
He was driven, leaving for two years of ministry school in Charlotte, N.C., before seeking an economics degree at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. He worked full-time managing databases as a cost accountant for HanesBrands. And he made time to continue writing about baseball. Dave had kept in touch with Derek and another newsgroup veteran, Jason Michael Barker, and the three decided to take their detailed, often humorous e-mail threads and make a website out of them. A friend with a newspaper background designed the site, Baseball116.com, which was named after the Mariners' 116-win season of 2001.
Dave didn't sleep much, but he didn't care. By 2002, the Oakland A's had a best-seller-chronicled and Hollywood-worthy season going in part because of the use of advanced statistical analysis, and Dave Cameron and his nerd buddies had carved out a little piece of cyberspace.
It was called USSMariner.com, and it would help turn the baseball world on to the presence of a strange and polarizing entity: the blog.
They were keyboard-clicking stereotypes -- the "geeks on their computers in the basement of their mother's house."
When Dave, Derek and Jason started USSMariner, they were defiant, sometimes-bitter lonely voices crying in a wilderness of old-school Major League evaluators. Those men relied on scouting and rune-like stats such as batting average and ERA and were so blinded by the bright colors of their Hawaiian shirts that they would never see where statistical analysis fit in.
But the more the blog and sabermetric community wrote and the more the "new" stats -- on-base-plus-slugging (OPS), fielding-independent pitching (FIP), batting average on balls in play (BABIP), Ultimate Zone Rating for defense (UZR) and Wins Above Replacement (WAR) -- evolved into accepted norms, the more big league front offices took notice. The USSMariner trio saw it first-hand, and so did anyone who loved the Emerald City's hometown team. So did the nation, eventually.
In late June 2007, Felix Hernandez, the spectacularly talented 21-year-old Mariners starting pitcher, was getting hit hard in the first inning of games. Dave couldn't stand watching it anymore, and he had the data, so he wrote a post entitled, "An Open Letter to Rafael Chaves," a note to the then-Seattle pitching coach. In it, Dave described in detail the pattern that explained, without any doubts, the struggles of the man Jason -- and then the rest of the world -- had dubbed "King Felix."
"Last night (6/26), Felix threw 10 straight fastballs [against the Red Sox] to start the game," Dave wrote. "Coco Crisp singled on an 0-2 fastball. Dustin Pedroia singled on the first pitch he saw, a pitch he knew was going to be a fastball. David Ortiz drew a four-pitch walk, all on fastballs. The bases were loaded with nobody out after 8 pitches, all fastballs. In his previous start against the Pirates (6/21), Felix threw 13 consecutive fastballs to start the game. ... In the start against Houston (6/15), he threw 7 straight fastballs to start the game."
By the end of the post, Dave had graphed out the spiked fastball percentages of the first innings of all five of Hernandez's June starts.
"This is predictability beyond comprehension, and every team in baseball has caught on," Dave concluded. "Intervene. Take over control of the pitch selection to start the game. Make Felix throw a changeup or a curveball to the first batter. Throw a first-pitch slider in the first inning. What you're letting him do is simply not working."
Over his next two starts, Hernandez gave up just two runs in 16 innings, and after eight shutout frames in Oakland on July 7, the pitcher was asked what had changed. With a smile, Hernandez mentioned that a fan had handed Chaves a printout of an article from the web and begged the coach to read it.
"Chaves gave me a report," Hernandez told the Seattle reporters. "On the Internet, they say when I throw a lot of fastballs in the first inning, they score a lot of runs. I tried to mix all my pitches in the first inning."
The anecdote made it all the way to the pages of the Wall Street Journal. A few months later, the ultimate numbers-oriented newspaper had hired Dave to write a column focusing on the statistical trends of the Grand Old Game.
There were other prescient calls, such as Dave's description of pitcher Carlos Silva as a "free-agent landmine" in November 2007. Dave could only cringe as Mariners general manager Bill Bavasi awarded a four-year, $48 million contract to an out-of-shape sinkerballer who'd posted a 13-14 record and a 4.19 ERA the previous year, and he cringed more over the next two seasons as Silva put up a combined 5-18 record and an ERA of 6.81.
Dave didn't hesitate to laud the trade that brought offensively unproven outfielder Franklin Gutierrez to the Mariners in the winter of 2008 because of Gutierrez's off-the-charts defensive metrics. Gutierrez seized the center-field spot for the 2009 Mariners, whose airtight fielding vaulted the light-hitting team to a 24-win improvement, and Gutierrez won a Gold Glove in 2010.
There were swings and misses, too. Dave posted in late 2005 that the Mariners should not trade outfield prospect Jeremy Reed, an eventual big league bust, for either one of Boston's top young arms. Those prospects, Jon Lester and Jonathan Papelbon, would become All-Stars and World Series winners.
Dave also supported Seattle's late 2009 signing of third baseman Chone Figgins for four years and $36 million and watched the aging former super-utility man slump badly in two ensuing seasons, looking nothing like the sparkplug he was for so many years with the rival Angels.
Learning how to deal with being wrong was another part of growing up, and Amy had watched it all unfold. They had met at the church and he had waited four months to ask her out, but he remembered what she once told him: Her ideal setting for a future engagement was "probably by a waterfall." Six months into their relationship, Dave took her to the mountain town of Banner Elk, N.C., dropped to one knee by a cascading stream, and projecting an outcome with the benefit of this well-researched evidence -- and a round-cut diamond -- in his back pocket, he got the result he wanted.
They settled in Winston-Salem and he took control of their finances, providing the numbers and strategies to keep them secure for the present and future. He made time for her. They never fought. She also watched as he matured into a real writer, a man who didn't rely on stats alone to make his words compelling.
By July 2011, Dave had become the managing editor of a leading statistical analysis site, FanGraphs.com, and was writing for ESPN.com and the Wall Street Journal. He was appearing on radio shows regularly. USSMariner was as popular as ever. He had done what he'd always wanted; he'd taken his obsession with baseball and its numerical intricacies and built a full-time career from it.
And then, Dave and Amy were on that gold sofa, Dave's legs covered in red and purple, and they were crying and didn't have any numbers, data, or earthly clue to determine how much time they'd really have left.
The world was out of whack to begin with.
The Mariners were in the throes of a losing streak that would reach 17 games. The Pittsburgh Pirates, who hadn't had a winning record in 19 years, were tied for first place.
Dave and Amy prepared for the battle that would begin the next morning. They cuddled, they broke out in fits of laughter at inside jokes when they happened to forget about the present, and they submerged themselves in the roiling waves of scared sadness.
After breaking the news to their families and close friends, Dave did the only thing he could do, the thing he did every day. He sat in front of his laptop, opened the USSMariner.com blog tool, entered the headline "When Statistics Are Not Helpful," and poured from his soul the bluntest 567 words he'd ever conjured.
"Data isn't always what is needed," he wrote. "If you're a Pirates fan right now, does it help you at all to know that your team probably won't keep this up? You're not going to be making any decisions that will change the outcome anyway, so why not root for the outcome you want, even if it isn't statistically probable?
"That's what I'm going to spend the next few months (and years, in reality) doing. Save the odds for the doctors; I'm planning on living a long time. I'm planning on beating this thing. I'm planning on watching the Mariners win a game, and at this rate, that might take years. I want to be around to see it, though, and I just don't care what the odds say is likely.
"Statistics can be powerful, useful tools, and at times, they can be critical to understanding what to do. Other times, though, they're useless, and so, for this situation, I say screw the data; I choose hope instead."
The morning powder was airy and Dave and Amy floated over it. They fell and got back up. They took their time.
It was February 2012, and Dave was in remission. The chemo had caused him to puke just about every day for the first week, had him hospitalized for a total of six weeks, and lasted six months in all. He'd groaned and cried with Amy and Paula by his side, he'd lost his hair, and he had days where he couldn't even think of sitting down at the computer, but a month after the diagnosis, a positive genetic marker lowered his odds of dying to somewhere between 30 and 40 percent, and at the end of January, his final bone marrow biopsy revealed no sign of leukemia.
He knew the stats. Dave always knew the stats. There was a chance that it could return, but he also knew he felt better and stronger with each day and that if he made it past the five-year mark with clean tests, he'd be clinically cured.
The Camerons were in Breckenridge, Colo., on a vacation provided by the Domus Pacis Family Respite program, which enables cancer patients and their families to escape to the mountains for a week and not worry about the cost. It was their first vacation since the lost summer, and they were thinking about other things again.
They were thinking about giving potential parenthood another shot. They were thinking about their upcoming May half-marathon for Team in Training, a fund-raising arm of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. They were thinking about Dave's new responsibilities as a card-carrying member of the Baseball Writers' Association of America. But most of all, they were thinking about some serious Tex-Mex potato-cheese soup for dinner.
Dave eyed the kitchen in the condo and saw the challenge: two burners. Electric burners. He opened the silverware drawer and found one knife to cut the onion. It was dull.
He'd nailed down all the numbers, from the two pounds of Yukon gold potatoes to the jalapeno to the 1/3-cup of all-purpose flour. He and Amy loved this recipe -- there was a strong record of performance upon which he could predict future success. He had a large enough sample size to pull from.
Twenty minutes later, it was clear that the whole plan had gone awry. Dave, the man of statistics, of numbers, of predictions and a lifelong desire to boil everything down to a science, had botched the calculations. He had forgotten to take into account the altitude change, and nothing cooked the way it should have. When they spooned the steaming concoction into their mouths, the still-raw onions lingered on their tongues, crunchy enough to be chewed.
He looked at his wife and said, "Well, this is perfect," and they laughed together.
Because it was.