Saying Hello

Travis Sawchik has distinguished himself in recent years as one of the sharpest minds in baseball journalism, exhibiting his intelligence not only by way of his work for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review but also with his book Big Data Baseball. He has recently joined FanGraphs. We’re happy to have him.

My wife, two-year-old, and I share the holiday season with our families, alternating Christmas Day between each respective side like a college-football home-and-home series. Christmas was spent with my in-laws in Georgia this year, which meant we visited my parents a week earlier at my childhood home in Concord, Ohio, a suburb east of Cleveland.

There, the unfinished basement remains something of a shrine to the Cleveland Indians, particularly the 1990s-era teams of my youth. There are laminated Cleveland Plain Dealer and Akron Beacon Journal section fronts documenting postseason triumphs adhered to the cinder-block walls. There are autographed items – including signatures from Ruben Amaro and Jerry Dipoto – and a sequence of photos details the rise of Progressive Field from an old market and warehouse district just south of the city center in the early 1990s. The basement is something of an archaeology of fandom. It’s also the only place Mom would allow for such clutter. Though covering the sport as a member of the press diminishes enthusiasm for any one team, I was raised to be a fan of the sport. I still very much am.

When I visited home in mid-December, I had recently accepted a writing position with FanGraphs. This is my first day on the job. After spending the first 13 years of my career with newspapers, the last four covering the Pirates and Major League Baseball for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, I am making the full-time leap to this place of baseball enlightenment. I am grateful for this opportunity given to me by David Appelman and Dave Cameron.

While I am a bit of an unconventional addition for FanGraphs, hired from a traditional media outlet, I have viewed the game through a sabermetric lens. (After all, I gave Yasmani Grandal his only MVP vote – seventh place – last season.)

There are a number of reasons I’m excited to join the exceptional team at FanGraphs, and to write for this audience. Instead of covering one MLB team, I can explore 30. Instead of the bulk of writing tied to game stories and notebooks, the vast majority of writing here will be tied to analysis, research and enterprise. While I do not have a degree in statistics or computer science, I have always been interested in numbers, in objective reasoning, in the truth behind things. I played Strat-o-Matic. I built pretend rosters in school notebooks. I remember reading Moneyball some 13 years ago and thinking “Wow, someone gets it.” So to be writing here after lurking for so many years is quite a thrill.

But with any change there is also uncertainty and trepidation.

While home for pre-Christmas, I read the Plain Dealer’s obituary on John Glenn. The article recounted how in Robert F. Kennedy’s study, Glenn had stumbled upon a quote Kennedy had marked from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Always do what you are afraid to do.” Said Glenn: “That stayed with me.”

The passage has remained with me, too. Perhaps it should remain with all of us. Change can be uncomfortable. But change is also a primary driver of growth.

Just look at the game we all love to follow and study. Change has been so much a part of the story of 21st-century baseball. Technology and computing power has forced the game to move away from tradition. Those individuals and teams that have resisted change have not done as well as those who have embraced it.

Perhaps the most compelling figure (shameless plug alert!!!) in my book Big Data Baseball was Pirates manager Clint Hurdle. Hurdle was a traditional baseball man: an ex-player who worked his way up the coaching ranks from the minor leagues. Hurdle agreed to adopt, and played a role in developing, perhaps the game’s most dramatic run-prevention plan in 2013. The ingredients: a lot of shifts plus a record MLB ground-ball rate via an aggressive pitch selection-and-sequencing plan. The result? The Pirates allowed 90 fewer runs in 2013 than 2012 with much of the same roster. It helped the Pirates end the longest consecutive run of losing seasons – 20 of them – in North American pro sports history.

FanGraphs will force me to change, to grow, to use new tools, to think in new ways, and appeal to a new audience. It’s a new terrain. That’s a challenge and opportunity.

I was drawn to this Nathan Heller article in the New Yorker published in February. I found this passage articulates the process of discovery perfectly:

“Writers and travelers alike do their best work when they don’t know what they are looking for; disorientation requires problem solving, and a new landscape holds secrets… I like my mind best when it’s on the move. To land somewhere unfamiliar is to force yourself into alertness, to redraw maps you have, to set the stage for creativity.”

When I joined the Tribune-Review back in April of 2013 and began covering major-league baseball, it was a completely new experience. I had previously covered Clemson athletics in South Carolina. While I had always followed the game from afar, and visited sites like FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus – often to try and gain an edge in my dynasty fantasy-baseball league – I had never written about the sport.

While the opportunity to cover MLB fulfilled a career aspiration, it also came with the pressures of change. But it was change that allowed me to explore a new landscape with fresh eyes.

I had the good fortune of arriving on the Pirates beat in 2013 when the club began to do some interesting things, particularly if you preferred to view the sport from an analytical lens. The Pirates were shifting, setting record ground-ball rates, buying into pitch-framing like no other NL team, and exploring ways to prevent injury and maximize performance. While on the Pirates beat, I wrote a book, won some writing awards, and generally tried to find interesting stories to tell.

I will still be looking for interesting stories to tell at FanGraphs.

As Dave Cameron told me in a conversation last month, being a successful contributor at FanGraphs is all about asking really good questions… and then answering them.

In essence, a FanGraphs writer must be curious. I believe curiosity is a strength I possess. With this change comes heightened curiosity that I am confident will lead to more questions and discoveries, as it has before.

I will be part of a writing team that will continue to produce the analysis, research and opinion you have come to expect at FanGraphs. What will be perhaps a little different is that I will regularly be writing enterprise and profiles here. As I did as a reporter, I will interview actors involved in on-field play to explain some of the processes behind the results, and better understand what we observe from the outside.

I like to try to find that intersection between the human element and science. I think when you can arrive there you have something. I tried my best to arrive there with this piece on the trend of the growing strike zone, illustrating some of the ways the Pirates were taking advantage of that trend.

I tried to arrive there in explaining Gregory Polanco’s swing changes through data and observation in this story.

As I begin at FanGraphs, I know I cannot be Dave Cameron or Jeff Sullivan or August Fagerstrom or Eno Sarris or the many other talented writers and analysts of FanGraphs past and present. Everyone must find their own voice and style. But I will try to be interesting. And while moving to FanGraphs is a change, while it will require growth, it is a perfect home.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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Pirates Hurdlesmember
6 years ago

Welcome Travis! Excited to see you here and I’m sure you will be a real asset to FG. Plus, no more yinzers in the comment section, bonus!

6 years ago

“Plus, no more yinzers in the comment section, bonus!”

Don’t speak too soon — I for one plan to comment on every one of Travis’s posts to ask if he thinks Hughes, Mercer, Freese, Frazier, Ngoepe, and Cumpton is enough of a package to get Mike Trout.

Pirates Hurdlesmember
6 years ago


Greg Goldenmember
6 years ago

Don’t be so nebby.