The joy of data processing

The creation of data is a holy act; not really, but occasionally I need to feed my own caricatures. — baseball writer Bill James

Okay, I haven’t posted for six days.  Not great.  Six days really was longer than I expected to be absent from here.  Yeah, it’s not my longest absence (that one was closer to six months than six days), but still, some of you have subscribed to this space and I just don’t like to leave people hanging.

So why the extended moment of silence?  Well, two things:

  1. I’m still working on an update about my son Sean and his illness, which I thought would be the next post.  Every time I’m ready to write it, it seems like there’s something new to add (good news, almost all of it).  So now I’m aiming for next Monday, also his seventh birthday.  It’ll be worth the wait, trust me.
  2. I’m getting ready for the next fantasy baseball season, pounding stats into an Excel spreadsheet.  And having the time of my life doing it.

Now, to most of you, the phrases “time of my life” and “Excel spreadsheet” are mutually exclusive — they don’t belong in the same hemisphere, let alone the same sentence.  But let me explain …

Last week, when I was talking about my projects for 2011, the last one I mentioned was “Manage my Legends of Baseball fantasy team.”  LOB (as the natives call it) is an all-time league, which means you can draft players from anywhere in major league history, from 1871 to last year, and have them play on your team.  It also uses a computer simulation called Diamond Mind Baseball, which has its own set of quirks. So you not only have to know the players really well (some of which were born before the Civil War), but you also have to know the sim, how it works, and why certain players don’t do as well in it as you’d think they would.

Well, one of my ways of learning both (mainly the latter) was to keep a big honking spreadsheet with each player’s statistics in LOB play (as opposed to the ones they racked up in real life).  Every year, after the LOB season’s end, I’d add their numbers from that season to my spreadsheet.  For a while I didn’t mind doing it, and it did get me prepared for the next season.  But it ran into a few problems:

  • It took a really, really long time to update all those numbers.
  • I wasn’t keeping season-by-season numbers, just totals for all seasons combined, so if someone started performing better or worse in the sim (which can happen, since sims, like all computer programs, get upgraded periodically), I didn’t have a clear record of it.
  • Because I wasn’t keeping season-by-season numbers, if I made an addition error, it was hard to catch and to fix.

That last one led me, in the 2010 draft, to select a particular outfielder about ten rounds ahead of where I should’ve, because I’d undercalculated his total at-bats by 100 while getting his other stats correct, so he looked a lot more productive than he actually was.  Thankfully, he did okay for me — but it made me wonder how many other times I’d forgotten to carry the 1.  And my spreadsheet listed every single guy who’d been drafted in LOB from 2003 to 2010, something like 1500 players, each with 20 to 30 numbers to track …

Clearly, there had to be a better way, and there was — Tom, our current league commissioner, has his own statistical database for LOB, one that not only goes back to 1999 (five years before I joined the league), and not only has both “career” and season-by-season numbers, but is generated by the Diamond Mind program, so you don’t have to worry about human error.  And he was happy to share it with the group.  I don’t know why I didn’t take advantage of it before (pride, probably), but this time I am.  It’s guaranteed to be 100% accurate, and it’s a lot less work for me.

But not, I discovered, no work for me at all.  Because I had things in my spreadsheet, very useful things to me, that weren’t in the official LOB spreadsheet.  Things like the MLB team and year usually selected for the player.  (In LOB we draft specific player years — Babe Ruth 1921, for instance — so a guy who had one spectacular season can be very valuable.)  Things like the number of batters faced (for pitchers) and plate appearances (for hitters) they have available.  (Huge, since LOB rules only allow you to use a players for as many BFs or PAs as he had in the year you picked him for; once he runs out, you can’t use him anymore.)  Or where he was chosen in previous LOB drafts (important for draft strategy).  Or pitchers’ ground-ball percentages.  Or defensive ratings.  Or a few other things.

Make no mistake, the LOB spreadsheet is great, and I’m so glad it’s available for us.  But for picky ol’ me, at least, it could be better.  So since Sunday I’ve been taking some things that are in my Excel doc but not in the new one, and making room for them in the new one.

The surprise for me hasn’t been that there’s work to do, or how much/little time it takes to do it.  The surprise has been how FUN it is to do it.

I kid you not one bit.  Every morning, I find myself looking forward to cracking open Excel and cutting and pasting data, a few cells at a time.  Every afternoon, I find myself blurting out to my wife what section of the spreadsheet I’ve completed while she was at work.  (She couldn’t care less, but she tolerates it wonderfully as long as I keep it short.)  In the evenings, I have to force myself to close Excel and get to bed.  I’m enjoying every step of it.

Why?  Well, it’s not just that it’s baseball, or that it’s LOB, though those are factors.  It’s not that I have an Excel fetish, though I do find it useful for a great many things.  I think that the main reason is that for me it’s a joy to create, regardless of what it is I’m creating.

Looking at my life, it seems to me that many of my happiest moments are when I’m creating stuff.  I love to cook, for instance — sometimes even more than I like to eat, and I like to eat a lot.  (Probably too much, if my waistline is any judge.)  There, it’s the taking of various bits of this and that, and assembling them into a coherent whole that will make my wife and kids say, “mmmmm.”  The day I found out that you could combine lowfat milk, margarine, garlic salt and pre-grated Parmesan and make a passable fake-Alfredo sauce, it changed my life a little.  I still get a kick out of that.

Writing a story or a poem is creating something; I do that quite a bit (though not as much as I think I should).  Drawing a doodle is creating; I”ve done some that Charlotte thinks I should expand to comic-book length.  (They’re not that good, but it’s nice of her to say.)  Organizing the office — one of the other projects for the year — is in essence creating a clean, well-ordered office, just like mowing the lawn creates a nice-looking lawn.  I could go on, but you get the gist.

Sometimes I wonder if the joy of creating — making something out of a lot of nothings-by-themselves — comes from how it brings us closer to the Creator, the God who set the worlds in motion and maintains them to this day.  Regardless of whether I need to “feed my own caricatures,” the creation of data (or anything) really is, at some level, a holy act, a rendering of order out of disorder.  To do so is to fight the entropy of a fallen universe, one sentence, one room, one stat line at a time.  Other times, I don’t wonder at all, I just roll with it.  Either way, it puts a smile on my face in a way that just maintaining things can never do.

In fact, I think I’m gonna go do some more creating.  There are a few left-handed relievers I need to plug in numbers for …


One Response to The joy of data processing

  1. […] The Fantasy Team — I mentioned a few weeks ago that I was up to my chin in an Excel spreadsheet, planning for the upcoming Legends of Baseball […]

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