Certain events in the annals of computer science carry Biblical
import among digerati, such as the launching of ARPAnet (which
was the basis for the Internet) by the Pentagon in 1969 and the
invention of the World Wide Web by Britain's Tim Berners-Lee in
the early '90s. To computer-savvy baseball junkies, Sean Forman's
relocation to Macon, Ga., in '99 was as monumental as either of
those cyber moments.
This is an article from the Dec. 16, 2002 issue
A doctoral candidate in the math department at Iowa, Forman was
knee-deep in his dissertation on protein folding, an arcane field
of computational biology, when his wife, Sylvia, got a job
teaching math at Mercer University in Macon. The move there meant
that Forman, a former catcher at Manning (Iowa) High and a
Rotisserie baseball addict, would have to give up the team he ran
in an Iowa City fantasy league. "I didn't think I could make it
to the draft," says Forman. Free from Rotisserie obligations--and
looking for a distraction from his thesis work--Forman set about
filling a void he found in the vast landscape of baseball
minutia: a comprehensive online source for historical statistical
data. "There were plenty of places to find current stats," says
Forman, who previously had run a website (www.iowafarmreport.com)
devoted to minor league stats and player bios. "But online you
couldn't find out what Ty Cobb hit in 1920."
The result was Baseball-Reference.com, a no-frills site that
contains a mountain of easily accessible information. Launched in
2000, the site, which draws an average of 10,000 visitors a day,
is an essential bookmark for every fan. "It's the best use of
hyperlinks on the Web," says Neal Traven, a Seattle
epidemiologist who also co-chairs the Society for American
Baseball Research's statistical analysis committee. "You can
follow the links forever."
Built using information from a database developed by Sean Lahman,
a baseball historian in upstate New York who runs his own stats
site (www.baseball1.com), Forman's creation was initially little
more than an online version of Total Baseball, the encyclopedia
that was published from 1989 through 2001. Baseball-Reference.com
has stats for every player and season in major league history,
but users are drawn more by the myriad features Forman has
introduced. The most popular is a listing of player-similarity
scores: Using a formula developed by stats guru Bill James in the
mid-1980s, Forman links players who have similar career
statistics. For example, one click of the mouse shows that at
this point in his career, 26year-old Alex Rodriguez's production
most closely resembles that of Mickey Mantle at the same age.
Wondering which team was in first place in the American League on
your grandfather's birthday? Baseball-Reference.com has standings
from every date in major league history since 1901. Need a
listing of players born in Alaska? (There are nine.) The site
groups players by state and country. Want to know the best 50game
stretch ever put together by the St. Louis Browns? A few clicks
tells you that from July 13 through Aug. 29, 1916, the club went
34--14. The site also includes major award winners, voting totals
and a managerial register with the records of everyone who has
filled out a lineup card.
Forman, who recently updated the site with 2002 stats, does his
work on an old 800-megahertz PC in the office of his Philadelphia
home. The site is free, but Forman covers his expenses and makes
a small profit--"Enough to go to 15 or 20 Phillies games a year,"
he says--from donations by users. He has rebuffed several
companies that have inquired about buying the site. "This is
somewhere between a hobby and a part-time job," says the
31-year-old Forman, who is an assistant professor of applied
mathematics and computer science at St. Joseph's University. "The
computer programming aspect is similar to what I teach. I write
programs to solve applied math problems. I'm a better computer
programmer because of this site."
On the Ball
In addition to Baseball-Reference.com, here are four other
historical baseball sites.
Box scores and play-by-play for every major league game; currently complete from 1967 season through 2002.
The yearly salary breakdown and other details of every current
major leaguer's contract.
The thinking fan's salon: An erudite collection of essays and
Statistical and scouting analyses of current major and minor