Behind The Scenes

ESPN The Magazine: Analytics Issue features A’s star Brandon McCarthy

Note: ESPN The Magazine is sponsoring the Readers Choice Award for the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. Fans can vote and leave comments on the best contenders for the award — determined after organizers of the conference sifted through more than 100 submissions to determine 10 finalists — by clicking here. The fans’ choice will be announced at this year’s conference, taking place March 2-3.

With the Academy Awards fast approaching, one film that continues to make a splash (with six nominations) is Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt as Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane.

Also making waves on the sports analytics front this week is ESPN The Magazine’s first ever Analytics Issue, on newsstands Friday, Feb. 24.

A’s pitcher Brandon McCarthy, featured on the cover with his wife Amanda, is a big believer in crunching numbers to analyze and project sports performance.

Front Row caught up with The Mag’s executive editor Scott Burton about the issue and why he feels it’s one of the best produced in his 11-year tenure:

ESPN The Magazine: Analytics Issue

FR: This is the first time the Mag has done an Analytics Issue? Why now?
We have been waiting to do this issue for a long time — ever since we started doing deep dives. Although timing the issue with the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference was intentional, it is also a time of year where sports are converging in the most analytically interesting way – with the start of the MLB, NCAA’s March Madness, NHL Playoffs ramping up, among others.

FR: What was your primary goal with this issue? What are you hoping to accomplish?
We are always thinking of ways to make our fans smarter — to employ them with interesting information. With this issue, it was important for us to take a more layered approach: We wanted to both embrace analytics in a serious way and be able to tell real stories. We didn’t want the issue to become some so dense and full of hardcore stats that it would be intimidating and uninteresting to our readers. On the one hand, we were careful not to water down the facts, yet on the other we wanted to do so in such a way that made it interesting. Looking at the analytics is a different way of appreciating sports. To me, this is the best storytelling we’ve done in the past year. Just because you’re talking about stats doesn’t mean you can’t tell a story too. I’m very proud to say we were able to do just that.

FR: Tell us about the story selection. Was there any particular facet of the issue that turned out differently than initially planned?
In all honesty, the McCarthy piece was our biggest surprise. After being turned down by [Milwaukee Brewers pitcher] Zack Greinke, we then approached McCarthy for what we planned on being a small feature. Although after spending some time with him, [Mag writer] Eddie Matz quickly realized we had something so much bigger — and 2,000 words soon became 4,000. Between the strength of [McCarthy’s] personality and drama of his story, here is someone who clearly embraced analytics and became the story. Someone who was almost out of baseball entirely, and once he turned to advanced analytics was able to turn his career around. To the best of my knowledge, there’s never been a story like this in baseball.

This is our most chart and graph intensive issue ever. It’s something that takes a lot of time, from one draft to the next although we all dig our heels in and work until it feels right. We feel very strongly about fine-tuning every chart, every graphic, until it tells the story we want it to tell.

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