Whenever the words “baseball” and “cancer” are paired together, most people think of Major League Baseball players using pink baseball bats on Mother’s Day to honor those affected by breast cancer. However, Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight’s Rob Arthur writes about baseball statistics and is also a cancer researcher, and according to him, one job compliments the other.
“In a lot of ways, the core process doing the scientific research and data journalism at FiveThirtyEight is very similar,” Arthur said. “You ask a question, gather data to do the analysis. It’s the same as writing a scientific article with the same sequence of steps.”
Arthur is a PhD cancer researcher at the University of Chicago. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Virginia, where he earned his Bachelor’s degree in Biology in 2010. He views journalism as a way to express himself.
“There’s a more creative freedom in journalism writing and you get to put more of your voice in it,” he said. “I wanted to exercise my creative writing muscle.”
Arthur has written for FiveThirtyEight for more than six months, and he focuses on baseball statistics. Over the past few years, baseball has gone from a plain-and-simple sport to one full of statistics. Every pitch thrown is a stat, every foul ball is a stat, and every home run off the right field foul pole is a stat.
“In baseball, technology is evolving very rapidly, especially the desire to gather data. Just look at Statcast. Depending on that, being an analyst will be completely different,” he said.
One of the biggest technological advances in baseball is the visible strike zone. Most, if not all broadcasts, now show what the strike zone for each batter looks like, thereby giving viewers a better understanding of what constitutes a ball and a strike. With this advancement, it is much easier to notice when an umpire gets the call wrong, and that was shown during the 2015 Postseason.
Arthur focuses heavily on probabilities, both on a team or a specific player. There is technology in numbers, and that allows Arthur to determine probabilities, whether it’s about a team’s chances to advance in the playoffs or how often a player should go on a remarkable hot streak at the plate.
Another topic Arthur has focused on is how the game has changed over time. Baseball is a highly streaky sport. Years can go by with hitters dominating the game (don’t you miss the 1990s and 2000s?), and then there will be long periods of time when pitchers dominate the game, like right now.
While Arthur does focus on hard stats, he will occasionally produce content that is more on the entertaining side. The 2015 baseball season was one of mysteries, and with that came surprises and disappointments. Through Reddit, Arthur was able to analyze how each team’s fans felt throughout the year, which provided a rather interesting graph to demonstrate those fans’ feelings.
It is evident that technology has provided a sport as simple as baseball an almost infinite amount of statistics.
“Part of baseball stats is technological, and part of it is how baseball is structured,” he said. “Each baseball thing — walk, strikeout — is a category. We don’t have the technology to say, ‘His basketball dribble was a good dribble,’ so baseball automatically gives us a huge category of stats.”
While Arthur enjoys studying baseball, his more important research revolves around the cux1 gene, and how cancer is caused by the mutation of the gene.
“I finished my PhD in June in the research of evolution, and I switched gears to looking at cancer,” he said. “Right now, it is open-ended work for me so there is no timeline.”
My profile on Rob Arthur is one to remember. I truly respect his passion for baseball stats and more importantly, his efforts with the war on cancer. He has made me view baseball differently because I’ve never been a big stats guy. He also taught me a valuable data journalism lesson: information is everywhere; we just have to look for it.