Loyola professor helps piece resurgent O's team together

The opening scene of the movie "Moneyball" is a grainy close-up of Johnny Damon batting for the Oakland Athletics.

Damon becomes the movie's pivotal point, a primary example of a player paid more than stats say he is worth. That surprised Loyola University Maryland economics professor Stephen Walters. He used the sort of advanced statistical analysis championed by the film and the book that inspired it to advise then-Boston Red Sox general manager, Dan Duquette, that signing Damon in fact made a great deal of financial sense.

" 'Bout knocked me out of my chair when I first saw the movie," Walters said. "Dan really was on the vanguard of using sabermetrics and thinking in new ways, and here he's being portrayed as the guy with the biggest wallet and a lack of creativity."

Sabermetrics — a term derived from the acronym SABR, which stands for the Society for American Baseball Research — is the analysis of baseball statistics.

Walters, 58, is once again working with Duquette, who was hired as the Orioles' top executive last fall and immediately surrounded himself with a coterie of advisers. He brought in longtime baseball men such as Fred Ferreira and Lee Thomas; men steeped in the traditional ways of building baseball teams, renowned for identifying talent and assembling it in the proportions and styles needed to create a championship team.

Duquette also adjusted the Orioles' existing staff of statistical analysts — after author Michael Lewis published "Moneyball," teams in all major sports began investing in the study of statistics — and brought Walters on as a consultant.

The Orioles did not respond to emails seeking comment from Duquette or other Orioles officials for this article. Duquette rarely has engaged in a nuanced discussion of his process with reporters. Even Walters, who attended most games this season and kept in constant contact with Duquette, is unsure how many people Duquette might consult before making a decision.

"I know I'm just a small, small part," he said recently from a booth at restaurant in Charles Village, where he recently moved. "I'm just coming at it from one angle, and Dan compiles all these thoughts and ultimately he's the one making the decision. The information I provide really is a tiny sliver."

What separates Walters from the usual sabermetrician taking an objective, numbers-based look at baseball is an added set of calculations — much of his method is proprietary — to determine a player's value to a particular team.

That's why he urged Duquette to sign Damon before the 2002 season. In Boston, the wins he would add to the team, as it was constructed, would be worth at least $10 million a year based on how the franchise was able to "monetize" success.

Damon's contract cost the team about $7.75 million per season, and he became an important part of the team that won the 2004 World Series.

Walters said he could not discuss what his formulas revealed about the players Duquette added to the O's roster he inherited, but he did help Duquette determine whether a potential acquisition would be a "red-ink or black-ink player."

Walters and Duquette began working closely in 2001, after an 82-79 season for the Red Sox. Years earlier, Walters had sent a letter to several baseball executives promoting his methods and offering his help. Duquette said he was intrigued, but, as is often the case in sports, losing was the impetus for change.

Walters helped Duquette rebuild the club, but neither would get much chance to enjoy it up close; new ownership fired Duquette in March 2002, while Walters was preparing to travel to spring training.

The two kept in touch, and they worked together on an independent analysis of the Chicago Cubs for a group that considered buying the franchise. When a different owner, Tom Ricketts, purchased the team, Walters forwarded him the report. That led to a consulting job with the Cubs.

Like many who have embraced the principles of sabermetrics, Walters spent his childhood playing not just catch but strategy baseball games. Specifically, he and his friends spent hours playing Strat-O-Matic baseball, a simulation game that quantified each major league player's skill and then allowed "games" to be played with dice.

When he and his wife, Melanie, decided to move to Baltimore 30 years ago, Walters, who grew up a Red Sox fan in New England, showed his wife the neighborhoods near Memorial Stadium. They ended up living not far away, spending evenings sitting out in the front yard with neighbors listening to the games.

"He's just always been so into baseball," Melanie Walters said. "This is such a dream for him."

After a long day of work, Walters often would come home and relax by creating rosters of players he thought would exceed expectations if given the chance to play together. That led him to pursue serious academic work in baseball, and he began publishing papers in the 1990s. He ended up writing for Sporting News — and running into considerable resistance from old-school scouts and scribes who scoffed at his methods.

Back at Loyola, though, his research caused a buzz. He has long been a popular teacher — he was honored as one of the school's best in 2005 — and his other academic work has been distinguished. He's currently on sabbatical, working on a book about the future of big cities, a project that grew out of research he did before Baltimore's last mayoral election.

"He strikes the right balance," said John Burger, the economics chair and a professor at the school. "He's passionate. That shows through in the evaluations from his students. But his research is also top-tier."

Last fall, Walters saw a narrative developing that didn't agree with the numbers he had crunched or what he knew about baseball in Baltimore. The Orioles needed a new top executive, but top candidates appeared wary at best.

Walters spoke with Duquette, who had been unable to land a top job in the major leagues since being replaced in Boston. Walters urged Duquette to apply, telling him that the talent was better than most understood and that the ownership wasn't as lousy as most guessed after 14 losing seasons. The Orioles gave Duquette another chance, and Walters finally was able to work with the team in his hometown.

"It's been a dream," he said. "There's finally that feeling back in the city, the one we remember from our old neighborhood in the '80s."

Before the season, Walters' equation predicted 83 wins for the Orioles. That would have been a good year. The Orioles surprised him, winning 93 regular season games and a wild-card spot in the playoffs.

"It was a magical year because of a few other things," he said. "The way Buck Showalter managed the team, one, and the way Dan Duquette addressed problems when they came up. The numbers I ran were right on, but couldn't account for that."