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November 14, 2011

Resident Fantasy Genius

Reviewing "Clubhouse Confidential"

by Derek Carty

Last Monday in this space, I interviewed Brian Kenny, host of MLB Network’s newest show, “Clubhouse Confidential,”in advance of the show’s premiere. If you haven’t heard of it yet, “Clubhouse Confidential” is a first-of-its-kind show that puts advanced statistics in the spotlight. Gone are the days of analyzing players using batting average and ERA, at least in MLBN’s 5:30 p.m. EST timeslot. With a week of shows in the books, I thought I’d take today to talk about what the show offers, what it lacks, and whether it’s worth your time to watch.

As I’m sure many people were, I was a little skeptical about how advanced analytics would translate from writing to television. While certainly possible, it needs to be done right in order to hold an audience’s attention—especially since on television, much of that audience is going to be unfamiliar with many of the stats and concepts. Kenny seems to be aware of this, since he makes sure to point out that “this isn’t math class” at the start of each show. Like he said in our interview, we’re still dealing with baseball, and it’s supposed to be fun. Intentions and reality are often two different things, but in this case, Kenny manages to it pull off, keeping the show light and fun while still engaging in intelligent analysis.

Each show begins with a brief synopsis of the day’s biggest news, leading into Kenny’s introduction of a topic that will recur throughout the show. This segment is called “High Heat,” which can be something that’s merely fun, like, “Is Albert Pujols the best free agent in history?”, or something that is controversial in the mainstream, like, “Is pitching the ninth inning different than the seventh or eighth?” Questions like the latter are great since they will bring common sabermetric principles into the spotlight. It means that the show is not just substituting OBP for batting average but, rather, examining important concepts that pertain to how the game is evaluated and played.

Whatever the topic happens to be, “High Heat” is the lynchpin that holds the entire show together. While it’s not the only thing that gets discussed on the show, everything manages to tie back to it. For example, with the ninth-inning question, most of the player analyses centered on free-agent closers like Ryan Madson, Jonathan Papelbon, and Heath Bell. When a guest comes on the show, they’ll discuss other things, but the guest will always voice their opinion about the day’s “High Heat” topic, and this really gives the show a tight feel with a strong sense of cohesiveness.

One of the show’s greatest strengths is its parade of guests. Each half-hour show boasts no fewer than three or four guests, from more mainstream beat writers like Ken Rosenthal and Tom Verducci, to sabermetric darlings like Bill James and Rob Neyer, to major-league managers and general managers like Josh Byrnes and Buck Showalter.

Some of the guests are less-than-sabermetrically-inclined (like Ruben Amaro Jr. and Showalter), and some say some flat-out stupid things (like Harold Reynolds railing against OBP, saying he would walk a heyday Jason Giambi “all day long” because all he’ll do is clog the bases), but this is something Kenny said he wanted from the get-go. Having disagreement keeps the show lively, and having multiple viewpoints portrays a sense of fairness. Additionally, for a show that (in many ways) is about correcting some of the misperceptions a mainstream audience has, it’s instructive to have someone like Reynolds on the show who holds these outdated and often incorrect beliefs as a means of teaching the audience why they’re wrong. Obviously it’s not made this explicit, and it may not even be intentional, but if both sides are presented, it will be easy for the thinking fans to reach the correct conclusion on their own.

No matter what, though, having such a strong slate of guests each show keeps things interesting. It’s not just Kenny standing up there spewing statspeak. We’re treated to a number of people that provide different voices and different perspectives, which breaks things up into bite-sized chunks and keeps the show moving along at a brisk pace. If you ask me, one of the most interesting thing one of the guests said during the first week of shows came when new Padres general manager Josh Byrnes talked about how his stat department looks at ball speed off the bat when evaluating hitters. This is something I’ve always wanted to get my hands on, and I imagine that the Padres are getting the information from HITf/x, showing that major-league teams are putting the system to good use. If only it were available to the general public…

Of course, not everything is sunshine and dandelions with “Clubhouse Confidential.” A new show—especially a groundbreaking one—is bound to hit a few road bumps along the way, and there are some things that someone who’s a hardcore sabermetrician or a devoted BP reader will pick up on that aren’t quite correct. On each show, “ClubhouseConfidential”takes a player who is either in the news or is a high-profile free agent and puts them through “The Shredder.” “The Shredder” looks at a player’s component stats to determine their value and what we might expect of them going forward. This is actually one of my favorite segments, but at the end of the segment, they show a three-year projection for the player, which always seem to be off. Take this one for Jose Reyes, for example:

Year

AVG

OBP

SLG

2012

0.277

0.325

0.310

2013

0.261

0.319

0.337

2014

0.275

0.337

0.418

It makes little sense that Reyes is expected to decline in 2013 and then improve so dramatically in 2014. I imagine this is a bug in CC’s projection system, because this 2013 decline/2014 improve pattern has presented itself in at least one component of every player that’s been run through “The Shredder.”

The show also makes questionable use of some stats, maybe choosing WHIP in lieu of ERA, which is a good first step, but it would be even better to use something like FIP since WHIP relies upon hits, which are largely out of a pitcher’s control. At one point, to illustrate Citi Field’s pitcher-friendly proclivity, the best parks in terms of HR/FB—which will be heavily influenced by the home team—were displayed as opposed to actual home-run park factors.

Despite having some things like this that will make a hardcore sabermetric follower raise an eyebrow, what I really like is that Kenny is constantly looking to improve and to learn more. We’ve exchanged a few e-mails since the show debuted, and when I raise points like these, he’s appreciative and vows to work with his research team to get better. This may actually be the show’s greatest strength: a host who seeks out people who are knowledgeable about a subject, asks for—and is receptive to—criticism, and makes adjustments. That’s the kind of thing that’s going to allow the show to succeed in the long-term. Naturally, Kenny doesn’t want the show to become too overwhelmingly complex—the need to appeal to the masses and not just the hardcore types is enormous—but he truly does want the show to be the best it can be, and that’s highly commendable.

 Overall, I’ve found “Clubhouse Confidential” to be a very enjoyable show and one that I actually envision myself watching on a regular basis (the same can’t be said for any other baseball program currently on the air). The program remains interesting throughout, asks insightful questions, and Kenny is a tremendous fit as the host. No matter how the program turned out, it would have been a great step forward for the movement to bring analytics mainstream, and to its credit, it’s been far more than that. I’d highly recommend “Clubhouse Confidential,” and I look forward to seeing how it evolves.  

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