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August 19, 2003

Prospectus Q&A

Mark Armour & Dan Levitt, Part II

by Jonah Keri

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Continuing from Part I of the discussion with Paths To Glory authors Mark Armour and Levitt...

Baseball Prospectus: You covered a large number of teams over a period of 100 years for the book. What kinds of research materials did you use to get your information, especially for the oldest teams?

Mark Armour: For a team like the 1997 Marlins, one of the things I did was look at the first three issues of Baseball Prospectus, which covered the building and dismantling of that team. (BP) gives you a great snapshot of what a team was like--it made me wish there were back issues going back 100 years. For other teams, we'd take some of the annuals that are and have been out there. Spalding put out a publication every year, and there was also the Reach Guide, put out from the 19th century into the 1940s. We used the Sporting News thereafter. I know Dan did some microfilm research. Plus we both have pretty large baseball libraries to pull from. Also, Retrosheet is a phenomenal Web site. They've got play-by-play going back to the late 60s, and game-by-game material going back to 1871. Plus they also have transactions, which is great for us. I can't imagine anyone from here on in writing a baseball book and not using the Web--there's so much more stuff available now.

Dan Levitt: We used old newspapers quite a bit. Also for some of the older teams, we used something called the Putnam series, which came out in the late 40s and early 50s, a series of books with one volume for each team, 16 team histories on 16 teams that came out over a several-year period, written by well-known sportswriters that followed the teams. That had a lot of the inside stories. Sporting News microfilm, week-by-week, had the moves that were made in the off-season. We also used a number of magazines. For the Twins chapter Sport Magazine was really helpful.

BP: How long did the whole process take, from first running with the idea to doing the research and writing it?

Armour: We started in the summer of 2000...so it took about two years to write it, counting all the rewrites that happened.

BP: When you first kicked around the idea, did you ever think, 'will this work? Will a publisher go for this?'

Armour: My opinion of that would change daily. I was always enjoying myself, and not really hung up on that. But I also went into this knowing very little about the business. A lot of people in SABR knew about the project and said, 'that's a good idea, you'll find a publisher.' I met (BP's) Chris Kahrl in the middle of the project, in 2001. We discussed different parts of the project,and I basically said, 'hey, what do you think of this idea?' And he said 'sounds good. If you want, I'll help you write a proposal.' We sent him couple of chapters, he read them, and then said he wanted to publish the book. Maybe Chris' largest contribution to the book was that he required that we add either a modern Yankees or modern Braves chapter. He wanted a modern hook. I couldn't stomach doing the Yankees, so I chose the Braves.

BP: That brings up another point. There's a case to be made that you could sell more books by writing more about the Yankees, or the Dodgers. Did you feel in writing about more obscure teams like the 1971 Angels that it would be more difficult to appeal to readers and sell books?

Armour: The first two years that we were working on this, we weren't thinking about how many books we could sell, just could we write a good book. Not until the book was done did it strike me that maybe if we had a picture of Mickey Mantle on the cover, we would have had more media infiltration. We're starting to do research into a follow-up to Paths, and we both think we'll try to take on at least one or two of the big teams. But we'll make sure to tell the stories a little differently than they've already been told.

BP: Do you think your approach to how you'll write the book will change for the second one?

Levitt: It's too early to tell if the theme might change. Teams being the central focus has worked out pretty well.

Armour: If it we're going to move away a bit from the teams, we'd talk more about the general managers. Other than that, the biggest comment we've received so far--and people that have commented seem to like it--is, "why didn't you cover the '62 Giants,' or this team or that team. So that tells us there are plenty of great stories left to be told.

Levitt: Just adding to that...we've spoken to different people who have said they like it, and everyone seems to have a different team they like reading about. We might have someone talk about the '48 Braves, or someone like yourself will like the 80s Expos story. Everyone sort of has a different favorite team.

Armour: The reasons why a person might latch onto a certain chapter are also interesting. I know for me, the whole Alex Johnson scandal with the Angels happened when I was 10. You know how it is--everything that happens when you're 10 seems like the most important story ever. But after researching it for the book, the story really is fascinating.

BP Talking about Johnson, the topic of team chemistry seems to get addressed in that Angels chapter, directly or indirectly regarding Johnson, Tony Conigliaro, some other guys. Does something like chemistry really factor into your analysis? If so, how does that mesh with the statistical analysis you're doing in the book?

Armour: It's remarkable how the Angels didn't win 55 games that year, and it's an accomplishment that they at least won 76. They were last in the league in runs scored and their two best players had breakdowns of sorts. We did try to avoid saying that there's any way to know how Johnson affected the rest of the team. If you read magazines and newspapers of the time, the internal functions of that team were very bizarre. On a day-to-day basis, people were complaining about the manager and the GM almost every day. Whether players performed worse because of that is probably unknowable. The biggest problem with Johnson is simply that the Angels didn't have Johnson the player after his breakdown.

Levitt: The idea of chemistry being overrated, I agree with that. But while chemistry in general isn't that big a deal, at the extremes, it can start influencing people's behavior and actions.

BP: Is a rough clubhouse atmosphere even a bad thing though? The A's of the early 70s won three World Series and they were known to be bickering in the clubhouse all the time.

Armour: Those guys always came to play though. There was (Charles) Finley, and there were other distractions--Billy North and Reggie Jackson had a fight, Rollie Fingers and Blue Moon Odom had a fight before the World Series. At the same time, you never heard about anyone on the team questioning someone else's desire. There's a difference between having a teammate who's tanking it and one who's just tough to deal with off the field. There was talk about Jackson being a hot dog. But at some point he took over that team, became the leader of that team. Teammates had a tremendous amount respect for him on the field. What effect Finley had on them, that's a little tougher to say. There's a theory that they banded together to spite the guy. Given everything that went on, their winning the '73 World Series was almost like a miracle in a sense.

BP: Reading about certain teams--the '97 Marlins immediately come to mind--there seems to be a strong preference among some people for teams that build from within instead of buying a pennant. Having covered both kinds of teams in the book, is there a way that strikes you as more effective? Is one way somehow more noble than the other?

Levitt: My take is that the aim of the game is to win. As long as you don't cheat, however you do it is fine. Building through the farm system is a good way to do it because it's cheaper. But when (Charles) Comiskey bought Eddie Collins and Joe Jackson in 1914 and 1915, he was taking advantage of the economics of the time; other teams could have done the same, and didn't. I don't feel that one way is the noble way and one way is the evil way. Good organizations will use any and all methods to build a winner.

Armour: One reason we chose to write about the Marlins was that history has mistreated them. Some of that is because they went on a spending spree, then won. Then the team was torn apart. They deserved to be criticized for being torn apart. But the way they were built was brilliant. They were an expansion team, and they had the right approach. They built a strong farm system. Then they identified what they needed. They decided they needed a cleanup hitter and third baseman, a left fielder and a starting pitcher. So they got the best player available for each job, Bobby Bonilla, Moises Alou, and Alex Fernandez. It's not that it's not noble to spend and win, just that it's hard. A lot of teams have gone out and tried to spend a lot of money. But it's hard to find three good players to fill three holes, or five to fill five. The Marlins did this really well.

Levitt: The problem with modern free agency and buying players that way is that great players often only become available when they're in their 30s. People don't realize that Bonds and Maddux are the best of the free agent signings, and that it's hard to get a real impact player that way, let alone someone like Bonds or Maddux.

There's also a lot of thought that buying a bunch of players is a new idea, but it's not. Tom Yawkey in the 30s did it with the Red Sox, and the Yankees also did it in the 30s. Comiskey did it, and so did the Boston Braves in the 40s. The great teams have almost always acquired a bunch of their players through purchases. If you look at a team like the Pirates in the late 40s though, after Bing Crosby bought the team, they spent a lot of money on a bunch of old players, including Hank Greenberg, and that didn't help them at all--they still finished last every year.

BP: Does the success of Moneyball hurt you in terms of people only having a certain amount of money to spend on baseball books? Or does that book's popularity help you?

Levitt: I don't know what the book-buying public does, to be honest. My take is if there's a topic you like, buy more books on it. I would think it'd be more a case of people becoming excited about how GMs build teams, rather than them deciding they're only going to spend X amount on books of a certain topic.

Armour: Moneyball has helped our environment. The nature of baseball books is such that now will be a lot of them in the next 10 years exploring the GM angle. (Michael) Lewis has shown you can sell a lot of books that way. That's a Baseball Prospectus angle as well. It's asking, 'where are teams now and where are they going?' There are two ways to tackle the question. There's the way we did it, which was kind of a survey, where we show a whole bunch of different ways that a team can be built, and there's the way Lewis did it, where you focus on one team and how that was done.

BP: Were there any surprises for you in doing the book? Were there team stories that happened differently than what you'd originally thought before you went in and did the research?

Armour: We did have some preconceived notions, no doubt. Thinking of the 1930s Red Sox, baseball history has said that they're supposed to be proof that you can't buy a pennant. They've been called the Gold Sox, the Millionaires, and some other bad names. It was an interesting lesson though, in that it was incredibly obvious looking at that team that there was no way they could have won.

One of the things we're a lot better at now is in the understanding of the game. Analysis has evolved, such that if a team did what Yawkey did today, bought a lot of old guys, most of them not good, it's not like everyone would have thought they would win the pennant, because they'd heard of those players. It's interesting to see how little people understood the contributions players like that were making back then. Today people would see right through that. The most popular, well-known writers of today who are not analysts would see right through that now, because the analytical community makes enough noise such that other writers understand how players can and should be valued. There's still a distance between Baseball Prospectus and Peter Gammons. But Gammons is a lot further along than Shirley Povich was 50 years ago, that's for sure.

BP: What was the favorite chapter for each of you personally?

Levitt: The first chapter I worked on was the Boston Braves. I didn't have any particular interest in them, and I don't remember exactly why I started working on them other than the changes in the team and the game after the war, and that they won. I enjoyed it though--the Braves of '48 did it like the Marlins did in '97. They used all the avenues: they reestablished the farm system, bought young guys and older guys, made trades, made some bad trades but didn't let that bother them, and they found a manager to put it all together in Billy Southworth. We ended up calling the chapter "Following The Recipe: The 1948 Boston Braves." That made me realize there were stories for each of these teams. The Braves really focused for me the fact that you could put these teams into a larger framework and make judgments on them.

I loved doing the Minnesota chapter too, being a Twins fan. In '65 they had all these young guys, all 30 and younger except for Camilo Pascual, who was 31. They were winning 102 games, then couldn't win again. I didn't have a lot of preconceived notions of why this happened, and I had a lot of fun finding out why they couldn't win. First, you had players getting old quick. Zoilo Versalles was 25 years old when he won the MVP in '65; two years later his on-base average and slugging percentage were both under .285. Bobby Allison, who was a great athlete, had some injuries. The guys who stayed good the longest were guys like Killebrew, who actually did have old player's skills. Second, you had a misuse of talent. From '67 to '69 the Twins were playing Cesar Tovar everywhere, never letting him get comfortable. It wasn't until Billy Martin came on that they realized putting him at one position was a better idea.

Armour: For me it was Finley. The story of the A's is just fascinating. The whole Finley story, how he micromanaged, how his style was criticized by everyone, and there he'd be on national TV hoisting the trophy every year. The tremendous effect he had on the player revolution was fascinating. Every time an altercation happened with a player and Finley, Finley would have a huge effect on players getting angrier with the status quo. And then when Finley screwed up with Catfish Hunter, they realized 'Oh My God, look how much they're willing to pay us!' I don't know what Finley was, a genius, a nut, or both. I never could come to a conclusion on that.

Jonah Keri is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jonah's other articles. You can contact Jonah by clicking here

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