November 7, 2011
Resident Fantasy Genius
Q&A with Brian Kenny
This weekend, I had a great chat with Brian Kenny, former “SportsCenter” anchor and the soon-to-be-host of the MLB Network’s latest show, “Clubhouse Confidential,” television’s first sabermetrically-slanted baseball program. “Clubhouse Confidential” debuts tonight at 5:30 EST, and I had the chance to talk with Brian ahead of the premiere about his background with sabermetrics, what we should expect from the show, and some other topics. You can check out the press release announcing the show here to get some additional background.
Derek Carty: How did you get involved with “Clubhouse Confidential,” Brian?
Brian Kenny: It’s something that we came up with once I came to MLB Network based on all of the ideas that I had for the use of sabermetrics and analytics. It’s going to be a combination of all the different interests that I had in the game between player evaluation, team evaluation, and Hall of Fame evaluation. That’s what I’m passionate about, and they gave me a show where I could bring that to baseball fans.
DC: Since nothing like this has ever really been attempted before, how much convincing did it take to get a show based around sabermetrics and advanced statistics greenlit?
BK: When I first came on board, we didn’t really know what shows, specifically, I would be doing, but it was actually John Entz [senior VP of production] and Tony Petitti [president and CEO of MLB Network] who came to me with the idea to put on a show based around all the things I’d been talking about and all the things that I’m passionate about. Naturally, I liked the idea, and here we are.
DC: What can you tell us about some of the segments that the press release talks about like “High Heat” and “It’s Not What You Think”?
BK: “High Heat” is essentially our big-picture idea. It will be our baseball essay, if you will, taking something that we noticed in baseball and studying the dynamics of it. It’s going to be the segment where we lay out our baseball questions and then try to come up with conclusions. “It’s Not What You Think” is a lot like what it sounds like. As I’m sure you know, conventional wisdom doesn’t always mesh with what more in-depth analysis tells us, and in this segment we’ll be looking at a particular example of this.
DC: A lot of mainstream baseball analysts and writers seem opposed to sabermetrics and advanced statistics. Do you find that to be the case?
BK: I think it’s getting better and better. I think that the war has been won and that gradually these kinds of things are becoming more and more accepted.
DC: Why do you think that is?
BK: I think the industry as a whole has gotten smarter. When teams started winning using these principles, more teams started adopting it, and it’s begun to trickle down to the people watching and analyzing the games. Of course, not everyone I interact with is on the level of someone like Rob Neyer, but I think that’s part of the fun of it. It would be boring if everyone agreed on a single best approach.
DC: What served as your own introduction to sabermetrics?
BK: I’ve always loved baseball and read about baseball. I used to go to Cooperstown as a child, and my father and grandfather would take me to Yankee and Shea Stadium. I loved the statistics, looking at the backs of baseball cards, and later in life, like a lot of people, I started reading Bill James. That, of course, led to discovering other sabermetric writers, especially with the dawn of the internet. I loved reading any baseball historian who I thought had insight into the game. Bill James was the first person I saw who opened my eyes to logical thinking—not just statistics, but logical thinking and a different approach toward baseball.
DC: How much do you keep up with modern sabermetric work that’s being done on the internet at places at Baseball Prospectus and The Hardball Times and such?
BK: Constantly. Every day. It’s what I love to do. I read both of those sites, I read FanGraphs, I play fantasy baseball, so I’m always looking at player evaluation. Now that I’m with MLB Network, I’ll be watching games every day, and my mind won’t be cluttered with football or basketball or hockey, which is going to be more fun for me than ever before. Basically, I try to read anybody with insight, anybody who is asking the right questions and trying to answer them in a logical way.
DC: Who are some of your favorite people like that?
BK: Peter Gammons is someone who I love to read and who evolved like that into the modern age. He’s actually going to be heavily involved in the show along with people like Joe Sheehan, Rob Neyer, and Vince Gennaro. Basically, I’m looking for interesting people to talk about baseball. We’re going to bring the brainpower onto the show, and I think there’s a real thirst out there for that—especially among the thinking fans who aren’t buying into the old stuff anymore and who are wondering, “What’s a real analytical approach to this?”—while still having fun. It’s not going to be a math class; it’s still baseball, but it’s going to be asking the first question and then, once we have that, moving on to the next question and the next question. How good is C.J. Wilson or Albert Pujols? Let’s not just answer this kind of question in broad strokes, but really try to be specific and come up with a good answer.
DC: So what are some of the advanced metrics we can expect to see on “Clubhouse Confidential”?
BK: I will use anything that makes sense. I’m not hooked on any one thing. I’ll look at Win Shares, Value Above Replacement Player (VORP), Wins Above Replacement (WAR), Weighted On Base Average (wOBA), whatever makes sense. But you first need to see, “What’s his on-base, what’s his slugging, what’s his total bases, and how often is he in the lineup?” And from there you can break it down and say, “Okay, what are the components of that? What’s his batting average? Does he draw a ton of walks?” You know, if you’re a player and you have a .400 OBP and you walk 100 times, you’re Jorge Posada. If you walk 42 times, you’re Ichiro. That’s a very different player. That’s the basics, and you just keep asking the next question
I can give you an example. We’re going to have something on the show called “The Shredder,” and we’ll put C.J. Wilson in “The Shredder.” We’ll say, “This is his ERA, his K/9, his walks, his WHIP.” And then from there, we ask the next question. He pitches in an offense-friendly park, so we ask, “What are his road numbers?” It turns out he leads the American League in ERA on the road. It doesn’t have to be super sophisticated, but you need to go step by step to reveal the truth. It might not even need to be a new-age metric. It could be something that’s already out there, but those questions need to be asked. We’re going to approach this like we’re a front office making an evaluation of a player and deciding what we should be paying this guy or what’s he worth or what team he make sense for.
DC: Very interesting. I’m getting excited to watch.
BK: I think you’re going to love the show. I’ve been talking about it for so long, and I really can’t wait to get it out on the air. Most people, like you, that I talk to who know what they’re looking at realize that there’s no magic number out there. You just want a logical approach. You ask questions that we might not have a concrete answer to—Is Albert Pujols in decline? Will Derek Jeter (pre-2011) bounce back, or is he done?—but you can have a rigorous analysis and find out what has worked in the past, and that’s what we’re going to do.
DC: That’s exactly it. Not every question has a concrete answer, but when you have a sound approach and use all of the tools available to you in the right ways, that’s the best you can do.
BK: That’s right, and I’ll tell you too that on the first show, we’re going to have Larry Bowa on as a guest, and he’s an extremely analytical person. He’s not “sabermetric,” or at least he doesn’t know he is, but he is. He’s a manager with a wealth of experience, and he’s always looking for more and more information, going from one set of information to a subset of information. What’s this player doing this month? What’s he doing on the road? This week? In the past? How old is he? You want all these things. I think I’m a sort of liaison between the old guard and this new wave, and they’re not as far away as you think.
DC: You mentioned before that you play fantasy baseball. I’m a big fantasy guy myself. How long have you been playing for?
BK: I started playing around 2004, maybe 2005. I started doing the “Hot List” on ESPN, and we were going to have a regular fantasy segment with the ESPN fantasy guys, and they said, “You should play.” Of course, I was like, “No, I don’t have time for that; no, that’s silly,” but naturally, once I started playing, I was completely into it, and now I tell everyone that loves baseball, you really should have a fantasy baseball team. It will teach you so much about the game right away. Not only do you channel your inner GM, but there are consequences for your baseball decisions. It goes from, “I like this guy” to “Why do I like this guy?” to “Is there someone I like more who’s going to help me win?” and that’s when you start thinking like a professional general manager.
DC: What did you think of the Moneyball movie?
BK: I enjoyed it. I thought they did a very good job of bringing it to a human scale. Like most people—the book’s author, Michael Lewis, included—I didn’t think it could be made into a movie. But I really enjoyed it. Of course there were composite characters and events that weren’t completely correct chronologically, but they needed to tell the story, and I think they did it beautifully.
DC: Is there anything else we should know about “Clubhouse Confidential”?
BK: I look at this as a great opportunity to get a show where all your beliefs are incorporated, and I think it’s great that MLB Network thought this would be a worthwhile show. I don’t look at this as a stats show or even necessarily an analytics show, but just as a show for the thinking fan, and it’s going to be very different than anything that’s out there. I think there are a lot more intelligent fans out there than many people realize, and I think this is going to cater to those fans. There’s going to be a lot of interaction with fans via e-mail and Twitter on the show, and there’s a lot of good brainpower to be harnessed there. I think a lot of the best ideas are going to come from fans, and we want to be a forum for that.
DC: So I guess it’s fair to say that even if you’re not necessarily well-versed in sabermetrics or heavily entrenched in this side of the game that you’ll still be able to jump right into this show and follow along and learn something?
BK: Absolutely. As an example, on our first show we’ll be looking at who should have won more MVP awards, Willie Mays or Stan Musial. While we use WAR to answer the question—and we’ll always tell you what we’re using—does it really matter? We could use any number of stats, but they’re going to say more or less the same thing. We use these things as tools. The metric isn’t going to be the star of the show; the answer is going to be the star of the show. One of the challenges is going to be striking a balance between appealing to the mainstream fan that loves baseball and wants to look at it in an enlightened way, and the hardcore fans and analysts, like yourself, who really are into analytics. And I think we’ve accomplished it.
Thanks so much to Brian Kenny for taking the time out to talk with me and to give BP readers some insight into the new show. I look forward to watching tonight!