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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.  

20 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

Michael Bodell
(89)

The declining then improving projections has happened to a number of systems, including at one point to PECOTA.

Nov 14, 2011 02:22 AM
rating: 0
 
John Carter

Perhaps, there is a real tendency for youngish players to regress after a year of improvement, then improve even further the next. Has that been looked into by anyone here at BP?

Nov 14, 2011 07:26 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Derek Carty
BP staff

I don't think I've ever seen that looked at explicitly, but it seems unlikely. I'm sure it happens for some players, but I doubt that it's the rule. More likely, I think it's just a minor glitch with the system they're using, since it manifests itself for everyone, whether they're under 30 like Reyes or not. Pujols, for example, goes .410, .400, .418 in OBP and .580, .556, .564 in SLG. If he's expected to decline at age 33 in 2013, it doesn't make much sense to expect him to improve at age 34.

Nov 14, 2011 08:24 AM
 
Sean

Agreed. It was visible in the Upside projections earlier this year as well, though I think that has been fixed.

Nov 14, 2011 09:59 AM
rating: 0
 
realateoc

Nice article. Like you said the show isn't perfect, but it's enjoyable to watch. My brain shuts down during Intentional Talk, so it's great to have something intelligent right after.

Nov 14, 2011 07:33 AM
rating: 1
 
John Carter

Is WHIP any improvement on ERA at all? I thought it was a step backwards - a concession to Rotisserie players. If any sensible stat has begun to hit the mainstream the way OBP and OPS have, it might be K:BB, K/9, HR/9, and possibly GB:FB.

I know you guys have to plug the BP approved stats, but they seem to be in constant flux, so it would be hard to sell them to the world outside. That is fine, though, because they should be tweaked as we learn more about what helps teams win and what are actual skills that can be measured. It gives us BP readers that little edge over the masses who are just graduating to OPS and K:BB.

Nov 14, 2011 07:39 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Derek Carty
BP staff

Yes, it is an improvement in terms of it being more consistent from year-to-year, but not by a whole lot since it relies on BABIP (though it's also heavily driven by Ks and BBs). I agree that things like strikeouts and walks are becoming more mainstream, which is great. I'd caution against K/BB and GB/FB, though. Ratios can be a bit misleading and have some mathematical problems, so we're much better off using percentages (i.e. GB/(GB+FB) or just GB%).

Nov 14, 2011 08:29 AM
 
Asinwreck

I agree that having Harold Reynolds and Larry Bowa on the show is a sharp idea. It is actually much more confrontational to the groupthink that has set in among baseball analysts at MLBtv and ESPN than just carving out a half hour for Rob Neyer et al to talk, and prevents the show from being locked in its own ghetto (or mother's basement) on the network. It'd be fun to see Kenny bring Joe Morgan into the mix.

My only problem with Clubhouse Confidential so far is a problem typical of new shows. Kenny's crammed an awful lot of segments into each episode, which may make it hard for the show to breathe. I suspect that over time, he'll establish a rhythm where the strongest segments get a little longer at the expense of weaker bits (I don't care about the tag segments where he puts on a commissioner's robe).

A good start, looking forward to watching it grow.

Nov 14, 2011 07:59 AM
rating: 3
 
RedsManRick

For a network that struggles to fill air-time with fresh content, you'd think they could simplify and go deep with something in particular.

Nov 14, 2011 13:08 PM
rating: 0
 
SlackerGeorge

"Giving the same value to fiction as to fact in the interest of so-called fairness is to mislead the American people and the press has become party to that.
- Joe Wilson

Like any exploratory endevour, interpreting baseball through statistical analysis is ever-evolving. Any measure may not be defined as right or wrong, but the best we have at the moment. ERA and RBI et al were the best we had a long time ago. Giving credence to them in the search for "fairness" can only help if a the time, they are completely and utterly debunked and likewise, their adherents shown the door. Sort of like bringing on David Duke to a T.V. segment covering racial bigotry. If you don't slap Duke down, you've failed, because you've legitimized him. Dinosaurs did not walk the earth with homo sapiens: the sooner we disavow that belief from all media, the better we are off as a society.

Nov 14, 2011 08:31 AM
rating: 9
 
RedsManRick

The media seem to have forgotten (or stopped caring) that the difference between mere reporting and true journalism is the application of critical thought. There's nothing wrong with presenting various viewpoints, but one must recognize that there is no such thing as a harmless default treatment. Leaving them unanalysed suggests equal validity/truth. Objectivity is not the absence of analysis, but rather analysis driven by the search for truth and with full transparency.

Nov 14, 2011 13:03 PM
rating: 5
 
SlackerGeorge

Call me cynical, but I think a certain percentage of the population is open to new ideas and the rest couldn't care less. Seems most successful business have truckloads of the latter. Efforts to convince anyone not in that "open to new ideas" group is an exercise in futility. Most times, organizations have to wait until the dinosaurs (love those dino metaphors) die off for any real change to occur.

So...doubtful that anyone is being persuaded by this show, so may as well go ahead and make a show for the choir.

Nov 15, 2011 16:53 PM
rating: 0
 
TucsonTumbleweed

Does anyone know if entire episodes of the show are available online somewhere? MLB.com has some segments but as a person who cut the cable/dish cord years ago Im surprised that I cant find this show on the internet so to watch on the television via the roku or computer connection. Thank you!

Nov 14, 2011 10:30 AM
rating: 0
 
Brian Oakchunas

I'd love to see a little bit more for those of us who don't just need a refresher course on sabermetrics. For example, Josh Byrnes talks about speed off bat, they offer some sob stats, and some of the highlights with accompanying stats. How much more power or average do high speed off bat guys hit for? I'd tune in every day to learn new things and since they are a part of MLB, they ought to have access to a lot that the rest of us don't.

Also, I'm not jazzed with the guests. I'd like to see some real experts in specific areas of sabermetrics (like, say, Steven Goldman on history)rather than the one or two guys who are cath-alls (James) and then a re-hash of people we've seen everywhere (Verducci, Showalter, Reynolds). I like the GMs but maybe grill them on how they use advanced analysis a bit more.

Nov 14, 2011 11:30 AM
rating: 2
 
godfather

kenny is sharp and direct and was the best espn had, imo; i give him lots of rope on this venture; as for the sabr, it's not always razor sharp, but that's for the statheads to figure out...sometimes, as freud pointed out, a cigar is just a cigar

Nov 14, 2011 11:36 AM
rating: 0
 
uncasf1

Thanks for the review. After checking out and dismissing Intentional Drivel (with Millar the drivelmaster), I wasn't inclined to give CC a shot. Your review changed that. And doesn't Harold Reynolds always say a lot of stupid things?

Nov 14, 2011 11:52 AM
rating: 0
 
ScottyB

The show seems awful fast-paced and packed with a lot of segments and info, which in the short-term is good. I fear the show has the potential to burn out and become repetitive over time, espacially as it debuts in the off-season (can the show re-do the 9th inning vs 7-8th inning debate every time a closer signs a new contract?).

For now, I really enjoy the show, think it is 9 steps in the right direction, and think it is short-sighted to criticize it for not taking 10 steps (FIP instead of WHIP, etc.)

Nov 14, 2011 11:55 AM
rating: 0
 
RedsManRick

I'd love to see them actual apply sabermetrics analysis to the statements of guys like Reynolds. Fine, bring them on and have them share their wisdom. But simply presenting different opinions is sort of pointless if you're not going to provide context.

If Reynolds thinks walking a guy is a sound strategy, let's drill in to that. Let's ask Reynolds how often he'll think that guy will score and then show some data to see whether or not that's a reasonable expectation.

And really, that would be the most valuable thing they could do. Simply showing sabermetric data and asserting that it's better leaves you preaching to the choir. But if you show the process of testing traditional beliefs and how those questions to lead to sabermetric alternatives, then you're really educating people.

Nov 14, 2011 13:00 PM
rating: 3
 
BurrRutledge

Hard for the show's producers to get the dinosaurs (Reynolds, etc.) to come back for another episode if you rip their statements to shreds.

Nov 17, 2011 17:45 PM
rating: 0
 
ScottyB

We need to consider who the audience for this show is. If it is just stats for statheads, the show will have a small audience and minimal impact. If the show requires "a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down" then so be it.

My dad is a smart, passionate baseball fan who does not know his sabremetrics. But he likes this show. If the show does this for all our smart dads, then mission accomplished.

Nov 14, 2011 15:12 PM
rating: 7
 
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