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November 5, 2012

Resident Fantasy Genius

Q&A with Brian Kenny

by Derek Carty

This weekend, I had the opportunity to chat with MLB Network star Brian Kenny, in-season co-host of the Emmy-award-winning “MLB Tonight” and off-season host of one of my personal favorites, “Clubhouse Confidential,” television’s first sabermetrically-slanted baseball program. “Clubhouse” debuted last offseason and will return for season two tonight at 5:30 p.m. ET, airing weekdays at 5:30 and 7:30 p.m. EST. Last year, I spoke with Brian ahead of the premiere and reviewed the show after the first week on the air. Today, I give you my most recent chat with Brian about what we should expect for season two, how they expect to take more curmudgeons to task, and how they’ll look to further the sabermetric dialogue.

****

Derek Carty: I take it since “Clubhouse” is back for another offseason that it was deemed a success, which didn’t seem like a given at this time last year since it was a bit of a high-concept show. I, for one, am thrilled to see it back again. What kinds of feedback have you gotten from people about the show, either positive or negative?
Brian Kenny: Feedback has been very positive from anyone who saw the show or was even a casual baseball fan. For me, I thought it was a winning concept from the beginning, and I’m glad to see it succeed. I think there has been a real void and a real opportunity for a show like this for years. It seemed natural that it would be great and that people would like it. The one thing that I wasn’t sure about was whether the hardcore community, if people who study sabermetrics and who write at places like Baseball Prospectus, would embrace it. As you know, on TV you don’t have the opportunity to go as in-depth on a topic as you might be able to in, say, a BP column, but I’m very pleased to see this sector of fans like the show. I think we found a good middle ground between the casual fans and the hardcore types.

DC: Is there anything starkly different we should expect from “Clubhouse” this year?
BK: I wouldn’t expect it to be exactly the same, but I think it’s going to evolve naturally. We’ll follow it down the path we’re going and what seems logical. I think it’s been a winning show to this point, so we don’t want to make too many changes, but you may see the gloves come off a bit this year. You’ll see us show more analysis, looking at how analytics are covered and going after the more nakedly aggressive critics of sabermetrics. There’s still very much a war on logic and information, and we see ourselves addressing that.

DC: Now that you’ve been hanging around MLB Network a while, do you find any of the more old-school guys are starting to appreciate some of these sabermetric ideas that I’m sure you’re apt to talk about?
BK: For sure. The more you talk with people, the more you realized that we all speak the same language, we just may speak a different dialect. Larry Bowa, for instance, was easy. Larry always wants more context and more information, so he was very open to these sorts of ideas. Bill Ripken was a bit harder; he has high baseball IQ but wasn’t educated on baseball in the way that I was. Again, you could say he doesn’t speak the same dialect or doesn’t approach things in the same way I or people at Baseball Prospectus would. After our initial brush through, though, you find that he’s still seeking answers and still trying to further the discussion, just in a different way. Even though he wouldn’t call himself “sabermetric,” he’s still analytical and looking for answers. That, for me, has been the most satisfying thing.

DC: One of my favorite segments last year was when you’d put an old school and a new school guy—maybe Harold Reynolds and Joe Sheehan, for instance—at two podiums and ask them questions, getting the two different opinions and seeing where they diverge and where they intersect. Do you plan on bringing this segment back?
BK: Oh, yes: “Mr. Inside, Mr. Outside.” That was one of the most fun for me as well. To give you some more insight, I deliberately don’t have them talk it through ahead of time. We can get a lot more honesty that way and really get inside their heads. What’s interesting is that sometimes they agree on things, like Jay Jaffe with Harold Reynolds or Dan Plesac, but I might disagree with both of them! Sometimes you’ll expect them to disagree on things that they’re in complete agreement on, and sometimes you’ll expect them to agree on things that they couldn’t be further apart on. It’s very interesting.

DC: I love that you bring the old-school guys on to discuss their views, but have you ever considered taking it a step further and actually examining them? Not in a preachy or ambushy “here’s why you’re wrong” kind of way, but more saying, “Hey, you have lots of experience within baseball and have all these ideas; well, we can actually test them. Either you’re right and that’s great, or you’re wrong and we all wind up learning something.” It seems this would be a great way to educate viewers who might hold these old views, either confirming them or showing them to merely be from a time when we weren’t able to prove or disprove them in the ways in which we might be able to today.
BK: One thing we’ll do this year is examine what some people are writing and what’s being put out there. It’s much easier to explain what you mean and to work out methodology in writing. We’re not looking to attack anyone, but we’ll examine some of the ideas in the mainstream media that are still prevalent and put them under the microscope. We’ll examine them objectively and see where the ideas are fair and where they’re going astray.

DC: That definitely sounds like something I’d be interested in and something that BP readers would be interested in watching.
BK: You know, one of the best things that can happen this year will be the MVP debate. I never thought Mike Trout would be serious MVP candidate—he had debatable power entering the year, missed an entire month, etc.—but I think this debate will illuminate a lot of the ideas of the sabermetric crowd and the breakdown in logic that has occurred. You look at his opposition, Miguel Cabrera, and you realize that the Triple Crown is a perfect vehicle for those who grew up looking at those numbers to make an argument. You see many ex-players—even if they’re realizing more and more the importance of things like OBP—haven’t gotten past the age-old belief that the three most important numbers for offensive production are batting average, home runs, and RBI. This should create an interesting dynamic and some very enlightening analysis.

DC: I couldn’t agree more. Trout is the clear MVP, in my mind, but that Triple Crown is going to be very difficult for a lot of voters to get past.
BK: What’s most important for us is intellectual honesty. It’s not that I want someone to be the winner; it comes down to what the evidence says. And we’re not just going to be looking at the raw numbers, who has the higher WAR or anything. We’re going to be looking at things like clutch and situational hitting and RBI and whether they actually matter. Does coming through when the team needs it most matter? Let’s actually examine that. For the most part, these things have minimal impact. I mean, scoring runs in the ninth inning is great, but don’t teams also need those runs in the fourth inning?

DC: So tell me about these new segments that I’ve heard about, “Clubhouse Conversation” and “Tools of Ignorance.”
BK: “Tools of Ignorance” is what I was talking about before: examining columns where people can put it on the line. We’re not looking to attack anybody unfairly or personally, but if someone is going to write something opinionated and blatantly attack sabermetrics and analytics, then all bets are off. If they’re mocking advanced thinking, those are the ones we’re calling into question, not someone who is trying to develop logical methodology and progress the thinking. It’s the guys that are throwing haymakers at stat geeks who live in their moms’ basements. There, we’ll meet them in the arena.

DC: That’s awesome, Brian. I can’t wait to see those segments.
BK: It’s funny; teams and a lot of young fans are completely on board with this sabermetric movement, but there is a subset of people that aren’t on board, and a lot of them are in a public, mainstream media position of power. Somehow this happened, and if they’re still out there being belligerent, they need to be exposed.

DC: What about “Clubhouse Conversation”?
BK: That’s going to give us more opportunity to go in-depth on some controversial topics. For the entire first week, for instance, we’re going to have Rob Neyer on every day talking with people like Tom Verducci and Dan Plesac, who may have different points on view on a topic. It’s basically going to give us a roundtable on a daily basis and a way to hash out differing views.

DC: Do you have any other special guests lined up yet, either from inside baseball or from the internets?
BK: We’re trying to find the smartest people out there, get them on TV, and get their views out there. One of the things I was really proud of last year was that we had someone from each club. Each and every one was represented, and that’s great since a lot of these people aren’t out there very much at all. I’m excited that we were able to get them, and I think viewers were too. Most fans are starting to realize who is responsible for their teams’ successes and failures, and they want to hear from the general managers and assistant GMs. We’ll do that again, trying to get the GM preferably, or else the team president or assistant GM, about their teams’ plans and strategies and what they’re doing to run their clubs. This can provide a lot of insight; sometimes you think a club is doing more than they are, or sometimes you think they’re doing less than they are, and they surprise you.

DC: I see that you’re speaking at the SABR Analytics Conference this year. I was disappointed that you weren’t able to make it out last year. I thought the “Clubhouse” panel was one of the more entertaining presentations—aside from the Fantasy Panel, of course. ;) Are you able to tell us what kind of involvement you’ll have this year?
BK: We’re still figuring it out a bit. However they want me to be involved, I will do it, whether it’s as a speaker or interviewing people or whatever. I think it’s a great way to get some of the top minds in the game in one spot. It’s a great way to listen and learn.

DC: Anything else you want to talk about or fill us in on before “Clubhouse” premieres tonight?
BK: Just that this is a show that will continue to grow and evolve organically. I’m thrilled with the way it worked out last year. You’ll see little less of me and my essays—which I think is good—and we’ll have more conversations. Having been at MLB Network for the past year really just gave me so much more information. Just being around baseball on “MLB Tonight” on nightly basis is a huge advantage. Being able to focus strictly on baseball (as opposed to other sports as I did when I was working elsewhere) allows me to digest so many more games and allows me to see both the small details and big picture at same time. I’m very excited for the new season.

****

Thanks so much to Brian for taking the time to speak with us. “Clubhouse Confidential”is doing a great job of making inroads with more mainstream fans, and I don’t believe it would be nearly as effective without Brian’s leadership. He’s done a great job steering this show in the right direction, and I’m excited to see where it goes from here. If you’re reading this and happen to be new to this more advanced way of looking at the game, I’d recommend checking out my primer on sabermetrics ahead of tonight’s premiere.

4 comments have been left for this article.

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