Russell sits down with Ben and Sam to discuss the experience of writing and living through their best-selling book, The Only Rule Is It Has To Work.
This one is special. Many of the people reading this article have already bought and read the book The Only Rule Is It Has to Work, by Baseball Prospectus’s own editor-in-chief, Sam Miller and our former editor-in-chief, Ben Lindbergh, about the summer they spent running the Pacific Association’s Sonoma Stompers. And somewhere in the blitz of press that they have been doing to promote the book, they took some time to chat with me.
As we were setting up before the interview, I apologized in advance for the fact that I am not a real journalist, and I’ve never really done a sit-down interview like this before. The only model that I really had to draw from was my time when I worked as a therapist. I told them that the only rule was that they had to answer my questions.
(And yeah, there are a few spoilers in here…)
I don’t know that I can properly plug the book in a way that hasn’t already been done, but I will try. There’s a certain fantasy that someday, if we just yell loud enough, teams, managers, fans, and everyone else will stop doing all of the irrational things that we yell loudly about. This book made me think, “Huh, maybe I’m the one who needs to stop yelling.”
Russell: I think that most of the readers at Baseball Prospectus know the story of how the project was conceived. I think a good place for us to start would be during the gestational period. There was a point where you had sent all the e-mails and phone calls and everyone had signed off, and there was probably a moment of “Oh dear, what am I getting myself into?” But then there was some preparation before, Ben, you took the cross-country flight and Sam, you got into your Honda Fit and drove out to Sonoma. Tell me about how you prepared for what you thoughtwas about to happen.
What you need to know before your sweeping take about a player's exit velocity.
Note: Baseball Prospectus has removed the leaderboards mentioned in this article. Thank you for your interest in our work and for your patience as we attempt to resolve this issue.
Last year, the folks at MLB Advanced Media started publishing what is commonly described as “exit velocity”: the pace at which the baseball is traveling off the bat of the hitter, as measured by the new Statcast system.
As a statistic, exit velocity is attractive for several reasons. For one thing, it is new and fresh, and that’s always exciting. It also makes analysts feel like they are traveling inside the hitting process, and getting a more fundamental look at a hitter or pitcher’s ability to control the results of balls in play.
However, we’ve seen many people take the raw average of a player’s exit velocities and assume it to be a meaningful indication, in and of itself, of pitcher or batter productivity. This is not entirely wrong: Raw exit velocity can correlate reasonably well with a batter’s performance.
But this use of raw averages also creates some problems. First, if you use exit velocity as a proxy of player ability, then you must also accept that one player’s exit velocity is a function of his opponents, be they a batter or pitcher. Put more bluntly, a player’s average exit velocity is biased by the schedule of the player’s team.
Second, and much more importantly, we have concluded Statcast exit velocity readings, as currently published, are themselves biased by the ballpark in which the event occurs. This goes beyond mere differences in temperature and park scoring tendencies. In fact, it appears that the same player generating the same hit will have its velocity rated differently from stadium to stadium, even if you control for other confounding factors.
Can anybody in 2016 identify what the Twins are good at?
Twins general manager Terry Ryan is a Well-Respected Baseball Man™.
He was drafted by the Twins in 1972 and pitched four seasons in their farm system. From there he became a scout and, eventually, the Twins' scouting director. In the fall of 1994, when two-time World Series-winning general manager Andy MacPhail left the Twins to take the same job with the Cubs, the team chose Ryan as his replacement. He's been the Twins' general manager for 18 total seasons split between two stints, separated by a self-imposed four-season hiatus. Terry Ryan is the Minnesota Twins.
That cliché about someone who has forgotten more about something than most people will ever know is absolutely true of Ryan, a 62-year-old baseball lifer who has earned universal respect from his peers in baseball and from the media covering baseball. All of that is undeniable. However, also undeniable is that Ryan's overall winning percentage as Twins general manager is just .474; the team has won a grand total of one playoff series since 1995. They haven't won a playoff game since 2004, and the Twins have the second-worst record in baseball during Ryan's second stint, with a fifth 90-loss season in the past six years currently looking likely following a disastrous 10-27 start.
When the Twins were winning six AL Central titles in nine years from 2002-2010 they were known for remaining old school as MLB front offices increasingly went new school. Basically they were known for being Terry Ryan, continuing to rely on their scouting chops and well-established organizational approach as waves of analytics and innovation swirled around them. All of that remains true now, except the Twins have fallen even further behind in the various new-school categories while failing to dominate on the old-school side like they used to. In short, it's not obvious what they're even good at relative to the other 29 teams anymore.
It's been quite a while since Ryan's actual moves and the Twins' actual record matched his sterling reputation. There aren't many teams that would stick with a GM for two decades of .474 baseball and zero playoff success. There aren't many markets in which that GM and his longtime front office assistants would receive little criticism and tons of praise for producing 11 losing seasons in 18 years. But the Twins and Minnesota are that rare combination, which is why this preamble seems somehow necessary just to get to a point where it feels comfortable to say ... well, it's no longer clear that Terry Ryan should be the Twins' general manager.
Ryan is extraordinarily conservative, which has shown itself in his aversion to spending big money on outside free agents and in several seasons deciding to flat-out leave $10 million or more in projected, ownership-approved payroll unspent. He's targeted mid-level, low-upside veterans in free agency rather than going after bigger fish, most recently spending $200 million on the meh-worthy pitching quintet of Ricky Nolasco, Ervin Santana, Phil Hughes, Mike Pelfrey, and Kevin Correia. Those five free agent additions have combined to give the Twins a 4.60 ERA in 1,435 innings; three of the contracts stretch beyond this season.
Is Pittsburgh vs. Cincinnati turning into a turf war, on a global scale? We'd rather hear both sides of the tale.
Wednesday night, while Max Scherzer was striking out 20 Tigers, the Reds and Pirates were striking each other. There were six hit batters in the game, four Pirates and two Reds. Reds’ reliever Ross Ohlendorf was ejected after the last of them, when he hit David Freese with a runner on second after the Pirates had taken a 5-4 lead.
This is not something new for these teams. Since the start of the 2012 season, there have been 94 players hit in 56 games between the Reds and Pirates. (Across the majors, there are, on average, .66 batters hit per game—.33 per side.) The six hit batters Wednesday represents an apex, but the teams combined for five hit batters on June 2, 2013, four on April 8 this year, and three on seven other occasions. In fairness, some of this is probably personnel-related. When you employ batters for whom getting hit by pitches is part of their on-base toolkit, like Shin-Soo Choo (hit seven times in Reds-Pirates games in 2013 alone) and Starling Marte (hit 14 times in Reds-Pirates games dating back to August 2012), it’s reasonable to expect things to get plunky. And Pirates games, in particular, feature a lot of HBPs in the box score. Since the start of the 2012 season, Pirates batters have been hit 328 times, the most in the majors and 15 percent more than the second-place Cardinals. Pirates pitchers have hit 293 batters, also the most in the majors, and 9 percent more than the second place White Sox. (The Reds are third at hitting batters and 14th at getting hit.) But six in one game is an awful lot, as is 94 since the start of the 2012.
This has led to discussion of what might be done about this sort of thing. A hard ball, thrown at high speeds, can cause damage to the human body. Per Brooks Baseball, the pitches that hit the six batters on Wednesday night were thrown at 91.7 (Alfredo Simon in the fourth), 94.8 (Juan Nicasio in the fourth), 80.9 (Simon in the sixth), 86.4 (Steve Delabar in the seventh), 92.5 (Jared Hughes in the seventh), and 95.0 (Ohlendorf in the ninth) miles per hour. Nobody appeared to get hurt in the game, but of course, batters aren’t always that lucky. So what can be done?
On Josh Donaldson, Wade Davis, the Chicago Cubs, and the beautiful regenerative power of mistakes.
I’ve been living in Chicago since 2010, so when people ask me about the Cubs’ current run of success, it’s less because I’m a baseball fan and more because I’m the closest they have to an on-the-ground correspondent. It’s as if Anderson Cooper is breathlessly questioning me about The Baseball Spring: “After all this time, can it be true? Is the old regime truly gone? Can you comment on the peoples’ reactions to this new dawn?”
And while the Cardinals and Pirates wait in the wings to potentially shock this triumphant narrative back into the dreary everyday, they're a healthy 8 1/2 and nine games back, and there is a level of palpable optimism and confidence that I’ll admit I didn’t see for five years living, say, a block and a half from Wrigley. So when people ask, I tell them, yeah—people are really, really excited. It’s been a long time coming.
The long time coming, not the Cubs, is what I want to interrogate a bit today. Because throughout the long rebuilding process in Chicago, Cubs fans often loathed that long time and questioned it, Moses in the Desert style. It’s no fun to wander for 40 days and 40 nights, especially if that involves watching blowouts in the 42 degree Chicago spring. People on the radio questioned Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer—“I thought this was supposed to be a three-year process!” “Theo’s plan makes it a 10-year process, we’re never gonna see a pennant!”—and around, say, 2013, there was widespread pessimism. How long, the average fan asked, can I handle a 65-win team?
The answer to that question is a bit murky, if only because it’s beyond my pay grade to psychoanalyze the thousands of Cubs fans I waded through to get to my apartment or the El. But a related question we might more fruitfully pose is how many 65-win seasons can a team, or a player handle? In the era of the pre-planned tank in baseball, this is a fairly crucial question boiling down to, if you are an owner, the calculus of balancing your diminishing on-field returns with your financial bottom line. How bad, in other words, is too bad? When does failure start to cost more than it’s worth?
It seems to me there are two ways to look at this: practically and theoretically. The practical side of things is a little difficult. We all know that the “player who doesn’t have the fire of the postseason” cliché about young players on losing teams is silly. Starlin Castro has played just fine in New York; Felix Hernandez, despite being on a perpetually snakebitten M’s team remains sublime; I’m sure if Sam Miller put his prodigious play indexing abilities to work, he could find a number of tremendous, high WARP players who never had a shot on a winning team. Good players play well regardless of locale.
It also is true, at least anecdotally, that losing streaks rarely prompt the dissolution or relocation of an entire team. The Montreal Expos were, yes, abysmal through much of their later pre-Nationals tenure, but two of the three seasons prior to the move (2002 and 2003), they were above 500 and would’ve probably been in the hunt in the two-wild-card era. And many teams have suffered through monstrous losing streaks, from the Tampa Bay Devil Rays first 10 years to the 20 years of losing baseball that are finally in the Pirates’ rearview mirror, and while they have led to firings, they have rarely prompted total organizational failure. Without being able to see the actual books of MLB teams, we may never know if losing streaks really truly do put teams in jeopardy of going belly up, but my guess is that, no, simply losing for a while cannot destroy a franchise.
On trying to find space between clutch performance and coin flips.
If you spend a lot of time behind the wheel, you might have satellite radio. If you spend a lot of time behind the wheel and you’re a baseball fan, you might have SiriusXM so you can listen to home radio broadcasts of games. (This is not a commercial. This is just a statement of facts.) If you spend a lot of time behind the wheel and you’re a baseball fan, though, you can’t listen to games all day, for the simple reason that baseball is not played around the clock. So when there isn’t a game on, you might listen to MLB Network Radio, a SiriusXM station.
I sometimes spend a lot of time behind the wheel, and when there isn’t a game on, I often listen to MLB Network Radio. I like some of the shows better than others. Some have strong elements of sportstalk radio, and like all sportstalk radio, you sometimes hear things that are, well, interesting.
A while ago one of the hosts—not a caller—was talking about Rougned Odor. Odor has had a pretty good start to his season. He’s also been better with runners in scoring position (.360/.407/.600 through Monday) than not (.283/.309/.528). The host said that some batters are consistently better with runners in scoring position (henceforth RISP) than they are otherwise.
A good first step to evaluating minor leaguers? Take in a big-league game.
An unpleasant, rainy “getaway day” game isn’t picturesque baseball weather, but the cold, wet conditions meant that Nationals Park was largely empty. The game sounds from a Phillies vs. Nationals daytime tilt reverberated around the stadium. The quality of play was big-league caliber, though the atmosphere was not.
Counterintuitively, sometimes the best place to improve one’s evaluations of players at the minor league or amateur level is to watch major league games through a scouting lens. After all, that’s the level that evaluators are projecting players to, even if they’re scouting those players at a lower-rung of the game. It can be easy, at times, to think that there’s not a huge gap between the majors and the upper minors, and in terms of routine plays being made and pace of play, perhaps that’s true. From a tools standpoint, however, I always walk out of a big league stadium focused on the tangible difference between the big leagues and everywhere else.
Evaluating lots of high-minors baseball gives insight to how gifted players who carve out sustained big-league roles really are. Double-A and Triple-A baseball players deserve tons of respect—especially the veterans or organizational mainstays—as they’ve had both the talent and fortitude to ascend to a level of baseball more significant than almost anywhere else. With all due respect to those guys, the game I saw on a rainy Thursday afternoon in Washington last week wasn’t the same game you’ll see at a Triple-A park. It isn’t even particularly close.
At the major-league level, tools that would draw above-average to plus grades are abundant, if not the norm. Players are noticeably larger and more athletic than anywhere else in the baseball world. Fastballs are faster, breaking balls are sharper. Even the most routine of fly balls can tower above the field, demonstrating the type of raw power a scout would note standing out on a low-minors field. The right-handed college reliever whose fastball scrapes the upper 90s, backed up by secondary pitches inconsistent in their break or control, still draws a gaggle of amateur scouts every time he throws. That same type of pitcher permeates the back-ends of high-minors bullpens, just hoping to hold down a spot as a low-leverage reliever at the big-league level. The best-athlete-your-town-has-ever-seen outfielder with size, speed, and power quickly becomes a bench player at this level on account of his approach’s consistency (or lack thereof), another nameless cup-of-coffee player in the annals of big-league history. The major leagues are a humbling level, one where fringy tools don’t always make enough of a dent, and tools alone can’t salvage limitations of things like control, approach, and the general smaller, mental aspects of the game.
To their credit, the Phillies have strung together a fair start to the season, especially for what they’re working with. I don’t mean to rip on the Phillies—a team undeniably rebuilding—so much as I use them as an example of a likely bottom-five finisher this year, and the opportunity to understand the placement of player’s tool set that provides. A subtle scouting takeaway from watching a team like the Philadelphia is observing the toolsets of the players who make up their complementary contributors. Every team has bench players, middle relievers, and back-of-the-rotation starters, but not all of those player types are created equal. For a team like the Phillies, for instance, what constitutes as the last handful of arms out of their ‘pen might be closing games in the high-minors in an organization with a deeper big-league roster. The utility infielder here might be a Triple-A regular elsewhere; the starters in the middle infield for the big club could be the utility infielders themselves on a more competitive roster, and so on. Insofar as roster construction goes, some player roles are downgraded a notch relative to those “first division” teams at the top of the standings, and that’s actually fairly intuitive: bottom-feeding teams don’t win as many games because bottom-feeding teams don’t have as deep a talent pool to fill roles on their team with.
While one isn’t watching players likely to pepper the top of any leaderboards by honing in on smaller pieces of losing teams, doing so affords a good opportunity to understand what true “up-and-down” players look like. Identifying these types of players allows pro scouts to contribute tons of value to their organizations on a routine basis—a unique aspect of scouting the minor leagues for a team is that the best prospects one sees are rarely actually available. It’s great when you get to catch a blue-chip prospect, but what can separate one evaluator from another is properly identifying which players will be able to profile at the highest level, even as a role player.
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Yet, while the club’s offense has been better than expected—St. Louis ranks first in the NL in home runs and in OPS—the record sat at just .500 entering play Thursday. That’s because the club added Mike Leake and, in effect, Adam Wainwight, who has been healthy again after missing nearly all of the 2015 season.
Yup, it’s the upgrades who are leading the regression. Wainwright in particular has been dreadful. When he hasn’t been showing off his hitting skills , he has allowed four homers in 33 2/3 innings (after allowing just 10 in the 255 innings split he threw in 2014 and 2015). He has an ERA close to 7, a FIP close to 5, and just 4.8 K/9—the sixth-lowest in baseball, minimum 20 innings. Overall, the club’s starting rotation has a 4.38 ERA and just 7.0 K/9 as a collective this year, after posting a 2.99 ERA with 7.9 K/9 last season. What has happened to the Cardinals’ erstwhile ace?
The problem relates to what had historically been his greatest weapon. And that, ladies and gentlemen, leads us to the biggest question of all: What do Adam Wainwright’s curveball and a chained-up Chihuahua have in common? All bark, no bite.
The curve has long been Wainwright’s out pitch, with a career whiff rate of 17 percent—and, with two strikes, 21 percent. This year, the whiff rate is at 9 percent overall, and 11 percent with two strikes.
The same team that employed Willy Aybar, Josh Lueke and Josh Sale has also made a number of positive contributions to the cause--which is unusual for major-league baseball.
For Jake Odorizzi, Rays pitcher, husband, father, the decision to step up to fight domestic violence was so easy.
Sometimes it’s seemed, rather obviously, that there’s a code players follow about such things. Players will donate their time, money and voices to other causes in need of resources and attention. MLB has championed many causes that are woven into the fabric of the baseball experience, particularly research and funding to fight ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). That work has been admirable and helped improve many lives. But when it comes to relationship violence, well, we’re getting into a tricky area, aren’t we?
Many in baseball have been accused of domestic violence and sexual assault, and prior to this season the policy for punishing players for those actions was weak or absent. Players weren’t going to criticize teammates. The silence through the years has been stunning and shameful.
But when Odorizzi was presented with an opportunity two years ago, there was no code of silence he felt the need to adhere to.
He was motivated by the relationships that ground him, and he put into action the idea that fighting domestic violence isn’t just a women’s issue. It’s a human rights issue and it’s an issue for a family man. For him, it’s just as important for men to stand up for women who are suffering or who have suffered. And when he was approached to take the REAL (Relationship Equality & Anti-violence League) Promise at the University of South Florida, at the Walk a Mile in Her Shoes event, he was quickly on board.
“[The Promise] is typically designed toward men. Long story short, do the right thing,” Odorizzi said before a game last week. “Treat everyone with respect, and at no point should you raise a hand to a woman. It’s more in depth than 'be polite.' For many, even that’s hard to do. I don’t understand bringing yourself to hurting your wife or girlfriend or child’s mother. I believe everything I said.”
Analytics all but demands paying the lowest wages the market will bear, even for its analysts. Why smart teams will ignore that demand.
One of the things that really got me into baseball around 2009, when I was enjoying my first season watching literally every Phillies game I could, was reading old columns at Fire Joe Morgan. I expect that blog doesn’t need much of an introduction for this audience, but just in case: Fire Joe Morgan was a blog that ripped apart the mainstream sports media of the early-to-late 2000s, exposing it—actually, no, I was right, it doesn’t need an introduction. It was and is wonderful.
One of the major misunderstandings the blog tried to correct was sports media’s systemic inability to understand what the book Moneyball was about, and, consequently, what the general philosophy of Moneyball actually was. More often than not, commentators and journalists, particularly the titular Joe Morgan, would argue that Moneyball meant teams being cheap, privileging walks over batting average, and losing in the playoffs like the Oakland A’s. As Ken Tremendous and company would insist over at Fire Joe Morgan, though, the idea behind Billy Beane’s strategy as documented by Michael Lewis in Moneyball was the exploitation of market inefficiencies. Especially for teams that did not have the capital to spend like the New York Yankees or Los Angeles Dodgers, Beane’s philosophy—which Lewis gave the shorthand of “Moneyball”—was essentially a leveling technique, a way of attacking a hopeless mismatch by finding a completely different resource to pursue. No money? No problem!
This philosophy is very appealing in the abstract. You can imagine yourself as a kind of treasure hunter, finding players who would have never gotten a chance in previous years, and showing how they can be productive major leaguers. The bad body types, the too-patient hitters, the light hitting defensive center fielders: analytics have rehabilitated all of these kinds of players at one point or another. I would argue that the Jack Custs or the Jarrod Dysons of the world would not have had nearly the shot they have had if not for Beane’s emphasis on market inefficiency, and that’s all for the good.
But the dark side of sabermetrics also has to do with labor. On the players’ side, this is something of a necessary evil in modern baseball. With the number of analytical tools at the disposal of major-league teams currently, teams will know how risky any player is, his upside and, more importantly, his downside. So when GMs offer “team-friendly” long-term contracts to very young players, these are necessarily “player-antagonistic” as well. (With the possible exception of that overlap in each party's interest created by each party's different incentives.) The player can gamble on his own upside against his downside, but he can only ever do so knowing that the team has run the actuarial and statistical math to determine exactly where the monetary limit of their risk is. The team has run the simulations, and the player gets to bet on himself against the numerical odds or accept a contract that, while sizable, is a fraction of future potential earnings.
And that’s fine, as these things go. I’m fairly far left on the ol’ economic issues, so if I had my druthers, labor would have a lot more power over things like arbitration and pre-arbitration salaries, but that’s all for another article down the line. In terms of my issue here, inefficiency, the difficult position in which players find themselves in the negotiating room is directly related to the information that teams now have access to. It’s difficult to turn back the clock on that, and in order to argue against the proliferation of that data (outside of a stronger union or abolition of the free market), one would have to problematically argue for less knowledge. And so, players will unfortunately be more under- than over-paid until they reach free agency, which is becoming further and further away. Teams win; labor takes an admittedly survivable loss.
So, despite the curmudgeon class railing against data in defense of gut instinct and feel, data continues apace because it makes teams money. Furthermore, if you’re the owner of a team, you have to at some point start wondering how far this particular line of thinking can go. Are there market inefficiencies everywhere? Can you put together an entire working team on the cheap that can win the World Series? Are there stadium inefficiencies? Fan giveaway inefficiencies? And, most tempting, could there possibly be front office inefficiencies? Could the guys who get the most money outside of the players themselves be streamlined and made cheaper and more efficient?
Dominican and Venezuelan players are often mistaken on a baseball field; they share the Spanish language so they are generally together, they have that Latin swag that is identifiable from miles away, and they also usually have names that challenge the diction of every single one of the American announcers.