I love road trips. From traveling up and down the east coast as a teenager to play in Strat tournaments, to the famed East Coast Hockey Tour of 1992-93 with some college buddies, to an 11-day, three-stop cross-country trip in 1994, and on through any number of short trips since then, I really enjoy getting out of town and doing stuff.
I'm in Phoenix, a few hours into a short run to see a Cactus League game or two. On Monday, I'll be at the A's/Diamondbacks tilt at Phoenix Municipal Stadium, one of the last games before teams in Arizona break camp and prepare for Opening Day.
I'm really looking forward to the game, in large part because it's my first spring-training trip ever. I want to see Carlos Pena, whose rough March has been one of the biggest stories in the A's camp. I'm looking forward to a display by the A's bullpen, which shapes up as the deepest in the game. I kind of want to see Byung-Hyun Kim, so I can silently cheer and hope that he doesn't have any lasting problems after last November's disasters.
Ah, who am I kidding? I just want to watch baseball.
After my arrival Sunday night, I had dinner with my good friend Craig Elsten inside Bank One Ballpark (which, by the way, is gigantinormous). Craig hosts MLB Radio's coverage of the Cactus League, as well as covering the Padres for KOGO Radio in San Diego. Talking with Craig always gets me thinking about the twin approaches we can take to the game of baseball: inside information, which is the path of traditional reporting, and the "informed outsider" position that we at BP have established.
It has always seemed to me that the best approach to team-building is a melding of the two methods. Advanced performance analysis clearly has a place in the game, but there's a lot that observation, in particular the observations of qualified scouts, brings to the table. In particular, evaluating amateur players and those at the lowest rungs of the minor leagues is something best left to scouts. Organizations that embrace both approaches to player evaluation have a leg up on those that focus on one or the other. Organizations that evaluate their scouts in a systematic way will also establish an advantage.
What's not as clear to me is how important a melding of methods is in covering the game. Certainly, I'm on record as opposing the kind of personality-driven coverage that separates players into "good guys" and "bad guys," labels that tend to correlate all too well with how a player treats the media. "Chemistry" discussions are almost always after-the-fact rationalizations for good or bad performance, while crediting success and failure to the "character" of individuals, rather than their physical abilities, leaves me cold. It's been a while since I looked to a player or manager for any kind of insight into their, or their team's, performance.
However–and this is where talking to Craig gets me thinking–there's a lot to be said for the real information that can be gleaned from the insider perspective. In the course of our conversation last night, there were a half-dozen times that Craig was able to add something because he'd been talking to players and coaches and managers for the last month. Just because 90% of the stuff that comes out of a clubhouse is tripe, doesn't mean the other 10% should be tossed. That's an important lesson for the "informed outsider."
The key is the ability to filter out the irrelevant material and use what's good; to get past cliches and easy labels and get good, hard information about the game on the field, then blend that knowledge with the tools we have for measuring performance. I think we're starting to see the beginnings of this in the coverage of the game, and the coverage is getting better because of it.
This is an important point for Baseball Prospectus, because as what we've been doing influences the mainstream, we'll have to make an effort to enhance our work with the insider information we've at times disdained. Being dismissive of it is just as bad as the beat writer who dismisses OBP or the national columnist who derides statheads.
OK, enough philosophy…I'll be back tomorrow with a game report.