ESPN's Keith Law On Smart Baseball
Keith Law will be one of three baseball authors on Thursday night at Moon Palace Books (3260 South Minnehaha Avenue) in Minneapolis. The event begins at 6:30 p.m. Law will be joined by Michael Fallon (author of Dodgerland: Decadent Los Angeles and the 1977-1978 Dodgers), and Peter Schilling Jr. (author of the novel The End of Baseball).
I started the conversation with Keith Law by reading the full title of his book. "Smart Baseball: The Story Behind the Old Stats That Are Ruining the Game, the New Ones That Are Running It, and the Right Way to Think About Baseball.”
My first question? “Can we just call it Smart Baseball for the rest of this interview?”
“You can stick with that.”
So why did Law write this book at this time? In his role on ESPN and through social media, he receives a ton of questions, and this book is a great way for him to answer many of them.
“Readers had been asking me for years to recommend a book like this. What can I read to understand these new stats, to get up to speed on SABRmetrics?” Law continued, “There was never a book written for the lay audience that explains this stuff in plain English, without a lot of math or charts. I didn’t want to assume anything on the part of the reader. It doesn’t matter if you come into this with limited math or baseball background, you should be able to follow the stuff I’m saying.”
The book itself came together quite quickly, however.
“For years, the questions just kept coming. In the summer of 2015, I decided to put together a pitch and was very lucky. We put it out there, and Harper Collins bought it almost immediately. I started writing in March of 2016, wrote the last new content before the editing process between the Winter Meetings and Christmas of 2016. Then we put it to bed around Valentine’s Day this year, and two months later, it’s out.”
The release of the book has made life pretty interesting for Law. Never a dull moment.
“It’s go-go-go-go-go. Stop! Nothing for eight weeks, and then the book comes out and your life is never your own. The two weeks around the actual release was absolute insanity.”
In fact, on Tuesday night, he was at an event in Atlanta. He will get to spend one day with his family before heading to Minneapolis for Thursday’s event at Moon Palace Books.
So why Minnesota? How did this event come together? Well, based on his reasoning for writing the book, it came down to being asked a question by one of his readers.
Law explains, “A reader of mine reached out on Facebook and said, ‘Come to Minnesota and do a signing.’ I said, ‘If you’ve got a book store there that does signings and is interested, I always have reasons to come to Minnesota for work anyway. Have the bookstore contact the publicist.’ “Linus” is the reader’s name. He made this happen. He got on the book store and stayed with them and kept in touch with me. They reached out, got everything arranged, found a date that worked for everybody. Moon Palace did a lot of work too. They got two other authors that will be there as well.”
It should be a very fun event for any baseball fan, particularly fans of analytics, history and other baseball topics.
The response to Smart Baseball has generally been very positive.
“I know so many people in the industry at this point. People have reached out and told me they would recommend it to fans.”
He noted specifically that Susan Slusser, beat writer for the Oakland A’s reached out and told him and said now she has a book to suggest for people who ask the question, ‘Are there any books you would recommend to help explain these statistics?
Law noted, “That’s what we’re trying to do with the book.”
While Law is well versed in the analytic part of the game, he also has a lot of experience as a scout and bringing the two together is an important piece for any front office.
“I try to (blend stats and scouting). I don’t think you can discuss players without doing both. I think the blend varies by level.”
Statistical analysis in baseball is certainly not new. Going back to the first box scores in the late 1800s, statistics have been a big deal in the game. Bill James is often considered the pioneer of advanced statistics. Moneyball, the book, is less than 15 years old.
Law said that Moneyball played a role, but there were certainly other reasons that analytics took off in baseball, and probably one was more important than the rest. “Everyone says the publication of Moneyball was the big shift. That definitely raised the awareness in other front offices and among ownership groups. But I think just as much of a spur was with the Red Sox. When Theo Epstein took over, he was extremely public in his embrace of analytics. And then they won two World Series in the next five seasons. That has an effect. To have an old, old franchise, with plenty of money say we’re going to use this stuff and then go out and execute and build a world-class baseball operations department.”
Law continued, speaking to the effect it had on other organizations. “I think that was just as much of a spur to every other team, that we have to at least consider this. This has to be part of our thought process. It took a long time for all 30 teams to get there, as you well know. But we’re there now. Everyone is doing it. Everyone at least has some sort of in-house analytics department. They're collecting data, the torrent of StatCast data right now. I don’t know that we know what that all means.”
The industry had shifted. There has been a lot of change in the game and how it is analyzed and evaluated. But what’s next? What will the next big area of analytics be?
According to Law, “The next advances are more likely to come out of Statcast information. Much of it may not be public, at least not at first. But when I spoke to executives for the last two chapters of my book - one is on Statcast specifically and the last is on what comes next - it was really about applications or insights from looking at Statcast data.”
Law provided an example of what could come analytically, “Can we find that pitchers are fatigued in the data before they are actually hurt. His spin rate. His velocity is dropping. But he’s not hurt. He’s not reporting any soreness. But we can see his stuff is objectively not the same. That’s information that we simply never had before. I throw it out there in the book as a hypothetical, but if I could tell you that the Twins could save one DL stint for a starter every year using that data, what’s that worth to them? It’s probably worth seven figures a year.”
So at this stage, we all realize that pitcher “wins” tend to be a pretty meaningless, overrated statistic. We understand better that batting average is not as important as on-base percentage. So when I asked Keith Law for an example of a stat that is ruining the game, he quickly responded.
“‘Saves’ is the one that’s doing the most damage to the game. My guess is you know why. You could probably make the argument without reading the chapter in the book, and I’m guessing a lot of your readers too. If you watched the postseason last year, we know that too. Zach Britton not getting into the wild card game. You saw Andrew MIller being used very differently. People acted like Terry Francona’s usage of Andrew Miller was like Einstein discovering the theories of relativity. Teams used to do this all the time. I’m not taking any credit from Francona, but this is old and new. It’s new because it’s novel, but it’s not like no manager has ever done this before. Managers used to do this all the time before the save stat. So, that’s the one I always give when people ask me for a stat that’s really ruining the game of baseball. That’s the best general example.”
There is another grouping of stats that Law mentions, “There’s a number of times in the book where I talk about the run expectancy table. In trying to allow readers, again without doing a lot of math, to get readers to understand the idea of tradeoffs. This idea that you’re going to try to steal second, but if you fail, there is a real cost here. So think about "What do I gain if I succeed?" What do I lose if I fail? I talk about bunts in that context. I talk about intentional walks in that context. That’s one where, it’s not so much a single stat that’s ruining the game but it’s an older way of thinking. The way that just thinks, "Well, I got the runner to second, that’s a good thing, right?" No… It’s not a good thing, but it took data to actually prove that to people.”
And those examples let us know why this can be such an important book for baseball fans. We all have those friends that will say something like so-and-so wasn’t very good last year because he only hit .245, not noting that the same hitter got on base 35% of the time and hit 25 homers while playing Gold Glove caliber defense at an important defensive position.
“We’re still fighting an uphill battle with the public. I think teams know this stuff if not all of it, but there’s still a big portion of baseball fandom that isn’t used to thinking about the game this way and I want to reach those people and reach them on their terms and in their language, not ours.”
And now we have a book to help us with our arguments and increase the intelligent conversations with those friends.
Smart Baseball is available in most bookstores and on the online bookstores. Pick up your copy(ies) today.
But for those of you near Minneapolis, consider joining Keith Law and several other Twins and baseball fans at 6:30 p.m. at Moon Palace Books in Minneapolis. You’ll be able to listen to some interesting baseball discussion, pick up some new reading material and ask Keith Law to sign your copy of Smart Baseball.
Over the next few days, I'll share more from my conversation with Keith Law on topics such as the new Twins regime, the Twins farm system and the upcoming MLB draft. Be sure to check back often.
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