Interviews Rumors

Keith Law Q&A

Recently ESPN's Keith Law kindly answered a few questions for MLB Trade Rumors.  Law formerly served as Blue Jays Special Assistant to the GM, and has spent the last few years as the lead analyst for ESPN's Scouts, Inc. branch.  Essential Law links: his MLB draft blog, Stephen Strasburg analysis, his general ESPN blog, and his personal blog The Dish

MLB Trade Rumors: On occasion, you've revealed information in chats about a player's off-the-field troubles that was not publicly known or hadn't gotten much press.  How has this been received by your readers, bosses, and front office contacts?

Keith Law: Some readers get annoyed because they don't want to believe it. My bosses know that I'm meticulous about information like that – I only write about these matters if I believe they are substantially or wholly accurate. For example, the Alcides Escobar story – I have a copy of his daughter's birth certificate with his name as the father, I spoke to the attache at the U.S. Consulate in Panama who has helped Escobar's wife, and so on. I think the Brewers would just like the story to go away, frankly, but it's not going to unless it's addressed.

MLBTR: A related question: when you rank prospects, how big of a factor is makeup?  What's the highest number of positions you've moved a prospect on your top 100 (either up or down) due to makeup?

Law: It's only a big factor for me if I think it's really affecting or going to affect the player's production. And even then I would be careful – Robinson Cano had major knocks on his makeup when he was in the minors, and even with his ups and downs he's been a pretty productive big leaguer. If I'd been writing at the time and had given the makeup issues major consideration (he was considered a "dog" by many scouts because he showed little effort, especially in the field), I would have grossly underrated him.

MLBTR: One scout told Buster Olney that Stephen Strasburg is better than A.J. Burnett right now.  Do you agree?  If not, how close is he?

Law: I think that's a bit hyperbolic, but I do think Strasburg could pitch in the majors right now and would be Washington's #1 starter if they could sign him quickly and stick him in their rotation in June. I'm not saying they have to take another starter at #10, but they could have Strasburg, Zimmerman, and another polished college arm like Kyle Gibson in their 2010 rotation. Shore up the defense a little and they could be in line for a pretty significant improvement in W/L record in 2010-11 with that jump in run prevention. 

(Click here for Law's ESPN report on Strasburg, plus video of the young pitcher).

MLBTR: A few years ago you were asked which player you thought would become a star but never did, for reasons unknown.  You answered Carlos Pena.  Since then he's put up excellent numbers, so who takes the mantle now?

Law: I'm asked this sort of question in chats all the time, but since I didn't start scouting amateur players at all until 2003 – and it might be more accurate to say that I started seeing amateur players in 2003, but didn't learn to evaluate them for some time after that – most of my answers would come from the perspective of my old role as a stat analyst. Andy Marte's probably the best answer I can give, especially since I did see him in his first spring with Cleveland and loved his swing, so he's a case where I could offer both perspectives and still missed on him. And do we have a good idea why Jerome Williams never developed?

MLBTR: I have a feeling that your style of writing may generate more angry correspondence from readers than the average columnist.  Have you been able to develop a thick skin?  Is there an occasional email or comment that makes your blood boil?

Law: I'm not thick-skinned or thin-skinned, but I do believe strongly in calling out people who take advantage of the anonymity of the Internet to slander people or generally act in ways in which they wouldn't act if they had to write under their own names. Many people, perhaps most, will back off when they realize that their comments are truly public and that the target might see them and choose to defend himself. And I think most readers are unaccustomed to getting responses like that. If people wrote like they believed their targets were reading, they'd be more civil. And civility is a good thing.

That said, I'm amused by how personally some readers take my comments. Why do you care that I said that Joey Bagodonuts is only going to be a fourth outfielder or a fifth starter in the majors? What I say has zero impact on a player's career path, and if you are worried about my analyses affecting a player's trade value, well, thanks for the compliment, but I'm not sure I believe that either.

MLBTR: What's your favorite major fast food chain?

Law: Five Guys, assuming that's "major." I like In-n-Out, but their burgers are not close to Five Guys', and I like Rubio's as well (I used to like Baja Fresh, and then I tried Rubio's). Peter Reinhart, one of my favorite cookbook authors, has written about the biscuits at Bojangle's, so I need to check that out the next time I'm in the south.

All else being equal, though, I prefer to avoid fast food. I like patronizing local places; I like the challenge of finding those restaurants and I believe in supporting establishments that are serving honest, authentic food, food made from fresh ingredients that either preserves cooking traditions or tries to push cuisine in new directions. And I don't like the way major fast-food chains have sacrificed quality, both in the end product but also in the treatment of animals during the process, in the name of driving down costs. Reducing the cost of a high-definition television is one thing, but reducing the cost of a hamburger? I'd rather eat fewer burgers, pay more when I do, and get a much better end product.


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Josh Byrnes Q&A

Recently MLB Trade Rumors had the privilege of asking a few questions of Diamondbacks GM Josh Byrnes.  Byrnes has been at the helm since October of '05, making it to the NLCS in '07.

MLB Trade Rumors: Many players signed for less money or fewer years than expected this winter.  Do you anticipate an even more drastic decline in free agent spending around the game for the non-superstar players in the 2009-10 offseason?

Josh Byrnes: In spite of the economic conditions, the industry spent over $1 billion on free agents this off-season and 17 of 30 clubs increased their payrolls. Given the abnormally small rate of inflation (and a good class of free agents), it felt like a very tight squeeze. Certain players probably signed for a lot less than what they have been offered in the months/years preceding their final decision. In a tight economic setting, the stars seem to do better than the good (but not irreplaceable) players.

MLBTR: You were criticized by some for not offering arbitration to Adam Dunn in December, but it turned out to be the right move.  How were you able to predict where the market was headed?

Byrnes: Obviously, we considered that particular decision very carefully. It was difficult – especially because the premise of the August trade was based upon draft pick compensation. As we moved toward December 1st, we weighed the risk and reward of offering Dunn arbitration, and we decided that the risk was too great.

MLBTR: Do you have the payroll flexibility to make another Dunn-like acquisition this summer, if the need arises?

Byrnes: We’ll see. Ownership has been very supportive of any responsible expenditure that can help us compete. These are challenging economic times, and we will have to monitor our competitive state and our revenues.

 MLBTR: You've talked about the danger of having players with their meters running regarding playing time incentives, and expressed a preference for health-based incentives if any.  Do you think health-based incentives carry a similar risk, with a player perhaps unwilling to disclose an injury or go on the DL because it would affect his paycheck?

Byrnes: The non-disclosure of an injury could happen (I suppose), but that is pretty self-defeating for the player. Our fundamental rejection of bonuses centers on two main points: (1) we want to know what our team costs, and (2) we do not want provisions in contracts to be a daily source of angst in our clubhouse.

MLBTR: What is your stance on player opt-outs in free agent contracts?  Would you ever allow that?

Byrnes: As a rule of thumb, I would be hesitant to put an opt-out into a contract. We do have a Mutual Option in our Jon Garland contract. To the extent we are able to negotiate Club Options (the reverse of the opt-out concept), we usually provide extra guaranteed money in the form of a buyout to potentially compensate the player for our right to make a choice.

MLBTR: Is there any concern about the team's strikeout total last year, or do you view strikeouts as pretty much the same as other outs?

Byrnes: To some extent, strikeouts are like other outs. But on a young team with many RHH, it can be indicative of our needed growth. Ideally, we want hitters who are tough outs and who are dangerous. If enough walks and homers accompany the strikeouts, the tradeoff can work. Our young hitters have faced some elite pitching in our division over the last two seasons. Now, we need to start applying those lessons.

MLBTR: How do you decide how many innings you'll allow a guy like Max Scherzer to throw, since he's never topped 109 in a season?  If he's healthy and the team is in a pennant race would you be comfortable taking him to 200 innings?

Byrnes: Including the Arizona Fall League and instructional league, Scherzer threw around 140 innings last year. We will try to moderate his innings throughout the season and shoot for a range closer to 170 innings.

MLBTR: Have the D'Backs built something similar to the Diamondview database you worked with in Cleveland?

Byrnes: We have not. The Indians actually developed their product after my departure (we had just started to integrate IT into Baseball Ops as I was leaving). With the volume of information at our disposal and the necessary speed of business, we are constantly trying to ramp up our technical tools. The progression from concept to implementation is not an easy one.


Murray Chass Q&A

Murray Chass covered baseball for the New York Times for almost 40 years, and now his work can be found at MurrayChass.com.  Chass answered questions for MLB Trade Rumors over email recently.

MLB Trade Rumors: You could be called a trailblazer with MurrayChass.com, as it’s the first time I recall a veteran baseball journalist going independent while continuing to make calls, report, and do newspaper-style stories.  It seems that Tracy Ringolsby and others are following suit…is this the beginning of a trend?

Murray Chass: I think it’s premature to talk about a trend because we don’t know how many newspaper people might follow, but given the state of the newspaper industry and the rapid rate at which jobs and entire papers are disappearing or threatening to disappear, I can see the practice developing.

MLBTR: Why did you create MurrayChass.com?  Given that there is no revenue source, is it the sheer enjoyment of writing?  What is it like to be free of editors?

Chass: You are right about there being no revenue source, although that might be a reason not too many people would follow. In my case, I decided to take the attractive buyout the Times offered because I figured it might not be offered again. I also didn’t like the direction in which the sports editor was going. But I wasn’t prepared to quit writing. I enjoyed writing baseball columns my last four plus years at the Times and I wasn’t ready to stop. Rather than try to hook on with an existing Web site, I decided to start my own site so I could write the kind of columns I wanted to write. Most of the columns on existing sites are geared to where this player or that is going, and that’s not what I wanted to do.

As for editors, I don’t miss them. They can serve a purpose, saving a writer from mistakes, for example. But I see enough mistakes in the Times, which is heavily edited, so editors aren’t the answer.

MLBTR: Has it affected your access, not being affiliated with the New York Times anymore?

Chass: Not at all. The people who know me still take and return my calls, and others who don’t know me but are aware of my name and reputation do the same. The only thing I have changed is if I call someone I have never talked to I identify myself as Murray Chass from murraychass.com and formerly of the Times. I don’t presume that everybody knows my name.

MLBTR: You’ve said you hate blogs.  Is it just certain ones, or do you hate the entire medium?  Do you think that, like Buzz Bissinger discovered, there may be a few out there you would enjoy reading?

Chass: I laugh at the whole blog thing now. I think I objected to blogs initially because my newspaper colleagues and I had worked for many, many years learning and polishing our craft, and suddenly anyone who wanted could write a blog on the Internet with no experience, no credibility and no accountability. I have made mistakes occasionally in my Web site columns — fortunately very few — and I correct them. I don’t know that bloggers acknowledge and correct their mistakes.

I don’t read blogs as a steady diet because I don’t have time. I spend too much time as it is working on my columns, talking to people and keeping up with baseball news and developments. Instead of reading blogs, I’d rather spend my time going to concerts and Broadway shows and doing other things to live a varied life.   

MLBTR: Regarding sabermetrics and the advanced stats used these days…do you believe it’s possible to fully embrace these stats without discounting the human side of the game?  Can a person have full appreciation for both?

Chass: I think the whole statistical analysis thing is generational. Older guys like me have little use for the new-fangled stuff. I’m certainly not the only one. Younger writers go more for the stats stuff. I think baseball people — general managers, for example — have to use all means of evaluation available for their own protection. I would hope that even Billy Beane occasionally listens to his scouts. One of the things I didn’t like about "Moneyball" was the way Michael Lewis put down Oakland scouts. I have great respect for scouts. The good ones are pretty darn amazing.

Perhaps my biggest problem with the stats generation is they ignore the fact that human beings play the game.  I think stats have a place, and I use them to bolster a story when called for, but they are not everything and the newer ones have little benefit to most readers.

MLBTR: Some writers rejected the new advanced stats of recent years.  Were you met with similar resistance when you introduced more detailed coverage of free agent contracts and labor negotiations?

Chass: That’s a very good and interesting question. Contract coverage for sure. People, including some writers, made fun of my use of dollar signs so often, but today you can’t read a story about free agents as well as non-free agents without seeing what the guy signed for or the amount of the guy’s new contract. I, on the other hand, am less interested in contracts, though I use the information when it is relevant (like statistics).

In labor coverage, baseball writers definitely tried to avoid covering negotiations. They were interested only in the games on the field. In the 1981 strike, the New York Daily News had three baseball writers, but none of them wanted any part of the strike coverage so the News used its newsside labor writer. He didn’t know anyone in baseball, and the owners’ chief negotiator quickly saw him as someone he could feed stuff to and get his spin in the paper. The strike was about half over when the reporter discovered he was being used.

During the 1994 strike the two sides didn’t negotiate for months once the strike began and the NBA was negotiating a new labor deal so the Times had me cover those negotiations. I quickly learned that the NBA writers wanted to cover those talks even less than baseball writers wanted to cover baseball talks. I loved covering labor because it was like being a real reporter, and I loved being a reporter.


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Ken Rosenthal Interview

FOX Sports baseball guru Ken Rosenthal answered questions for MLBTR on Saturday…

MLBTR: I don’t have an official count, but I believe you’ve broken more MLB signings and trades than any other reporter over the past several years.  Is it still a thrill for you to break news?

Rosenthal: Oh, of course. It also hurts to lose. So, you’re motivated both ways. I don’t have much of a temper – at least I don’t think I do – but I will occasionally let loose after getting beat. My wife and kids look at me look I’m nuts. And it’s sort of difficult for me to argue the point!

MLBTR: Hundreds of baseball writers are trying to break news, including perhaps your stiffest competition in SI.com’s Jon Heyman and the ESPN crew.  Do you share information with other writers?  Or is it more of a "every man for himself" situation?

Rosenthal: Everyone for themselves, now more than ever. I don’t share with anyone, and I don’t believe anyone else does, either. Every web site and every newspaper is in competition. And there are so many hard-working baseball reporters, you never know who might come up with something next.

MLBTR: Say you snag a scoop on a signing.  What has to happen before that story hits the FOX website?  What is a typical amount of time between you confirming the info and it hitting the website?

Rosenthal: The turnaround is incredibly quick, especially if I’m able to give our editors a heads-up that something is coming (which isn’t always the case). I’ve never actually timed it, but I would guess that it takes no more than 1-2 minutes for us to post a story. I would imagine this is true for the other web sites and many of the newspapers as well.

MLBTR: If a team source or an agent gives you information that feels like propaganda to you, do you still run with it?

Rosenthal: My job is to inform my readers, not serve the interest of others. I am no one’s stooge, and my sources know it.

MLBTR: A scoop on a signing or trade – do you have to confirm that with multiple sources?  Or is one rock-solid source sufficient?

Rosenthal: Depends. All of us were taught to use multiple sources. However, the business has changed. There are times I will go with a story even if I have only one source. Too often, if you wait for multiple confirmations, you get beat. I do think, however, it is important to be accurate, more important than it is to be first.

MLBTR: These days it seems like every beat writer and national guy has a blog and can publish news instantly.  Does that make your job more difficult?  Have you considered starting up a blog similar to Jon Heyman’s, where you could drop in a few quick paragraphs on a topic?

Rosenthal: Absoutely, the job gets more difficult by the day, with so many writers in competition. I do live updates like Jon’s during the winter meetings, but if I have a news item in other periods, I just turn it into a story. Not much of a difference, really, in my mind.

MLBTR: You have a fairly unique and very interesting job, at least to the average hot stove junkie.  I’ve read that you have three kids – what do they think of their dad’s line of work?  Do they share the same passion for the inside side of the game?   

Rosenthal: My wife and children do not follow baseball. They are not at all caught up in what I do. Which, for me, is fantastic. They keep me very grounded.  My kids are 17, 16 and 13. They’re all busy with their own lives, and my wife is busy keeping them going. C.C. Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, Scott Boras – not on their radar.

MLBTR: Did you enjoy the Winter Meetings this year?  Do you have any suggestions on how MLB could improve this event?

Rosenthal: I don’t know that any reporter "enjoys" the winter meetings; they’re pretty intense! As for improving ‘em, I don’t know. Some believe they’re obsolete. Most people in baseball communicate by phone, e-mail or text message. Still, having everyone in one place creates a certain deal-making dynamic, in some cases. The attention is good for the game.


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Fred Claire Q&A

Former Dodgers GM Fred Claire was kind enough to answer questions for MLBTR readers.  Fred enjoyed this; we’ll have to do this again in the future.  He wrote a book four years ago; my copy just arrived in the mail.  Here we go with the Q&A…

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MLBTR: What is the best way for a college student to break into a MLB front office, in any baseball operations capacity?

Claire: This is one of the most common questions that comes my way and one of the most difficult to answer for a very basic reason—there are so many young people seeking a position in baseball operations and yet this is a very limited field in an industry with 30 MLB teams. If you want to get a good road map take the time to study the career paths of those involved in MLB at the top levels of team management. You will find a variety of paths to key positions and if you look at recent GM hires in Tony Reagins of the Angels and Bill Smith of the Twins you will see young men who started in rather low level positions (Reagins in marketing and Smith at a minor league team) who worked their way to the top by showing their passion for the game, the ability to learn and the ability to communicate. Both are team players who looked at how they could help their organizations and not how they could advance on an individual basis.

I wish I could say there was an specific academic path that led to a position in the game but that isn’t the case. You need a passion for the game and a willingness to start at whatever level that gets you in the door. The one thing I see quite often with college students is that they have an interest in being a general manager, for example, and yet if you examine their resumes you will see that they are majoring in finance or marketing. This educational background is fine but with this background one should be looking for a job with a MLB team in these areas.

If you look at high profile GMs like Theo Epstein of the Red Sox and Brian Cashman of the Yankees you will see that they started out in low level positions but had the chance to show their ability and advance due to their dedication, intelligence and hard work.

I wish I could give better answers here but I will leave you with this—don’t give up on your dreams to work for a Major League team, build a strong educational background and be willing to pay the price for starting at whatever position that provides an opening opportunity.

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MLBTR: Could you tell us about the biggest trade you seriously considered but ultimately did not make?

Claire: I think a “near”  trade that comes to mind quickly is a deal in my final year (1998) as the GM of the Dodgers where I felt we were going to be able to acquire Randy Johnson from the Mariners with Hideo Nomo as part of the package. I believe the Seattle front office was willing to do the deal but that Mariner ownership stepped in and stopped the trade in the final stages. I could be wrong because you never know exactly what is happening in the other front office but I had the feeling this deal was a real possibility.

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MLBTR: What is the most lopsided (yet serious) trade offer you ever received?

Claire: There were a lot of discussions with other teams in my years with the Dodgers but you tend to forget (at least I did) the deals that simply made no sense.

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MLBTR: When you were GM, were there any agents who caused you to shy away from their players because of their demands?  Put another way, was there a Scott Boras of your time?

Claire: Scott Boras was in business as part of my time with the Dodgers. I did several deals with Scott, including the signing of Darren Dreifort after we drafted Darren. I always found Scott to be very well prepared as he went into any discussion. There are those who criticize Scott but my response would be “Show me any contract involving Scott where Scott’s signature is the only one on the contract.” Scott never did a deal, and can’t do a deal, without having a Major League team sign off on the deal. If you want to deal with Scott you had been be as prepared as he will be.

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MLBTR: What are your feelings on modern statistics? Did you employ any advanced analysis in your time with the Dodgers?

Claire: I find the term “modern statistics” somewhat interesting in that the game on the field hasn’t changed from the most basic standpoint but the way that it is measured and evaluated has changed in a dramatic fashion. I’ve always believed in looking at the best information that is available in making player and team evaluations. During most of my time as the GM of the Dodgers, we employed Craig Wright as a consultant. Craig has been one of the leaders in the field of baseball analytics through the years. I always was a strong believer in on-base percentage through the years even though there are those who seem to believe the statistic was just created as part of “modern statistics.” 

Today I’m involved in a baseball venture with Ari Kaplan, a graduate of Caltech (in fact, he has been honored as “Caltech’s Man of the Decade”) and one of the true leaders in the field of technology. You will find a great deal about Ari and has background  on the web. I truly believe he has developed the best analytical information that is available to Major League teams and you will be hearing more about this as we move along with our project. Ari and I visited with a number of MLB teams this Spring and basic information on the solutions/programs that Ari has developed can be found at the link: http://www.spraycharts.com/bball.htm.

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MLBTR: If you could have been GM for any other organization, which one would it have been and why?

Claire: There are two teams that come immediately to mind,  because they were my favorite teams as a youngster while growing up in a small town in Ohio (Jamestown)—the Cincinnati Reds and the Boston Red Sox. I think it’s a great opportunity and honor to be the GM of any team in Major League Baseball.

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MLBTR: Who do you consider the best GM in the game today?

Claire: I don’t want to get into ranking the GMs of today but if I had to select one person who I felt has set the right example in the past decade or so it would be Terry Ryan, who stepped down as the Minnesota Twins’ general manager at the end of last season. Terry represents everything you want to have in a GM—passion, dedication, loyalty, intelligence and a true team builder in every way—from the standpoint of his own baseball operations department to the teams he actually has fielded.


Brian Bannister Q&A, Part 3

Royals starter Brian Bannister recently answered some questions for MLBTR readers.  This post concludes the series; also check out Part 1 and Part 2 Q&A.  Brian clearly took extra time out to answer thoughtfully, and we thank him for it.

MLBTR: Since you originally went to college as a position player, how do you use your experience in the batter’s box and in the field to your advantage when you’re pitching? Playing in the AL, do you miss hitting?

Bannister: I think it is as important to know how a hitter thinks and operates as it is to be able to throw major league quality pitches. One area I have done a lot of work on is how a hitter sees a pitch, determines its speed and location, and decides whether or not to swing depending on the situation.

To me, there are three types of pitchers that can be successful in the major leagues, each for different reasons. The one thing they share in common is that they all have a deception that makes it difficult for hitters to visually predict where the ball will be when it enters the hitting zone. If you think about it, a hitter does not actually see the ball hit his bat, he loses the ball a certain distance out in front of him and has to "guess" where it will end up. This is why repetition and good eyesight are important for a hitter, and why as pitchers we don’t want to pitch in patterns. Hitters spend hours hitting off of pitching machines and BP pitchers, where there is no deception, and they are very good at it. Here are the three types of pitchers I have seen that can "deceive" Major League hitters and be successful:

1. "Late Movers" – These pitchers have the ability to make the ball move in the zone after the hitter visually loses the ball either more than the average pitcher, in a different manner than the average pitcher, or in a completely random manner altogether. These are pitchers that throw cut fastballs ("cutters", such as Mariano Rivera), sinking fastballs ("sinkers", such as Chien-Ming Wang & Fausto Carmona), split-fingered fastballs ("splitters", such as Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, J.J. Putz & Dan Haren), knuckleballs (such as Tim Wakefield), or from an arm angle that puts more sidespin on the ball than backspin (such as Jake Peavy). If I could throw any pitch, it would be the split-fingered fastball, because the movement on it is unpredictable and is impossible to hit squarely every time. Unfortunately, it is also the most dangerous on the arm and requires large hands to take the strain off of the elbow. All these pitchers share the ability of having good "stuff", but their ball moves late in the zone more than anyone else in the game and is never straight.

2. "Risers" – These pitchers are the most exciting to watch in baseball, because they have the appearance of "blowing away" hitters. To be a "riser", you have to have exceptional lower body flexibility and be able to pitch under control with a long stride. What "risers" do that other pitchers can’t is they throw the ball on a plane with more upward tilt than average. In other words, their fastball appears to "rise" as passes through the hitting zone. What is actually happening is the hitter sees
the ball, and he predicts that it is going to be lower based on past experience than it actually is. Pitchers that have this unique ability include: Josh Beckett, Jonathan Papelbon, John Maine, Scott Kazmir, Chris Young, Pedro Martinez, and my all-time favorite in this category, Nolan Ryan.

3. "Deceivers" – These pitchers have a unique pitching motion that hides the ball longer than the average pitcher or makes it difficult for the hitter to determine the actual speed of the pitch. Most often, these pitchers are left-handed and stride across their body more than the average pitcher. Young pitchers can work on their deception by trying to keep their front shoulder closed longer, bringing their lead arm/glove in front of their release point, and making sure their throwing arm stays hidden behind the body. Pitchers that have mastered the art of deception are: Johan Santana, Tom Glavine, Erik Bedard, C.C. Sabathia, Oliver Perez, and my favorite deceiver/late mover hybrid, Greg Maddux.

After studying and watching the best pitchers in the game for years, I have come up with these three categories that I believe all good pitchers fit into. If a pitcher is not having success, despite having great "stuff" I believe it is because he is not deceiving hitters the way that the pitchers above do. Major League hitters are in the big leagues for a reason, and it is our job as pitchers to find ways to get them out. Finding out which category you naturally fit into and working hard on developing that deception is the best way for a young pitcher to be successful in the long run.

And yes, I do miss hitting.

MLBTR: Are you familiar with the Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP) stat?  It’s been suggested that the percentage of batted balls that drop in for hits may be largely out of a pitcher’s control.  What are your thoughts on that?

Bannister: I think a lot of fans underestimate how much time I spend working with statistics to improve my performance on the field. For those that don’t know, the typical BABIP for starting pitchers in Major League Baseball is around .300 give or take a few points. The common (and valid) argument is that over the course of a pitcher’s career, he can not control his BABIP from year-to-year (because it is random), but over a period of time it will settle into the median range of roughly .300 (the peak of the bell curve). Therefore, pitchers that have a BABIP of under .300 are due to regress in subsequent years and pitchers with a BABIP above .300 should see some improvement (assuming they are a Major League Average pitcher).

Because I don’t have enough of a sample size yet (service time), I don’t claim to be able to beat the .300 average year in and year out at the Major League level. However, I also don’t feel that every pitcher is hopelessly bound to that .300 number for his career if he takes some steps to improve his odds – which is what pitching is all about.

One thing that I work a lot with, and that is not factored into common statistical analysis, is what counts a pitcher pitches in most often – regardless of what type of "stuff" he has. Most stats only measure results, not the situations in which those results occurred. In the common box score, an RBI is an RBI, but it doesn’t show the count, number of outs, and number of runners on base when it occurred. For me, the area where pitchers have the most opportunity to improve or be better than average is in their count leverage.

Let me give the fans and young pitchers out there one example of a way that I try to improve my performance, this time with regards to BABIP.

Question to myself: Does a hitter have the same BABIP in a 2-1 count that he does in an 0-2, 1-2, or 2-2 count? How does his batting average and OBP/SLG/OPS differ when he has two strikes on him vs zero or one strike?

These are the type of questions that I will come up with and employ in my starts to see if I can improve my outings. For example, here are my career numbers in the counts mentioned above:

2-1: .380 (19/50)
1-2: .196 (20/102)
2-2: .171 (18/105)
0-2: .057 (3/53)

It is obvious that hitters, even at the Major League level, do not perform as well when the count is in the pitcher’s favor, and vice-versa. This is because with two strikes, a hitter HAS to swing at a pitch in the strike zone or he is out, and he must also make a split-second decision on whether a borderline pitch is a strike or not, reducing his ability to put a good swing on the ball. What this does is take away a hitter’s choice. If I throw a curveball with two strikes, the hitter has to swing if the pitch is in the strike zone, whether he is good at hitting a curveball or not. He also does not have a choice on location. We are all familiar with Ted Williams’ famous strike zone averages at the Baseball Hall of Fame. It is well-known that a pitch knee-high on the outside corner will not have the same batting average or OBP/SLG/OPS as one waist-high right down the middle. Here is a comparison of the batting averages and slugging percentage on my fastball vs. my curveball:

Fastball: .246/.404
Curveball: .184/.265

The important thing to note is that, with two strikes, if I throw a curveball for a strike, the hitter has to swing at it (and I like those numbers). How does a pitcher use this to his advantage? By throwing strikes and keeping the advantage on his side as often as possible. It seems like such a simple solution, yet so much more emphasis is placed on "stuff" nowadays and this is often not reinforced. When a pitcher who has great "stuff" employs this line of thinking, his numbers will improve to an even greater degree.

So, to finally answer the question about BABIP, if we look at the numbers above, how can a Major League pitcher try and beat the .300 BABIP average? By pitching in 0-2, 1-2, & 2-2 counts more often than the historical averages of pitchers in the Major Leagues. Until a pitcher reaches two strikes, he has no historical statistical advantage over the hitter. In fact, my batting averages against in 0-1, 1-0, & 1-1 counts are .297/.295/.311 respectively, very close to the roughly .300 average.

My explanation for why I have beat the average so far is that in my career I have been able to get a Major League hitter to put the ball in play in a 1-2 or 0-2 count 155 times, and in a 2-0 or 2-1 count 78 times. That’s twice as often in my favor, & I’ll take those odds.


Brian Bannister Q&A, Part 2

Royals starter Brian Bannister was kind enough to answer questions for MLBTR readers.  Check out Part 1 and Part 3 of the Q&A, also.

MLBTR: What’s the most misunderstood aspect of succeeding in baseball by typical fans, sportswriters, and announcers?

Bannister: There are two things that make baseball unique from other sports. One, baseball is a game of skill that is accentuated by the physical tools of the person performing those skills. Most people superficially judge a position player solely on size, strength, and speed, when his eyesight, balance, rhythm, hand-eye coordination, and mental makeup are much more influential factors in his future success. It is when a player embodies all of these qualities that we get our superstars and hall-of-famers. I would much rather face a hitter with "80" power and "80" speed but bad strike zone discipline than one with no power and a .400+ OBP. Over the course of time, the hitter with the .400+ OBP is going to hurt me much, much more, especially if he is surrounded by other good hitters.

Secondly, whether you like it or not, baseball is a game of randomness. We play outdoors (mostly) in changing elements and field dimensions, and each pitch results in a series of events that can go in either teams favor. One thing that I have have come to accept is that just because I train hard physically, I practice perfectly, I prepare diligently, and execute a pitch exactly as I wanted, it can still result in a home run. In golf, if you analyze all the variables correctly (lie, distance, slope, wind, etc.) and execute your swing perfectly, it will result in a great shot. Not so for a pitcher or a hitter. A hitter can swing the bat perfectly and it will result in an out more than six times out of ten. Therefore, as a pitcher, I study and play to put the percentages in my favor more than anything because I know that I can’t control the outcome in a single game or series of games, but over the course of a season or a career I will be better than average.

MLBTR: How will you prepare to face the Tigers’ everyday lineup?

Bannister: I have a good knowledge of and also a healthy respect for the Tigers’ lineup, and I have faced new additions Miguel Cabrera and Jacque Jones before. Edgar Renteria is the one new player that I don’t have any experience against.

I think the most important thing when preparing to face a lineup of this caliber is to be realistic and to recognize how they have been playing recently, because confidence level is everything with a good offense. If you look at good lineups, they tend to be extremely streaky, but their cold streaks will be much shorter than their hot streaks over the course of a season. During the hot streaks, teams and opposing pitchers tend to be intimidated by their offensive prowess, and games can be blowouts. In contrast, during the cold streaks they can seem to be a totally different team because they have very high expectations placed on them by the fans and media, and when they’re struggling, it tends to snowball.

When a good lineup is hot, the only thing you can do is throw strikes and not allow yourself to put hitters on base unnecessarily. They are going to get their hits, and when they get them, you don’t want a lot of runners on base. By keeping yourself ahead in the count, you can reduce your pitch count and hopefully their slugging percentage as well.

When a team is struggling at the plate, a pitcher can take advantage by expanding the strike zone, especially with runners in scoring position. Hitters that have had a drought of home runs/RBIs tend to press in those situations, and they will underperform their historical OBP because they are anxious to drive in runs and break out of their slump.

I will also apply this strategy to individual hitters within the lineup. I choose my spots to try and get outs while avoiding the hitters that are hot. A lineup is a constantly changing dynamic that requires a mix of planning, psychology, and quick adjustments in order to be successful.


Brian Bannister Q&A, Part 1

We’ve done some Q&As with players before – Curtis Granderson, Jason Hirsh, and Michael Barrett.  This time, for our Brian Bannister Q&A, we had readers submit the questions.  Brian really went the extra mile to accomodate, providing thoughtful and elaborate answers.  Great stuff – many thanks to him for participating.  We’ll break this up into several parts. (UPDATE: Read Part 2 and Part 3).

MLBTR:  What was your initial reaction when you heard that the Mets had traded you to the Royals? Where were you when it happened, and who told you?   

Bannister: As baseball players, all we want is an opportunity to play. I don’t know what plans the Mets had for me in 2007 before the trade, but I knew that the Royals wanted me to step up and be in the starting rotation right away, and that’s all I could ask for. The Mets will always be very special to me. They took a chance and drafted me, they invested a lot of time and resources in me over the years in the minor leagues, and they let me represent their organization in 2006 at the major league level. I have a lot of respect for the Wilpon family and the way they run their organization, the coaches that made sacrifices for me, and the fans that supported me. I will be eternally grateful to the Brooklyn Cyclones and their fans, because my career began there, and at the end of 2006 they retired my number 19 at Keyspan Park.

Ironically, the day before I was traded I was at a card show in New York City, and was signing autographs at a table in between my friend (and Mets pitcher) John Maine and Royals great Bo Jackson, whom I had known as a child when my father played for the Royals but had not seen in over 15 years. Bo and I talked for a while afterwards, and we told Royals stories from the 80′s. Little did I know I would be a Royal the next day.

MLBTR: How much of your success in this game so far do you contribute to having a father who was a successful Major Leaguer? Do you have any kind of rivalry with him, hoping to put up better numbers than he did in his time?

Bannister: One thing I’ve always appreciated about my father is that he never forced me to play the game of baseball. Instead, he always made himself available to practice with me if I felt like it, and that’s what made me want to work even harder at the game.

I attribute a lot of my success to the simple fact that I grew up with a baseball and a bat in my hands at all times. I believe that the human body develops coordination and skill in the early years much easier than in the adult years, and that is a reason you see so many fathers and sons in the big leagues. I also was able to watch Major League players practice, train, and prepare for games, and I have carried those principles into my own career.

There is no competition between my father and I, but I will openly admit that I am envious of his power left arm. We pitch in a totally different style, and I think we have learned a lot from watching each other pitch.

MLBTR: Have you ever talked to Greg Maddux?  Who was your favorite pitcher growing up, outside of your father?

Bannister: I have never had the privilege of talking with Greg Maddux, but I have spent plenty of time watching him on video. I had the opportunity to spend a lot of time with Tom Glavine, who is from the same mold as Maddux as a pitcher. The one thing I appreciate about both is their mental toughness and unwillingness to give in to hitters. My favorite quote from Maddux is:

"When they’re in a jam, a lot of pitchers…try to throw harder. Me, I try to locate better."

I have pitched with that quote in the back of my mind for my entire career. Every pitcher is going to give up walks and hits, but the only thing that matters at the end of the day is how many runs you give up.

Greg, if you’re reading this, I’d love to play golf with you someday. Just let me know when and where, and good luck this season.


Keith Law Q&A

I realized recently that I don’t know a lot about how trades and discussions between GMs actually go down.  Fortunately, ESPN’s Keith Law was able to fill in the gaps for me in our Q&A below.  Keith was formerly the assistant GM in Toronto under J.P. Ricciardi.

What steps does a team take to ensure that trade discussions don’t leak out to the media or to other teams? 

You limit the number of people who are know the details of the discussions. There’s not much more you can do, and you’re always trusting the other side to keep offers and discussions to themselves.

About how many people from each team are privy to a trade discussion with another team?

Depends entirely on the FO. In Toronto, it was usually around a half-dozen people, sometimes as many as ten. I think most FOs play it closer to the vest.

Are intentional media leaks common?

Absolutely, and they’re not all true.

What are the logistics of trade discussions – is it typically one GM on the phone with another, followed up by consulting with the GM’s inner circle before a callback is made?

Every trade discussion that happened while I was with Toronto either came about as a GM-to-GM phone call, or as something that came up at the winter meetings, usually where the two GMs would meet in one team’s suite, occasionally with the assistant GMs there too.

Are emails or conference calls between front offices common?

Not while I was with Toronto, but Ricciardi wasn’t a big email guy. I know of some GMs who are much more comfortable with email and so I’m sure they’re more willing to at least start a discussion on email. But for what is essentially a negotiation, phone beats email, and in-person beats phone when you can swing it.



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Mike Plugh On Koji Uehara: Part 2

Have you heard about 32 year-old righthanded starter Koji Uehara?  He’s a free agent likely to come over from Japan to MLB this winter (no posting fee).  I wanted to learn more about him, so I consulted the authority on such matters: Mike Plugh.  Mike runs the Uehara Watch blog.  He also has Matsuzaka Watch and writes for Baseball Prospectus

You can read Part 1 of our Q&A here; a few additional questions are below.

Do you know of any specific teams that are expected to pursue Uehara?  I’ve read that the Angels like him.

I think the Angels are the team to watch with Uehara, simply because the drafted him out of college many years ago. He almost came to the Majors as a 23-year old, but the lure of the Yomiuri Giants proved too strong to pry him away. There’s a relationship there, albeit one from the distant past. Other than the Angels, I think you’ll see a lot of teams trying to get in on the action. There’s a huge market for Japanese players around the Major Leagues that is only growing. The Mets are very eager to get into Japan again. The Cubs seem to be active as well, and perhaps the Braves. The list may include every MLB club, so it’s a matter of money in the end, just like every other free agent. Would he play for the Mariners with Ichiro in center and Johjima is his backstop? Maybe. A lot of intriguing scenarios are out there.

Tell us a little bit about Koji as a person.

As for his personality, Uehara is very easygoing. He’s a funny guy by all accounts with a good sense of humor. He likes to keep things relaxed, but he’s extremely professional as are almost all Japanese athletes. He has a typically disciplined work ethic and is very focused in practice and on the field. He’d fit in virtually anywhere, although I think he’ll want to play on a winner if given a reasonable choice. He’s over 30 and may have a small window of opportunity to contribute to a championship ballclub.