Baseball Toaster Bronx Banter
2003-05-07 07:53
by Alex Belth



BB: Are you still attached to the Red Sox now that Bill James is working for them?

Rob Neyer: Sure. It's kind of funny, because I now have three favorite teams, after years and years of not really caring about anybody but the Royals. Maybe even four, if you count the Mariners. I want the Red Sox to do well because Bill works for them; I want the Mariners to do well because I'm up here now and I see them all the time; and I want the A's to do well, because I'm such a fan of the work that Billy Beane does down there.

BB: What are your thoughts about theMichael Lewis book?

Neyer: It's hard for me to answer that question with any objectivity, because I've actually become friendly with Michael. I'm a huge fan of his work, and was before I even met him. I've read "Moneyball," his new book, three times. I read it twice while he was writing it, and then I read it once more in galleys. I think it's a fantastic book. Michael is a great reporter. He's just brilliant at being in a place and picking out the details that make the story jump out at you. It's a very vivid story that he tells. Nobody has ever written a baseball book quite like this one, and I think it's going to be a huge success. Now, the book is going to ruffle some feathers, there's no question. Already has. I saw a column that Joel Sherman wrote on Art Howe the other day, and there is going to be more stuff like that when the book comes out. Michael had amazing access to the A's and he wrote some stuff that I'm sure Billy Beane wishes that he wouldn't have written. But I think the book is fantastic. And if people want to know how baseball teams really work, and what the next wave is in baseball management, this is the place to go. It's going to be portrayed as a book about Billy Beane and secondarily about the Oakland Athletics, but it's truly about a lot more than that. It's really about a new way of looking at the game, and evaluating players, and building teams. I think it will be very influential. Maybe not this year or next year, it might not be for another ten years, when the people who are in college today are working for major league teams. But I really think it's a great book and I can't recommend it highly enough.

BB: Who are some of the other teams in baseball following suit?

Neyer: They all sort of fall in a continuum. I saw a story in Baseball America recently where everybody was divided up into four categories. And it just isn't quite that simple. Certainly there's Billy Beane and Paul DePodesta in Oakland, and Theo Epstein in Boston, and J.P. Riccardi in Toronto, who worked for Billy. And there are a lot of other GM's that pay attention to that kind of stuff. Mark Shapiro in Cleveland, certainly. Dan O'Dowd in Colorado. I mention these guys, and I know I'm missing another half-dozen.

BB: Cashman?

Neyer: Oh, absolutely. One man can't really do anything in that organization. It's too big of a job. But yeah, Cashman is a big believer in statistical analysis. Really, you have to look at what they do as opposed to what they say. To really make it work the way I think it should work, everybody has to be on board. It can't just be the GM. It has to be the scouting director, it has to be the owner: they all have to be on board with the approach. That's the tough thing to do. That's what the Blue Jays ran into when J.P. Riccardi took that job. It's what everybody runs into when they try to remake an organization. But one of the things that I think is important to talk about is the difference between a new approach and statistics-based approach. I don't really think that talking about statistics---and that's what everybody talks about when they talk about what this new approach focus' on---is what it's all about. It's more than that. I think it's about trying to figure out a different way to do things. And that may be statistics-based or it may not be. It may be coming up with a new way of scouting, or a new way to evaluate scouts, or a new way to hire scouts. And you may still have scouts out there trying to figure out who is the best player, but you have a different kind of scout too. I don't know. I don't think the movement or the idea is that we need to rely on statistics more than we already do. That may just be part of it. But that isn't the underlying principle. The underlying principle is, "Hey, maybe there is a better way to do this, so let's see if we can figure out what that would be." As opposed to doing it the way it has been done for twenty, or thirty, or fifty, or a hundred years. Which is the way a lot of organizations still do things.

BB: I've noticed how condescending the mainstream media has been towards the sabermetric-based philosophies. The YES announcers have been belittling the Red Sox bullpen strategy all year. What's worse is that they don't even seem to understand the principles behind the strategy.

Neyer: This is what every new idea runs into in every field. This isn't just baseball. Baseball might be particularly backward. Certainly I think football teams have been quicker to embrace new ideas than baseball has. Basketball perhaps as well. I'm not sure why baseball is so resistant to change. Maybe because it's the oldest sport. It's more bound by tradition, I think. It's harder to change the rules in baseball, for example, than any other sport. The other sports, they change the rules all the time. Baseball never changes anything. I think baseball, for whatever reason, is more conservative than the other sports, and the broadcasters and the writers fall in line. A lot of that is because of fear. If a new idea takes hold of baseball, then all these guys who have been in the game, writing about the game, broadcasting the game for decades, have to learn something new. And that's a tough thing for people to deal with. It's not a conscious thing. We all resist change. And the longer we've been in the middle of a thing, the more we resist changing that thing.

BB: Woody Allen said 'Change equals death.'

Neyer: Exactly. If tomorrow a law was passed that all baseball writers had to learn sabermetrics, you'd have a lot of guys out of a job. It won't be a law, of course, but at the same time it's a little scary for those guys. This thing is happening. It scares people like Hal Bodley to know that something is happening and he doesn't understand it. A few guys have been able to hang on. Peter Gammons has been able to adapt. I don't think he buys into sabermetrics really; I don't think he does. But he's able to drop terms like OPS into the conversation often enough, where you don't really know that he doesn't buy into it. Most writers can't even go that far, and they are kind of stuck. People like Hal Bodley, for example, are not in danger of losing their jobs. He can write for USA Today for as long as he wants to write for them. But it is a bit disorientating for them to be on the outside looking in as these things happen, and writers like Bodley become less relevant with each passing day.

BB: Christian Ruzich, Jay Jaffe and Will Carroll of Baseball Prospectus are just a few of the writers who have been covering the topic of pitch counts, and recently Christian reminded me that in baseball, change doesn't happen rapidly. You wrote a column about pitch counts last week. What do you make of all of this?

Neyer: I wish I had an idea. I don't think anybody does. This first time it came across my radar screen I would guess, was four or five years ago. Not that it had never been talked about before that, but it's when I first really started to focus on it. And now I've been hearing promises from people who do analysis, I have been hearing these promises for years: "We're working on the big one, the Big Study." And the Big Study hasn't come out yet! And the reasons it hasn't come out yet are that most of these guys are amateurs and they don't get paid for their work, but the biggest reason is that it's a huge, huge job to sort through all this stuff. There are just so many variables: age, body-type, mechanics, type of pitches a pitcher throws, how hard he was working high school and/or college. You can maybe come up with some very basic rules but the problem is, when your rules are basic you are going to run into obvious exceptions. And when you have obvious exceptions, it will invalidate, at least in the minds of many people, your conclusion.

BB: Randy Johnson ruins it for everybody.

Neyer: Yeah, and I think what a lot of people would argue is that Johnson didn't throw that many pitches when he was 21. A 35-year-old pitcher is a lot different than a 22-year-old pitcher. But, yeah you're right. Neanderthals will conclude that if Randy Johnson can throw a million pitches, then everybody else should, too.

BB: What about guys like Doc Gooden, Saberhagen and Orel Hirshiser?

Neyer: People say that Gooden's drug use killed his career. I think his career got blown out because he got worked too hard when he was 21. He should have been a Hall of Fame pitcher, and might have been if he hadn't been overworked. But again, that's really speculation on my part. I think its informed speculation, but it's still speculation. Because nobody has done the work. I think the work will be done. Frankly---and I don't have any inside information here, honest I don't---I think it will be the Red Sox who wind up doing the work. Because they have a real commitment to research, and they have the money to spend on it. So I think that the work will be done, though of course if the Red Sox do the research, nobody else will have it. I've been advocating, for at least a few years now, that every baseball team should kick a certain amount of money every year into a central fund that is used to research things like this. "Why do pitchers get hurt?" It hasn't happened. I don't think it's going to happen, and the Red Sox are going to end up knowing a lot more than anybody else because they're going to be the only ones willing to spend the money on it.

BB: Speaking of the Sox, I wanted to ask you: Has there been a pitcher in history who has been simultaneously as dominant and as physically fragile as Pedro Martinez has? Or does he stand-alone in this regard?

Neyer: I don't know. Not as dominant, no. Because the number of pitchers who have been as dominant as Pedro you can count on one or two hands. I read about a pitcher named Slim Sallee back in the teens, who was considered a great pitcher, and he was a great pitcher for a few years. But his reputation was that he could only pitch every five days. Back then there weren't many top pitchers with that reputation. Most guys were expected to pitch every three or four days. So I think there have been pitchers acknowledged to be fragile, and were still great pitchers. But along the lines of Pedro, no I don' think so. Everybody knew that Koufax was on borrowed time. He had to use all that ice, and hot, volcanic balm on his arm. There was a perception he had of himself that it wasn't going to last forever. But no, I think Pedro might be unique.

BB: I understand the appeal of the Red Sox. The Sox have a rich history, dubious as it may be. And the same goes for the Cubbies too. They are teams that are famous for being losers. But what about the White Sox? They are just as sad, and nobody thinks they are literate or cute. What's up with that?

Neyer: It is kind of odd. Of course what stopped the White Sox in the '50s were the Yankees, who won the pennant almost every year. It's interesting; people talk about these curses like they are really odd. There are three curses that I really know about: the Cubs have the Curse of the Billy Goat (or whatever), the Red Sox have the Curse of the Bambino, and the Indians have the Curse of Rocky Colavito. The White Sox should have a curse, too, but nobody ever really talks about it. It would be the Curse of Shoeless Joe, or something. So you have four teams that haven't won a World Series in basically forever. What I think is odd is how many teams you have that are like that. Of course, three of the teams are American League teams, and some of those franchises have had pretty good teams. The Indians and White Sox were good in the '50s, but couldn't do anything because of the Yankees. The Cubs don't have that excuse, although people say all of those day games were a problem, and I think they probably were. The reason I don't put a lot of stock in that stuff---first of all, I don't believe in curses---is that if there are four teams that have the same curse going on, how weird can it be?

BB: I've read a bunch of your columns regarding Minnie Minoso and the Hall of Fame. Considering how prominent Latin stars are in today's game it's surprising to me that nobody has politicked for Minoso.

Neyer: I don't really understand the lack of support for Minoso. I think it's very odd.

BB: He was a popular guy, right?

Neyer: He was popular with the fans. Very popular. And he was both black and Hispanic, which you'd think would do him some good in these sorts of things. A few years ago Tony Perez played the Hispanic card when he didn't get elected one year to the Hall of Fame, and the next year he got elected.

BB: Did Cepeda play the Latin card as well?

Neyer: No, I don't think that he did. I don't think Cepeda ever spoke out. Generally when people talked about why Cepeda wasn't in the Hall of Fame, the reason given was that he'd been convicted of drug smuggling after his career. I don't care about the drug thing, but I didn't think he should have been elected to the Hall of Fame, because he just didn't do enough things that a Hall of Fame first baseman should do.

BB: Koufax and Gibson are the most venerated pitchers of the 1960s these days. Why has Marichal's reputation faded so dramatically?

Neyer: I think that are a couple of reasons for that, at least. One obvious reason is that the Giants didn't win a World Series, and the Cardinals did. And Gibson was outstanding in '64 when they won, and in '67 when they won. He also had the 1.12 ERA in '68 that people still talk about. The other thing is that it's quite likely that if Tim McCarver had been Juan Marichal's catcher rather than Bob Gibson's catcher, I think we'd hear a lot more about Marichal than we do. Because McCarver talks about Gibson all the time. I think it's those two things: the World Series Effect and the Tim McCarver Effect.

BB: You don't think the Johnny Roseboro fight has anything to do with it?

Neyer: I really don't. I don't know, maybe there's a little something there. That's one of my pet peeves about baseball: How we take these tiny little incidents, and blow them out of proportion. It's like the Alomar spitting incident. Alomar and the umpire [John Hirschbeck] made up years ago, but people still hold it against him. It's crazy. Roseboro and Maricial are friendly now. People still talk about that incident and try to demonize Marichal---not to excuse the action---but I think if Roseboro was able to forgive Marichal, so should we.

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