Keith Law talks Smart Baseball with BCPL


Though the game of baseball hasn’t changed
much over the years, the way we analyze games has been changing rapidly in the past ten
years. New statistics and new technology are giving
us knowledge about players and their skills and that information is being used by every
team in baseball. What are these new statistics and how are
they being used? Baseball writer Keith Law has written Smart
Baseball to show us the right way to look at baseball. This was the book that I wrote in response
to readers who kept asking me for a primer on advanced statistics or who would say, “I
understand that you think RBIs aren’t useful, pitcher wins aren’t useful, I’d love to know
more about why. Can you write a column about that or what
book can I read to get up to speed on how teams are looking at players now.” So they wanted to understand the changing
nature of baseball commentary but also how teams are using analytics to evaluate players. For years I’ve said, “the book doesn’t exist.” I could not recommend something for the lay
reader, very little math involved, that would answer all of these questions. After a few years, I said, “maybe I could
write that book.” I’d never written one before. I put together a pitch, it was well received
right away, it sold very quickly, so all right, maybe other people think there’s a market
for this too and the finished product really resembles the original pitch. It was very much an outline of, here’s the
bad stats, here’s why they’re bad, here’s the better stats, stuff that everyone has
access to, and to help you understand, from on-base percentage up to Wins Above Replacement,
or WAR. At the end I wanted to try to at least peek
a little bit into the future. The rise of the Statcast property from Major
League Baseball is reshaping analytics as we speak, with teams employing Phds and Masters
candidates just to handle that data. We don’t really know where it’s going, maybe
that’s the second edition in five years but I had to at least address it. Here’s what’s in it and here’s what teams
are at least hinting that they’re doing with it. Maybe in a few years down the road we will
know better what that’s telling us about players. How it’s getting used within teams, maybe
some of that will trickle out to the public too. Along with new statistics and ways of measurement,
Law believes many of the traditional stats being used are terrible because they don’t
tell us anything useful. The three worst? Pitcher wins, which a pitcher really doesn’t
have that much control over it. RBIs, which just have been used forever as
a measure of a hitter’s productivity, especially a power hitter, and again, it’s not just about
you. The problem with all of these stats is they’re
not about you, right? They’re about what the other players are doing
around you. Or, in the case of RBIs, the guys hitting
in the two spots ahead of you in the lineup. And saves, which I might say is the worst
stat of all because it’s actually altered the way that the game is played. It’s altered the way players are compensated
and it doesn’t do anything useful. It, the definition itself is entirely arbitrary,
it was coined by a sportswriter and, speaking as a sportswriter, I can say that that’s a
terrible idea. Don’t let us make up stats that are going
to change the future of the game. Keith believes that the way the save statistic
has been implemented led to one of the most controversial decisions in Orioles baseball
history. The decision not to use Zach Britton in 2016’s
playoff game against Toronto. The Orioles ended up losing that game without
their best reliever making an appearance. He was being saved for a save situation. Buck Showalter, who’s generally a good tactical
manager, but made a tactical blunder there, was foreseeing the possibility that they would
take a lead, he would have a save situation, Britton would be unavailable because he had
already been used, and then they’d blow the save. If the save doesn’t exist, you blow the lead,
well, that’s still bad but you have not lost the occasion. It’s essentially the accounting portion of
the game. I don’t care about the accounting, I don’t
care who got the win or who got the save, I want to win the game. The best way to win that game was to prolong
the game and that was to use Britton as opposed to have him standing on the mound for the
entire offseason waiting for the call that never came. There’s a portion of baseball fans that has
trouble accepting the new analytics that Law discusses in Smart Baseball. But Law believes that they actually enhance
the game. If you’re a fan of a specific team, to help
your team make better decisions, well then you want them, right? If you’re going, especially the draft, which
is what is much of my life right now is going out and seeing draft players. If I know, it used to be we would rely on
scouts to say “he can really spin a breaking ball. He’s got good rotation on the breaking ball.” All right, I was taught what to look for. I know, I think I know what a good curveball
looks like but now we might actually have data that says, “no, this guy’s curveball
spins at 2,500rpm, this guy’s at 2,300rpm,”so I can definitely say to you, “he’s got better
rotation on that breaking ball.” Well, I’d much rather have that information
in the draft room so I can make a better decision. And if that frees up my scouts to look at
other things, things like delivery and mechanics, which you really can’t handle through analytics,
then so much the better. We’re getting more information and we’re getting
more accurate information, that means making better decisions. It puts better players on the field, which
is what I think every fan should want. Not just for his own team but, I’m not a fan
of any team, I just want to see the best players on the field at any given time. Law, a regular writer for ESPN.com, found
some challenges moving from short form writing to writing his first book. The biggest thing for me is, you know, I’ve
been done for two months. It’s like, let’s go already, why is there
not, you know, typically I write something and I file it and within 36 hours, at worst,
it’s on the site. I have my own blog where I write non-baseball
stuff and you just hit publish and it’s done. So the idea that I wrote this two months ago,
it feels old to me. No, no, no, that’s something I did already
and yet it hasn’t been published. Only a handful of people who’ve seen advanced
copies have read it. So that’s been very different. Just the idea of writing something of this
length. I don’t think I’d ever written anything for
ESPN that ran past, let’s say, 3,000 words, that wasn’t a ranking or a list. The idea of a single narrative, each one of
these chapters might run 5-6,000 words and then I really had to work with my editor on
stitching things together so that we would get from one chapter to the next and you’d
feel some sort of narrative flow. Rather than it simply being a series of essays,
which if you just look at the raw copy originally filed, that’s what it would have felt like. Just a bunch of essays that had the same theme
but weren’t really connected in any fashion. In addition to scouting prospects and writing
about baseball, Law blogs about cooking, music, reading, politics, and whatever else strikes
his fancy on his blog, The Dish. How does he find the time to do all this? The one saving grace in all of this is that
I write very fast and I read very fast. I wouldn’t be able to accomplish as much if
I didn’t. If I weren’t able to churn stuff out fairly
quickly…And the nice thing about the book process to is that it was the first, I have
editors at ESPN who do provide feedback, of course, but it’s not to the same level. I could send something that in my opinion
was very unfinished to Harper Collins and that was okay. They’re used to getting copy. He said, “it’s still better than, you know,”
he didn’t have to change a lot of grammar for example. He could understand what I was getting at. That said, I don’t have a lot of down time. I don’t watch a lot of television and so there’s
very little time where I’m just sitting on the couch doing nothing. If I sit on the couch, you know, with the
family, I probably’ve got a book. Last night we actually watched a movie together,
as a family, but, of course, I’m sitting there thinking, “now how am I going to write this
up for the blog. Did I like it?” I’m polling my daughter too because it was
animated. Did you like it? And she said, “well, it was okay, but it wasn’t
great.” So I’m really quizzing her, well, give it
a letter grade. What did you think? I think she gave it a C+, so yeah, so it was
good but she’s definitely liked some others, we’ve been on a run of animated movies too. She’s liked some other ones better. With his love of cooking and dining out, is
a cookbook in Law’s future? There will be a Keith Law not-baseball book. That one I can promise. I’ve got one proposal that I’ve started to
put together that’s got nothing at all to do with baseball. It would be in the food world. It’s not a cookbook. I always worry that my recipes aren’t original
enough. I know you can’t copyright a recipe but anything
I’ve come up with has been someone else’s recipe that I’ve made five changes to. Is that really my recipe then or did I just
borrow it from like a Hugh Acheson or Richard Blais or somebody and really it’s their recipe
and I’ve just kind of tweaked it to my tastes. Smart Baseball is available at all Baltimore
County Public Library branches and can be reserved online by visiting our website, BCPL.info.

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