Today we're bringing you the first of three interviews we're going to have over the next week or so. We were lucky enough to get Rob Neyer of ESPN.com to answer a few questions about the Rays and baseball in general. Most of you are familiar with his work, and if not you certainly should be. He pens a blog for ESPN.com and he's written four books, including his latest "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Legends: The Truth, the Lies and Everything else." It's only $6.40 and I hear makes a great Valentine's Day present for that special someone. Enjoy.
1. It's become the trendy thing among some members of the media to try and predict who the "next Rays" will be. Do you agree that the 2008 Rays were a unique once in a decade type story, and that while teams may follow their business model nobody will surprise the mainstream audience like the Rays did?
"Next Rays" is a handy shorthand for writers and radio hosts, but the odds are incredibly high against any team this year doing what the Rays did last year. I don't mean going from last place to first place. That can happen, especially these days when most divisions have only four or five teams. What made the Rays special was their history; their long run of failure and the hopelessness that had so long been attached to them (and that's without even mentioning their status as a recent expansion club). I think the comparable franchises today are Baltimore, Kansas City, Washington, and Pittsburgh. And because none of those franchises have anything like the smarts of the Rays, I can't see any of them contending for a playoff spot this year.
2. Do you think the Rays approach of 'defense first' is the new "Moneyball" way of thinking?
I don't believe the Rays' approach is "defense first," necessarily. I believe it's "value first," which really is the point of "Moneyball" (I mean, aside from throwing chairs and stuff).
3. As the baseball world becomes more sabermetric friendly do you think TV and other traditional sources of media will be forced to become smarter about statistics?
Sure, but that's been going on for at least 20 years. It's a slow process, and will continue to be slow. What's most striking these days is that some of the younger play-by-play guys -- Jon Sciambi and Len Kasper come to mind -- actually grew up reading Bill James and others, and occasionally a bit of that does seep into the broadcasts. But there's only so much air time between calling the action on the field. They do what they can.
4. On that same note, writers like yourself, the Keith Laws, Tom Tangos and Dave Camerons of the world have influenced a great many young writers. As the older sabermetrically opposed writers fade away do you think we'll see a mini revolution in the way baseball is covered in the mainstream? Or are we resigned to a few more decades of batting average, RBI and pitcher win/loss arguments?
Well, again, it's already happening. But there won't be any identifiable revolution, a date at which we can later look back and say, "That's when everything changed." And really, how fast it happens will depend not on the mainstream writers, but on the readers who ultimately define what "mainstream" means.
5. You've stated many times recently that the Yankees are the clear team to beat, and they may very well be. In your opinion what is it going to take for the Rays to overcome them, and the Red Sox for that matter, and win another division title?
Honestly? It'll take some luck. Not a great deal of luck, though. Right now I figure the Yankees for 98 wins, the Rays for 90, and the Red Sox somewhere in between. The tough thing for the Rays is that they do need a little help. If events follow their (apparently) natural course, the Rays will finish third. I just hope the fans show up for the show, regardless of the standings.
6. In the Fielding Bible Awards voting, you had Dioner Navarro 9th. Can you explain how you construct your ballot, as well as how you do it for catchers specifically?
I wish I could. Maybe if you'd caught me the next day, but that was three or four months ago ... Seriously, I don't use a rigid system while filling out my ballot, and of course it's even tougher with catchers than everyone else (except pitchers, who are basically impossible). But with catchers, I do look at stolen-base data, along with passed balls and wild pitches. But why Navarro ninth and Pudge Rodriguez eighth? I might have been able to tell you, when I did it.
7. You've mentioned having some questions about the FanGraphs positional adjustments before, have you finally resolved those? And what do you think of the Win Values metric?
Those guys are really smart, and I've yet to see anyone challenge their methods with any sort of insight. I do think we've not yet completely come to grips with the implications of the positional adjustments.
8. Have you ever been approached about doing consultant work for an organization?
Never. But of course tomorrow's a new day.
9. The Royals, for the most part, are a mess. Acquisitions like Jose Guillen, Kyle Farnsworth, Mike Jacobs and Willie Bloomquist are head scratchers. However, they recently made the smart decision to resign Zack Greinke to a fairly team friendly contract. If the team falls out of contention early and Grienke puts up good numbers, wouldn't they be better served trading Greinke and adding more pieces?
They're certainly not going to trade him with three-plus years remaining on his new contract. Should they? I'm not sure if any team's got enough prospects to trade for that many innings of Zack Greinke. For the Royals, the nice thing is that even if they wait until 2011 to deal him, if he's still pitching well his contract will still be tradeable. Of course a lot can happen between now and then.
10. With all of the metrics that seem to be giving us a better picture of a ballplayer and their worth, do you worry (like I believe some of your colleagues in the BBWAA) that they cloud the baseball picture for fans/writers? Does the old "Can't see the forest through the trees" adage come into play?
Oh, I don't know. I'm sure that writers 30 years ago were railing against the idea of on-base percentage for that exact reason. I don't think we'll ever have too much information. It's our job as writers to know which information is worthwhile, and the fans -- especially today -- can decide for themselves how deep they want to drill.
11. There seems to be an inordinate amount of bright analytical writers associated, however loosely, with the Royals and Mariners. Why do you think that is? Location may play a factor with the Mariners, but what about the Royals?
I can only speak for myself (I mean, assuming that you consider me bright and analytical). And it's no coincidence. I owe my career to Bill James, and if I hadn't lived near the Royals -- just like Bill -- he would not have hired me.
12. Realistically, in your opinion how long is the Rays' championship window open?
It's too early to put any sort of limit on the Rays. Will it be tougher for them, finishing too high in the standings to draft guys like David Price and Evan Longoria? Sure. But I think they'll be good for at least the next three or four years, and beyond that is just too far too see.
13. If you weren't writing about baseball what would you be doing with your life?
Traveling the highways and byways of America, wondering what's around the next bend.
14. What players have been your favorites to watch over the last 20 years? And currently?
I tend to particularly enjoy the outliers: short players, fat players, old players, knuckleballers, etc. For a while I was sort of obsessed with pitchers, when I was working on a book about them. Really, though, they're all my favorites. For a long time I've had a great appreciation for the skills necessary to play baseball at the highest level (and that appreciation has only grown over the last couple of years as I've tried to play baseball at its lowest level).
15. Who wins a World Series first, Billy Beane or Andrew Friedman?
Friedman, if only because Beane is likely to find a bigger and greener pasture at some point in the next few years.
16. As you probably know by now, this is a blog. With the recent additions of yourself and Keith Law to the BBWAA do you feel that progress is being made in recognizing other outlets of media besides newspapers. Do you think that blogs, the good ones, are going to be taken more seriously and see as credible in the mainstream media at any point in the near future?
As surely as the sun coming up tomorrow.