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Q&A with MLB Network's Brian Kenny

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  December 12, 2011 03:00 PM

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If you missed it, Friday's media column led off with a look at the MLB Network's "Clubhouse Confidential,'' the network's innovative, sabermetrically-oriented program hosted by Brian Kenny, the incisive and opinionated former ESPN anchor and host.

And if you read it and had a hunch that I was using my media forum on the occasion of the Albert Pujols-to-the-Angels blockbuster to not-so-covertly talk baseball, well ... maybe. Please don't tell my boss.

In all seriousness, I had a blast talking to Kenny, with whom I share a similar approach to evaluating baseball players: Ask the right questions, gather as much information as possible, put it into context, and draw informed conclusions from there.

During our interview, he provided plenty of informed conclusions that didn't make the column, including thoughts on Tim Raines, Dwight Evans, the meaning of relief ace, and how to make sabermetrics accessible to Harold Reynolds the fan who trusts their eyes more than statistics. We even somehow mentioned Wayne Garland.

Here's the (long but hopefully entertaining) Q&A ...

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The resistance from -- I guess you could call it the long-established media, since mainstream applies to the internet these days -- seems to be fading. Writers such as Keith Law or Dave Cameron at Fangraphs have BBWAA membership, which is a wonderful, progressive development. But there's still that challenge of making sabermetrics accessible to the those who are skeptical or intimidated. How do you approach that challenge on the show?

Kenny:"That's always the challenge in knowing where the line is. I want any baseball fan to be able to tune into the show and have a passing knowledge of statistics to be able to watch the show and enjoy it. So I really take my time and take particular care to explain the methodology and to explain what some of these new analytical tools are and how they are used and why they work.

At the same time, I stress this is not math class, a lot of times I try to say, hey, this is wins above replacement. Try not to get caught up in what goes into the number, just look at what the numbers are telling us. We can look at OPS, we can look at weighted on-base average, let's see what all the evidence is telling us. I don't get caught up in one number because there is no magic number. A fan is already looking at the numbers. How do you know someone is a good hitter? He hits .300. He drives in 100 runs. Those are metrics. They're just not the best possible metrics to analyze production and project future performance. There are other numbers for that and we're going to teach people what they are and how to use them."

whitakerlou1215.jpegBut there are those fans who just will not believe that RBIs is a rudimentary measure of a hitter's production. And I've had people roll their eyes at me when I make Lou Whitaker's Hall of Fame case by noting he has the highest rWAR of any modern player not enshrined who has already been on the ballot. Is there a particular metric you favor, not only because it is telling and informative, but because it's a concept that is relatively easily grasped?

Kenny: "Well, you look at everything that's there. I do it with the researchers every day -- do we want to use WAR, do we want to use OPS ... the best way to look at it is to look at everything that's available. Because what makes up WAR are the guys singles, doubles, triples, and home runs, then in what context. Were there two guys on base? Were they down by a run? You can use that for leverage, clutch hitting. Statistics are shorthand. If you want to boil it down to one number, you really just can't, because you can find a flaw at every system. It's really about asking the right questions. It's about value.

"And I think fans are becoming more sophisticated. And any time they get back to RBIs and home runs. You're looking at numbers, too. You're thinking sabermetrically. Those are numbers everybody should look at. They're just not the best numbers."

You were known at ESPN for boxing as much as baseball. So I was pleasantly surprised when I heard you on Bill Simmons's podcast sometime over the summer and your appreciation for and mastery of sabermetrics was evident. How long have you been interested in advanced metrics, or the application of statistics in baseball in general? For me, it's rooted in Strat-O-Matic, which taught the lessons of on-base percentage and WHIP. I get the sense you were into this well before Brad Pitt ever heard of Billy Beane.

Kenny: "Oh, yeah. I was charting statistics and the ERA leaders and all of that on my little notepad when I was 7 years old. On Jim Palmer and Mike Cuellar and Mel Stottlemyre and the wins leaders and all of that. And as I got older, like a lot of people, I started to read Bill James and other baseball writers and tried to rank the greatest baseball players of all time, I started thinking more analytically. It's funny, by the time 'Moneyball' the book came out in 2003 the guys I was talking to, all of the baseball analysts, thought, 'Wow, this is really behind the times. We already know all of this already.' Even through the '90s, I think we recognized what the Yankees were doing with guys like Wade Boggs on the team and Chuck Knoblauch and high on-base percentage guys who worked the count and didn't let pitchers get deep into games.

"On-base percentage, raising pitch counts, the exponential effects of that That was something I was studying by the early '90s and implementing it in everything I did in my sportscasting career, all through those years, through the '90s. It's just that fewer people were listening. No one wanted to hear it. The fans were not ready and the fans were not ready for the new applied intelligence. I was called Sluggo at certain times because I was talking about slugging percentage. You bring up this VORP, are you going to a Star Trek convention? Now, the intelligent fan knows this because young fans have grown up on sortable statistics and the industry is there implementing this. Now, fans who don't follow it realize they're kind of behind."

But would you agree that some don't realize it? There's more information than ever before when it comes to analyzing baseball and predicting future performance. But again, some people who have spent a lifetime around the game are resistant to change. That's understandable in some regard, because their approach worked for them, got them to the big leagues. But how to do you make your points to the I-know-what-I-see-types who will always trust their eyes and experience over hard evidence on a computer screen?

bowalarry129.jpgKenny:"Well, when I first got with MLB and was on 'MLB Tonight' and we were doing those shows, I know Larry Bowa, for example, said, I love how the Diamondbacks are aggressive on the bases. They take extra bases but they run into a lot of outs. And that's something Larry was seeing with his eyes and all of his experience. The first thing I thought of was, 'Is that true?' We looked it up. There are ways of charting how often a player takes two bases on a hit when they're on first, when they're on second, and how often they're running into outs and what that general percentage is. Is a team hurting itself by being too aggressive? It's a very important thing to know. And Larry was absolutely right. And when you think you're seeing something, what you need to find out is, 'Is that true?"

So when Harold Reynolds says, 'Of course Albert Pujols is worthy of a 10-year deal, he's Albert Pujols!,' how do you get the point across that there's compelling evidence that being Albert Pujols won't be quite so impressive five years into a new contract? Or that there are a glaring signs of decline that can be found in his numbers already?

Kenny: "Well, if someone is seeing something such as, 'All I know is Pujols a great hitter, well, why do you know that?' Well, he hits home runs. That's reflected in slugging percentage. He has a high batting average and he has good plate selection. All of those things show up in numbers. The performance does get reflected by the statistics. Do they show everything? No. It helps to be watching as well and have your own eye on it.

"But your eyes will lie to you You see a guy make one great defensive play on a particular day, you'll have it stuck in your head, 'Wow, that guy is a great defensive player.' Even if he makes 50 errors in a season, you're going to remember that one play. It's better to look at the metrics, but yeah, try to follow up on what you're seeing on the field. Fielding statistics in particular are frequently conflicting. You try to take the weighted average of that, and use common sense. There is no one magic number. The key to it is asking questions and finding evidence. Someone says something: "This guy hits for great power. I saw him it one into the upper deck one day." These guys run into a lot of outs. In Larry Bowa's case with the Diamondbacks, it absolutely was true."

'Clubhouse Confidential' has dedicated a lot of time to determining Pujols's value, and the conclusion is pretty simple: The last half of a 10-year deal is going to be expensive and probably regrettable for the team that signs him and is paying for his decline. [Note: The interview was conducted the day before he signed a 10-year, $254 million deal with the Angels.] What are some of the ways the show has approached discussing and evaluating Pujols's value?

Kenny: "It starts by asking questions. Is Albert Pujols worth $30 million per year? What percentage of payroll can you pay one player? How can you project his performance based on his age going forward? When we do this every day, we get a much clearer picture of a player's value. Hidden value, and what that really means to a team and to the market place. We've drawn clear conclusions on Pujols in particular.

"We do one particular show on 'Clubhouse Confidential,' we do the essays called "High Heat,'' and we wanted to know how many good $100-million contracts have there been. And so we looked at the $100 million contracts, and when you put it into free-agent contracts, which means you're getting an older player, we did our own value system, and we found that of the 16 $100 million free agent contracts, four were what you could consider good contracts for the team. Actually doing the thought experiment and going through the exercise of looking at each individual one and let's rate them good bad or inclusive or somewhere in between, that's a telling stat. Only 25 percent were what you could consider good.

"What's the next question? Why? And we found that the why is usually a misevaluation of the player's skills, ignoring the evidence of the trends, or age. So what's the worst combination: A guy on the wrong side of 30, a big slugging first baseman, whose trends are going down. Who am I talking about?"

It's either Albert Pujols or Willie Bloomquist.

garlandwayne129.jpgKenny: "It's staring us in the face. I started to say said that on the show. Only after going through exercise of studying the big contracts, then considering the worst contracts of all time. Do you remember Wayne Garland, the first outrageous contract?"

Sure. I think Cleveland is still paying him.

Kenny: "Right, right. [The Indians paid him] $200,000 a year, it was kind of outrageous then, but it's still laughable now. It turns out they were rating him on a 20-win season, he was relatively young, but his WHIP was very high and his strikeouts were low. The underlying components of his production told you that he wasn't going to be a great pitcher. But they didn't know that then."

Whereas with Pujols, or any player nowadays, there's so much data available that if you mine it properly and ask the right questions, you'll recognize trends, and those predictors point you toward the answers, fair to say?

Kenny: "Absolutely. You look at all of the components and see where they are trending. And Albert Pujols not just his walks, his declining walk rate, his rising strikouts, and his declining power, but his chase rate. But he's chasing more and more pitches out of the strike zone. We saw that during the World Series, but you wonder, is that just one at-bat, a small sample, one game. Or is this true? It turns out he went from a 17 percent chase rate in 2007 to 31 percent. And these numbers that we're kicking around, is it fascinating to a fan? Well, it's worth 10s of millions of dollars, knowing this information and not ignoring this information. We've done a lot on Pujols, and everything points in a certain direction. And it's that the Cardinals got his greatest years already. His best half of his career is not to come. And stay away from big bodied, slugging first basemen on the wrong side of 30 for long free-agent deals."

History suggests signing relief pitchers to long-term deals isn't the brightest approach to team building, either. While there's lots of hand-wringing here in Boston over Jonathan Papelbon's departure, particularly regarding who will replace him, isn't their patient approach a more prudent one than, say, giving Heath Bell three years and $27 million, as the Marlins did?

Kenny: "Well, with Bell, we ran him through the shredder. Are you familiar with the shredder?"

Sure. You did a similar thing with David Ortiz recently.

Kenny: "Right. We break it down analytically, and we get the components of his production. The main thing you look at with a relief pitcher is the strikeout rate, or strikeouts and walks. I said on the show his decline in strikeout rate is alarming. It's alarming. It should not be ignored. And I think it's part of the old guard valuing and overvaluing saves. Looking at a guy and saying he's special, he saves games. And I would maintain that anyone who is effective in the seventh or eighth inning can be effective in the ninth inning as well. There might be some exceptions, but by and large, anyone who is excelling in the seventh or eighth can in excel in the ninth given enough repetitions. That is not the way it has been thought of, and there are still teams making that mistake saying, this guy is a quote-unquote proven closer. There's a value to experience, but you can overvalue that they way the Marlins just did Heath Bell."

radatzdick1210finn.jpgIt looks like Daniel Bard is going to get his chance to start for the Red Sox next year, and to me they need to find out if he can do that, because a 200-inning starter obviously has more value than a 75-inning relief pitcher. Conventionally, he's the most logical successor to Papelbon. Yet there's a notion here that he may not be cut out to close, despite the fact that he's essentially been the Red Sox' relief ace the past two years, being the guy to come in and face Robinson Cano and Mark Teixeira with two on and one out in a one-run game in the eighth. It seems absurd to me that a guy who has been getting tough outs since he's been here couldn't handle the ninth.

Kenny: "Yeah, you're right. It's funny, because now, the tail is wagging the dog where you rate a guy based on saves and whether he's a proven closer, whereas in the 1950s, that term you used, relief ace, that was how it worked. A guy could come in in the fifth, sixth, seventh inning and put out the fire. He was the 'fireman,' pitching the highest-leveraged situations. If the bases are loaded in the sixth inning and you're up by one, the game is being won or lost right then and there. Why keep your best pitcher in the bullpen? And yet that's still being done to this day. And there's still resistance to that, with people saying, "No, no, no, a reliever needs to know his role, you have to be a proven closer, and it's just not true.' "

"I know when Boston did the bullpen by committee several years ago [in 2003] ...

We don't speak of that around here ... even thought it was a reasonable idea with the wrong people on the committee, doomed from the start when Carl Crawford took Chad Fox deep on opening day.

"... exactly, and they were mocked. Had they just stayed the course on that ... teams should just stay the course on what they believe will work and not worry about what the rest of the league or fans or what anybody else is saying. It's funny, because Tony La Russa did a mix and match bullpen trying to apply the best guys in the best spots through the playoffs, and he was applauded for it. He got the best matchups, worked the percentages, well, why don't we just do that all the time?And your best pitchers should be brought in during the highest-leverage situations. Don't keep Mariano Rivera sitting out there waiting for the magical save opportunity. Bring him in when the game is on the line. Bring in your best pitcher at the biggest moments and then worry about later in the game if you're still competing later in the game."

rainestimfinn1210.jpgBefore I let you go, I have to ask since he's one of my favorite players and his Hall of Fame candidacy is cause of sabermetricians: Does Tim Raines belong in the Hall of Fame?

Kenny: "Tim Raines is two Hall of Famers."

That's what I like to hear.

Kenny: "Tim Raines is such an obvious Hall of Famer, a slam-dunk, first-ballot Hall of Famer in my book. His on-base percentage, his net steals, not just that he stole a lot of bases but he stole a lot of bases and didn't get caught, probably the best percentage of all time for people who stole as often as he did.

"I have a whole list of players that I use on what I call "Cooperstown Justice," a segment that I do on a regular basis. Raines is at the top of the list. Raines, Edgar Martinez, by the way, Dwight Evans, and Keith Hernandez. They are some of my pet projects that I say need to be reevaluated now that we're looking at."

hernandezkeith1211.jpgThe shame is that some of these guys fell off the ballot so fast. Whitaker got one year, Evans three ...

Kenny: "It's insane. I've said that too. With Dwight Evans and Keith Hernandez, they're not on the ballot anymore. [Hernandez was on for nine years, never receiving higher than 10.8 percent of the vote.] And the idea too, this is always puzzling to me, is that the baseball writers are on the beat, watching every game, so even if they're not doing the statistical analysis that one of us would do, at least they're watching the player every game. Well, if you're watching Keith Hernandez or Dwight Evans, shouldn't you be appreciating that defense that was so obvious? It was so obvious that no one ran on their arms, that they changed games with their defensive play, that they were simply among the greatest players ever to play their position. And yet it's those writers who wouldn't give them enough support to keep them on the ballot.

"Beyond that we, didn't appreciate Dwight Evans's ability to draw a walk, his on-base percentage, his power, which was not Jim Rice's but it was very good, and this was a great all-around player. And Keith Hernandez, he was the greatest fielding first baseman on all-time, and seven times in an eight year span he was in the top three in on-base percentage in the National League and also had doubles power. All of these things make a guy a Hall of Famer. But there's still that old thought of, 'How many home runs does he have?' and we haven't quite gotten sophisticated enough yet to make those judgments. But that's what we're doing on "Clubhouse Confidential." We're getting that out in the forefront."

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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