2009 Archives

Interview with Rany Jazayerli, cofounder of Baseball Prospectus and Royals blogger (4/20 Game Thread)

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I'm really excited about today's guest, Rany Jazayerli of Baseball Prospectus (he's one of the original founders) and the blog Rany on the Royals. You won't find a better baseball writer anywhere, and he graciously took the time to answer a few of our questions. This is also the game thread for our game against the Washington Nationals tonight, which I'll be attending. Derek Lowe will start for us, and go against Jordan Zimmermann, the Nats' top prospect, who will be making his major league debut. 

1. One thing both our clubs share in common is a lot of former Braves prospects. I drafted Billy Butler this year, so I'm hoping you'll tell me he's in for a good year. More generally, though, what is your philosophy when it comes to developing young players? How do you balance between not wanting to rush a guy, giving him a healthy challenge, and helping the team? I've written that I wanted Jordan Schafer to get in his licks at AAA before the CF job is handed to him on a platter, but plenty of people disagree, particularly because we don't have too many people who really deserve a starting outfield job. Tommy Hanson may get a little more time at AAA as long as Tom Glavine's healthy, but both are virtually assured of a starting job before the year's out. What would you do? [ed. note: Since the time that I asked this question, we learned that Glavine obviously isn't healthy. But the Braves opted to keep Hanson at AAA, so the question basically stands.]

It's not an easy question to answer, because certain organizations -- good organizations -- seem to have no problem with "rushing" a particularly talented player directly to the majors from Double-A, while other organizations -- like the Royals until recently -- will bring up talented players as soon as they show a glimmer of success, then scratch their heads two years later and wonder what happened to all that promise.
I think that, regardless of the organization, some players are simply so talented that they can reach the majors on an accelerated timetable and not suffer from the lack of repetitions. The Braves brought Andruw Jones to the majors at 19, and while he wasn't really ready for the majors offensively -- his glove still made him a valuable player -- his accelerated timetable certainly did not hurt his development. The Royals have ruined a lot of players by bringing them to the majors after one good month in Double-A, but Carlos Beltran, who skipped Triple-A, won Rookie of the Year honors, and after an adjustment period became one of the game's best players.
So I think the difference is that good organizations are better at knowing which players will respond well to being challenged and which players need more time to work out the kinks. But in general, I think that teams are more likely to hurt a player by bringing them to the majors too soon then leaving them on the farm too long. I trust that the Braves know what they're doing with Schafer, but all things equal I think he would have benefited from a month or two in Triple-A, much as Hanson is getting.
(By the way, I think I speak on behalf of all Royals fans when I say "thank you" for asking too much of Kyle Davies too soon. And in return I hope you enjoyed Octavio Dotel's time in Atlanta. All eight innings of it.)
 2. Speaking of former Braves, you've written extensively about Dayton Moore's strengths and weaknesses, and his love/obsession with former Braves has been categorized as both. What is your take on him, and what do you think of Frank Wren, the Schuerholz lieutenant the Braves decided to keep? Who is the best GM you've ever seen, and why? If you had to build the perfect GM, what would he look like?

I don't think I have a fully formed opinion of Wren yet. He was abysmal in Baltimore, but the front office situation there was so toxic with owner Peter Angelos that it's hard to know how much of that is his fault. Trading away the farm for Mark Teixeira doesn't do him any favors in my book. [ed. note: the Braves traded for Teixeira on July 30, 2007, when Schuerholz's was GM and Wren was his top assistant. Wren traded Teixeira to the Angels a year later, July 29, 2008, for Casey Kotchman and Stephen Marek. More below.]
The best GM I've ever seen? That's tough. Billy Beane is the cliché answer, and he might be the right answer as well -- I certainly don't think there's another GM in today's game that has done as much to re-define what people think the GM is able to do like Beane has. (By the way, you asked for the best "I've ever seen", which I assume means modern GMs. Branch Rickey created the modern farm system, integrated the sport, and built winners for three different organizations. I think his title is secure.)
But the job of the front office has grown to the point where it can't be done by just one person, which is why I think that how the Red Sox operate, with the best minds in the business on both the scouting and statistical sides, and a GM who has the ability to integrate all that information into his decision-making model, is still the prototype for baseball -- if not all of sports -- today.
I do think that Dave Dombrowski is the most underrated GM in baseball, though. He built a winner in Montreal that was destroyed by the strike, and a winner in Florida that was destroyed by Wayne Huizenga, and a winner in Detroit which may or may not be crumbling from the ravages of age.
3. How did you get into sabermetrics? What are you working on now? What is one baseball question that you would like to understand better? What do you wish the general baseball audience understood a little better?

My entry into sabermetrics came when I purchased the final edition of Bill James' Baseball Abstract in 1988, at the age of 13. I think the whole arc of my experience as a baseball fan and writer was set in motion with that book. It wasn't simply the idea of all these cool statistics that James invented -- though I certainly loved those -- it was the idea that, to disagree with the cliché, baseball is NOT just an opinion. There are hard and fast truths about baseball. Baseball may not be a science, but you can use scientific principles to uncover a lot of the truths about the game. That concept -- the idea that objective analysis can be performed on something as whimsical as sport -- is enormously significant. Not just in the realm of sports, but as my friend Nate Silver has shown with his amazing fivethirtyeight.com site, in every realm of study.
I'm not working on much in sabermetrics at the moment, I'm afraid; having a wife and three kids -- and my own medical practice with three offices -- limits my bandwidth. All I have time for is to comment on the Royals, and try to bring existing sabermetric thinking to the common Royals fan.
What would I like the general baseball audience to understand better?
I would really like to know what are the natural usage limits for pitchers -- what is the best way to maximize the number of innings thrown by starters and relievers without getting them hurt. My feeling is that the philosophy of the 1970s -- a four man rotation, relievers used in fewer outings but for 2 or 3 innings at a time -- was pretty close to the idea, but I'd like to be able to prove it. (For the record, I'm a big skeptic of the Verducci Effect.) [ed. note: from the BP Glossary, the Verducci Effect, also known as "Year After Effect," is the assertion "that pitchers under the age of 25 who have 30-inning increases year over year tend to underperform."]
I'd love the general baseball audience to understand that the save is a meaningless statistic. The save. Is. A meaningless statistic. 
Granted, I'm writing this on Sunday evening, after the Royals blew a two-run lead in the eighth inning without ever using Joakim Soria. And by "general baseball audience," I of course mean "Trey Hillman."
4. What would it take for the Royals to be a regular playoff contender?

For the Royals to contend, it takes just one thing: draft and develop talent better. For all the dumb decisions the Royals have made over the years, what has kept them from contending for almost 15 years more than anything else was the astonishingly bad track record of first-round draft picks they had in the 1990s. That streak was finally broken by Zack Greinke, and now the Royals can finally think about contention -- so long as they get improvements from fellow first-rounders Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, and Luke Hochevar.
5. If you were Commissioner of Baseball, what would you change?

I'll give you two. First, I'd change the rules so that the wild-card team has to play on the road for all five games of the LDS, and eliminate the rule that you can't play an intradivisional rival, so that there's incentive to finish with your league's best record -- the #1 seed gets five home games in the first round. (If that's too draconic, I'd give the wild-card team a home game in Game 1 only, then the next four are on the road.)
Second, I'd enforce the rule book when it says that a player cannot block access to a base without possession of the ball. Specifically, I'm fed up with seeing catchers box out a runner trying to touch home plate -- while the ball is still in the air somewhere over the pitcher's mound. This isn't football. Before the ball gets there, even football doesn't allow you to mug the receiver -- why does baseball allow the receiver to mug you?
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