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interview-with-keith-law-espn-analyst-and-former-assistant-to-toronto-blue-jays-gm | December | 2009 Articles

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Interview with Keith Law, ESPN Analyst and Former Assistant to Toronto Blue Jays GM

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Right before Thanksgiving (and soon after it was revealed that he was the only member of the BBWAA to put Javier Vazquez on his Cy Young ballot), I emailed Keith Law a few questions. I'm sure Klaw needs no introduction -- the prolific baseball blogger, Twitterer, and food- and lit-blogger has an opinion about just about everything, and he's also like us: a stat nerd made good. He was kind enough to take time out from his coverage of the Winter Meetings to reply. It's a pleasure to have him on Chop-n-Change.

For much of the year, it seemed like Javier Vazquez's stellar year was going completely unnoticed. And, indeed, he went unnoticed on 31 Cy Young ballots. I have two related questions. First, what was your rationale for picking Vazquez second? Are there any pitcher attributes you tend to value very differently than most other analysts? [ed. note: Here's Law's blog post about his ballot, which explains the basic measures he used to make his decision, like FIP, WAR, and VORP, but requires ESPN insider.]

I relied heavily on stats that separate events that are a pitcher's responsibility from those that are muddled up with defense and luck and randomness, which all pointed to Lincecum as the clear #1, and had Vazquez comfortably in the next pack of four with the two Cardinals and Haren. (xFIP, which might be a bit too extreme for this type of question, actually had Vazquez closer to Lincecum than he was to anyone behind him.) The WAR numbers on Fangraphs were probably the single most influential metric on my vote.

I also considered the quality of opponents each pitcher faced -- not just their slash stats, but my own scouting take on the teams they faced. The NL East had better offenses and better-quality hitters than the Central or the West, which boosted Vazquez to 2nd on my ballot where he might otherwise have been third.

Does it say anything about the voters that there was such a high degree of uniformity of response that no one else recognized him?

There were 32 voters and 30 are lifelong journalists. They all have similar backgrounds and are likely to think along the same lines, whereas I was the only voter with experience working for a club, and the only voter who writes from an evaluative perspective. It shouldn't surprise anyone that my ballot stood out -- my ballots will probably stand out more often than not, not by design, but because of who we are.

Are there any player-analysis myths, either in the baseball mainstream or in the blogger community, that you'd like to puncture if you could?

I've never bought into the tall-pitcher meme. Tall pitchers are good because they get downhill plane. If there's any hard evidence that tall pitchers stay healthy more often, I'd like to see it. I think short pitchers, especially righties, are consigned to the bullpen too quickly based just on their height.

And -- this is probably timely -- the rule 5 draft is wildly overrated. The last CBA added a year between a player's initial signing and his first eligibility for the draft, which has wiped out most of the players worth taking. Since the rule change, the only two impact guys to come out of it were freaks -- Hamilton, who was always hurt and had the drug problem; and Soria, who had barely pitched in pro ball and was spotted by a sharp Royals scout in Mexico. If I was a GM, I'd pay attention to it, but I think the days of finding even average players through the rule 5 are more or less over.

[Ed. note: since I asked my questions, Rafael Soriano accepted arbitration and then was traded, making some of the substance of my questions outdated. Here are my two Braves questions, which Law answered together.] As far as anyone around here can figure, the Braves only have a couple of major offseason decisions to make concerning the starting eight, presuming that Chipper Jones can't be moved off third base: what to do about first base and what to do about the outfield corners. Jason Heyward likely figures into the 2010 plan, while Freddie Freeman and Jordan Schafer likely don't, though it would solve a lot of our questions if they could. How should the Braves try to fill those holes while maximizing their resources, both dollars and prospects?

...

The Braves' other main question, of course, is what to do with all their starting pitching. The conventional wisdom is that one of them will probably get traded, either Vazquez or Derek Lowe. What would you do?

So a lot has changed since you sent the questions; they're now faced with having to move Soriano and a starter to clear payroll to try to add another bat, probably at first. I've advocated dealing Lowe for a few months now, as I think he's entering the decline phase and his contract is going to outstrip his production fairly soon. I'd much rather deal him than Vazquez, for example. Then reallocate that money to some offense at first base or anywhere in the outfield -- if the right guy is a CF, move McLouth to a corner -- as long as Heyward doesn't end up blocked. I don't see Freeman or Schafer in that class of guys -- if a superior option emerges, they become trade bait, whereas Heyward is the guy you keep and around whom you build your lineup for the next 6-7 years.

[ed. note: Just today, Law wrote blogged about the Soriano trade. His takeaways: I'm a little surprised this was the best offer Atlanta could get for Soriano... [but] the lesson here for clubs wavering on offering arbitration to a Type A free agent is that having the player accept against your wishes is not the end of the world... Atlanta's decision to offer might not look like the right one because Soriano accepted, but it was the right call.]

What's the best baseball book you read this year?

Nice Guys Finish Last, by Leo Durocher, although I admit I seldom read baseball books. Few of them tell good stories. Relating facts does not make for good reading; there has to be some kind of narrative. The Durocher book is a memoir, but has enough recurring themes that it has the feel of a single story. And I laughed quite a bit.

Apropos of that, most of the novels on your top 101 are more or less realist, aside from the occasional Vonnegut or dystopia. (Even Philip K. Dick missed the cut when you revised the list.) But then, in your top 20, you have Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell at a well-deserved #17 and Master and Margarita at the very top. I'm a huge fan of both, but they seemed strangely solitary. How do you pick the books you read? What do you tend to like best?

My reading list often makes no sense. I read a lot of books I'm unlikely to like -- but I never know for sure. I didn't expect to like Faulkner, for example, but of the five of his novels I've read, I loved three. His prose is hard, his themes are often dark, and yet I have rarely been as absorbed in a book as I was in Absalom, Absalom.

How I pick: I'm still working my way through a half-dozen top-100 lists, and that's maybe half of what I read. I've taken a lot of reader suggestions and done very well with them, like Richard Russo's Empire Falls, after which I read two more of his books with another four on my shelf right now. I've actually started working through the bibliographies of some favorite authors like that -- I'm two for two with Ishiguro, so I grabbed another two of his books. I tend to treat reading like it's work, even though I enjoy it, so I'm trying to add more fun books to the queue.

What I like best: Classic comic novels -- more British farces than American romps. Wodehouse, Waugh, Fforde, Cold Comfort Farm, even American books in that style like The Dud Avocado. Love big theme novels, history of a country or a society told through the history of a family stories. Hard-boiled detective novels. Agatha Christie (Poirot more than Miss Marple). Magical realism. It's a weird set of reading preferences.

What was on your Thanksgiving table?

Turkey, brined and roasted Alton Brown-style, with a white wine gravy. Basic dressing with whole wheat bread and lots of fresh herbs. This mac & cheese. Yorkshire pudding. Green bean casserole -- yes, from the can, because I like being married. Salad with pears, candied walnuts, and an apple vinaigrette. Homemade baguettes. Pumpkin pie & innkeeper's pie. Everything was gone by Friday night except the turkey, and I used a lot of that to make a turkey gumbo on Saturday. It was a good holiday.

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