If you’ve ever turned on MLB Network, there’s a very good chance you would’ve seen a familiar face hosting one of the many extraordinary programs on the 24/7 baseball network. Watching Clubhouse Confidential, MLB Now, Top 10 Right Now, and MLB Tonight, viewers come across our generational sabermetric guru in Brian Kenny.
Kenny joined MLB Network from ESPN in 2011, becoming one of the bright stars and one of the face’s of the network. His resume also includes hosting Baseball Tonight, Friday Night Fights, The Hot List, and anchoring the six o’ clock SportsCenter on ESPN, where he worked for fourteen years.
Last year Kenny penned his first book, Ahead of the Curve, asking readers to think critically when it comes to the game of baseball and embracing the revolution that is the sabermetric era.
One can describe Kenny as an outlier, as someone that is always asking questions and digging deeper into baseball statistics than those of traditional means. Kenny does a superb job of allowing viewers and readers to delve into the new-age stats, and to be better informed about the analytic wave baseball has been trending the past fifteen or so years.
I had the privilege to speak with Emmy Award-winning broadcaster this past week, where we discussed several of his ideas from Ahead of the Curve including kill the win, bullpenning, and of course, talking some 2017 New York Mets.
MMO: Your book, Ahead of the Curve, is a great read on sabermetrics and the way baseball is heading in terms of advanced statistics. What piqued your original curiosity on researching and understanding sabermetrics, and going beyond just the traditional stats?
Brian: I think I was always studying baseball and I was always making lists and always trying to categorize players. It was a natural thing to do back then, too. It’s not like we didn’t do it back in the old days. We tried to figure out who deserved to be the MVP and who should be in the Hall of Fame; that’s something we always did. We all kind of did it in the same fashion.
You can have debates but you really didn’t dig deep as compared to now, and then things began to reveal themselves. The pioneers of sabermetrics started putting things out there, and the difference with me is I didn’t ignore it (laughs).
I was also broadcasting baseball on a regular basis and when I went from doing Hall of Fame Nights on Sportsline Live in upstate New York on WTZA, I went from doing that to doing Baseball Tonight. I was doing a half hour talk show where I was in local TV at WTZA, but when I went to ESPN now you’re doing shows for longer periods of time and you’re doing Baseball Tonight is one hour and then it’s twice a night.
So I’m doing a lot of highlights and constantly searching for, you know, something to say about Bobby Abreu. All right, Bobby Abreu doubles to left that drives in two, and now as a sportscaster you’re supposed to say something.
I always tried to do a little better then, boy, that Bobby Abreu, he’s something else, huh, fellas? I wanted to do a little more than that, so I would try to put it in, and again, in the old days we’d say something like, Bobby Abreu’s batting .330, that’s a natural thing to say, no one would question it. But when I started to say, hey, Bobby Abreu has a .430 on-base, and that’s good for second in the National League, I thought that was more important, or just as important.
That wasn’t the language that was being spoken, even though I knew it really pointed out a lot more about his value.
MMO: So was the book a culmination of all the research and analysis you had done over the years at your various stops?
Brian: Well yeah. I think when Moneyball came out, I remember talking about it and I may have written this in the book, I remember telling my wife about it saying, ‘Oh yeah, Michael Lewis wrote a book about sabermetrics.’ She said, “Well, why don’t you write a book about sabermetrics? It’s what you do all the time.” I said, ‘Everybody knows this stuff already.’
That was 2003. I find myself having the same conversations at MLB Network in 2012-2013. The same conversation and I realized, okay, there is a hardcore group that’s hip to this stuff and it’s sweeping through baseball. But in the mainstream media – and I’m in the mainstream media – you know I’m doing the six o’ clock SportsCenter to MLB Tonight and even Clubhouse Confidential, but I’m constantly surrounded by the other analysts. Who are the analysts? They’re major league ballplayers, former major leaguers. I’m having the same discussions all these years later and by the way, the same discussions with fans which you can still have to this day.
I realized there’s a lot of people out there who are really hardcore fans, big fans, who are not hip to this stuff, that are not sitting there reading FanGraphs and doing sortable stats. And that’s still a significant part and probably the majority of baseball fans, and these arguments are still being played out in the media, with the Cabrera-Trout MVP, and the annual Hall of Fame debates. The combination of that drove me to think I could put this into a book. I have enough essays in these that I could write a book.
The other part was just realizing actually as I now get older and I look back, I can see I’ve actually had a unique vantage point to witness this. I never considered myself something special within the movement, except that I was the only guy on TV talking about it who was also interested. So I’m the only one on TV pushing this but I never really thought I need to write a book, I didn’t have that level of pretentiousness. After going to MLB Network and realizing well, who else has had my situation? Who else has been in my place, that has had this unique viewpoint?
Nobody. Nobody’s gone from where baseball was really hot the days I was there at ESPN and I went to MLB Network where now we are the preeminent baseball TV network. I’ve been in both places and I made the switch, we do nothing but talk baseball and yet, we’re still discussing this. I realized that I do have something to offer and let me put it down on paper, because the next generation will have missed this.
I can already see the younger writers who are now gaining a little more prominence, who are just a good fifteen years younger than I was, and they didn’t witness all this stuff. They weren’t there for the struggle, they were just coming up now trying to get jobs from websites and get the big jobs. They hadn’t witnessed all of this, they hadn’t seen it. I finally got to a point where I realized, oh no, I have something to offer here because I lived through this, I had a unique vantage point.
MMO: Do you feel that Major League Baseball, the front offices, scouts, and fans are more embracive, or getting to that point, with advanced stats in general?
Brian: Oh, absolutely! I mean, it’s incredible just to see the way everyone speaks.
I read Jon Heyman’s column, I work with Jon a lot so I already know he’s a convert, he’s an old school writer who’s become a convert and we have great times on the air. But in his column today he wrote about [how] Dan Duquette mentioned that one of his catchers had a higher WAR than Matt Wieters. There’s a GM telling an old school baseball writer using that language of Wins Above Replacement, and he (Heyman) just used it as a throw away line. Hey, here’s a quick thing on the Orioles, that they lost Wieters but they believe their guy who’s there already, has a higher WAR.
It’s just natural, so it’s amazing to see that. And of course it’s amazing to see and I knew this would happen, that it would eventually sweep through all front offices. There’s no way you can keep competing with a fully loaded analytics baseball operations department, those teams would continue to win and eventually, the teams that were lagging behind would have to catch up.
MMO: Are there certain metrics you look at right away when evaluating players? For instance, pitchers (FIP, ERA+) and hitters (OPS+, wRC+)?
Brian: I think you start with the basics, you start with the question of: what are you trying to find? What are you actually looking at? Normally you just want to see the value of the player, what is he actually producing? I would still start with the slash line. I want to know his on-base and his slugging, I want to know those two numbers, I don’t want them together. That tells me a little more of the story than just his OPS. I don’t want to know his OPS as much because if I can get OPS+ I’d rather have that; give me the park adjustment and also give me how it is relative to the run scoring environment.
Beyond that it’s really just keep your eyes open. I wouldn’t ignore – and I wrote an essay on this this past off season – I don’t ignore that Mike Napoli had 34 home runs and 101 RBI this past year, that tells you something. That’s not nothing just because I railed the last 25 years saying this stuff isn’t how to judge a player, but it also doesn’t mean nothing, it means something. So it shouldn’t be killed dead, it should be wounded a little bit and taken down a peg.
At the same time in this run scoring environment to drive in 100 runs you’ve got to be in the lineup, you’ve got to be producing, you’ve got to be hitting for power. You know, maybe you’re in the best offensive lineup and you have all these incredible on-base guys in front of you, maybe, but that can be answered pretty quickly. I think just keep your eyes open for everything.
When I’m doing Top 10 Right Now, I’m constantly looking to see what does the player do. I use Wins Above Replacement as a guide to see generally because I think as I wrote in the book, WAR gets it by just putting a number on the totality of the contribution with the base running and with defense. It forces you to think of the player in a different way, and I’m convinced.
We think of Mookie Betts as being a very different guy because we’re in the Wins Above Replacement era. If we just looked at his numbers we’d say, hey, there’s a really nice young player. But when we look at his WAR we say, whoa, there’s one of the best players in the game! It forces you to say that.
So be aware of everything and be aware, too – again when it came down to Betts vs Bryce Harper I also said, well, we’re talking about two guys the same age. I went with Bryce Harper by the way, number one over Betts in right field – and I’m not trying to reverse field. But I am saying that one guy gets most of his production from his hitting, and the other guy gets a lot of it from his defensive metrics and base running metrics. If those things are close to being equal, I’d much rather have the hitting.
I’ve spent years, as you see in the chapter on Alex Gordon, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to explain that a player who does all these small, non-sexy things that really can add up to being something meaningful. However, I really do like having a guy with a .460 on-base slugging .650.
So it comes down to don’t get too cute, look for everything but don’t look past the obvious, you know the obvious skills of power, of hitting, and that sort of thing. Once everything swings the other way, then you’ll have to look back and we may have gotten there in baseball where Chris Carter and Mark Trumbo were waiting for the phone to ring, and Mike Napoli and all these traditional power hitters were waiting for the phone to ring.
My question all off season has been: have all these smart teams now, are they getting it right or have we all swung too far looking at the player that has a lot of his contributions spread out in versatile areas as opposed to a guy who’s a slugger? And I don’t know the answer to that. I’ve always liked the Alex Gordon/Starling Marte player more, but that’s because everyone around me likes the other guy. Everyone else around me liked Reggie Jackson, so I always liked Roy White. But if I’m in a culture where everyone loves Roy White, I might love Reggie Jackson.
At a certain point, when someone’s price comes down, when Chris Carter comes down to $3.5 million a year, I really like him again.
MMO: Can you talk to me about what your day-to-day schedule is like when preparing for MLB Network? What type of prep work goes in before your shows?
Brian: We have meetings in the late morning, we give meetings where we go over things. Then we prep for the day, usually though, most things I have written the night before because there’s just not enough time. If you’re going to do some real research and some writing for essays usually we’re a day or two ahead, and writing constantly getting that out. It’s a little too elaborate to do some decent research the day of.
We go on the air at four o’ clock when the season starts. But when we finish that show I’m thinking about the next day and we’re thinking about, okay, can we get the researchers looking up some things for me? Can we find this? Can they do some digging? Email me tonight. Then I come home to my wife and kids and everything else, we have dinner and then okay, what am I working on for tomorrow, and then you start writing for tomorrow.
MMO: I’m a big proponent of “kill the win”, the motto you use in Chapter 7 of your book. A great example you write about in that chapter was the 2013 season and Matt Harvey, citing that he had 7 different starts where he threw 53 innings, allowing only six runs (a 1.02 ERA), but did not get a win for any of those seven starts.
Do you feel that the win is finally being phased out in terms of level of importance that has been placed on it for over a century, mainly by the writers when voting for the Cy Young Award?
Brian: I think so, it’s all but dead. I know I did a Top 10 Pitcher’s Right Now with John Smoltz, we didn’t bring up wins once. I don’t think we even did with Rick Porcello. It’s not of any consistent value, it can be. I know there’s a group out there that’s nostalgic about it. I know Bill James and Rob Neyer still like referring to it, and I get it. But I just have no time for it, why look to it? It doesn’t make any sense to me.
If Rick Porcello didn’t have 22 wins this past year, if his bullpen just blew three of his wins, does he still win the Cy Young? And he’s changed nothing, changed nothing that Rick Porcello did. Because he pitched a lot of innings he had a quality season, there’s no question. He was very good and he was one of the top five guys.
But again, what if his bullpen blew three saves and he ends up being 19-4 or something like that? He probably doesn’t win the Cy Young. So it’s still kind of there, and if a guy pops up and goes 25-5 and has one of those gaudy win/loss records, I think it’ll still get people’s attention.
By and large, the guys who value that stuff, they’re leaving the business, they’re aging out. I mean, it’s changed a lot in five years and probably the demise of newspapers has something to do with it. Those guys who were so powerful, just the guys who would do the editing, the headlines, who decide what’s a big story. Only a few years ago Max Scherzer had his great win/loss record and that was just the biggest thing (went 13-0 by 2013 All Star break). I think we’re going to come across that in the next few years where it’s just not and it’ll be more of a curiosity. Hey, isn’t this interesting, this guy’s 13-0. Oh, that’s odd, he’s been pretty good.
But it’s just odd, that’s all.
I remember having Jim Kaat on the show, and of course Jim Kaat is an all-time great, [and] is defending the win. I went to look at some seasons where his win/loss records made no sense, just to point it out to him. Because almost everybody, Al Leiter, Joe Magrane, John Smoltz, almost everybody I work with, they all have one season where they go, you know, I was better that year than the year I won 20.
And yes, this is what I’m saying! But it was funny, Jim Kaat has none of those years. When Jim Kaat was 18-10, he deserved to be 18-10. So, it can be, you just have to do so much work to figure out if it does have any value. There’s just so much more to look at and pay attention to and as I explain in excruciating detail in the book, it comes from a time when it did make sense. It was early sabermetrics to say hey, we’re better when that guy pitches. Now that we don’t have one guy pitching for us every game, we have three guys pitching, we’re better when that guy pitches, the guy with the mustache. I think he’s better why don’t we try to figure out how that works, and that’s what they did. But 120 years later it doesn’t make sense anymore.
MMO: I loved your chapter on bullpenning (Chapter 9). I think it’s a great way to keep pitchers healthier, more rested, and utilizing your best arms in any high leverage situation, not just waiting for the 8th and 9th innings. Can you talk to me a little about this idea, and if you believe we’ll be seeing this used more in baseball? We saw Terry Francona utilize it during the playoffs with Andrew Miller with great success.
Brian: Well I have two answers for that: 1. Yes, it’s inevitable. 2. It depends. I actually just wrote an afterward for the paperback for the book which comes out in July, so I just went over all of this, and what kind of crystallized in my mind was that if everybody – and we learn this through decades of baseball – if everybody just does the same thing, nobody gets cute, then nobody gets hurt. Meaning, if everybody just starts going back to just starting pitchers go out there and you pitch them six or seven, do your best, and we’ll have more bullpen arms but let’s not have anyone do anything drastic, let the Rays get cute, who cares! They’re only going to do so much and they’re buried down there, nobody’s watching, let them get cute as long as nobody else does we’re fine.
What Terry Francona did last year in the playoffs was make everyone look bad. Because when a guy does something smart and it’s successful, what happens? Everybody has to, you have to do it. Or you’re in a competitive environment, especially now. Now the writers will kill you, now your owners who have economics degrees or run big financial companies, they’re going to come down and say what are we doing exactly? Why is Terry Francona doing that and we can’t do that, you want to explain that to me?
Now you’re old time baseball manager, he’s got no answer. But now does anybody do it and are they successful? The Padres have spoken about it, but there’s a lot of teams out there that are perfect candidates to do this, you know the Orioles, the Reds. You can’t tell me that most every single major league club on the day of their fifth starter would be better doing a tandem start, most every single one. Name me a fifth starter, and there might be one or two, but name me a fifth starter who is better off pitching six innings on his own as opposed to doing three and having a number six starter pitch another three innings, there almost isn’t any. And yet, nobody has done it. Why? Because no one has done it.
As soon as someone does it successfully and embarrasses the rest of the herd, the herd will then have to act.
MMO: That makes sense, baseball is a copycat league.
Brian: Right, but I would say it’s deeper than that. As I explained in the herd (Chapter 1 in Ahead of the Curve), there is something in us, in all of us, and it’s so strange and bizarre how our brains work in that. Here’s a sport that is laid out to be competitive where you want to beat your opponent, you want to embarrass them, but what won’t you do? You won’t try to outsmart them. Because that’s somehow unsporting. You won’t try to outflank them because that’s like dirty pool, and it’s probably why wars were fought the way they were for thousands of years before guerrilla warfare came to be and they realized, why do we have to fight these guys out on the open field? That’s stupid, we’re going to lose. Why don’t we try doing it another way? And it’s exactly the same thing.
You don’t have to join in with their rules of engagement, and if you’re the Padres and the Reds or the Orioles, why do you have to play in a way that gives the Yankees or Red Sox the advantage? Why don’t you play another way? And the answer is, well, no one is forcing you, until someone does.
And let’s say the Orioles do it this year. The Orioles just started to do a full bullpen attack and were successful and lowered their ERA, other teams would just have to do it, at least start to do it on your fifth starter’s day, on your fourth starter’s day, and then we’d see it.
I don’t know when that happens, but I used to think a few years ago before I wrote the book, okay, that is unlikely to happen in my lifetime, and now I know it’s going to happen in my lifetime. It might not happen next year or the next two years, but in a couple of years we’re going to see teams doing that.
MMO: What are your overall thoughts on the Mets this season, do you feel they stack up well in the NL East and have a chance to make it back to the postseason for a third consecutive year?
Brian: Absolutely, they’re a very good team. I think we all go into it thinking well, a lot of that pitching staff is going to get hurt…what if they don’t? What if only one gets hurt, they’re going to be pretty formidable! Bringing (Yoenis) Cespedes back was a huge deal and that’s a good example of Sandy Alderson, again, don’t get cute, just get what you need. That was really a rare case where he does make them better; he is exactly what they’re missing. They had to get him, and now that they have him everything else is possible.
Everything else is a small issue, you know you have to get (Michael) Conforto at-bats, you’ve got to play your younger players. David Wright being hurt doesn’t cripple you but it’s sad, it’s a shame, and he could’ve helped. Once you have Cespedes and that pitching staff, everything else is Sandy Alderson fixable (laughs). Without Cespedes, now you’re kind of piecing it all together. That power bat in that space, with that monster rotation, you’re going to be very good.
I would not predict them to beat out the Nationals, I think the Nationals are a better club, but I think the Mets will be right there and I think they’ll be competing for home field in the wild card.
MMO: You brought up Michael Conforto. Obviously he had a tremendous rookie season and then had a sophomore slump in 2016. He’s putting up some gaudy spring stats, are you one that puts a lot of stock into spring stats as an indication for success?
Brian: Well it’s better than failure (laughs) that’s all I would say. You know success is better than failure and when you attach, if Michael Conforto didn’t have success through his minor league career, than the spring stats would be meaningless. But now you can look at it and say no, it’s an extension of his skill set, it’s his talent. So no, I think it’s very good, and by the way, it’s vital to his own professional life that he has success now because just by having success in spring training he can force the club to have to do something with him.
As opposed to if he struggled then it would just be natural for the club to start looking and [say] well maybe he’s not ready, maybe he’s not the guy we thought he was. He really does have to force their hands. And I’m a big believer in playing your young guys. That’s the success of the last few years of the Royals, of the Pirates, of the Red Sox. These are the biggest lessons of baseball over the last three-four years is draft, develop, get your foundation pieces out there, and if they fail they fail, but you must stay with them and believe in them.
When you look at Hosmer, Moustakas, Gordon, Cain, all of these late bloomers galore on the Royals. But because they didn’t have any alternatives they just played them. And what was the result? The result was back-to-back pennants and a World Series Championship. A lot of things go into that, but the foundation is your young position players and that is really the failing of the Red Sox when they got impatient and they went out and got Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval (2014). Why? Because Betts and Bogaerts struggled and Middlebrooks struggled and they thought we can’t have that, when it’s like no, that’s HOW you build your foundation.
It stunk for them because three young guys in one year stunk, three guys at all the same time. But it happens that way and you have to live through it and it is the challenge for Boston, [the] New York Yankees, Mets, to have to watch that. The challenge is to not replace a guy when he fails for a month or two months or three months, and that by the way is an ancillary point. That’s the danger of the Yankees now is that they have all these nice young guys coming up, what happens when they fail for two months? Are you replacing them? Because if you are, now you’re just getting on the treadmill of failure.
MMO: Looking into the future of baseball, what changes can you foresee happening when it comes to advanced stats? For instance, near the end of your book, you reference how Billy Beane said he could see an IT coach in every dugout, feeding real-time information to the players and coaching staff, do you think that’s feasible?
Brian: Oh yeah, things are changing exponentially, things are changing fast. One of the few competitive advantages you can just grab right now and have it to yourself, I listed three in the book. It was the relief ace, turn your closer into a fireman, that’s easy. Terry Francona, again, just traded for a closer (Andrew Miller) but because he already had a closer and an eighth inning guy he said, why don’t we just let this guy roam? And look how beautiful that was! You can attack high leverage left and right, and when he really needed outs it was easy.
So there’s relief acing, bullpenning, which is more difficult, that is a harder switch to make. The other one, and to me it’s easy, is having a managerial staff. I thought this up I think three or four years ago at the SABR Analytics Conference and I’m about to travel out there next week. People were laughing, and I’m like, no man, I don’t care if I have to put my nerds in a uniform and they look dumpy sitting next to my guy, you know, have them lift weights! Have them do something so they look presentable, or, if you want to put them in lab coats and sit them right behind the dugout. I would have a whole staff of guys crunching the numbers and looking at everything, looking ahead constantly and having a real check of what the manager is doing all the time.
You have to empower your manager, but I would have a managerial staff right away. And look what happened this postseason, look what happened to – and I think this an even better example – because in 2013 I pointed out Mike Matheny and John Farrell (Chapter 2 in Ahead of the Curve). Those are my ruggedly handsome managers and they made all of these mistakes. I think it’s easy to look at that and say, well, Matheny and Farrell they’re not the best managers, okay, how about Buck Showalter and Joe Maddon, are they the best managers? Just about, by the way, I can throw Bruce Bochy in that group, too, where his bullpen failed and he was kind of part of it. That cycle of failure that they all got into a downward spiral in the late going, I think Bochy is excellent and I wouldn’t group him in there.
To make it easy for a fan, Buck Showalter, like what the hell, how does that happen? (AL Wild Card Game/ Toronto v Baltimore) And the other part is with Zach Britton in the bullpen and the other piece is Joe Maddon all through Game 6 and Game 7 (World Series), it’s clear it’s too much for one person, things happen too fast and it’s more obvious now than ever.
When you have Joe Maddon and and Buck Showalter making what you can say are glaring mistakes, then you can say no matter who you get in, no matter how talented or how experienced, it’s too much for one person. You need someone there for checks and balances, you need someone there just to point out the obvious. You might even have the managerial staff say, Zach Britton shouldn’t start the ninth, we have Brad Brach out there already. Okay, we need a ground-ball from Russell Martin, lets send out Darren O’ Day. Those might be the answers, but there’s no way you have Brian Duensing out there instead of Zach Britton and then Ubaldo Jimenez.
So I would do it today, I’d have my manager out there in uniform, he’d look like the guy in charge, and he would be the guy in charge because there’s so much that manager has to do and he has to be empowered. As far as tactics, I’d have a whole tactical staff sitting right there with him, it would just be a more elaborate Don Zimmer to Joe Torre, that’s all. It would be two or three guys, they’d have iPads, they’d be looking at stuff left and right and just to keep you abreast of hey, who’s ready in the bullpen and also know who has the flu. Who’s not feeling so good, who pitched yesterday, who pitched two days ago, who do they have in their bullpen, who do they have on their bench, you can’t do all the mental math of that. Occasionally you’re going to come across a Billy Martin or a Casey Stengel that can, but even those guys will forget things here and there or they’ll be hung over or they’ll be tired from the plane, so it makes no sense to me to put all of that on one guy.
MMO: That makes sense, more voices and minds in the dugout would give a team such a better advantage and offer other perspectives that the manager and his coaches might not have thought or picked up on.
Brian: Even as you say that, in my head, you know what it looks like? Remember in an All-Star dugout or in the World Baseball Classic, did you ever see those dugouts? It’s like you constantly see because there’s like three managers down there or the manager goes in knowing hey, I just arrived here the day before yesterday so help me out! Everybody kind of talks about things and goes over things that should be the normal way. You know it’s not like we’ve never seen it before, that’s the way it should be, just collaboration. One guy in charge but a collaboration of guys saying, hey skip, what are we doing with Britton? Is he ready? No, no Buck you’re wrong. You need someone to say that, Buck you’re wrong here you need to get Britton in the game.
MMO: Thank you so much for your time today, Mr. Kenny. It was a pleasure speaking with you.
Brian: Excellent, thank you so much. Take care.
You can follow Brian Kenny on Twitter @MrBrianKenny.