During the Major League Baseball Winter Meetings, I had the chance to talk to ESPN analyst and senior writer Keith Law.
Law is regarded as one of the top player evaluation experts in baseball, whether it’s covering transactions or prospects.
The Long Island native previously worked for Baseball Prospectus, and also spent time in the front office with the Toronto Blue Jays.
Law’s book, Smart Baseball, came out in 2017 and is still currently Amazon’s No. 1 bestseller in Business Facility Management. I would highly recommend the book, it’s an approachable look into how baseball is currently evaluated correctly, and incorrectly.
You can read Part 1 of our conversation that went up last Friday here.
MMO: The Mets made some recent hires in the front office including two guys (Jared Banner and Allard Baird), what are your thoughts on plucking them from a winning organization in the Red Sox? How will it help in player development – which Sandy Alderson mentioned last offseason has been an issue – in the long-run?
Law: They haven’t really hired a true player development guy, that’s the thing they need to do next. I will say in Brodie’s (Van Wagenen, Mets GM) defense, very strongly in his defense (and same applies to recently hired Mike Elias in Baltimore), we are in the middle of December and it’s not easy to hire guys. And I’m hearing from other clubs that they aren’t really keen on granting permission to talk to their guys because you’re at a point in the calendar where it’s tough to replace say a pitching coordinator or assistant scouting director.
I think it’s very reasonable to go back to the Wilpon’s and say, “you should’ve hired a GM a month earlier.” The Mets and Orioles, I specifically blame the ownership. They made mistakes, they waited too damn long to hire their GMs and that means some of these positions may not be adequately filled until next September. I don’t know what the Mets approach to this is, I know the Orioles have more positions to fill and I would be surprised if they filled all of those positions this offseason because it’s just too late.
You can go hire people not working in the industry, which is true of Adam Guttridge (recently hired by Mets to be assistant general manager). Are those always going to be the best candidates, or are you simply choosing the candidates that are available? Are they best suitable candidates? You have to be careful that you don’t fall into that trap. If you decide the best player development candidates are actually somewhere outside the organization working for other organizations, then you wait until August and go after them.
MMO – The Mets have already done themselves a disservice in recent history only having an analytical staff that consists of three people. From a competitive standpoint, how does that hurt a team?
Law – It can hurt in a lot of ways. Now, I know their department is small, but I don’t know enough about their capabilities in-house. But I will say, just from a general perspective, it can be as simple as you’re not storing and dealing with the same data as other clubs are. You’re getting the same data (like Statcast), but you’re not doing as much with it. Just at the major league level, whether you’re talking about defensive positioning, preparing hitters and pitchers or evaluating free agents.
It can go much deeper than that, teams are working with a lot of data from a lot of different sources at this point. TrackMan data from minors, even some TrackMan data from possible draft picks, and data from biomedical devices tracking torque on an elbow for example or hand speed on a swing.
If you don’t have people – you might have the data and the capacity to store it – but you’re just not going to have the person power to properly utilize it. And possibly not going to have the people that can sit in a draft room or go to the back fields in spring training and share that information with scouts or coaches to help make better decision making.
This is something Brodie inherited, again I want to be clear that some things are his responsibility and some things are not. On one hand they need to hire a lot of people, and on the other hand hiring of such technical people doesn’t need to be done on the same calendar as hiring people for traditional baseball jobs. Because often you’re hiring those type of people from outside the industry, the Phillies hired someone to run their analytics department that came from Google. A lot of these people that you might hire are still getting their PhDs that they will finish in May and then you can hire in June. So, you can have the open positions now and hire when the qualified people become available.
Law – Probably middle-to-back of the rotation starter, more towards that fourth starter range, which is still like a $15 million pitcher in free agency and extremely valuable. The thing that was good about both of those picks, they were at the point when the Mets kind of needed some certainty in the system.
Kay was the year they took Dunn, so they paired a somewhat-risky, high-upside, and athletic type pitcher with Kay, who at-the time his only question mark was being overworked. Kay’s breaking ball has actually gotten quite a bit better post-Tommy John surgery. He did have a good changeup that was less consistent this year, but I would expect that to be back to being a plus pitch, which you could argue it was as an amateur. So, you’re looking at a three-pitch guy that is a fourth starter with a little more upside, that could be ready relatively soon.
With Peterson, you have a guy that pitched well this year outside of a little dead arm that he bounced back from. If the Mets needed a back-end starter later next season or someone to be their Corbin Burnes or Brandon Woodruff this year, I kind of think he could do that then step into the rotation the following season.
MMO – Stepping away from the Mets a little bit, what are some of your favorite ballparks or cities to visit when you’re scouting?
Law – Actually we are in Vegas right now, and I love coming to Vegas. I don’t love the winter meetings. I rented a car so I could get out of the hotel to get real food and coffee, breathe actual air and maybe see the actual sun. (At the time of the interview, I had not seen the sun in roughly 64 hours)
Some of my favorite cities are San Diego, Nashville, Louisville – even took my daughter their this spring and had a blast – all very good food towns and manageable sizes. I like New York and LA, but they’re huge and intense to the point where after a few days I’m tired and ready to go home.
For the size of it, the food, coffee, and cocktail scene in Nashville is absolutely tremendous, it’s one of the best in the country.
As for ballparks, I live in Wilmington, Delaware, so anything within a few hours of me I go to a lot. I think the Aberdeen IronBirds (Short Season-A) ballpark is wonderful. I like the Greeneville Drive (Class-A) park in South Carolina, they did kind of a little Fenway theme that is pretty cool and it’s just a nice setting to watch a ball game.
I always liked going out to Lake Elsinore (Class-A in California). The park is just fine, really nice setting and a good crowd. The tenor of the crowd can go a long way. If you’re sitting at a beautiful ballpark, but there’s nobody going to the game it can be a bad experience.
MMO – Have you been to Columbia to see the Fireflies yet? I haven’t been, but everyone I talk to says it’s a great place to watch a game.
Law – I haven’t yet, but the washed-up quarterback isn’t there anymore so I can go now. I’ve been doing my best to avoid him at all costs.
MMO – Now that we’re talking about, Brodie did mention there’s a chance that he could see the major leagues.
Law – I feel like Brodie knows Tebow’s agent too, there’s some short of connection there but I’m blanking on what it was. (Brodie was Tebow’s agent when he signed with the Mets).
MMO – Tebow is likely never going to be a major league player, but I think to some extent he’s better than some expected, would you say that?
Law – No, I think he’s terrible. He’s a brutal outfielder. He can’t hit velocity. There’s just so much wrong, and everyone once in awhile some sports personality that doesn’t follow baseball will chime in to ask why I’m such a grump about Tebow.
Tebow is in the way, for example Jhoan Urena needed to be playing left field but he couldn’t because the circus was out there. Tebow should have been sent to the New York-Penn League, especially with how that team is run. He’s not blocking anyone there. Then it’s a different story, but the further he works his way up the ladder, the more he’s in the way.
And by the way, you think it helped Justin Dunn‘s numbers in Binghamton having that out in left field? No, of course it didn’t because 1) it makes your pitcher throw more pitches and 2) probably hurts the value of some of those players because teams are also looking at the stat sheet and Justin Dunn gave up 10 more hits than he should have because they essentially have a pointed stick playing left field for them.
There’s so many reasons not to what they’ve done with Tebow. I know people talk about what a great person he is and a great teammate and how hard he works in the offseason (when he’s not on television), but this experiment needs to be over and instead they are pushing towards year three of this charade.
MMO – There’s a battle right now between analytics and traditional stats throughout baseball, what are some of your thoughts on broadcasters, color commentators, and play-by-play persons ripping innovation. That, at least to me, is one of the bigger issues right now in baseball is guys like John Smoltz or Joe Simpson on National broadcasts dismissing certain stats or trashing numbers used by front offices. What does MLB need to do to try and get everyone on the same page?
Law – Major League Baseball has the ultimate control, they can go broadcaster or play-by-play person or go to the channel and say, “knock it off.” I’m saying that, because that’s exactly what they should be doing. You do not trash our product, we have agreements with you (the networks like Fox, TBS, etc.) and you don’t get to trash our product while you’re broadcasting the game.
People in my line of work can trash the product, I don’t do it a ton, but once in awhile I see something I don’t like and I will comment on it. But, as an outside commentator I can do that. If I’m constantly trashing that product though, I probably should find a different line of work.
If you put me in the booth I’m not going to start trashing the product in the middle of a game. That is wildly inappropriate, and if I wish sitting in Rob Manfred’s office I would be furious hearing that. Specially during the World Series, that is the showcase event. This year there were two well-known large market franchises and you’re hoping ratings would be good, they were not. You’re hoping lots of people are tuning in, they ended up tuning in to hear how horrible the product is?
You can’t have that. That applies just as much on the individual team level, like in Atlanta for example given you mentioned Joe Simpson (who by the way has taken several shots at me and analytics in-general). The Braves just hired Mike Fast to be assistant GM, so not only is Simpson flat wrong and damaging the product, but he’s also completely out of sync with the thoughts of the club. So to me, someone has to go to that person like Simpson (who was recently moved to mainly radio) to say, “knock it off or you’re not doing this job anymore, there are plenty of other qualified people to do it.”
To return to John Smoltz by the way, I think he’s wonderful when he’s talking about pitching in particular and lots of aspects of in-game strategy. He’s not a dumb guy, he can make an adjustment to be more analytical. To answer your overall question, yes these decisions have to come from the top down.
MMO – Is there a Smart Baseball 2 coming out?
Law – I do have another book coming out, I haven’t announced any of the details yet. I have already signed a contract to do a baseball themed book, though it won’t be Smart Baseball 2. It’s baseball themed that goes in a different direction.
MMO – Great, thanks for taking the time to answer all my questions.
Law – No problem, thanks for having me.
Follow Keith on Twitter @keithlaw