There is no sense trying to get into a WAR of numerical horsehide attrition with Keith Law.
The senior baseball writer for ESPN Insider, a former special assistant to the general manager for the Toronto Blue Jays and a Harvard grad in economics with a Carnegie Mellon MBA has a mother lode of new-age digits in his arsenal. The rest of us are still stuck adding and subtracting on your fingers, between a rock and a hard line ERA from another era.
Yet Law admits that, if he had that MLB front-office job today, he’d need to get up to speed just on the Statcast analytics used to determine all sorts of things – exit velocity, spin rates, catch and hit probability. It’s what is used most now to determine a player’s value, redefine defensive shifts and selecting a lineup that would be most effective on a particular Tuesday night in July.
It’s overthinking, right?
The smart money seems to be on Law, based on his upcoming new book, “Smart Baseball: The Story Behind the Old Stats That Are Ruining The Game, The News Once That Are Running it and the Right Way to Think About Baseball.” It’s meant to get everyone up to speed in a practical way so that we’re all somewhat on the same launch angle when this all really takes off.
Especially targeted are current sportswriters.
“If your local writer is still talking about players in terms of pitcher wins, saves or RBI,” Law writes in Chapter 18, “he’s discussing the role of the homunculus in human reproduction. The battle is over, whether the losers realize it or not.”
Take that, a kick to the journalistic family jewels.
In addition to reviewing his book as part of our series during the month of April, we used the numbers on a cellphone to connect with him and discuss more what’s going on in this evolution of analytics:
Q: What kind of reaction to you expect from this book: Apprehension, acceptance, heated debate, eye rolling …?
A: I’ll probably get all of that. Within the industry, it’s been very supportive. The goal is not to make this a math book. Others who have done this subject make it more math heavy, but I’m trying to make this more accessible, but also comprehensive enough to walk them through all the things like Statcast, since we see and hear it used more and more.
Q: Is the timing as important as the information in it? Are more baseball broadcasters and other media using these new numbers without taking more time to educate the viewers about their background and value?
A: What drove me to doing it was I couldn’t recommend a book to people about any of this because one didn’t exist. Statcast came out and there were a lot of kinks in it, but baseball was pushing it and it’s turned out to be perfect timing. We’re really just scratching the surface on Statcast. A book like this five years from now would be too late and we’d be far behind. I’m glad I felt I could get this out now and didn’t wait any longer because the industry is changing.
Q: There’s a…