Rustin Dodd took over the Royals beat for the Kansas City Star earlier this year following the departure of Andy McCullough. Since then, Dodd has already turned in a fantastic story about how Wade Davis became an unhittable cyborg reliever. We wanted to get to know a bit more about the man that gives us the latest news on the Royals, and he was gracious enough to talk to us about the Royals, reporting, and writing.
Rustin Dodd: The origin story is most uninteresting. But here's the quick one: I grew up in Overland Park, went to Shawnee Mission South, lived in the area most of my life. As a kid, I mostly played two sports (basketball and baseball), so most of my sports fandom was spent on that. This was the Kansas City area in the early to mid 1990s — I'm 29 — so naturally, I was drawn to Kansas basketball and the Royals.
I've said this before, but it's always hard to explain to people how your fan instincts more or less disappear when you get into sports journalism. It really is true, though, and since I've covered sports in my hometown for six years, I've kind of lost being a fan of anything. It's just the way it works. You root for the story. You root for the amazing stuff. You live to watch Steph Curry, basically.
But since you asked, as a 10-year-old, I fell in love with the Jacque Vaughn/Paul Pierce/Raef LaFrentz era Kansas teams. The Big Eight tournament was my favorite weekend of the year. And I can recite the hilarious 1990s history of the Royals, just like all your readers probably can.
One quick story: I specifically remember the early stages of the Royals' first 1990s youth movement, when Johnny Damon and Michael Tucker (before they traded him for Jermaine Dye) started coming to the big leagues. People can probably fact-check me here, but let's say this is late 1995, and I'm 9 years old, and I remember asking my dad: "So this is going to take a while before the Royals win the World Series, huh? Like three or four years?"
My parents were also K-State people -- my family has loyalties everywhere -- so I grew up going to a decent number of Tom Asbury and Jim Wooldridge era basketball games. My family was also really into tennis, and I played a lot growing up, so if there's a random sports love I might tweet a lot about, it might be tennis stuff during the Grand Slams. Pete Sampras was an athlete of my youth.
Royals Review: You were assigned the Royals beat after working several years covering KU. What are some of the differences in covering a professional team as opposed to a college team?
Rustin Dodd: This is a good question. There are a lot of differences, and I could spend a few paragraphs explaining boring logistical stuff, but here's the main crux: At the college level, for many reasons, the coach is kind of the main character in the story. The coach has the power. The coach runs the program. The players come and go, and while they are beloved by the fan base, they are also beholden in a way to the school. We don't need to get into the debate about whether college athletes should be compensated more, but it's pretty clear they don't have as much power.
The dynamic is totally shifted at the professional level. And there are other dynamics at play that you notice if you're around every day. Take, for instance, the difference between a star and a fringe roster player. The difference between a relief pitcher and a starting infielder. This is probably obvious in some ways, and probably isn't that important to a fan watching from afar, but when it's your job to build relationships and learn the dynamics and tell the stories, it really is glaring.
I also think there's this narrative that college players care more about the result of games — like the whole idea of there being more passion in college basketball or college football. Some of this may be true, of course, but I also think if you're around pro sports, the stakes are so much higher for the players. This is truly their livelihood. They're adults. They're trying to make their way in the world, just like you or me. They have families to support. Their job happens to be sort of weird, but it's still a job.
Royals Review: Are you very familiar with some of the new advanced stats used in baseball? Do you think they have a place in mainstream baseball reporting or is it too technical for most fans?
Rustin Dodd: So yeah, I've always been pretty interested in the analytical sides of things, in baseball and other sports. When I was covering college basketball, I tried to utilize advanced stats and numbers that put things in the right context. In college basketball, that meant spending a lot of time each day on KenPom.com. This is over-simplified to some degree, but I feel like reporters should use stats for two reasons: 1. To help explain how good a player or team is; 2. to explain why they are good.
With the first one, plenty of advanced stats come in handy, but I feel like there's a lot of redundancy and a lot of stuff that can just be too technical and confusing for even a reasonably invested fan. I'm not going to use RBIs or pitcher wins very much. But there are a lot of traditional counting stats can work fine. I like using WAR. I like using ERA-plus and OPS-plus. They are easy enough to explain and understand. I like using K-BB% and FIP and xFIP. I like keeping an eye on BABIP. Some of the stuff readily available at FanGraphs -- like wOBA and wRC+ -- is also good.
But those numbers can be kind of cumbersome to explain in a story. If I'm voting for the MVP award, I'm definitely using them. I just might not in a daily story about Mike Moustakas. Mostly, though, I like using advanced numbers to help tell the story. Like, let's say the Royals are leading the league in defensive runs saved or Wade Davis is one of the best relievers in baseball. Are there advanced numbers that help explain why? I feel like there are a lot of good traditional reporters who incorporate advanced stats into storytelling, like Passan and Tom Verducci. Luke Winn of SI did a really good job of that on the college basketball beat. Even Sam Mellinger did a really good job of that when he was on the baseball beat before becoming a high-falutin' columnist.
Royals Review: MLB is requiring Spanish-language interpreters this year. Has that had an impact yet in making Spanish-speaking players more accessible?
Rustin Dodd: In the Royals clubhouse, it hasn't changed much. Pedro Grifol is serving as the club's translator, something he did in the past anyway. And the Royals really only have two players who regularly use a translator during interviews. The new rule was absolutely the right move, and I know players appreciate it. But some of the old barriers still exist. Some players, for instance, are comfortable enough doing interviews in English, but they probably can't be quite as thoughtful or insightful as they would be in their native language. I'm still new to the beat, but telling the stories of the non-English speakers -- and making sure they are fairly represented in the coverage -- is something I'm conscious of all the time.
Royals Review: The Royals are the champs, two-time pennant winners, and pundits are finally picking them to do well this year. Are they still playing with a chip on their shoulder?
Rustin Dodd: I think so. It's an intangible thing, so it's hard to talk or write about. But I feel like some athletes can find motivation or fuel in anything. In other words: Coming in 2018 from the Players Tribune: "Still, still, still not a fluke."
Royals Review: Do you have any writing influences, in sports or otherwise?
Rustin Dodd: I feel like everybody probably says this, but I spend so much time reading other reporters' stuff, and consuming daily baseball coverage ... I kind of wish I had more time to read other things. But here's a non-comprehensive list of my favorite writers, sports or otherwise: Chris Ballard, Dan Wetzel, Gary Smith, Michael Lewis, Charlie Pierce, Bryan Curtis, Jon Krakauer, Dexter Filkins, Chuck Klosterman, Mellinger, Posnanski, Sally Jenkins, Steve Politi, Tully Corcoran, Michael Rosenberg, Adam Kilgore, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Stephen Hyden and probably like a thousand more I'm not thinking of right now.