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The Rob Neyer Chats: Power Ball, Part Two

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With the release of his brand new book, Power Ball: Anatomy of a Modern Baseball Game, I was afforded the opportunity to sit down and chat with the inimitable Rob Neyer. The book—which I would gladly have bought were I not fortunate enough to have been given a copy to read/review—is seriously fantastic. It’s a must-read for any serious baseball fan.

What follows is the second of four portions of a 45-minute conversation between Rob and myself. Rob was gracious enough to sit down and answer whatever questions I had about Power Ball. I was ecstatic to have the chance to pick his brain.

Part One of this conversation can be found here.

The Astros are sort of the Moneyball A’s on analytical steroids. You spent a fair portion of the book parsing the varied ways in which analytics do and don’t ignore the human side of the game and weighing that against the ways in which the baseball’s traditional modus operandi does and doesn’t succeed in doing the same, using José Altuve as a poster child for the analytical movement. First, thanks. There’s a lot more nuance to that argument than some of the stauncher traditionalists would like to believe. Second, did you consciously set out to try to use this book as a means by which to put some of the more ridiculous unfounded arguments against the analytical revolution to rest?

I didn’t. I think I’m pedantic enough in real life. I don’t think I need to inflict that on someone reading my book. Not to suggest that I don’t come off as pedantic in the book sometimes—I’m sure that I do—but I certainly would never begin with that goal. In fact, the opposite. I don’t want people to read the book and feel like they’re being lectured to or taught something. Now if I teach someone something, that’s great, but I would never enter a writing project thinking—well, unless someone paid me to do that specifically—I would never go into it trying to do that.

I just really want to tell a good story, maybe impart some of the knowledge I’ve accumulated over the years. But in a way that doesn’t seem pedantic, in a way that seems almost offhand. Like, “Oh yeah, that’s right, I never noticed that before, but Rob’s right about this.” So, no that was not my goal. I didn’t have any axes to grind. If there were axes to grind, they were mostly ground down by me and other people years ago.

There are a few holdouts still, but they’re in the minority, and they don’t have any power. They don’t work for baseball teams with very few exceptions. Yeah, there are a few ex-ballplayers who don’t get analytics who work as broadcasters, and that’s fine too. I like some of those guys. But I don’t feel like at this point anyone needs to preach the virtues of modern baseball analysis because all you have to do is look at the Chicago Cubs in 2016, look at the Astros in 2017, look at all four teams who are still in the playoffs in 2018, and there’s your lesson. You don’t need me to write a book about it.

For any of the readers who aren’t aware, you grew up in Kansas City and are a Royals fan.

I did and was.

Are you glad that your editor didn’t want you to write this book about the Royals?

I am. Not because I wouldn’t enjoy writing about the Royals. I think it would be fine. They represent—you know, they’re not anti-analytics the way they were, say, ten years ago. They have an analytics staff, and they reportedly pay some attention to them, but they certainly aren’t at the forefront.

If you wanted to write a book, you could write a book featuring say an Astros/Royals game and try to use them as counterpoints because the Royals still do so many things that—to my mind anyway—seem anti-analytics.

I don’t think I would have enjoyed writing that book very much because I think that even though I haven’t been an actual Royals fan in some years now, I also think I’m too close to them, subconsciously anyway. My attachment to the Royals, at least the Royals of my youth, remains so strong that it would be difficult for me to be objective. I used to write about the Royals regularly for a personal blog for fun.

Yeah, Rob and Rany on the Royals.

Yeah, and I became sour and didn’t have any fun doing it because I was too close to that team and too negative. Even though they deserved it.

Oh, I remember.

We stopped writing that blog well before they got good. All the things I was saying were true. Rany was overly optimistic. I was realistic. It wasn’t any fun for anybody. It wasn’t fun for me. I guess there were a few readers who still enjoyed it.

I loved it.

Oh, thanks. Even if it’s enjoyable for other people, by nature I’m a positive person, and forcing myself to be negative because that’s what the facts were telling me to do just wasn’t much fun. It’d be like, I don’t want to write about climate change right now because all the news is bad.

A fair chunk of the end of the book (spoiler alert) talks about the future of baseball and how it might need to change. This year, you also found yourself being named commissioner of the West Coast League—for those who don’t know, that’s a summer college league akin to the Cape Cod League or the Northwoods League. Is there any temptation to try to use the West Coast League as a testing ground for some of those changes you suggest?

Uhhh, no. And here’s why. I shouldn’t say there’s no temptation. There is some. I would love for us to at least discuss some pace-of-play measures, but we actually play pretty fast. These are kids, 18, 19, 20, for the most part, who haven’t learned the various time-wasting measures that you see in professional baseball and particularly the major leagues. It really isn’t as big an issue. I think there are people who’d like to do some experiments, just to see what happened.

I would like to see some real changes in professional baseball, but we really couldn’t do those things in our league because our constituency to some degree is college coaches. We are recruiting players, yes, but we’re really recruiting their coaches to a large degree. Our teams have relationships to college coaches. The college coaches are sending players to our league—not to say the players don’t have any choice in the matter—but to some degree anyway the college coaches are sending players our way, and they are sending them to us not to turn them into professional players but to turn them into better college players.

So to whatever degree we can, we are mimicking the college environment, or at least the college style of play. We want college umpires, basically. We have a lot of college coaches in our league in the summer. We use college rules. So if anything, we want to hew closer to the college rules, or at least the college standards, so trying to run the league as a test for the professional rules just wouldn’t really work.

So you spent a fair chunk of the book looking at how the game is morphing into a Three and even Two True Outcomes game. As an analytically inclined fan of the game, how do you like this step in baseball’s evolutionary process?

Well, honestly, I think it’s impossible to argue that it’s a good thing unless you are just a big fan of strikeouts and home runs. I don’t mean just a fan, but a big fan. Or if you think that the game must be allowed to develop without any outside interference. That’s what the game should be. And in fact, that’s what a lot of players will argue because it’s all they know.

But having said that, there’s really, until the last 10 to 15 years there’s never been any time in baseball history that it was allowed to develop that way. People have always stepped in. People in baseball have always stepped in. The people running the game have always stepped in to make the game at least theoretically more balanced and more entertaining.

That has gone away in the last 10 or 15 years, as I write, somewhat scathingly I suppose at a few points in the book. It’s an open question as to whether or not baseball will get back to that point. My basic feeling, again this is in the book as you probably know, is that there won’t be any real change unless baseball feels that its economic health is threatened.

Tune back in tomorrow for the next part in the conversation. More importantly, buy Power Ball: Anatomy of a Modern Baseball Game wherever you can. It can be found on Amazon here, but please feel free to support local business and hit your local bookstore to get this wonderful book straight off the shelves.

Part three of the interview can be found here.